The Jonas Brothers Lip-Syncing Video Challenge

Seven years ago, I began The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a series of essays responding to the top one hundred works of fiction, as decided by a few serious-minded literary people on July 20, 1998. Two years into that, when I got stuck on Finnegans Wake, I began The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge. While I have certainly enjoyed this unique reading journey and I have learned much, I have still felt the nagging sense that something has been severely missing from my life.

A few months ago, I began listening to the fourth Jonas Brothers album, Lines, Vines and Trying Times at around 3:30 AM. I had stumbled upon the record because I had one of those desperate cravings for Red Vines after smoking too much weed. I had tried Googling for a bodega that was open at that hour and within walking distance and that had Red Vines in stock. Nothing came up. But Lies, Vines and Trying Times did. (In hindsight, I may have typed “no bodega open lies red vines trying times,” hoping that the online oracle, which as we all know is never wrong, would give me the necessary guidance to cope with my existential snacking crisis. Using Google was a far better idea than screaming at the top of my lungs and waking up my neighbors over my angst-ridden failure to buy enough mass-produced licorice to accommodate my late night whims.)

Kevin Jonas’s smiling face appeared near the top of my search results. There was something comforting about seeing a grown man with a toothpick in his mouth. It helped that he had an inoffensive leather jacket and a vague squint. Kevin was obviously much younger than me. For one thing, he had hair at the top of his head that I couldn’t grow back due to male pattern baldness. Some men of my age have found spiked hair to be a threat, but I took comfort in the fact that my beard was thicker than his. Kevin could grow his hair and let it poof upward in sexy straight strands, but he couldn’t go the distance when it came to growing a beard. So Kevin and I were more or less on equal hirsute footing. And the way in which Kevin clenched the toothpick between his pearlescent teeth, holding it in place with a casual matrimonial hand, resembled precisely how I wanted to chomp on a Red Vine at that hour.

I learned that the fourth Jonas Brothers album had a very particular philosophy behind it. Nick Jonas, another Jonas brother — and there were four of them all told, three in the band and another named Frankie who wasn’t in the band but who claimed allegiance to Mephisto on his Instagram account — had told Rolling Stone, “Lines are something that someone feeds you, whether it’s good or bad. Vines are the things that get in the way of the path that you’re on, and trying times — well, obviously we’re younger guys, but we’re aware of what’s going on in the world and we’re trying to bring some light to it.”

Perhaps Nick and Kevin knew something I didn’t. As an audio dramatist, I had written many lines. But since I wasn’t working on a script, maybe the fact that I wasn’t feeding myself lines was also something which accounted for my overwhelming desire to eat Red Vines. Red Vines had certainly interfered with my life, in that I couldn’t seem to shake the idea that I really needed a soft red stick to clench between my teeth (much like Kevin!) and felt that I could not get some decent sleep until I did. As for trying times, well, if the Jonas Brothers were as aware of what’s going on in the world as they claimed to be, then it behooved me to become familiar with their songs.

I discovered that the brothers had thoughts on warfare (“No you can’t have World War III / If there’s only one side fighting / And you know / Whoa oh”), that they seemed to be just as tortured as I was (“If you hear my cry, running through the streets / I’m about to freak / Come and rescue me”), that they could be gloomy (“With every stroke of lightning / Comes a memory that lasts”), an unusually specific sense of direction when it came to intimacy (“So turn right / Into my arms”), and were very fond of comparing toxic lovers to poison ivy, feeling so strongly about the metaphor that they had even imbued “ivy” with an extra syllable.

It was clear to me that the Jonas Brothers were the great tortured philosophers who I had been seeking for many years. Why then had the band broken up? You can probably imagine my shock when I learned that Nick had expressed regrets about being a member. This from the same man who had confidently announced his pot-enhanced erection to Jimmy Fallon? And then there was Joe, the other Jonas Brother, who distinguished himself from Kevin by describing himself as a “former flat hair model.” Joe hadn’t been on speaking terms with his brothers during the fractious period before the band split up.

Since the Jonas Brothers have meant a great deal to me, I have decided to take up the challenge of making a YouTube lip syncing video for every one of their songs over the next year. I recorded my first lip syncing video this morning of “Burnin’ Up” and I hope that my performance does the Jonas Brothers full justice:

UPDATE: I have now lip synced to another Jonas Brothers song. “Lovebug” is Video 2 of 111. #jonasbrothersforever!

