11 thoughts on “Mary Gaitskill on Secretary

  1. Even with context, I’m not sure what to make of this quote. It resists falling into the trap of happy people/endings are stupid, although the odour is detectable.
    I see why you reread it a lot. There’s something powerful there but also a paradox, and I am suspicious of paradox, as it can sometimes be the cheap road to apparent profundity.
    The main problem is that juvenile minds don’t like happy endings. Adolescents (of any age) are hungry for experience, and thus sure to be fans of nihilistic darkness — not seeing the satire in works like Fight Club or Neuromancer. Yes, some 8-year-old girls won’t like sad endings. But anyone of age who still clings to such stories knows, at some level, exactly what they’re doing. The unspoken premise, that people like Gaitskill rarely pick up on: they accepted the mundanity of their real lives a long time ago. I can’t bear the sadness of a middle-aged woman who has a dozen Mickey Mouse branded items on her desk.
    And in a way, Gaitskill is preserving one hope of the adolescent. Shrugging off all evidence, all disppointments, and all discomforts, she still clings to the hope of transcendence. Clings to it with the tenacity of an ice-climber.
    Some days, that seems like nobility to me, other days, vanity.

      1. No, excepting that piece.
        It was a bit overreaching. I think I was really talking about myself, you can see my reply to ignatz below.

    1. I disagree in every way.
      Suffering isn’t vanity, it’s truth. The “suffering” that wealthy children complain of is not what adults and less lucky children experience.
      Happy people and happy endings aren’t stupid. They are, however, inaccurate and not serious.
      When you find yourself using words like “unspoken” and starting sentences with “in a way” it makes me tired. The only common thread I can find in the things to which you object is that they are clever and written by someone else.
      And “devils advocate” disclaimers are just trying to have it both ways.

      1. Re: I disagree in every way.
        Both ways… well let me explain. I identify a *lot* with what she said. At least in that piece. But that makes me a bit suspicious, especially since when externalized in that piece it seemed to skirt close, but not quite, to being a philosophy of futility. Lately I’ve decided to assume life isn’t futile, and I’m on the lookout for ways out.
        So I pushed back on it, incoherently perhaps.

  2. The quote sounds a lot less objectionable in context, but still it’s entirely too reactionary. Yes, the Hollywood ending reflects the least common denominator in American society to which movie producers aim their product. The problem is that the quote seems to draw the conclusion that “life is pain … anyone who says different is selling something”.
    If happy endings spring from a juvenile mindset, down endings spring from an adolescent one. No, life is not all sweetness and light; neither is it all heartbreak and despair. More than anything else, life goes on. It drags slowly along—sometimes up, sometimes down—until it runs itself out.
    Yes, the producers may have erred in making the “Pretty Woman version of” Secretary, but this shouldn’t be extrapolated to say that all art coming from a positive outlook is inherently “juvenile” and flawed. Not everyone finds their outlet in masochistic relationships, whether with other people or with the art they enjoy.

    1. I call straw man
      “all art coming from a positive outlook is inherently juvenile and flawed” isn’t what was said either by Ms. Gaitskill or by myself. Nor did anyone say that “everyone finds their outlet in masochistic relationships”.
      There are a lot of things that art is “for”. It is for pleasing us, or instructing us, or communicating a particular message from the artist, or a plethora of things we could discuss all night.
      I, and I think Ms. Gaitskill, hold that the highest art is the most true. A truth about life is that it’s difficult and ends poorly. Enduring this, and communicating with each other about it, is a kind of truth that art can achieve at its highest.
      That doesn’t mean that it’s “bad” to watch The Princess Bride or a Jacques Tati movie. But to my mind the important art is the stuff that helps us in our homework as human beings of dealing with the difficult parts of life.
      Maybe we just disagree about what art is for?

      1. Re: I call straw man

        art based on the empowering message and the positive image is part of this juvenile condition

        I don’t know how else this is to be interpreted.
        While Ms. Gaitskill didn’t directly turn her phrase as I did mine (nor would she, likely, for interpersonal relationships), she seems to find that the best relationship a person can have to art is an inherently masochistic one: find the art based on the dark and harsh and ugly side of life and willfully subject yourself to it.
        As for the “highest art” being “the most true”; I’m not even going to contest this point (despite the inherent assumptions of linear scales for art and truth) since it’s entirely subjective. That said, what I was pointing out before was that if always wearing rose-colored glasses is juvenile, then the view that “life is difficult and ends poorly” is the adolescent antithesis of the juvenile thesis, and as the other side of the coin is just as simplistic and myopic.
        Life is ugly. Life is beautiful. Life is painful. Life is pleasant. To cordon off the dark spaces is to wear blinders, yes. So is it to reject the light.

      2. Re: I call straw man
        Nope, I still disagree.
        The “empowering message” with which she is disagreeing is that every problem is resolved and that we live happily ever after. That is, indeed, something for young children and not grown ups.
        It’s not “rejecting the light” to say that we all die and that it hurts. Nor is it “inherently masochistic” to face and endure the necessary pain of life.
        This isn’t an either/or. The target of Ms. Gaitskill’s and my opprobrium is a culture that insists on a happy ending for every story, a resolution to every conflict, and a rose colored barrier around every injury.
        It’s not that the “happy side” or the “sad side” has to win an argument about what life is about. I consider life worth living, and I enjoy lots of things.
        The point that I am trying — perhaps unsuccessfully — to get across is that you can’t make art out of treacle and have it honest. You end up with the Berenstain Bears. You can say that art affirms life, that it brings light, and that it is intended to heal. But “happy endings” aren’t healing; they’re bedtime stories for children who aren’t ready yet to think about the inevitability of sorrow, loss, pain, and death.
        Grown-ups need a little bitter in their food, I think.

      3. Re: I call straw man
        But she does phrase it as an either/or. She gives no qualifier whatsoever on her statement about art having a positive viewpoint. She doesn’t say “some art based on…” or even “to insist upon art based on…”. She says plainly and simply that “art based on the empowering message and the positive image is part of this juvenile condition.”
        No, you can’t make honest art out of treacle, but there’s a difference between treacle and sugar. “Everybody lived happily ever after” is for fairy tales, but it’s entirely possible to have a happy ending to a story without implying the permanence of such happiness. One can have an honest, mature narrative which ends on a positive note and leaves the future progression open. In fact, that tends to be my default assumption: that the future is unspecified.
        As a particular instance, in Secretary I don’t assume that Lee and Edward stay together in marital bliss forever. In fact, I think it’s a distinct possibility that things run aground in the near-to-middle future from the end of the epilogue. This is not to say that the movie isn’t a fairy tale as shot (this possibility being clearly not the one the director intended the audience to assume), but just to exemplify that the end of a narrative is not necessarily extendable to the end of the characters’ lives.

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