A relatable problem

Relating confirms with a simple exclamation mark. Learning leaves you with a proverbial question mark suspended on top of your head.

Cover Image: "Girl Before A Mirror" by Pablo Picasso

The moment the seeds of this essay were first planted was not too long ago, at a live concert, on the eve of a significant birthday. The one where one supposedly makes that transition from youth to maturity. (Sidenote: I just ran into the word “kidulthood” here and I am doing my part to coin it). For this particular anniversary, Witold Gombrowitcz states that “there is too much silence about the personal, inner hurts and injuries inflicted by that entrance [into adulthood], the grave consequences of which remain with us forever…”

FerdydurkeInspired by Gombrowicz’s example ‘Ferdydurke” and attempting to diminish any grave consequences resulting from silence, my short anecdotal story follows.

As part of the concert, Jovanotti - an Italian singer known for his witty, inspirational, and peace-loving songs - began to relate a short tale about the children’s drawing game “connect the dots”. As a child, he started out like most of us, connecting the dots consecutively as instructed. Unlike most of us, he later began questioning these pre-specified shapes. Gradually, he said, he realized that those dots - like stars - could take any other shape as well, if only he was willing to think them up.

The possibilities go from one to limitless. In the process of becoming open to these possibilities, we affirm our individuality. The price to pay for our uniqueness is a perceived loss of relatedness because the more we search inside ourselves, the more we realize that our thoughts and desires are, in many ways, specific and idiosyncratic. For fear of losing this ability to relate to many objects, people, or experiences, we deny many personal and intimate thoughts. This reduces our individuality to a template, an individual to a category. Relationships between people, then, become a mere “relating to one another” which is an endless confirmation cycle of commonalities, rather than a learning experience. Relating confirms with a simple exclamation mark. Learning leaves you with a proverbial question mark suspended on top of your head.


As I was listening to Jovanotti, I felt I should be inspired. Yet, instead of inspiration, I felt a slight disappointment with myself which, clearly, I did not question instantaneously and quickly dismissed to continue with the fun of the concert. In my experience, this disappointment is generally the precursor to inspiration or to some sort of change. Yet, I had to first admit to myself that in all my childhood years “connecting the dots" and all my years of living life thereafter, I had never once questioned the shape I was given. The seed was planted.


Note: If you do not know Italian, skip the video below.

“A life which does not recognize the various bonds between the baby, the child, the teenager, the young man and so on, a life unmindful of these bonds, a life that does not evolve in unbroken continuity from one phase to another is like a house that is being built from the top down, and must inevitably end in a schizophrenic split of the inner self.” – W. Gombrowicz

So, I went back to connect my own dots, retrace my shape and check my work. To revisit my younger self. I remember my drawings - they were undoubtedly beautiful and colorful. Inside the rigid rules of the game, I was exceptionally creative. I had to move outside of it in order to realize that my drawings were actually somewhat boring. Never having doubted my skills at “connect the dots”, Jovanotti left me wondering. He confronted me with my new-found and shocking lack of creativity and my former [brainless] acceptance and precise execution of the rules.

I did not fully grasp the effect of that concert until a few years later. A mid-concert autobiographical, inspirational speech was merely cute and mildly fascinating. But it ended up being a bit more serious than this. I thought of that moment passingly a few times following the concert until, finally, I stopped and I literally questioned myself: Why had I always connected the dots so un-creatively, with such thoughtless precision? This question may sound unnecessary to some. Yet, if I never asked it, it meant I would silently accept a certain emptiness of thought and action that to me seemed unbearable. I was - and still am - unwilling to do so for fear of its consequence into my “adulthood” – blindness.

“It is in the prime of youth that man sinks into empty phrases and grimaces. It's in this smithy that our maturity is forged.” - W. Gombrowicz

The big question mark on my head sparked some growing pains I had to go through. It also made me mindful of what we can term an invisible and widespread societal problem.