Video 3: “Paranoid” for Lost in Williamsburg‘s Phillip Merritt

The full 111 songs performed by Jonas Brothers (and thus soon by me) are listed below:

“6 Minutes” (2006)
“7:05” (2006)
“A Little Bit Longer” (2008)
“American Dragon” (2008)
“Baby Bottle Pop Theme Song” (2008)
“BB Good” (2008)
“Beautiful World”
“Before the Storm” (2009)
“Black Keys” (2009)
“Bounce” (20089)
“Burnin’ Up” (2008) (Lip synced April 1, 2018)
“Can’t Have You” (2008)
“Chillin’ in the Summertime” (2010)
“Critical” (2010)
“Dance Until Tomorrow” (2011)
“Don’t Charge Me for the Crime” (2009)
“Don’t Say” (2013)
“Don’t Speak” (2009)
“Don’t Tell Anyone” (2005)
“Drive” (2010)
“Drive My Car” (2010)
“Eu Não Mudaria Nada em Você” (2010)
“Eternity” (2010)
“Fall” (2010)
“Feelin’ Alive” (2010)
“First Time” (2013)
“Fly With Me” (2009)
“Found” (2013)
“Games” (2007)
“Girl of My Dreams” (2007)
“Give Love a Try” (2008)
“Goodnight and Goodbye” (2007)
“Got Me Going Crazy” (2007)
“Gotta Find You” (2008)
“Heart and Soul” (2010)
“Hello Beautiful” (2007)
“Hello, Goodbye” (2008)
“Hey Baby” (2009)
“Hey You” (2010)
“Hold On” (2007)
“Hollywood” (2007)
“I Am What I Am” (2006)
“I Wanna Be Like You” (2007)
“I’m Gonna Getcha Good” (2009)
“Infatuation” (2008)
“Inseparable” (2007)
“Introducing Me” (2010)
“Invisible” (2010)
“Joyful Kings” (2008)
“Just Friends” (2007)
“Kids of the Future” (2007)
“L.A. Baby (Where Dreams Are Made Of)” (2010)
“Let’s Go” (2013)
“Live to Party” (2008)
“Love is On Its Way” (2009)
“Lovebug” (2008) (Lip synced April 1, 2018)
“Make a Wave” (2010)
“Make It Right” (2010)
“Mandy” (2006)
“Meet You in Paris” (2013)
“Much Better” (2009)
“Nada Vou Mudar” (2010)
“Neon”
“On the Line” (2008)
“One Day at a Time” (2006)
“One Man Show” (2008)
“Out of This World” (2007)
“Paranoid” (2009)
“Play My Music” (2008)
“Please Be Mine” (2006)
“Poison Ivy” (2009)
“Pom Poms” (2013)
“Poor Unfortunate Souls” (2006)
“Pushin’ Me Away” (2008)
“Sandbox” (2013)
“Send It On” (2009)
“Set This Party Off” (2010)
“Shelf” (2008)
“Should’ve Said No” (2009)
“Sorry” (2008)
“SOS” (2007)
“Still in Love With You” (2007)
“Summer Rain” (2010)
“Summertime Anthem” (2009)
“Take a Breath” (2007)
“That’s Just the Way We Roll” (2007)
“The World” (2013)
“Things Will Never Be the Same” (2010)
“This is Me” (2008)
“This is Our Song” (2010)
“Time for Me to Fly” (2006)
“Tonight” (2008)
“Turn Right” (2009)
“Underdog” (2006)
“Video Girl” (2008)
“We Are the World” (2010)
“Wedding Bells” (2013)
“We Got the Party” (2007)
“We Rock” (2008)
“What Did I Do to Your Heart” (2009)
“What Do I Mean to You” (2013)
“What I Got to School For” (2006)
“What We Came Here For” (2010)
“When You Look Me in the Eyes” (2006)
“World War III” (2009)
“Wouldn’t Change a Thing” (2010)
“Year 3000” (2006)
“Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)” (2006)
“You Just Don’t Know It” (2006)
“Your Biggest Fan” (2010)
“You’re My Favourite Song” (2010)

The Social Media Fast

On March 9th, I decided to say “¡No más!” to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for a while. In recent weeks, I had received a sustained series of obsessive messages, both public and private, from crazed strangers whom I had never met or barely knew. One such fervid crusader was a feverish cartoonist who had spent hours of her life tweeting about me because I had written a paragraph in 2003 that essentially amounted to “I don’t like your McSweeney’s article.” None of this squared up with the joy and positivism that I was receiving from people in my real life. It was incredibly weird to go from a volunteering stint in which I had made people in need very happy, only to log onto one of the social networks to discover people pining for my demise or engaging in microaggresions or simply dehumanizing me because I fit their bill of a sinister Snidely Whiplash.

It finally dawned on me that I experienced nothing even remotely close to such casual malevolence in my day-to-day adventures, where friends and acquaintances and workmates laughed over bons mots that the digital pitchfork crowd perceived as baleful tells. Beyond all this, perhaps the most substantial reason for this virtual fast was my need to focus on some quite tricky scripts that I’m now writing for The Gray Area‘s second season, along with a few other pastimes. Abandoning the “essential” platforms was also a way of putting the kibosh on a pervasive nastiness that I felt and responded to with considerable and excessive emotion. It’s quite possible that I have a personality perfectly warm and gushing and endearingly oddball for reality, yet apparently incompatible with the cartoonish assumptions engendered through social media.

