'Against Everything' Captures Mark Grief's Journey Towards Transformation
Mark Greif tackles the big picture in a collection of interesting, ponderous, powerful essays about music, experiences, identity, and reality in all its forms.
The problem with time-sensitive topics like social networks, reality TV, or even the concept of the Hipster in the observational essay, is that they demand updates. Mark Greif covers these topics (and more) in Against Everything: Essays. While they are at their surface level observational, Greif retains a critical academic distance from such topics and specific subjects. Sometimes Greif's insistence on maintaining the professionalism of the pontificator can exhaust the reader. Where is he going? Why is he here? He updates his original observations in these essays whose topics are always going to be fluid, always moving, but even the most forgiving readers may find themselves smothered in this sea of words.
• Publisher: Pantheon (September 6, 2016)
Title: Against Everything: Essays
Author: Mark Greif
Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
• Language: English
• ISBN-10: 1101871156
• ISBN-13: 978-1101871157
• Hardcover: 320 pages
Greif notes in his preface: “This is not a book of critique of things I don't do. It's a book of critique of things I do." He continues to note that the book is about asking questions, about asking why we do or think what we are supposed to do or think. Greif was apparently driven by his mother's admiration for Henry David Thoreau, and anybody born and raised in the Massachusetts area, prone to navel-gazing and attracted to loners, understands the attraction. Thoreau was the standard bearer of the back to nature movement, especially in the '60s. In “Thoreau Trailer Park: The Meaning of Life Part IV" (2012), Greif effectively illustrates the power of the man, even after all these years:
“It is hard to remember what Thoreau said because it is all so disturbing."
Greif provides a comprehensive background of the man and his times, the philosophy of stripping away all the artifice of one's life and starting fresh. The informed reader remembers one of Thoreau's greatest adages: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes." Rather than keeping the man in his time, letting the adage exist only on a T-shirt or coffee cup, Greif nicely connects Thoreau and his movement to the “Occupy Wall Street" demonstrations of the time (2011-2012) .The Zucotti Park those young people occupied was comparable, for Greif, to Thoreau's Walden Pond. Greif readily admits to bourgeois sensibilities and is shocked when he sees that those arrested during the demonstrations did not dress for their court appearances:
“In the encampment… [they] wanted to create a democracy not of symbol but of fact… As crowds chanted, 'This is what Democracy looks like' when the police threatened us, I cringed to hear how the words advertised our weakness."
This essay works best because -- like most of the topics he covers -- it provided an opportunity for participation. More than that, Greif makes the effort (and succeeds) to build a bridge between the stubborn individualism insistence of Thoreau to the idealism of the brief but significant legacy of the Occupy protesters. It's this type of reportage and personal involvement that makes the reader wish Greif had expanded his observations about this topic and those people during that time into a book-length manuscript. It's placed at the end of Against Everything: Essays almost like a promise of what could have been.
“Against Exercise" is both funny and cunning in the way Greif builds the logic of his argument. On running: “[It] is most insidious because of its way of taking proselytizing out of the gym." For Greif, all the grunting and sweating and displays of body that take place in the confines of the gym are tantamount to worshiping in a chapel. “Facing mortality, the gym-goer believes himself an agent of health-whereas he makes himself a more perfect patient."
“Afternoon of the Sex Children", from its title onward, is a more serious and focused examination of how our culture imposes sexuality from a young age. He takes us from women's magazines (instructional) to men's magazines (pornographic) and concludes that in magazines like Playboy, “…putative teen models are made situationally immature -- portrayed with images of the student life…" It's the idealization of childhood, transformed into fetishization that makes for disturbing yet effectively argued prose. If liberation implied freedom, the sexual liberation movement had to come at a cost.
“One of the cruel betrayals of sexual liberation… was the illusion that a person can be free only if he holds sex as all-important…"
Greif goes on to argue that "…liberalization turned back to gorge itself on youth." It's difficult to read, especially when he explores the darkness of the child molester, but some of his proposed rehabilitative solutions are reasonable. He proposes that we (as a culture) adjust our perspectives of idealized beauty so that we "…extinguish the worship of youth." "The de-emphasis of sex and the denigration of childhood can still be put on the agenda of a humane civilization." It's here where Greif's observations and the logical paths he takes to such conclusions that make Against Everything an important collection.
“On Food" breaks down Michael Pollan and foodies and “The New Food Order" with varying degrees of success. “Pollan's philosophical commitment to tradition…
distorts his thought in a particular direction." In “Octomom and the Market in Babies", sort of an extension of “Afternoon of the Sex Children", Greif examines the life and tabloid times of Nadya Suleman, the woman who was famous for a moment in 2009-2010 for being implanted with eight fetuses she brought to term (along with the six children she'd already borne) and extends to examinations of the glorification of childbirth, the inconsistencies of the movie Juno, and the trials of a woman with more than a passing resemblance to Angelina Jolie, another super Mom:
“Octomom just timed it badly. She raised fears that babies have become a rare commodity, a status item, property -- at a moment when property itself was being allocated to the wrong people."
