Saturday, March 13, 2010

James Brown, Henry James and Generation X

The reference in my last post to Jeff Gordinier's X Saves the World reminded me that I never actually got around to finishing Gordinier's book (even though I started reading it last August!). Sorry about that, Jeff. But don't worry, that oversight is something I decided to correct this weekend.

If you haven't read the book, I would suggest you do so, especially if you're at all interested in Generation X and believe, like I do, that it is somewhat uniquely positioned to drive meaningful change in our society. Gordinier believes so, too, but like many in our generation, he's a bit snarky and self-effacing about it. But both his prose and his wit are equally sharp, making the time spent with his thoughts and words always entertaining and, despite my X sensibilities, occaisonally inspiring.

He ends the book with a discussion of James Brown and a John Marcher, a character from one of Henry James' novellas, The Beast in the Jungle. Marcher, he says, is an individual that epitomizes inaction and indecision, someone who spends his entire life waiting for something monumental and life-changing to happen (described metaphorically as "the Beast"), and Brown is exactly the opposite--representing life lived at its sensual fullest, sacrificing health of body and human relationships in an endless quest to embrace creative change. His point in bringing these two to our attention follows.

Now ask yourself: What's the way to go out? Like John Marcher, dandified in spats and an ascot, staring at a hole full of dirt, bent over with regret over things undone? Or like James Brown--bruised, crunched, Quasimodally damaged, and yet proud of having kept nothing in storage, having emptied out the arsenal, having swallowed life like a mescal worm, having left a deep and long-lasting imprint on the world?

Gordinier clearly advocates for a more Brown-like approach to life for Generation X, even after spending 170 pages self-assuredly describing Generation X as "above" and disdainful of all the excess and world-changing cockiness that Brown seems to embody. He doesn't make the comparison directly, but I as read his descriptions of Marcher and Brown, schooled as I now was Gordinier generational theory, I came to see Marcher as undeniably representative of Generation X and Brown just as undeniably representative of the Baby Boomers.

Which leaves me with an interesting question. If X is truly going to "save the world," is it going to need just a smidge of that self-possessed Boomer idealism it finds so tiresome? In singing James Brown's praises, Gordinier seems to say so.


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