is the name of a new book I am reading by Eileen Myles. The book, part craft, part anthology, explores and presents examples of the pathetic. Which, according to Myles, has undergone many changes in definition and reception. For them, the pathetic is the act of taking a little less or a little more. It is, it would seem to me, what we would refer to as introspection, self-reflection, but could simultaneously be interpreted as self-indulgent narcissism.
It’s a fine line, isn’t it? When does normal healthy self-awareness cross that line into narcissism? When is writer/artist/speaker taking up too much airtime? Making it all about them? Appropriating another’s experience?
I am sure we’ve all got a grab bag filled with stories of that annoying aunt or old college friend who made everything about them. Who talked about themselves and turned even your stories into their feelings about your stories. And yet…our feelings are important, whether they are about us or how sad we feel about the homeless man we pass every day on our way to work.
And I, being me, usually swing between extremes. I can feel empowered by writing and speaking confessionally (though I do not love how it has come to be interpreted by many as being overly emotional and particularly feminine) and I can be really hard on myself, assuming a judgmental and shaming voice that basically says some version of, look who thinks she’s something…
In these moments, I cling to the words of poet Anne Sexton, who writes, And opening my eyes, I am afraid of course to look—this inward look that society scorns—Still I search these woods and find nothing worse than myself, caught between the grapes and the thorns. Or poet Tina Chang, who wrestles with not only how—as an Asian-American woman—to raise a black boy in America, but—as a poet—how to write about it: By raising a boy, do I understand what it means to live as a black boy? How do I speak of his existence without appropriating his experience? And writer writer Anna Hogeland’s experience of how she found her voice; she asks, What is the source of true, original, meaningful art, the kind of art all artists dream of creating, if not an allegiance to one’s own intuition above all else?
In the end, I don’t think there is a neat and tidy answer. Through trial and error, we find what level of authenticity feels true and safe; we find mutual relationships, a balance between listening and expressing. And if we are creatives, we create what is asked to be created, not what the crowd asks of us. As the late David Bowie said…remember that the reason that you initially started working is that there was something inside yourself that you felt that you could manifest in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you coexist with the rest of society. I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations—they generally produce their worst work when they do that.
So personally, I’m happy to embrace Eileen Myles’ definition of pathetic; I’ll take a little less and a little more and I will find people who do the same.