Greif gets a little bogged down with “The Concept of Experience". It certainly is a strong essay connecting sex and intoxication, recklessness, and the quest for immortality. “Travel becomes the main new experience people remember when sex and intoxication stop being the sole authoritative ones." He brings in aestheticism and perfectionism, drawing Gustave Flaubert and Henry David Thoreau into this equation. The arguments are strong and build in a proper way, but Greif seems to have bitten off more than he can chew here. The pieces isolated into a different, separate context would have been more successful.
The three music-based essays, “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop", “Punk: the Right Kind of Pain", and “Learning to Rap" suffer from that aforementioned stubborn academic distance. The first essay could and should have been two separate ones. Greif certainly paints an effective picture of the strange and distant Thom Yorke and company that make up Radiohead, "…the interfiling of human speech and machine sounds with the keening, vulnerable human singing of Thom Yorke." Unfortunately, he gets bogged down in pronouncements about music criticism:
“We don't even agree about how the interconnection of pop music and lyrics, rather than the words spoken alone, accomplishes an utterly different task of representation… and bad critics show their ignorance when they persist in treating pop like poetry, as in the still-growing critical effluence around Bob Dylan."
Published first in 2005, this essay is ponderous and thick as it drives through the difficulty of Radiohead and the problems of pop music, but Greif does no service to either topic by allowing it to stand alone now. Again, the prose of strong and the presentation is dramatically, effectively rendered, but Greif's didacticism is the biggest barrier between the uninformed reader and an appreciation of the forms ("Radiohead and Philosophy of Pop") as they exist in 2017.
“Punk: the Right Kind of Pain" is more successful because Greif combined his examination of the form with a clear and focused look at the Velvet Underground. “The unity of their work has to do with the pleasures of force, both suffering and exerting it…" Greif is also able to successfully combine this examination of the Velvet Underground with his love of and for the Grateful Dead. Both entities were known for “…extremely long, wandering, repetitive, live improvisations." Greif ends with an examination of the legendary Punk band Fugazi, and this picture of their fans is frightening and exciting:
“I watched the eyes of boys right near me, blanked, numb, as others whirled in pointless energy… I sorrowed that all this seemed unworthy of the band, the music…"
“Learning to Rap" is a tougher essay to enjoy, but if the reader has gotten this far then enjoyment really isn't the key to Greif's essays. Appreciation is a better term. He cites a transcript of a conversation between Richard Pryor and Barbara Walters about the 'n" word. “You said it very good," Pryor notes, hearing her quote the title of his 1976 comedy LP. “That's not the first time you said it." This is a long, involved, deep essay that didn't need his personal narrative about learning to rap. We know the story of the white bourgeois male attracted to rap and hesitant to recite the lyrics. Greif would have better served his topic had he removed himself from the equation and looked at stars from what he calls the pre- and post-crack eras of the musical style. For all its pontification, Greif still seems to understand his reader will probably be frustrated:
“I imagine someone could object: this isn't really how you listen to popular music, is it?... You're inhuman! Do you really judge art by a criterion of its politics -- as if you had to hear an editorial, backed with a beat?"
In “The Reality of Reality Television", written in both 2005 and 2015, Greif reflects (in the latter half) on Keeping Up with the Kardashians. For Greif, the show has a “…tranquilizing power: it displays the conceit of an economy in which “doing nothing"… is enough". Greif notes that most of the shows discussed in the first half of the essay were gone by 2015, so the reader is left with a question: Why not separate the text and expand the better half (the second part)? The same can be said for WeTube, which is only two years old. The text is complete, but the subject is always changing. In 2010's “What Was the Hipster?" Grief presents a eulogy when in fact the subject is truly an evolving paradigm.
Against Everything is an exhausting and at times exhaustive text, 16 essays chopped into eight thematically-connected sections. The essays that work (about Octomom, Thoreau, the second half of “The Reality of Reality Television") are strong because Greif's execution is in consort with his ambition. The ones that fall short of their goals will more likely alienate than unite the reader with the text. For all its annoyances and problems, Against Everything is a powerful book from an intensely disciplined writer who seems to have met the mission statement in his Preface:
“And I speak as myself now, still learning to be different than I am."
Joining Greif on his journey towards transformation should be even more interesting as time progresses and he sees that sometimes it's not best to juggle so much in an essay. Sometimes, like Thoreau was fond of noting, it's all about coming to terms with the need to simplify.