#573: In Praise of Generality (or Happy Christmas 2015)

December 25th, 2015

To be a great writer, one must truck in impotent generalities.

Oh no?

Are all happy families alike?

Is it a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife?

Was the night even dark and stormy?

Or is it just stupid generalist bullshit to cover sloppy thinking with sloppy wordplay?

Everything is correct if you paint the world with a broad enough brush. Look at idioms. Does absence make the heart grow fonder or are you out of sight, out of mind?

Do you throw good money after bad or are you in for a penny, in for a pound?

If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, is all that glitters gold?

And what of those poor Trojans? Should they have been beware of Greeks bearing gifts or should they have avoided looking that horse straight in the mouth?

Specificity and the perception of wisdom are enemies. And literature, specifically Great Literature with the G and L, truck in the latter.

Most or all people in the world can identify with a quote about love (its half life is forever, it’s all you need, it’s patient kind doesn’t envy and oh oh can’t you see, love is the drug for me).

But only one man knows what it’s like when Frank Sinatra has a cold.

To be a Great Writer, to be quoted, cited, thought wise, clever or good, be general past the point where your words have meaning. Facts, figures, names, numbers — they belong to the low art world of journalism and nonfic.

Be vague and the world falls at your feet. Tell true stories of life around you and prepare for layoffs.

Ben Hecht, this site’s horrible liar patron saint, expressed it well in 1921, in a story called “Grass Figures,” a rumination on a reporter (Hecht) trying and failing to write fiction.

“What the newspaper reporter wanted was to be able to begin his fiction story by saying something like this: ‘People are so and so. The city is so and so. Everybody feels this and this.’”

The world wants so and so conclusions, but those don’t exist. There’s only a mass of muddled specifics, not a satisfying generality we all can wrap our heads around and sigh relief.

I’ve found no “Chicago is this,” just a B-Boy trying to find life’s rhythm while a young magician studies smell, a homeless lady huddles and well-off suburbanites ride elevators up and down skyscrapers.

But that’s the beauty to me.

My Christmas isn’t yours. My joy isn’t yours. My family, food, culture, laughter is not yours. You and I both live as gleefully alone specifics. The fact it would be more comforting to be part of a generality doesn’t make it real.

“Unique” means “abnormal.” There’s nothing sad about the fact the two words are one.

So Merry Christmas, sideshow. Merry Christmas, you oddball loony.

Merry Christmas to each and every one of the 2.7 million different fluttering insanities clustered around this freakazoid town, looking for some Sam Hill motif for our nutterbutter lives.

Whatever your joy might be, I hope you find it. Whatever your freakazoid love, I hope it comes to you.

And, hey. If you’re interested, let me know. I might want to write it down.

I’ll get all the specifics.

The B-Boy

The smell magician

The huddling lady

Elevator suburbanites

Frank Sinatra’s cold (not mine)

Support 1,001 Chicago Afternoons on Patreon

What's this?

You are currently reading #573: In Praise of Generality (or Happy Christmas 2015) by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

  • Get Stories by Email

  • Chicago Corruption Walking Tour

    Join the email list for tour dates and info.