Depravity's Gravity 

The brief flight of Susan Boyle

"I had a dream my life would be

so different from this hell I'm living ..."

--Alain Boubil, from Les Miserables

We all know this: Perfect things, be they movies or moments or diamonds or whatever, are scarce. We don't all know this: They're getting scarcer.

For the reason that none of us can know when (or if) we will ever be witness to a perfect thing again, I have been itching to write about Susan Boyle. Not everyone will appreciate what Ms. Boyle gifted us in those first few minutes of her public life. But clearly, enough do that I don't feel like a freak when I say, "Susan, that performance was a perfect, perfect thing. The intonation, the vibrato, the quality of your voice, the suggestion of unrequited passion ... all remarkable in their elemental ways. But coming from someone else--someone slicker or slimmer or younger or better dressed or more polished or prettier--that stunning moment could not possibly have been so complete. So incomparable. This could have come only from you, Susan Boyle. Nobody else could have so uniquely, so poignantly, demanded: Look at me! I'm someone, too!"

I'm risking the accusation of sopping sentimentalism over this. For people of rigid dimensions, it is difficult to digest that one can be both a crustaceous cynic and a big baby who melts in the presence of pure and undeniable beauty. In fact, it may be the scarcity of pure and undeniable beauty in our lives that leads so many into that cynicism alley in the first place. And if there were more exquisite moments such as Ms. Boyle's opening act, I'd spend more time writing about them.

But there aren't. What we have instead are contrived sentiments, contrived emotions, contrived moments, foisted off on us as significant by an entertainment/industrial complex grown so intrusive that it now permeates our politics, our religions, our families and most offensively, the way we relate to one another, down to our most secret selves. Our news media--which is not above pimping the most lurid developments--has lately been alerting parents to the scourge of "sexting" between teens. A noble effort, I'm sure. But what they leave out is the noxious and logical connection between children exposing themselves to each other, and Jon and Kate or "Octomom" exposing their families and their flaws to a world of titillation-addicted voyeurs.

We have come to a place where nothing is beyond our demand to be amused. Rush Limbaugh--in a world more attuned to honest values, he would be thought of as little more than a sausage fart with a mouth--can justifiably claim to be both an entertainer and the moral center of one-half of America's two-party system. The men and women who represent us in Congress, watch them: It's increasingly hard to tell if the greatest influence on their intellectual growth was some exalted statesman from years gone by or P.T. Barnum. Gags and tricks and gimmicks have taken the place of discourse and debate. Punditry has become policy, and the more outrageous the opinion, the more loyal the audience.

I shouldn't be shocked that politicians or their supporters would resort to acting like clowns or swaggering clods, as long as it served their purposes. What disturbs me more is that so many normal citizens have come to behave with an abnormal compulsion to occupy every corner of their lives with whatever meaningless sideshow artifice the barkers pitch to them. Even our food has become entertainment, no matter how cheap and cheesy it may be. Did you make that McDonald's run because you were hungry? ... or because you were bored? Moreover, if obesity can be defined as unhealthy and superfluous flab, then obesity is a fitting description for our broader condition. Incredibly, millions have actually come to believe that Twittering or blogging or MySpacing their latest position, activity or thought could be entertaining to someone else. And tragically, for millions more, it is. An "obesity" of diversions--how's that for a collective noun?

And the most pervasive entertainment of all is watching others make spectacles of themselves. Do I need to list all the hours of TV that rely on the participants just being themselves, no matter how phony that behavior is? Would YouTube exist if it weren't for the unguarded moment, the foolish mistake and worst of all, the intentional self-vulgarization of people so desperate for attention, they are willing to sacrifice any semblance of dignity?

We have become, at the speed of a downloaded cell phone clip, a society of ghouls--the sort who not only go to the speedway on the promise of a wreck, but who volunteer to drive the doomed car.

There was Susan Boyle when she flounced onto the stage eight weeks ago--one of the wrecks we're always waiting for. She would have made the YouTube circuit one way or the other. Had she done poorly, she would have entertained a few thousand failure-sucking vampires for a few days.

But she didn't crash. She soared. Her coming-out performance hasn't gotten more than 100 million hits because she flopped but because she, every flouncy frizzly frumpy pound of her, brought something to us no one could predict: a perfect moment. Not that there wasn't some contrivance involved. Whoever puts that show on does their best to make it blend with the conventions of a false culture. But her magic was too strong to cheapen. At first.

I didn't know where to take it, back then. The chattersphere was already overloaded with Susan Boyle by the time I got my itch to gush over her. Certainly I melted in the presence of her undeniable beauty, but so did everyone else. I had nothing to add.

But back then, the story was only beginning. Her perfect moment, as do all perfect moments, faded quickly, and we were left only with its YouTube ghost. The parasites could not leave well enough alone, and as I write this, Susan Boyle recuperates in a hospital, suffering from the predictable effects of having been turned into a twisted reflection of herself. It remains to be seen how much damage was done to her simple soul, or if she will heal.

None of which diminishes the moment--the authentic, untarnished, uncynical, uncontrived, pure and undeniable moment--she added to the world. How few of us manage to give such a bright thing for even a few seconds out of a lifetime? And I despair that there are fewer still with each passing day.

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