Whatever the case, I decided to cut the cord. I deleted the appurtenant apps on my phone and resolved not to check anything. I would never know if something I posted had been liked or favorited. For all I know, there are direct messages awaiting me right now on these poisonous online poppy fields. The funny thing about all this was that I was such a prolific presence on these channels that three friends texted me to ask if I was okay. I had managed to connect more by disconnecting.

I can safely report that I am considerably calmer and much happier. I suffer neither fools nor FOMO. I have still been able to follow the news, digging up newly appointed CIA director Gina Haspel’s sordid past as a black site torturer and developments pertaining to a potential Stormy Daniels interview on 60 Minutes — all this without using Twitter. I find myself less stressed, more smartly informed, and more willing to be true to who I am. The early days did admittedly involve some modest dopamine shakes, but I responded by reading books, cooking nice and elaborate meals for myself, engaging in self-care, and keeping in touch with friends on a more regular basis. Not by text, but with phone calls. We often forget that human emotion stretches itself across a far more promising tapestry if you take the time to know a voice or a face or a soul. Phone calls and real world hangout sessions are vastly richer experiences than the half-hearted texts that digital jockeys bang into their phones while sprinting off somewhere and asking themselves later why they are so frequently disappointed.

The problem with wearing your emotional candor on your sleeve or being big and vulnerable enough to tell others how you feel is that anything you say in a small text box is immediately dismembered and distorted from its original intent. If anything I had written on social media had been uttered in person, the other person and I would have likely laughed it off over a few pints. But because my messages had been delivered through a Pringles-like canister honed for circular reasoning, my words became deliberately misinterpreted and used by a few otherwise smart people to harbor fierce enmity. Undoubtedly, the fault is mine in some way. I am not the type to avoid expressing his mind and his heart. Moreover, I have certainly judged people unfairly based on what I think I know about their worst qualities on social media. And I have often been wrong, especially after I met them. Even so, it seems to me especially banal to hurl one’s line into a lake that rewards only those who catch fish through the same tried and true methods. These days, the latitude for “offense” has thinned quite considerably. Due process has been replaced by character references from dodgy strangers clenching their fists in a basement and somehow landing book deals for their superficial insights even as they take no real chances in how they express themselves or know other people.

People who are easily offended are quite funny. The bar for expressive delinquency has dropped so low that some folks are willing to engage in sustained jihads over disputes that are actually pregnant with communicative possibility. I’ve seen the thoughts that cause people to get hopped up and I am often quite baffled. On any given day, I have heard far worse statements uttered by people in my neighborhood in a jocular context. I’d never think of ostracizing a regular mischief maker who I run into at least twice a week and who cried out to me only a week and a half ago, “Hey, you bald motherfucker, how the fuck are you doing?” The sheer enthusiasm he applies to this sentiment is not only hilarious and admirably magical, but has allowed for some witty repartee that has amused passing bystanders. (Incidentally, he followed up his “profane” statement with a big hug.)

The upshot is that judging another person by who they appear to be online does not do justice to his beauty, his magnanimity, and his possibility. And even though we must allow other people to judge, even when they are wrong, the whole point of listening to other perspectives is to have one’s worldview expanded rather than flattened. Why then do we erect walls? Fear perhaps. A sense that someone who jolts our established notions may be telling a grim truth we don’t want to hear. But the barrier is no different from the border wall Trump hopes to build. Walls are built to memorialize xenophobia. The wall builders clearly aren’t motivated to understand another perspective, much less trying to change it. They are predictably afraid and predictably shallow. At a certain point, a grudge that one holds against someone isn’t so much about the other person’s allegedly ill repute, but about the personality flaws inherent in the grudge holder. The way I see it, you have about seven years to hold a grudge. And, even then, the grudge should be reserved for something significant — like, say, someone who stole your lover or murdered a family member or who ruined a good friend’s painstakingly assembled fortune.

I’ll probably be back on social media eventually. For now, I’m enjoying this extended period of slowing down, sitting with people, chatting with friends and strangers, focusing on my thoughts, and realizing how the digital world, despite all the relentless backslapping by techbros, is one of the most preposterous reputational metrics ever devised by humanity.

Vermeer (Modern Library Nonfiction #83)

(This is the eighteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: A Bright Shining Lie.)