I hope we agree on the fact that the general public inherently avoids anything that is not somehow related to them in their real or imaginary lives. The film, TV, and magazine industries have banked incalculable amounts because they have statistically figured out what pulls at people's heartstrings and somehow managed to take what should be intimate, individual experiences and artificially apply them into macro scales. Actually, they have done something much more powerful than that. They have managed to make individuals have such similar experiences, lives even, that most of what they see displayed in TV screens or written in magazines, actually relates to them, rather than the other way around. A person is so predictable for business, yet a total stranger to himself.

On the most important concept in business today, i.e. virality, the founder of more than 15 exceedingly successful – i.e. viral – sites, Emerson Spartz, tells us the "good" news: “The lines between advertising and content are blurring. Right now, if you go to any Web site, it will know where you live, your shopping history, and it will use that to give you the best ad. I can’t wait to start doing that with content. It could take a few months, a few years—but I am motivated to get started on it right now, because I know I’ll kill it.” (Read the rest here)

To have such an easily manageable and manipulated public is great news for business and terrifying news for the individual and the person providing “content,” or what once was some form of genuine expression. Let us call him “the artist.” “To relate” becomes increasingly necessary for the individual, because the alternative, isolation, might cause him/her psychological unrest. In an essay about actually finding yourself as a fictional character, the writer talks of the fear and anxiety that confrontation with the self causes: “An unexpected reflection of self rarely provokes joy.” In a way, people are attracted to “art” which gives them the opposite of their potential reflection – others as proxies of themselves. Unfortunately, the new commercial art world is very obliging.

The roots of ignorance – of ourselves and others – remain strong and unshakable. Terrified of truly facing who we are at an intimate level, we ignore or resist the reflection authentic content (based on personal thoughts and experiences) gives us, absorb the generalized content handed to us and, consequently, never learn, never change, never progress.

The artist trying to be relatable achieves the opposite of what he/she sets out to. What he/she ends up offering is something inauthentic, disingenuous and, worst of all, fabricated - not based on true thoughts, feelings, or experiences but increasingly based on statistics of the target audience’s lifestyle, website clicks, Facebook profiles, sales and publishing meetings and other endless helpful sales metrics. Being relatable becomes its own antithesis. For me, the artist becoming a “fake” when he/she is the one figure whose sole responsibility is expressing something truthful about him/herself - and, as a result, human nature in general – is much worse than the complete inexistence of art in general.

A work can be “relatable” only when it is fearless in its truthfulness. This is what people really relate to. But, this implies a process of constantly questioning oneself, constantly absorbing information, constantly opening your mind to its own individual limits. As with any relationship, this process can only be fulfilled when both artist and audience are both prepared to sacrifice, if only for a few moments, part of themselves along with their peace and quiet. The relationship – “this muddled, complicated, and difficult communion” between artist and audience is mutual and complicated. It cannot be explained “with the naïve phrase ‘the poet sings with inspiration, the listener lends his ear in admiration.” (from "Ferdydurke")

Yet, now, this process, the relationship between a form of expression and the reaction of the audience - is severely stunted by what this article accurately terms as “The Scourge of Relatability”. What we are currently experiencing is an invisible plague of sameness. We have limitless indications of what we should look like. We are shown how stress, heartbreak, happiness, even death should feel and look like. Instead of triggered to think or feel on our own, we are handed complete thoughts and feelings. What people mistakenly think they relate to are merely things they forcefully have in common, feelings and thoughts which have been imposed on them, unbeknownst to them.

