Friday, August 17, 2007

Some Preliminary Thoughts On Smugness

Smugness, for whatever reason, is a topic that takes up a lot of my mental energy. (Probably the fact that I possess a friend who continuously urges increased smugness upon me has something to do with it. Not everything.)

Let's not start with that. Let's start with the reasons why, despite the fact that I'm jobless, and not pursuing any particularly arduous macrame projects, I haven't posted in a while.

One: I spent a night this week in Bakersfield, pretending, with one of my favorite people, to be a nineteen year old girl. This involved a lot of dancing around, a lot of willful irritating or provoking of the people around us, a reasonable amount of drinking.

Two: I have poison oak on my arms, and scattered across my stomach. It bubbles, and looks more or less like the bubonic plague to my untrained eye. It itches, and saps my will to live, although I have learned to love hydrocortisone cream.

Three: Quitting smoking. A process, not an accomplishment.

I mention these things not because they are interesting in themselves, but because, to me, they illustrate that weird difficulty in pinpointing what I mean by "smug". My dictionary just defines smug as "highly self-satisfied" -- surprisingly, the third definition for smug (the first is "trim or smart in dress").

And I think of smugness as a self-satisfaction in one's good qualities, real or imagined. People are smug over their prowess in wakeboarding or politics. I hate real-life nineteen year old girls who dance around because they are smug in their cuteness, and I felt in Bakersfield that other people were fully justified in hating our smugness, our "we will dance around now if we want to attitude." (Conceding that hatred is appropriate, by the way, is a far cry from saying that I think it's bad. I think nineteen year old girls, esp. real ones, should dance around. They should just be prepared for the fact that they will piss off those people around them who aren't thinking about taking them home.)

But you don't have to be self-satisfied about your good qualities. You can be self-satisfied about your bad ones. Poison oak sucks. I don't recommend it. It itches and itches and itches and just yesterday a new batch of sores bubbled up, leading me to worry that I would never be done with this and/or that poison oak oil was lurking somewhere on my pillow. That said, I dealt with a "why haven't you called me back phone call" yesterday by referring to my poison oak, and the inestimable pain associated with it. There's a certain satisfaction in direct and obvious weakness, in knowing that you can't possibly meet certain expectations placed on normal people out there in the world -- you are, for whatever smug and inward reasons, different and worse. (Quitting smoking also falls under this header of my preliminary thoughts on smugness. When I put it down I thought I might have something else interesting to say about it. I didn't.)

George Saunders, who is one of those vaguely familiar names that I couldn't have actually identified, has an article in GQ this month. I found the article, while fun to read and well-written and all that, fairly annoying. It's about the deleterious effect of the media on our discourse. Most of the reasons why I found it annoying aren't relevant.

This is. In the course of this article he writes:
The best stories proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively; they are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act, rather than quicker. They make us more humble, cause us to empathize with people we don't know . . . .

He goes on to say that good story-telling causes us to imagine other people as being, essentially, like us, while bad story-telling causes us to imagine other people as "essentially unlike us: unknowable, inscrutable, inconvertible."

This strikes me as a prime example of smugness out of anti-smugness. It is good, he says, to be humble. It is good to act slowly. It is good, not to know.

Maybe. I, personally, think of myself as "unknowable, inscrutable, inconvertible" -- that might be my problem.


The Secretary said...

I like the idea of converting this blog into a site for discussion of various dermatological ailments, with copious illustrations.

Captain Colossal said...

Just wait until my next zit.

Noko Marie said...

I was mulling over this post earlier today when it came to me: this writer found a smugness "singularity" -- a point at which you think you're going along with anti-smugness and zoop! all of a sudden you're at smugness! Or maybe it's more like a self-referential "this sentence is false" paradox?

Anyway, Secretary and CC, there's an incredible website devoted to old photos of skin ailments - it was linked on boingboing some time ago and I never forgot it. It's
here, but it's pretty disgusting, so, you know, the usual caveats.

Captain Colossal said...

Exactly. That's exactly my problem. When I sit here and criticize someone for smugness, that strikes me as requiring smugness of a kind, the smugness that says, "I know what I am and I'm not smug. You, sir, you are smug."

It drives me nuts. Through anti-smugness, I become smug. I think.

I worry, though, that I'm not properly understanding your comment.

The diseases were awesome.