Johannes Vermeer was the Steph Curry of 17th century painters: a dazzling mack daddy who spent lengthy periods of his choppy forty-three year life layering lapis lazuli and ultramarine and madder lake onto some of the most beautiful paintings ever created in human history. To ask how he perfected the glowing pour of his domestic scenes through painstaking brush strokes is to court trouble. Did he do so through mirrors and lenses? Does the Hockney-Falco theory have any real bearing on appreciating his work? Vermeer famously left no record of how he achieved his elegant handwrought touch, which has left many to become obsessed with the question, even taking the trouble (as Tim Jennison, subject of the controversial Penn and Teller documentary, did) to learn Dutch, which is a maddening language by all reasonable standards.

The great mystery of how this genius mastered light purely by eye and through no apparent line work, all two centuries before the camera’s invention, has been taken up by such feverishly committed investigators as Philip Steadman, an architect who meticulously measured Vermeer’s interiors and constructed a one-sixth scale model of his room to uphold the theory that Vermeer used a camera obscura. For now, our attentions are with Lawrence Gowing, a self-taught art historian whose Vermeer obsession resulted in a highly useful and slyly passionate book, a short but smart volume bizarrely downplayed in The New York Times‘s Gowing obituary, but a title that the Modern Library judges were at least munificent enough to rank above the likes of Robert Caro eight years after Gowing kicked the proverbial bucket of paint.

Gowing frames Vermeer’s achievements by observing that this painter, unlike his 17th century Dutch peers Gabriël Metsu and Jan Steen, eschewed line and overt modelling work. Vermeer’s purity as an artist emerged with his curious pursuit of diffuse light at all costs. He remained quite impartial about how light spilled into his scenes. As Gowing notes, even a detail such as The Lacemaker‘s cushion tassels (pictured left) “have an enticing and baffling bluntness of focus.” In an age when anyone can instantly snap a picture to memorialize how light drifts into a room, this revolutionary approach cannot be understated, especially because Vermeer was confident enough in his aesthetic to push against the mercantile herd even as he served as head of the Guild of Saint Luke. In the seventeenth century, painters wanted to be noticed. They were, after all, artists with constantly grumbling bellies. So they tended to emphasize particular objects, even if it meant exaggerating the look, in an attempt to stand out. They might approach a patron and say, “Ha ha! I am Hendrik Van de Berg, the greatest painter of Maastricht! I have fifty thousand followers on…well, just imagine a world, preposterous as this may sound, in which short text messages determine your stature among peers and, yup, that would be me! Art King of Maastricht! Anyway, that nifty apple in the far right corner may look a little unnatural, but, dude, I think we can both agree that it really pops! And it will look good in your study while your starving servant polishes your boots and dreams of something to eat! Oh, I know you can’t pay your servants and that you are, in fact, fond of flogging them. But I am an artist and surely you can pay me! I’ll even throw in a complimentary whipping if you buy my work! Think of it as a patron reward!” Vermeer, by contrast, willfully blurred the apple. Vermeer’s peers in his hometown of Delift understood what he was doing, but the cost of being an artist was, alas, premature death due to exasperated financial stress.

Gowing’s gushing critical distinctions are a welcome reminder that it’s sometimes more important to know why art stands out rather than how it is created. The “No haters” crowd, fed on the soothing alfalfa sprouts of director’s commentaries and lengthy pop culture oral histories, would rather view Vermeer as a magician or a technical wizard than an artist. If Vermeer did use a camera obscura, he was certainly not the only Dutch painter doing so at the time. Gowing emphasizes that Vermeer’s style went above and beyond merely accumulating details. What should concern us is why he was so committed to the optical. What counts is Vermeer’s commitment to the visual experience: commonplace scenes that are somehow both radiant and persuasive depictions of reality. Gowing helpfully points out that any Vermeer investigation of life was never direct. The paintings were often established at an oblique angle. He singles out Vermeer’s “inhuman fineness of temper,” a tranquility that is quite extraordinary given that Vermeer was working with ten kids running around and the financial turmoil he had to endure.

Gowing is also very good at only drawing upon Vermeer’s biography when it is pertinent. Vermeer’s detachment and his slow output certainly hinges upon disappointments and setbacks he contended with during the last years of his life. Still, one only needs to look at Vermeer’s paintings to feel their somewhat passive but stirring view of humanity. Gowing distinguishes Vermeer from other painters by observing that “with the passivity characteristic of his thought, he accepted this part of his nature as the basis of the expressive content of his style.” Somehow Vermeer could inject his view on humanity purely through style. And somehow in this stylistic transformation, what seems passive is actually carefully rendered depth. Despite confining his paintings to two rooms, Gowing finds enough common qualities within these limitations for us to get a sense of what Vermeer was up to:

In only three of the twenty-six interiors that we have is the space between painter and sitter at all uninterrupted. In five of the others passage is considerably encumbered, in eight more the heavy objects interposed amount to something like a barrier and in the remaining ten they are veritable fortifications. It is hard to think that this preference tells us nothing about the painter’s nature. In it the whole of his dilemma is conveyed.