In order to relate to one another – i.e. to perfectly function in society - we take on roles, willingly become part of easily discernible categories, all ranging range from conformist/non-conformist, politically-correct/rebellious, conservative/liberal, wild/civilized, cultured/ignorant, emotional/analytical to endless. When conscious of this necessity to have a pre-specified shape, each time we need to inhabit it, we should think “Farewell genuine form, my very own, and hail, hail, oh terrible and infantile form!” But how often are we conscious of what we are doing? When do we ever question it? We look appropriately serious, mature, or heartbroken as it fits the event. And when we do not, we most likely ask ourselves why our reaction is not similar to others’ instead of wondering why we have the reaction or a lack of reaction that we have? A beautiful lyric in which the singer tries to describe the extent of his heartbreak goes “I was a television version of a person with a broken heart”. We can relate more to a television version of heartbreak than a real one. What does real  heartbreak feel like?

“Here is the writer who with all his heart and soul, with his art, in anguish and travail offers nourishment-there is the reader who'll have none of it, and if he wants it, it's only in passing, offhandedly, until the phone rings…”

Because bPictures and Tears: A History of People who Have Cried in Front of Paintingsoth the audience and artist are dishonest, the relationship between artist and public becomes dysfunctional, when it should be a smoothly functioning cycle. As with any relationship, what art gives you is what you are willing to receive and vice versa. “Paintings repay the attention they are given” James Elkins simply says in his introduction to "Pictures and Tears". To get the artist’s perspective, Mark Rothko, one of the painters whose paintings have garnered the most emotional responses says “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world. How often must it be permanently impaired by the eyes of the vulgar and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend the affliction universally.”

If people were more open to exploring their feelings through various works of art instead of expecting the opposite to happen, waiting for their feelings to be passively clarified for them by the work, the cycle would switch to the way it should be. Artists or authors would not try to be relatable. Just as John Keats' or Charles Baudelaire's poems, Van Gogh's or Monet's paintings, or Dostoevsky's novellas are to this day. Unfortunately, most valuable artists are valued posthumously. All because people never stop to think about they think, what they feel when they are triggered to do it. The seed is planted at some point in their lives only to be forgotten, ignored, or found too late.

Watching the film "The Theory of Everything" reminded me that when I was younger, a close friend introduced me to Stephen Hawking and his "A brief history of time" which, at eighteen years old, I completely ignored and never returned to again. How could I have ignored such a genius with not a second thought? Simply put, it was not relatable. Yet, had I at least flipped through its pages, I would have gained even one ounce of insight from Hawking – who I think everyone can admit, is someone worth listening to while still alive – which would have given me one more key to interpret [my] life.

The “Scourge of Relatabilty” is ignoring what is not seemingly relatable which “makes for a hopelessly reductive” life. While I am not blaming my eighteen year old self for her unavoidable teenage indifference or lack of curiosity about "time" and the "universe", I fully understand now that not having considered Hawking's work had an undoubtedly reductive effect on my life. This need to read or watch things which only pertain to one’s life or wishful life is nothing but blindness or willful ignorance.

Considering works which do not glaringly and directly pertain to one's life is quite difficult as it requires time as well as a change of one's life philosophy. Becoming acquainted with yourself requires the same - or more - focus, patience, attention, and time as it takes to get to know others. Nowadays, time well spent is time either making money (working) or doing nothing (relaxing). Yet, since we are perpetually taking shape, we should spend time thinking about that shape. To do that, we should think that nothing is "unrelated" to our lives. Because, in fact, nothing is. If I understood the essence of Stephen Hawking, it would be that everything is boundless and that a tentative "theory of everything" implies that everything is related. Or, an alternate and simplified quote from Lauryn Hill, "Everything is everything". In his concert, Jovanotti compared the dots with stars, relating them to one another and his life and it all made sense in that it made me think. If, in general terms, everything is indeed related, then most that comes our way should not be ignored. Only through that, are we able to then select and discern that which is telling us something we need to know. I generally avoid horror films or thrillers, romantic comedies and middle-of-the road novels like those of Nicholas Sparks not because of their lack of “educational” value or depth or because I think do not relate to them. I know I do not relate to them because I do not believe any relationship with the self and with others should be that clearly defined. Their lack of ambiguity betrays their ulterior motive – audience approval and popularity.

