Friday, December 28, 2007

Icons Need Not Apply

One of my favorite sources for literary review and general commentary is the Times Literary Supplement of the venerable Times of London. Finding a copy of the TLS in my box elicits a lovely pull, one tug wanting me to drop everything until it is digested, the other tug one of impatient recognition that I'm going to have to find some place from which to rob the time in which to get said digesting underway.

(I could also say the same thing of The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, to a lesser extent The Georgia Review and The Sewanee Review. I could also offer these distracting tugs as reasons why I so frequently seem impatient, but I think there is some French expression for that kind of finger pointing and there is surely a psychological one, so let's leave the matter back where it started, with my so often seeming impatient.)

I was not impatient when I came to a note within the TLS to the effect of the word iconic being sent off to retirement. Iconic was a word that was beginning to add to my impatience because of the frequency with which it had been appearing in my book reviews these past three or four months, leading me to check back through past copy, going after my lazy text as though some resolute Giuliani or Fitzgerald, seeking yet other favorite words as though they were co-conspirators in an adverb-laundering scheme.

It is easy to see certain artists, scientists, and thinkers as being icons, particularly if they are as complex and dimensional as, say, the late Benezair Bhutto. But like all concepts that have repeated their way from freshness to shorthand symbols, there is an inherent danger with any icon however deserved the title. As it stands now, we have a class of individuals who by virtue of good looks, ability, persistence, steroids, and plastic surgery have elevated themselves to the celebrity class, which falls socially somewhere between the working class and the upper middle class. If they are wealthy enough to take trips to Third World Countries, therein adopting children, they achieve dispensation for appearing in two gratuitously bad movies, messing up an opportunity at surpassing some sports plateau, or giving two successive racially charged speeches.

It is of some satisfaction to me that my use of iconic more often than not had to do with a work rather than a person, thus a book or story rather than an image chiseled on Mt. Rushmore; a work so charged with meaning that it describes its type as well as its self. I will try purposefully to avoid taking up company with myth or mythic as a convenient synonym because, for one thing, it isn't, and for another, doing so would be an act of laziness, leading to the same result. I will say that a myth is a narrative that seems simple enough on its surface but which on slight examination reveals itself to be a coded formula for some cultural wisdom.

One of my favorite personal myths is a narrative of a man or woman who sets forth on a goal, search, or mission, the person finds, reaches, completes the mission only to discover it was not as satisfying or illuminating as first thought. But along the way, the individual has been confronted with a surprise, something unanticipated that leads to a satisfying conclusion.

1 comment:

lettuce said...

i like your definition of myth.

Greetings of the season to you Shelly, i hope you are well, enjoying some of the festivities and about to encounter many good things in 2008.