I was watching late, late night TV a few months ago, and I came across a documentary about some European goth-metal band. There was concert footage interspersed with taped interviews with the members of the band. Watching the rock mockumentary This is Spinal Tap in my youth has all but ruined this kind of thing for me by making all future parody of rock star interviews redundant. What caught my attention, though, was an extended rant on the part of the lead-guitarist / singer about how pissed off he is at his band’s music constantly being “labelled” by “lazy fucking journalists.” It would have seemed a more credible complaint if I hadn’t just watched him playing a series of generic guitar solos and singing about vampires and making a pact with you-know-who, all in front of a giant, flame-spewing animatronic death’s head.
In interviews with other musicians, novelists, Hollywood movie stars, I’ve heard that complaint time and again, the one about how annoying it is to be labelled. I do believe it’s a valid beef. After all, very few of us want to have our creative efforts, the labours of love that we have poured our souls into, boiled down, bagged, bar-coded and placed on some convenient shelf. The same goes for the image of ourselves that we present to the world. We all like to think that we transcend the limitations of stereotypes, that we have a valid claim to uniqueness. I, for instance, am much, much more than a middle-aged, slightly paunchy white guy with two left feet and a bad golf swing.
There is something in me, though, that sort of…well…relishes the idea of being labelled. There are times when I think it would be absolutely wonderful to have somebody come along with a clipboard, look up my name and say with one of those great Monty Python voices “Ah, yes, here you are. We know all about you, and we’ve prepared a detailed synopsis of your personality. Please look this over and let me know if you have any questions or concerns.” I think the something inside of me that wants this wants it because, most of the time, I am absolutely bewildered about who I really am.
Don’t get me wrong. There are many things I am absolutely certain about myself. I know that I like pirate films, handmade sweaters, live theatre, motorcycles, New Orleans jazz, French cooking, black coffee, and the smell of wet dogs and swimming pools. I know that I am devoted to my family and loyal to my friends. But there are so many times that I’ve found myself weak when I was sure that I would be strong, or found strength within myself that I never suspected I had. So many times I deliberately do something self-destructive, or find myself making the same mistakes over and over again. So many times I find myself asking “Who am I? Why am I here? How should I act? Why do I do what I do?”
I’m pretty sure that I’m not alone in this regard. Most of us spend at least some of the time drifting around in a state of befuddlement, wondering about these things. It’s why the human race is so fond of its horoscopes and zodiacs, its psychoanalysis and its self-help books, its palm readers and its maps of the genome. Are you Virgo or Taurus, Dragon or Rat, extrovert or introvert, first born or middle child? Aaaah, it all becomes clear.
Ultimately, though, I don’t think that these sorts of generalizations give a whole lot of genuine insight. On the one hand, we are infinitely complex equations with far too many variables for any easy categorizations to take place. Yet, at the same time, we can be so banal and predictable. Incredible to think that the same wildly inconsistent species can have produced a Galileo and a Hitler, a Gandhi and a Genghis Khan, a Nelson Mandela and a George Bush. Amazing to think that the same person who planted a land mine in the morning may have pushed a child on a swing in the afternoon and written a sonnet by the light of the moon. I suppose it’s this sort of peculiarly human paradox that makes our planet such a consistent draw for extraterrestrial observers. Maybe someone out there can figure us out and let me know.