“To demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.” (From The Scourge of Relatability)

It seems that this problem has gotten worse as the factors that are inhibiting people's curiosity are not only related to morality or ignorance but an unparalleled desire to not "waste time". Excessive consumerism has catapulted this problem into new levels - artists are becoming too similar to the general public, they are producing works which are sellable, but not artistic. Julian Schnabel, artist and filmmaker, gives the modern artist’s perspective: “I don’t think something is important just because an audience likes it. Most people make art and movies as a job and if a lot of people go to see it they make money and that is their sign of success. I am not making judgment here, but their goal is strictly business-oriented. I don’t do this as a business.”

The artists, poets, authors - they are responsible for disseminating a certain level of truth, of feelings that not everyone has the sensitivity or courage or, perhaps, self-centered nature, to produce. John Keats writes, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.". It is difficult to know what beauty is and let alone what truth is, but the only thing worth doing is find our own definitions of it. Reading the assurance in Keats' words - at his young age - is enough to make me believe him, although I cannot say I completely and fully understand what he means. But, I will try and, in a later moment, I am sure I will have a more fully-formed idea of it. An idea based on my own experience, not his, nor anyone else’s.

So, like Fanny in "Bright Star" – a film about the love between Keats and Fanny Brawne - my role is to try and follow, to be receptive even when I do not understand or especially when I do not understand, to be curious even when I think something is unrelated to my life, to consider that it might help me, at some point, help me even when I am positively certain it will not make instant money or solve any of my concrete and imminent problems.

In the end, the question of relatability falls on my shoulders. If I seek to know myself better, it should become easier to relate to many things, to find interest, to find myself in different, sometimes contradicting, manifestations. I cannot be lazy, to affirm or renounce parts of myself time after time. (Here is a short read about the benefits of allowing yourself to change your mind) Even Stephen Hawking re-worked and fully contradicted his own theory, without much hesitation. Because at both moments, that is what he strongly and passionately believed. “Do I contradict myself?” asked Walt Whitman in his “Songs of Innocence”, “Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”. Many things are indeed counter-intuitive. Being truthful allows for – requires, even – contradiction, change of mind, flexibility, which are things that help you keep your identity intact, while letting it grow.

As Jovanotti concluded his tale, his message became clear. There is no formula and the process never ends. Yet, we must enjoy the process, rather than fear it, and relish in the freedom it gives us to create our own shape. Searching for the already formed, for the relatable outside of oneself confines us. Gombrowicz believes that as an artist and as an individual “the stipulation-that an individual be well defined, immutable in his ideas, absolute in his pronouncements, unwavering in his ideology, firm in his tastes, responsible for his words and deeds, fixed once and for all in his ways-is flawed.” This is conformism masked as strong character or a fully-formed identity, when we know that our identity is boundless and can never be fully-formed. Not as children or as adults.

"There is no one shape, but all the possible shapes [in the sky]. And if, connecting the dots, a design that you don’t like emerges, don’t worry.  Because the stars will stay there forever. And we can change our minds. Begin a new shape.  We can do it every day. We can do it every night. We can do it always. We can even start now."

“Truth can never be definitively captured or described,” says famously innovative filmmaker Werner Herzog “though the quest to find answers is what gives meaning to our existence”. Of all the things we do, every activity we partake in, only this quest makes our life, ultimately, more pleasurable because it does not constrain, limit, or judge, but allows for flexibility, contradictions, mistakes. If the artist leaves the game, we will never connect two non-consecutive dots and, what is worse, we will be all too happy when no one else does either. Yes, we cannot help but have commonalities. But those commonalities are not what we should seek to discover.

Truthfulness is the most difficult process. This essay began as a two-paragraph response to an article on relatabilty. Before I knew it, I had written about things which I had previously ignored. Yet, it seems we think more than we give ourselves credit for. While writing this, I discovered why that article struck a chord with me. Maybe I, too, have a relatable problem.