The book’s second part is more akin to descriptive liner notes for a must have box set and doesn’t quite match the first part’s perspicacity. But Gowing does provide several useful antecedents (such as Jan Van Bronkhorst’s The Procuress) that allow us to track Vermeer’s development as an artist. Again, because Vermeer didn’t leave much behind on his life or methods, it has been left for us to speculate on how he cultivated his exquisite style. But Gowing is too sharp a critic to be seduced by gossip and thankfully confines his findings to other paintings, showing us several paths leading us to Utrecht Caravaggism and trompe l’oeil.

I must warn you, however, that Gowing’s Vermeer, despite its ostensibly breezy length, will likely have you losing many hours studying Vermeer. What Gowing could not have foreseen is that his ruminations would be even more vital in a climate where some otherwise smart people believe that an ire-inducing and ill-considered think piece cobbled together in an hour constitutes serious thought.

Next Up: George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England!

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Modern Library #76)

(This is the twenty-fifth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Finnegans Wake.)

We are two days away from the great Muriel Spark’s 100th birthday. Yet, despite New Directions’s valiant reissue of her remarkable work only a few years ago (along with a quiet event planned on Thursday at the 92nd Street Y, which stands incommensurately like a shaking child in the vast shadow of Edinburgh’s impressive celebratory blowout), we are no closer to literary people universally singing her praises on this side of the Atlantic than we are in stopping men from wearing black socks to bed. And that’s a shame. Because Muriel Spark was truly one of the most innovative writers of the 20th century. She was a bold and an economical stylist who packed far more attentive detail and character speculation into one paragraph than most contemporary writers wrangle into a chapter, and she did so with high style, grace, and ferocious wit. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, her most enduring and popular novel (and, through a magical twist of fate, the next volume in the Modern Library Reading Challenge), certainly sees Spark’s great gifts on full display, but it is also a book that demands constant and even obsessive study.

I have read Brodie four times within the last two years. It is very possible I will read it four more times within the next two. I am inclined to press this richly entertaining book, no more than a hundred pages, into the hands of anyone who purports to take literature seriously, but who has somehow ignored Spark to hold up some bland offering from one of those “Most Anticipated” lists published at The Millions that nobody will remember or quote from in a decade.

Brodie is both a portrait of an exuberant teacher determined to educate a carefully selected group of girls so that they may be better equipped when “in their prime” and an incredible tableau of 1930s Edinburgh, such as the “wind-swept hockey fields which lay like the graves of the martyrs exposed to the weather in an outer suburb.” Miss Brodie may or may not be a tyrant. (She is fond of Mussolini and Italian culture.) One can read the book anew and come away with an entirely different opinion of the title character. The novel tantalizes us with flash-forwards (which can also be found in many of Spark’s later novels, such as The Driver’s Seat and Territorial Rights, which are also well worth your time) revealing the fates of the schoolgirls in adult life, leaving us with impressions of how formative life and education influences unknowingly in later years. One reads little snippets of the six girls under Miss Brodie’s tutelage from the present and the future– Rose “pulling threads from the girdle of her gym tunic” in class or Jenny not experiencing any sexual awe “until suddenly one day when she was nearly forty, an actress of moderate reputation married to a theatrical manager” — and asks how much Miss Brodie is responsible for corrupting fate, with Spark slyly implicating us as we become more curious.

Muriel Spark wrote this masterpiece in less than a month. This is especially amazing because, much like the magnetic properties contained within the glowing amber necklace Miss Brodie wears when off-screen romance inspires a new step in her exacting stride, this short novel reads as if an exquisite jeweler had painstakingly ensured that not a single element could ever fall out of alignment. And Spark sculpts many glistening carats along the way: the fictitious letters that two girls write after imagining Miss Spark’s love life, the creepy, one-armed artist Teddy Lloyd who also teaches at the school and disguises his true pedophilc nature through the sham panacea of Catholicism and family life, and the lingering question of which schoolgirl betrays Miss Brodie and causes her to lose her job. The novel presents us with many hints and details that hide in plain sight, but that all contribute to an atmosphere in which the girls end up coming up with explanations (often fictitious and sometimes apostate) for what is both seen and not seen. Miss Brodie’s careful lessons, which include a field trip into a rougher part of Edingburgh and often involve knowing the roots of words to better understand them, are perhaps being applied in dangerous ways. And in an age where people judge people who they haven’t met based on what they think they know from a social media profile, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie remains potent and necessary reading.

