Slate‘s recent article on Garrison Keillor — A Prairie Home Conundrum: The Mysterious Appeal of Garrison Keillor — by Sam Anderson asks, “How has someone so relentlessly inoffensive managed to become so divisive?” Apparently, some people feel that Keillor’s persona and schtick is an affectation, a coy and false humility, for which they reject him and/or his show. By way of example, Anderson links to Rex Reed’s review of the movie about “A Prairie Home Companion,” in which Reed calls Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show a “lumbering, affected and pointless audio curiosity.”
The following paragraph, near the end of Anderson’s essay, is what caught my attention:
“Without saying it outright, Keillor projects himself as a sage — a kind of Wobegon Obi-Wan spreading the revolutionary creed of premodern simplicity. This willful simplicity (he titled his two poetry anthologies Good Poems and Good Poems for Hard Times) is annoying because, after awhile, it starts to feel prescriptive. Being a responsible adult doesn’t necessarily mean speaking slowly about tomatoes. It can also include things like irony and cleverness, and even yelling into your cell phone about sitcoms.”
The “after awhile, it starts to feel prescriptive” is what interests me, as I think this may be the crux of some people’s enmity toward Keillor (and towards others). It seems to me an unfair and implicit assumption, commonly made — and not necessarily made consciously, but more felt — that when someone voices his or her opinions, beliefs, and general perception of reality (or utopia, for that matter), they are in that act telling others what they should think, believe, say, and do.
Anderson feels that although Keillor doesn’t say it “outright,” he nevertheless “projects himself as a sage.” I would say that the projection is at least as much on the part of the listener; if there’s no screen to project an image onto, the image — even if it is in fact projected — simply can’t be seen.
Keillor, and in fact, no one, can determine how others will perceive him. He can only give voice to his stories, from his own experience (whether that experience is factual, emotional, imagined or what have you). How others hear him, and their emotional reaction and response to him and what he says and does, is out of his hands.
(This reminds me of two of the “four agreements” in Don Miguel Ruiz’s book: Don’t take anything personally — What others say and do is a projection of their own reality. And, Don’t make assumptions – Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want.)
Calling a book Good Poems doesn’t seem like proof to me that Keillor is either willfully simple or prescriptive. Even a complicated, paradoxical person (are there any other kind?) can appreciate the simplicity of such a title, and everyone, I would hope, is entitled to their own ideas of what makes a poem good. Keillor’s “good poems” may not correspond to mine, or they may. But the fact that there is a book of poems of his choosing, to which he has applied the adjective “good,” leads me to conclude that they are poems that he thinks are good. That’s hardly a prescription, unless I happened to have the idea that someone else determines what I see as good and bad.
That’s where Girardian thought comes in: “We tend to desire what our neighbor has or what our neighbor desires.” (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, p. 9). For most of us, most of the time, someone else — lots of someone elses — determine what we believe to be good and bad, interesting and boring, attractive and ugly, and so on. It’s only in denying this obvious and often unconscious mimicry with which the human culture is imbued that we end up emotionally heated in our outrage towards someone like Keillor, or his show.
Girardian thought suggests that we model ourselves on other people all the time. Sometimes, when it comes to modelling ourselves on heroes, stars, saints, and people who seem to us so much greater than we or so far removed from our lives, we embrace this modelling — e.g., we read magazines like In Style and Oprah that tell us how to buy the items stars have, that tell us where our heroes vacation, how they live, what they eat, etc.; but often we deny our own modelling, especially when we are imitating peers or near peers, preferring to believe we determine our own desires and ways of being.
In this latter case, we tend to see the other as a rival, as someone who is hardly any better than we are, after all (and maybe “worse” than we are). What business does plain old Garrison Keillor have telling me how to live? And furthermore, doing it with such elegant, perfectly crafted language, and by telling such memorable, funny, poignant stories that seem to capture the essence of life so often? How can he be so wise? Damn the man! I shall ignore him and live my own, self-created life in which I am a humble sage in my own way.