Saturday, September 30, 2006

Three Over-used Literary References Give Me a Reason to Bad-mouth Things I Don't Like Anyway

I'd like to rant how annoying I think it is when people over-use literary references. Smart people do it, even at the most inappropriate times. Mention Brooklyn in any context and half the people who don't live here will say something about trees growing here. God forbid you mention a park in Brooklyn -- then people go nuts with excitement: so trees really do grow in Brooklyn! Hahahaha!

This is an unsophistcated reference to Betty Smith's 1943 book (called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn if you haven't figured it out yet) about a poor Brooklyn girl in 1912. The tree metaphor starts on page one: a tree with such a will to survive that its seeds grow through cement. And yes, the little girl is like the tree. Now you don't have to read it. It's sounds like a triumphant book, which means I'll never read it; triumphant books, like most self-described "feel-good-movie(s)-of-the-year, are too much for my cynical soul to bear. I picture the earnest praise from young single women's book clubs and I go numb.

Another insufferable reference is the one where someone waits a long time for something, or says he or she is waiting. This elicits the obligatory "Waiting for Godot" mention. Now is a good time to mention how awful I thought that play was. (I suppose it's only fair to mention that I only read the play -- I haven't seen it performed.) I think it's self-indulgent and patronizing and boring and I don't know which irritates me more: the play or its superior champions, most of whom only pretend to "get it."

Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot opened in Paris in 1953. Most critics were nonplussed. The secret though, is there's nothing to understand. Don't look for hidden meaning; Beckett's intellectual trickery is that there are no tricks. Two idiots wait for a guy who never had any intention of showing up. End of play. Any reference to this play in polite conversation reminds me that though modern theater needed a moment like this -- just as art needed Duchamp's ready-mades and music needed John Cage's infamous 4' 33" (four minutes and 33 seconds of silence that debuted just one year before Beckett's play: hey, listen, I'll play it for you right now.) -- that moment should not be dwelled upon.

My final rant is against though who would reference a certain biblical tale whenever a person walks into a room: "Aha! The prodigal son returns! Hahahahaha!" The story is from the Gospel of Luke. It's about a guy with two sons. One is good. He does what he's supposed to do. The other is a jerk. He spends everything and then begins to starve, so he repents and offers to be his dad's servant. The dad rejoices (because the estranged son came back to his family) and treats him like a prince, while the other son gets mad because he feels like he's been taken for granted for being too predictably and consistently good.

The moralizing Minnesota Scandinavian Lutheran in me says that the father acts as any sentimental father might, but that he's doing his son a disservice by refusing to let his son do penance. To invoke the parable of the prodigal son when your spouse returns from a trip to the grocery store, as people so recklessly do these days, is bizarre; it cheapens the parable and insults the returner.


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