Spark’s lecture “The Desegregation of Art,” delivered before a crowd of New York literati on May 26, 1970, offers useful insights into the ambitious gauntlet she felt obliged to throw down as an artist and gives us a sense of what is very much at stake in Brodie. She firmly believed that literature existed to infiltrate and fertilize the mind and denounced any fiction that stood in the way of this lofty artistic goal. If that meant tossing out socially conscious art that was not “achieving its end or illuminating our lives any more,” then this was the price to pay for better art that reflected the depths and thorny hurdles of life. She insisted that “ridicule is the only honourable weapon we have left” and believed that addressing wrongs emerged not so much from instant outrage, but through “a more deliberate cunning, a more derisive undermining of what is wrong. I would like to see less emotion and more intelligence in these efforts to impress our minds and hearts.” Much as Spark detested being a victim in her life, she believed that art reveling in victimhood turned readers into oppressors.

So we are left with Brodie as a remarkable volume that fertilizes our minds even as it challenges our own interpretations. Spark’s honorable ridicule in Brodie may very well lie with the way she shrewdly sends up how people are perceived for their failings based on superficial shorthand. And this extends even to the hypnotic allure of Miss Brodie’s own teaching. At one point, Miss Brodie observes that “John Stuart Mill used to rise at dawn to learn Greek at the age of five” and that the teacher herself learned from this lesson. Mill is a particularly funny choice, given that this philosopher was known for utilitarianism and that we are seemingly experiencing a short “utilitarian” novel when we read Brodie. But, of course, we aren’t. For one wants to reread it yet again.

The intrepid literary adventurer plunging forward on a bold bender for real-life inspiration is often viewed with contempt by any practitioner transforming bits of his life into analeptic artistic truth withstanding the test of time. The adventurer shakily balances the author’s complete works like vertiginous trays stacked tall enough to scrape plaster flakes off the ceiling as the letters and the collected marginalia and the autobiographical tidbits are swirled into a overflowing flute by a jittery finger serving as a makeshift cocktail straw. If not written off as a slightly smarter TMZ reporter who has somehow retained the ability to read despite being barraged daily by Harvey Levin’s soul-destroying smile, such an apparent gossipmonger, even if she is cogent enough to know that fictional characters rarely spring from a singular source, is still tarnished as that rakish yenta who reads fiction for the wrong reasons.

As I have ventured further into this years-long Modern Library project, I’ve come around to the daring idea that, for certain sui generis authors (and Muriel Spark is certainly one of them), one may indeed find deeper appreciation in the way they forge art from the people surrounding them. It isn’t so much the schema of who matches up with whom that should concern us, but rather the fascinating way in which characters defy an easily identifiable origin, turning into a form of fictionalized life that feels just as real on the page as any spellbinding life experience. There is a fundamental difference between the novelist who runs out of raw biographical material mid-career, her limited inventive faculties and inherent disconnection with humanity dishearteningly revealed with mediocre and unconvincing and blandly repetitive offerings in late career (see, for example, the wildly overrated Joyce Carol Oates, surely one of the great living literary embarrassments in the early 21st century), and the novelist who seizes the reins of an indefatigable spirit that runs quite giddily to the very end.

For someone like Muriel Spark, who was fiercely protective of her privacy and her public image, this is not necessarily a slam-dunk proposition even when many of the real life details match up. The formidable literary biographer Martin Stannard secured Spark’s reluctant blessing to get his hands dirty on details occluded in Spark’s remarkably opaque autobiography, Curriculum Vitae. Stannard, like many before him, pegged Christina Kay, the schoolteacher who taught Spark at the age of twelve, as the predominant inspiration for “the real Miss Jean Brodie.” Both Kay and Brodie insisted that their girls were the “crème de la crème.” Miss Kay also took Spark and her fellow students on great cultural adventures into Edinburgh. Both were keen on Italy and shared a rather clueless interest in Mussolini. (As late as 1979, Spark would insist that Miss Brodie was not a fascist and that Brodie’s admiration for Il Duce had more to do with Benito’s powerful masculinity, as it was perceived in 1930, which leads one to ponder the 53 percent of white women voted for Trump in 2016. Some weaknesses in human perception regrettably endure, despite the best history lessons.)

But much as the great Iris Murdoch regularly transcended reality to achieve jaw-droppingly marvelous art, which she defined as that which “invigorates without consoling,” one finds a similarly spellbinding spirit within Spark’s equally incredible novels. Once you read The Girls of Slender Means, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Memento Mori, The Driver’s Seat, or A Far Cry from Kensington, if you have even the faintest desire of wanting to know how art works, you may find yourself obsessing over just how she was able to put so much into her novels. Ian Rankin, writer of the rightfully well-regarded Rebus novels, found himself precisely in this very position, reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie over and over again over the course of thirty years and always finding new details, even wondering if the titular character was the hero or the villain. (Some of Rankin’s work on Spark when he was pursuing a Ph.D is available online behind a paywall.)

And if you read Brodie, you may very well join us on this pleasantly fanatical quest. We are told at the end, with one of the characters hiding from the truth of how her life has been altered, “There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.” And that seemingly innocent notion, in Spark’s nimble hands, is the white whale that turns any reader into Ahab.

