Monday, January 19, 2009

Why Being Serious is Hard

by Russell Baker

Here is a letter of friendly advice. "Be serious," it says. What it means, of course, is, "Be solemn." The distinction between being serious and being solemn seems to be vanishing among Americans, just as surely as the distinction between "now" and "presently" and the distinction between liberty and making a mess.

Being solemn is easy. Being serious is hard. You probably have to be born serious, or at least go through a very interesting childhood. Children almost always begin by being serious, which is what makes them so entertaining when compared to adults as a class.

Adults, on the whole, are solemn. The transition from seriousness to solemnity occurs in adolescence, a period in which Nature, for reasons of her own, plunges people into foolish frivolity. During this period the organism struggles to regain dignity by recovering childhood's genius for seriousness. It is usually a hopeless cause.

As a result, you have to settle for solemnity. Being solemn has almost nothing to do with being serious, but on the other hand, you can't go on being adolescent forever, unless you are in the performing arts, and anyhow most people can't tell the difference. In fact, though Americans talk a great deal about the virtue of being serious, they generally prefer people who are solemn over people who are serious.

In politics, the rare candidate who is serious, like Adlai Stevenson, is easily overwhelmed by one who is solemn, like General Eisenhower. This is probably because it is hard for most people to recognize seriousness, which is rare, especially in politics, but comfortable to endorse solemnity, which is as commonplace as jogging.

Jogging is solemn. Poker is serious. Once you grasp that distinction, you are on your way to enlightenment. To promote the cause, I submit the following list from which the vital distinction should emerge more clearly.

(1) Shakespeare is serious. David Suskind is solemn.
(2) Chicago is serious. California is solemn.
(3) Blow-dry hair stylings on anchor men for local television shows are solemn. Henry James is serious.
(4) Falling in love, getting married, having children, getting divorced and fighting over who gets the car and the Wedgewood are all serious. The new sexual freedom is solemn.
(5) Playboy is solemn. The New Yorker is serious.
(6) S.J. Perelman is serious. Norman Mailer is solemn.
(7) The Roman Empire was solemn. Periclean Athens was serious.
(8) Arguing about "structured programs" of anything is solemn. So are talking about "utilization," attending conferences on the future of anything, and group bathing when undertaken for the purpose of getting to know yourself better, or at the prescription of a swami. Taking a long walk by yourself during which you devise a foolproof scheme for robbing Cartiers is serious.
(9) Washington is solemn. New York is serious. So is Las Vegas, but Miami Beach is solemn.
(10) Humphrey Bogart movies about private eyes and Randolph Scott movies about gunslingers are serious. Modern movies that are sophisticated jokes about Humphrey Bogart movies and Randolph Scott movies are solemn.

Making lists, of course, is solemn, but this is permissible in newspaper columns, because newspaper columns are solemn. They strive, after all, to reach the mass audience, and the mass audience is solemn, which accounts for the absence of seriousness in television, paperback books found in airport bookracks, the public school systems of America, wholesale furniture outlets, shopping centers and American-made automobiles.

I make no apology for being solemn rather than serious. Nor should anyone else. It is the national attitude. It is perfectly understandable. It is hard to be Periclean Athens. It is hard to be Shakespeare. It is hard to be S.J. Perelman. It is hard to be serious.

And yet, one cannot go on toward eternity without some flimsy attempt at dignity. Adolescence will not do. One must at least make the effort to resume childhood's lost seriousness, and so, with the best of intentions, one tries his best, only to end up being vastly, uninterestingly solemn.

Writing sentences that use "One" as a pronoun is solemn. Making pronouncements on American society is solemn. Turning yourself off when pronouncements threaten to gush is not exactly serious, although it shows a shred of wisdom.

New York Times Magazine [April 30, 1978, p. 17]


bulletholes said...

This really drives me mad.

bulletholes said...

I think I got it....
Steak= Solemn
slaughtering a Cow= Serious (esp for the Cow, but then, whats the difference; therein lies my confusion)

kissyface said...

It is difficult. Here's what I gather:

Inquiry is serious (maddening?).
Pretending to know is solemn.
UF is serious.
Coffee Mug humor is solemn.
Funerals are solemn.
Grief is serious.
Making love is serious.
Porn is solemn (making it might be serious).
Slaughter is def. serious.
PETA is solemn.
Smurfs are serious; Hobbits are solemn.
I'm completely kidding about that last bit - both are serious, but Harry Potter is solemn.

solemn is grave, sober, or mirthless. religious. a legal agreement.
serious is characterized by deep thought, sincere, not trifling. important.

I think Baker introduces the essay with the idea that children come into the world as serious beings, because they effortlessly and earnestly play. They are genuinely immersed and committed to the act. Seriousness does not necessitate relinquishing joy - in fact, serious pursuit can be immensely joyful. This reminds me of a somewhat related quotation I was fond of when I was younger: "Freely chosen, discipline is absolute freedom." I can't really recall who said it, but I think it expresses part of the joy of seriousness. But I don't pretend to totally know exactly what Baker is trying to express, because that would be solemn, though I have seriously tried to reply to your comment.

huckleberry said...

Saying "this crayon is green, while that one is purple" is fairly meaningless if one is told, at the outset, that green and purple are not what they think they are, that green is a childlike quality while purple is the domain of adults, and yet no further attempt is made to penetrate the depths of understanding beyond this.
So then why is green, green and purple, purple? Well, there apparently is no meaningful answer for Baker, but we do have a fairly lengthy list of nouns to which these to adjectives can be applied, no matter that such application seems incongruous and, frankly, arbitrary.

bulletholes said...

First I want to say I liked this post, seriously.
And your reply I read with all solemnity.
I can't figure it out but it does tickle me.
UF is definitly serious!

kissyface said...

Huck - I hear you loud and clear. I struggled with his vagaries, but then I recognize there is a bit of tongue-in-cheekery going on here. He's playing, seriously, but taking it too seriously might be solemn. Furthermore, judgements of taste are always arbitrary, subjective. But you know this. Still, thanks for the pov, as always. You keep it real, though I'd bet a dollar that phrase abrades you.

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Anonymous said...

my attempt at deciphering serious/solemn - it is very difficult
"He gets filled with gumption. The Greeks called it enthousiasmos, the root of “enthusiasm,” which means literally “filled with theos" or God, or Quality. ... He's at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what's up ..."

- Robert Pirsig in the famed Zen..Maintenance
maybe what serious/solemn refer to is nothing but 'being at the front of the train of your own awareness/being at the front of the train of others' awareness' ...

children come into the world sitting at the front of the train of their own awareness.
'growing up' and 'education' teach them to work,look and be according to what they _ought_ to be ...

let me know what you think.
ps: isn't russell baker's work owned by nyt ? can i put it on my blog too ?

Anonymous said...

This is retarded.