Kristin Wald: Getting Serious With Lee Siegel

While dropping off my children at pre-school, I occasionally have conversations with Lee Siegel, a cultural critic and author of the recent Are You Serious? How to Be True and Get Real in the Age of Silly.  His son goes to school with my children, you see, and school drop-off and pick-up becomes the improvised water cooler for parents who work – whether in business or domestic capacities – from their homes.  We sometimes agree about issues (ObamaWeiner, the effects of the 24-hour news cycle on the quality of news), and we sometimes disagree (Kim Cattrall, Go the F*ck to Sleep, Jon Stewart, the death of the novel).  I don’t think either of us has ever swayed the other’s opinion, but they are always interesting discussions.

With his most recent book, I asked Lee Siegel if he’d be willing to answer a few seriously silly questions.  I know how he feels about bloggers (it would be a last-ditch attempt at rhyme with “corn shuckers” if I were a song-writer), but I often ask people favors for which I don’t expect positive responses.  Imagine my surprise then, when he said he’d love to answer my questions.  What he really meant was he’d love to answer some of my questions; he didn’t respond to “What is your favorite 80’s band?” or “Tell me about a crime you’ve committed.”  Still, he answered many more than I thought he would.  That he would agree to participate – for a tiny local blog, no less – tells me that even though Lee Siegel takes himself very seriously much of the time, there’s hope that he knows when to relax into the silly.

For more official takes on his book, Are You Serious?, read the reviews in both Slate and The New York Times, which covered every angle in very different tones.  There is also a much more polished set of questions that Lee Siegel answered at Zócalo Public Square.  I’ll just say that I read the book all the way through, enjoyed its vignettes and opinions, and I actually learned a few things about art, philosophy, and seriousness.  Of course, I have a lot to learn about all three.

So, Lee Siegel, what inspired you, at the end of Are You Serious?, to strip Captain Sullenberger (of Hudson River landing fame) of “hero” status?  Didn’t he do that himself in words and through his humility?

Yes, he did.  I was inspired by his example.  I think he was saying that there is nothing heroic about just doing your job.  I agree.

What is your take on the recent Debt Ceiling theatrics in relation to your three pillars of seriousness?

Both sides lack the slightest attention, purpose, and continuity.*

*In case you’re wondering, readers, those are the three pillars of seriousness.

In an NPR interview for WLRN in Florida, you said, “[Jon] Stewart is a superficial fool.” Do you still really mean that? 

Well, he’s superficial.  He wouldn’t be such an enjoyable entertainer if he wasn’t.  And he’s certainly no fool in the sense that he knows exactly what his audience wants.  But in the higher sense of being intelligent and not merely shrewd, of not just pandering to an audience but being subtle and thoughtful – which he is constantly praised for being – then, yes, he’s a fool.

But you do watch his show, right?    [crickets chirping]

You wrote about American seriousness, “Our emphasis on practical life makes us fear the effects of crude materialism.”  How can this be true in the age of Real Housewives and a refusal to rescind tax cuts on the wealthiest in our country?

Mention Plato or Tolstoy to the realest real housewife and she’ll drop her midday margarita and start telling you how she longs to write a novel, paint or sculpt.  We are still guilty Puritans when it comes to culture, and even the crudest, most unabashed materialist thinks she is deeply spiritual at her core.

I think I need a margarita before I digest that answer.  Okay, well, how about the media?  Is everything orchestrated?  I’m thinking particularly of your reaction to a post-basketball-injury Obama holding an ice pack to his face while standing in the window of the White House.  Can you give me an example of something you believe to be “true” in the media?  Whom do you admire in the news media?

I think the media can be credible, but truth is beyond them.  I admire plenty of journalists, but most of them are in the print media.  I don’t think it’s possible now to appear before the camera and be serious.

You claim that you can’t read contemporary fiction and contemporary pop music is a “complete bore.”  What is the last novel you read that moved you the way a film has moved you? 

It was a novella, The Duel, by Chekhov.

If fiction is so sad now, why not throw your hat into the ring?  Where is your Great American Novel?

Do I have to become everything I don’t like?

Okay, well how about things you like?  What is your favorite film?  The best film out in the last few years?

I like everything that’s good.  Last Tango in Paris is up there at the top.  Recently, I lovedThe Social Network.

I haven’t seen either film, but I’ll Netflix them soon.  In your book, you talk about your childhood, including a Tolstoy-influenced beating and an overdose of seriousness thanks to Camus.  What is your best childhood memory?

I save my best memories for myself.

Hmph.  Well, I’ve seen you with both your son and daughter, and you’re very affectionate and sometimes even goofy.  Has parenting two young children made you more silly?  Or are you too serious?

Being a father has made me more serious and more silly.

What is the silliest thing you do to entertain your children?

Pretend to be serious.

It’s true.  That can be pretty entertaining.  In Chapter Six of Are you Serious?, you discuss Richard Serra’s refusal to bend to criticism of his piece “Tilted Arc.” It follows an extended discussion from Chapter Five about Socrates and his decision to drink the hemlock for his truth.  Do you see them as equally serious?

I think someone who gives his life for the sake of truth is incomparable.

So, would you say that The Terminator is like Socrates when he chooses death at the end of the second film? 

I would say the Terminator is not like Socrates, ever.

Alrighty then. 

 You can buy Lee Siegel’s Are You Serious? How to Be True and Get Real in the Age of Silly from your local bookstore.  Or, if you must, check out Barnes and Noble or Amazon.  It is published by Harper.

Kristin Wald blogs at This Weblog is Unique. Just Like They All Are.

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