Next Up: Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop!

The Moral Obligation to Stop and Convert Petty Tyrants

It is nearly impossible to traipse through life without encountering the petty tyrant, that highly annoying passive-aggressive type who carries on through life at such a childish level of emotional maturity that you often have to do everything you can to deny him the power and the attention he so desperately craves. There may be a part of you that very much wants to throttle the petty tyrant, but this is a negative feeling you rightly come to resent because spite and violent fantasies are usually not effective ways to get along with other people. It is a tribute to the petty tyrant’s toxic hold on our culture and his remarkable inflexibility to change that we come to detest tyrants as much as we do. But it really shouldn’t be this way.

We know very well who they are. Petty tyrants often elbow their way into positions of extremely minor authority — such as organizing a group picnic or collecting donations for a beloved peer’s cancer treatment or otherwise setting the tone for how a particular purlieu is perceived — but they can sometimes be so successful and unchecked in their pettiness that they rise to unfathomable power (see Donald Trump, who is now using petty tyranny to bring us closer to the brink of nuclear war). Rather than using their positions to gracefully include everyone, petty tyrants proceed to snub and undermine and exclude within an environment that is often so small that the hurt is somehow both sizeably felt and inconsequential.

Because one often has to endure a petty tyrant’s needlessly exiguous sullies over the course of a sustained period, the petty tyrant’s sting burrows into one’s soul far deeper than it needs to. The petty tyrant’s concatenation of minor slights is not unlike Chinese water torture, matched only by the relentless pings of push notifications purring from one’s phone and the incessant calls to be constantly connected. Small wonder then that the Internet has increasingly become the petty tyrant’s medium of choice. After enduring a petty tyrant’s latest jab, one often has to look in the mirror, take a few deep breaths, remember Eleanor Roosevelt’s cogent maxim, “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent,” summon whatever mindfulness there is in the tank, and attempt to assert one’s naturally benign existence as much as possible. Unfortunately, because people tend to believe the word of other people who hold positions of power and we now live in a world in which an altogether different froth rises to the top, the petty tyrant’s influence and sensibilities can swiftly infiltrate a group dynamic, often stubbing out views and opinions that very much need to be considered. (As Margaret Jacobsen observed in Bitch shortly after Trump’s election, “Too often in our society, white women have value while women of color do not.” Let us not forget that white guilt is very much a petty tyranny of its own.)

Petty tyrants are often anti-intellectual. They are almost always convinced that they are infallible and can never be persuaded to change their minds, which is often saturated with a repugnant sense of vague knowingness often misconstrued as expertise. They really believe that their opinion is the only one that matters and are often insufferably absurd figures like the people who host NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, petty tyrants in the midcult mode who truly believe that culture should be made exclusively and only for them. (“I am, by any reasonable measure, a cynical jerk and my taste in pop culture tends to follow that,” revealed Glen Weldon in a recent episode. “But this year, something has changed within me. Something is not the same.” Anyone who has endured Weldon’s narcissistic flippancy for years knows that this is not true. This is a prime example of the petty tyrant who feigns honesty while ultimately practicing an absolutist sensibility that transmutes quite easily into tyranny, a quality not altogether different from a President who will tweet any outlandish and threatening bullshit under the rubric of “blunt honesty” to get people riled up.)

They are usually intolerant of other people for incredibly insignificant reasons and are remarkably petty about it (see, for example, Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s disemvoweling practice from 2008, which has rightly been styled as geek vengeance by Will Shetterly). They can be found on any part of the political spectrum, ranging from the intolerant MAGA booster who will never listen to facts, much less what a progressive has actually said, or the vituperative social justice warrior who would prefer to destroy the life and livelihood of an opponent rather than consider that there may be a peaceful possibility for someone to understand and change. They often have an inflated sense of their own importance, often bolstered through social media, a digital flesh-eating virus that cowardly and unprincipled Quislings like Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone lack the know-how or the gumption to cure. Twitter alone has been responsible for such a colossal wave of petty tyrants that, if one is fortunate enough to not be assailed for one’s vaguely controversial views by a crazed army of trolls, one often has to uninstall Twitter from one’s phone in order to be reminded that face-to-face conversation is not usually like this.

