A few months ago, I wrote about a tendency I saw in Cleveland, focused on the writing scene (though to say “Cleveland writing scene” is to take liberties–that’s not an evaluative statement, just a descriptive one). In many respects, the frustration that led to that post seems a world away to me now. After all, I met that writer whose work I gave a shout out to and now we’re, well, here. And I’ve met and worked with dozens of others I did not know waaay back in May and we pulled together a book.
But in some ways the frustration remains as strong, and frankly, it is still a bit flummoxing to me. As I wrote then:
We talk amongst ourselves too much. Too often, we imagine the audience for our work as restricted to the 216 and 440 time zones. We think small.
Here’s the story that led me to write the post:
In the fall, I interviewed a 94 year old man who used to sell garments made by local Cleveland clothing manufacturers. He moved to Cleveland, from Germany, in 1939. (Being Jewish, this was a good idea). He described the scene when he arrived: “Everyone said I couldn’t sell to Detroit, or Chicago, or New York. They said they’d never buy our stuff. They only sold to small mom and pop stores. I said, ‘Forget that. I can’t make a living that way.’ So I drove to Detroit, and Chicago, and New York, and got huge orders. I couldn’t keep up with the demand.”
He showed me pictures of three enormously successful children, for whom he has paid for college, law school, dental school, medical school. Tutions, grandchildren, everything. He’s wealthy and proud. And local.
Now in that initial post I used “we” Cleveland writers because I wanted to belong, to insert myself into the community. But I am not a Cleveland writer per se. I’m a writer who lives in Cleveland, and who is fascinated by and invested in the city. But I don’t like to make the whole “we have a lot of great writers here!” move. To me it sounds like the kind of thing I used to say to my son when he brought home some really bad 2nd grade art. Patronizing. Of course we have great writers. Goes without saying.
So this phenomena of thinking small–sometimes papered over by the false promise of vacuous self-esteem boosting–relates to a different yet equally therapy-worthy complex described on this site earlier today. Here’s how Richey put it:
I think there is a fine between self-deprecation and self-defeatism–between trying to better yourself through an awareness of failing and failing through a cynical projective decrying that stems from a lack of awareness–and I hear it from newcomers and visitors of all sorts that Cleveland’s defeatism can be toxic to the narrative.
But what Richey is describing and what I was discussing above are slightly different. Thinking small I don’t really get. Defeatism? Now that I get. There’s a strain of it I drink with my coffee every morning because, as Austin Ratner put it, there’s a certain “reverse schadenfreude” shared by Jews and Clevelanders. Ratner writes:
Cleveland’s fundamental Jewishness has nothing much to do with its Jews. Lenny Bruce said that if you’re from New York, you’re Jewish even if you’re Catholic. He understood that being Jewish has less to do with the foreskin and more to do with the forebrain. New York makes you Jewish in one way, and Cleveland does so in another. Cleveland, like the Bible, like the Jews, has had vulnerability burned into its memory, and it’s consequently liturgical about pain.
There’s a difference between Cleveland and Jewish suffering, though, that Ratner doesn’t delineate: Jews are grandiose about their pain (and have had, let’s admit it, more gradiose pain, at least in world-historical terms). Clevelanders, on the other hand, are squeaky about their woes–I want to ask them to speak up. (yup, pronoun shift). Their complaints are basically an inaudible mutter under their breath as they walk home from the game they knew, anyway, before it even started, they would lose.
Cleveland reverse schadenfreude is too quiet. I want it to whine more vociferously. To be more of the righteous cry of the self-pitying. I want it to Pekar up.
And now let’s add another wretched condition, ”dark euphoria,” a term Alexis Madrigal used to describe his visit to Detroit, borrowing the phrase from Bruce Sterling, who defined it this way:
Dark Euphoria is what the twenty-teens feels like,” Sterling said. “Things are just falling apart, you can’t believe the possibilities, it’s like anything is possible, but you never realized you’re going to have to dread it so much.
In Detroit Madrigal did not find the glorious sands of the next urban frontier. He just found it a depressing and depressed place, and to his credit he did not gloss on it, or point out the one cool business on the okay, you know the drill emptied out block. As he writes:
People want to be excited for Detroit. They want Clint Eastwood and Eminem to be right. They want grit to count for something in today’s economy. …It’s easy, conceptually, to get excited about all of this. You almost get giddy looking out at all the old buildings of downtown Detroit and imagining that you could buy one for the same amount as a nice house goes for in Noe Valley, let alone Atherton.
But, at least for me, that vision requires thousands of other people committed to building the same kind of city. What about the other few thousand that are needed to make the city feel vibrant? Not to detour into a ruin-porny segment about the state of the city, but the number of abandoned buildings in Detroit — and the feeling they toss into the air — is truly unfathomable to someone raised on the west coast.*
So let’s pile it on. There is a lot of dark euphoria in Cleveland. It might be a term to explain the row that Rust Belt Chic is trying to hoe. Or maybe what we’re doing is the obverse. Either way, the neurotic self-defeatism of Clevelanders is as wrong-headed as is pig-headed boosterism that just rah rahs through the tears.
But. But. This isn’t what I’m trying to get at. I’m trying to get at that feeling I wrote about way up top of this post–way back in May. The whole “thinking small” part. Because that’s the part that makes no sense. It doesn’t fit. It’s not even poetic or comfortably melancholy. It’s not a fun neurosis. It’s not a useful pathology, even if we’re just playing in the realm of aesthetics.
Think about it. Harvey Pekar was all Cleveland neuroses poorly packaged in one person. He was dark and full of schadenfreude and euphorically reverse, perverse, about his self-defeat. One can be neurotic and confident, after all. One can be full of self-loathing and ambitious.
Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe I just don’t see anything small about Cleveland.
*(Madrigal’s next stop was Cleveland, and you can read about what he found here and in other posts)