Get Real...

Friday May 15, 2009

Tragic Mask

I’m sitting in the bus. Behind me two people are talking about something or other. They seem fairly animated, but to tell the truth, I’m not listening very hard, because I’ve got my nose buried in a book. That’s the great thing about public transport. You can’t read at the wheel of a car, and I think that if I ever decided to renounce travelling by train and bus for travelling by car, my daily reading time would be cut in half. Anyway, I’m busy reading, and behind me the two people are talking away about whatever it is that they are talking about, and suddenly one of them says, “Get real!”

I look up from my book, and see the sunlight glinting on the reservoir as the bus turns onto the road into town. Get real, I think. What a strange thing to say. I think about this for a few moments more, then I go back to my book.

Get real: this imperative is one that you meet with a lot. Lately I’ve been keeping my ears tuned for it, or for variants of the same thought: from grim-faced politicians who talk about facing up to contemporary realities, to the poster for a new novel about one of the 10,000 kinds of misery possible in human life, written by a writer who, apparently, “tells it like it is.” And it seems to me that in all of these related imperatives there is something that looks very suspiciously like a world-view. Getting real, in this sense, is clearly not about noticing the light glinting off the reservoir. If anything, it is about putting such things to one side, and turning one’s attention to these 10,000 kinds of misery. Getting real is, it seems, about putting to one side all reasons to be cheerful, and staring long and hard into the dark heart of existence.

Except that, even in saying this, I fear I am guilty of the same world-view: how easily the words “the dark heart of existence” came to mind! And to be sure, there is a great deal of suffering in the world, and any responsible perspective on life must, I think, pay heed to suffering. Yet at the same time, this “get real” attitude, an attitude that sees suffering as at the heart of things, and that takes it as the fundamental condition of existence, is one that I am not convinced by. Life, this idea leads us to believe, is essentially something tragic; and if there are to be such things as peace, calm, happiness, joy, pleasure, kindness, generosity and any of the other things that might make life worth living, then these are things hard-won, snatched from the jaws of suffering. They are pinpricks of light that never fully illuminate the darkness of the stage on which we move.

No doubt this is a compelling story: tragedies often are, not least because tragedies have heroes, and we sometimes like to imagine ourselves as heroes. But, susceptible as I admit I sometimes am to such tales, when it comes down to it, I’m just not convinced. Life is not, at root, tragic. It is not, at root, anything at all. Tragedy – and its reverse, the assertion that, despite appearances to the contrary, we live in the best of all possible worlds – is a matter of interpretation, a matter of the kind of storytelling we do. And whilst I think storytelling is an essential part of what it is to be human, the desire to tell stories about life in general is one that impoverishes our sense of the world, and that dulls us to the complexity of things. The “get real” attitude may even be one that manages to close us off to suffering: because if we see suffering as a fundamental condition of existence, rather than something that happens, in certain times and in certain places, under certain conditions, then we can find ourselves almost overwhelmed, despairing of ever being able to respond, or shrugging our shoulders and saying “Well, what do you expect? It’s a tragedy, after all…”

So the next time I hear the words “get real”, I’ll try to ask myself this: what kind of story am I being cajoled into accepting? And in what sense, if any, is this story real?

# · Barry Briggs

Thank you for this astute post.

The injunction to “get real” seems to me only another aspect of dukkha. It implicitly asserts that our present, in-the-moment, experience is somehow unsatisfactory.

So – yes – there’s some cajoling underfoot here.

# · Jacob Russell

“the desire to tell stories about life in general is one that impoverishes our sense of the world, and that dulls us to the complexity of things. “

That depends on the story, doesn’t it… and the sort of story teller you turn to.

Your anecdote of the bus ride, the sunlight glinting through the window… is a story.

Perhaps too “real” to be a real story, and for that, less “real” than stories that make no pretence of being real.

It’s the stories that ask us to believe in them that we should worry about.

# · Will

I think that what I am saying (and probably not making clear enough) is that what is impoverishing is the desire to tell overarching single stories about the whole shebang. Storytelling, I think, is an essential part of how we understand the world; but our stories need not be single in this way.
Best wishes,

# · Jacob Russell

I was responding in part to recent discussions on lit blogs concerning “realist” fiction—where the problem (as I see it) is that writers in this genre (the dominant commercial variety of literary fiction) don’t address their own assumptions about what constitutes reality. Critics and reviewers ( like James Wood), in defending this mode, are defending what is very much one of those over-arching single stories…though it may not look like it.

So I quite agree with you—even while perhaps misunderstanding — or overinterpreting— what you had in mind by ‘stories.’

Literature may help us orient ourselves in reality, but it does so only when it is clear that the mirror it holds up to the world is metaphorical and what is reflected in that mirror is an aritfice, a playful working over of the dream, as it were, of what we might otherwise come to believe was reality itself.

I very much appreciate your blog, by the way. Thank you for taking the time to write it.


# · Tim

Interpretation…Hmmm,yes. I guess that is the heart of Buddhist practice. Becoming so expansive that there no longer exists an interpretation of life but a state of this is just how things are. Neither good or bad, high or low.
But for some of us poor schleps, we are just not there yet!

# · Mark

Will, you too seem to have fallen prey to the inclination to unify phenomena into an overarching single story. Perhaps your story was constrained by the context of the comment made by the bus passengers, or perhaps you didn’t mention alternatives and exclusions in order to not dilute the strength of your story, but “get real” can mean far more than your narration implies.

For example, suppose the two bus passengers had been talking about what one of them might do with his spare time. Anne might jokingly suggest that Bob could become a famous and wealthy painter, since he loves art. Bob might think that’s an amusingly unsuitable option and respond, with a hint of a laugh in his voice, “get real!”

Alternatively, Bob and Anne might be teenagers, and Bob brags to Anne that he can climb a tree faster than Chris (who everyone knows is the fastest tree-climber in town). Anne might respond, “get real!” She could simply mean, “No way! I don’t believe you but I’d love to see you try!”

In either scenario there is no darkness, no denial of good cheer. There could even be a hint of challenge in both cases.

I think that “get real” at most always means, “I don’t agree with you.” I think it can have the connotations you describe, but I don’t think they’re always present. The story is more complex than that. ;)

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