What makes petty tyrants so detestable is the way in which they discourage kindness, peace, understanding, compassion, and forgiveness — in short, the possibility for many different types of people to come together. As Rebecca Solnit smartly observed months before Harvey Weinstein’s exposure ushered in the beginnings of a much needed reckoning, petty tyrants live “in a world without honest mirrors, without others, without gravity…buffered from the consequences of their failures.” Thus, the petty tyrant increasingly operates in a filter bubble of his own making, often clueless about the cruelty and abuse he casually metes out. (Witness Robert Scoble’s remarkably obtuse blog post from last October after he was hit with allegations of sexual harassment. He not only refused to acknowledge his potential complicity, but willfully outed the private details of his victims)

There’s really no easy way that you can win against a petty tyrant. You can be obsequious and you will still be subjected to belittlement. You can politely inform the petty tyrant precisely how you feel about her conduct, but your feelings may never be respected or honored. If you’re a passionate (albeit cautious) idealist with a distinct voice who wants to believe in people like me, the petty tyrant can be the biggest pain in the ass imaginable, an affront against amity and communal possibility causing you to give into the worst aspects of your ego as you take understandable offense and sometimes stop believing in people for a while. Because the tyrant’s offense isn’t just leveled at you, but often a whole category of people who live a particular way or practice relatively benign behavior that the petty tyrant takes inexplicable umbrage against, often because the tyrant subconsciously perceives some of these qualities within herself and doesn’t want to be honest about confronting the pain of recognizing something familiar. And that’s one of the tragedies of petty tyrants. If they weren’t so caught up in tyrannizing other people, they could actually find common ground and evolve and invite more people into their lives. That’s why it’s so important to be as understanding as you can, lest you become a petty tyrant yourself (and I regret to report that I have been a petty tyrant in the past and I am still trying to sort out the differences between emotional sensitivity and unknowing tyranny, both twisted together in a taut double helix that one cannot easily unravel; the hope is that more people can call me on my shit).

But the petty tyrant isn’t all bad. The petty tyrant’s gift is to present you with a perspective about how you are detested, thus giving you a view of flaws you can work on and qualities you may be able to repair so that you may be able to communicate better. Petty tyrants challenge you to love and carry on with your lives, even as it seems the world is burning or it feels as if nobody really cares about the heart or the work that you put out into the universe. If your love tendered towards a petty tyrant can never be reciprocated, there may not be a very compelling reason to invite the petty tyrant into your life. Relationships of any sort must be predicated upon mutual respect, humility, and the ability to listen. There must be true wonder for another that supersedes all egocentric concerns. On the other hand, if you can be in the same room with the petty tyrant and not take offense, perhaps there’s a chance to nullify the tyranny in question.

Still, this is not always possible and it often takes time. You may have to wait many years for the petty tyrant to drop in stature, to be humbled enough through failure and setbacks so that the tyranny becomes thoroughly vanquished from her system. That may very well be the moment when you can offer love and forgiveness. But it’s frustrating. Because what empathetic person doesn’t feel the need for the petty tyrant to change now and become a more wondrous and beautiful person? The greatest problem with tyranny is that it is such a seductive quality, something that can settle and stick inside one’s personality to the point where it becomes almost impossible to disinter it.

Groupthink and the allure of collective humiliation are two qualities that have allowed fascism (and thus petty tyrants) to flourish throughout human history. During the rise of Mussolini, Blackshirts would force enemies to imbibe castor oil, sending them home dripping in their own shit, when not forcing them to defecate upon anything (such as speeches and manifestos) that memorialized their beliefs. The victims were stripped naked, pummeled, and handcuffed to public posts so that all would know how to think. We are not there yet, but we are getting distressingly closer. The recent clamor against vlogger Logan Paul’s insensitivity towards a suicide suggests that we have not yet grown heartless and that the righteous horror that accompanied Lynndie England’s callous photographs from Abu Ghraib has not yet been deracinated from our national conscience.

As such, it is vital for us to remember that petty tyrants in all forms have almost always begetted more sinister tyrants (including Nazis), shimmering quite dangerously into public life. Our unity, which is pivotal if we hope to restore sanity and stability to this country, has become increasingly fractured, its prospects countered by the latest cartoonish developments. Our possibilities as a nation of amazing individuals is being squandered by our insistence that petty tyrants, wherever they may be found, are not that big of a deal. The time has come for us to start becoming more pro-active about stopping petty tyrants, to rightly recognize their behavior as something that is destroying this country. Or maybe we can do better. Why can’t we start making collective attempts to recognize tyrants within our own folds and help those who tyrannize become more aware of how they harm lives, turning their actions into benevolent gestures in which their identities are still respected but the results are more peacefully inclusive? That’s going to require a great deal of patience and strength and commitment from everyone. But what’s the alternative? Letting our nation be subjected to tyranny? Believing the worst in people? Democratic principles have kept America alive, for better or worse, for more than two centuries. It is both a betrayal of our history and our enduring national character to surrender what remains of our unity. Let us believe in and understand and, above all, listen to each other, especially the voices that make us wary. Hope should not merely be a buzz word manufactured by politicians who wish to win elections. It must become a more practiced and truer quality that is more natural to our lives than the easy immolation that comes with accepting and practicing petty tyranny.