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Conservatives are not exhibitionists. But real Americans value real-life experience. Which means, if you write, putting your real life on display. I was thinking this as I read @therightnurse’s recent, very frank post on fibromyalgia, written with a kind of directness I’m quite honestly not brave enough to attempt in front of a full audience.
Like many children with a musical ear, I used to improvise at the piano a lot. The impromptus weren’t technically brilliant – I was (and still am) clumsy at the keyboard – but you could always tell a piano what you really thought, and it wouldn’t judge you. Instead, it would make music for you, music which could be judged, if there was anyone around to judge it (and often there was not), for itself alone. Some found the music beautiful, some found it annoying, but in either case, the music could be valued for itself rather than for the experience of the one who made it. For a shy child, that was mostly an asset.
Shy people may remain shy even when they’ve disguised themselves with music, and for years I had horrible stage fright. I still do, I suppose, it’s just now I’m marginally better at managing ways around it. Some audiences are less scary than others, though. Friends’ families, babysitting charges… “Why are all the songs so sad?” one littler kid my older-kid self was babysitting once asked me. “Those aren’t sad, just minor. Minor is beautiful.” It wasn’t a lie. Minor is beautiful. Even for those who tend to live life in a minor key.
Pin-up art nostalgia is pretty common here at Ricochet. It’s not hard to get conservatives to hold forth on why pin-up art, which reveals a lot, but not everything, is superior to today’s exhibitionism. Where is the thrill of transgressing boundaries when there’s no longer a sense of boundaries to transgress, and so forth? Even Milo Yiannopoulos, who is an exhibitionist, displays this aesthetic. He quips gay is boring when it’s no longer transgressive. He’s Catholic and happy to be a bad Catholic, one who jokes about his latest shag and how he once seduced a parish priest as an underage teen. (NSFW) Exhibit. Exhibit. Exhibit. As long as there are boundaries. After all, there must be at least some fig leaf to distinguish us salt-of-the-earth folk from the exhibitionists we decry.
Gross exhibitionism, exhibitionism without reserve or regard for what others want to see, is not even seductive, we say. Either display less than is seductive, or seduce, but for heaven’s sake, don’t display more than that! Not that everyone wants to be seduced, either – a serial seductress is manipulative, and good Americans also hate being manipulated.
So, what do we choose to exhibit, and what do we choose to keep covered up?
I know when I write an essay, the more personal the topic, the more careful I am about what’s showing, for fear of immodesty. Many conservative women are happy to admit they have two reasons to fear bodily immodesty: virtue and vanity. Writing is the same. Expose what is flattering, cover what is not – not just for your own sake, but for the sake of the poor reader whose eye you have caught and who has to look at it. And if you feel silly displaying yourself as too much the protagonist when you know you’re not (a predicament I often find myself in), tell the same story, but about other people, or abstracted altogether.
Sure, not everyone claims to like the abstract, but that doesn’t mean the abstractions we assemble aren’t rooted in real experience. A musician talks to his instrument, using the abstraction of music to say the real things he couldn’t say otherwise. Nor is music the only abstraction we speak through, it’s merely one of the most abstract: music is an end in itself, can be judged for itself, and in that sense is intensely impersonal, although everyone knows how personal it can be.
Other times, maybe, the abstraction is just a personal mythology, not “high abstraction”. But we can’t get away from abstraction, nor should we if we wish to reveal our hearts without disgusting exhibitionism.
So sometimes we’re “artless” and “tell it like it is”. Other times, we artfully leave something (maybe a lot) up to the imagination. It’s a pin-up artistry of the heart, hopefully seductive enough to catch some reader’s fancy, but not the kind of shameless seduction that just makes people feel used.
In the past two years, there’s been a lot I found I just couldn’t talk about politely in public, and no, most of it hasn’t been about US politics. It would simply be too absurd if all told, and gross. Maybe cheaply manipulative, too. If acceptable revelation proceeds in true pin-up fashion, the license to bare one thing is purchased by deciding to cover something else. Which means, if you’re not sure what to keep covered, not baring in the first place. And even those of us bravely “baring it all” on one matter might be quite reticent on others.Published in