Yeah, I met Lou Reed and Patty Smith

It didn’t make me feel different

Conor Oberst

I visited China a number of years ago with a highly ranked member of my university structure and a flunky. My own participation was last-minute as I was filling in for someone else. I guess in a way I was a flunky too. Certainly it was the big man’s show from start to finish.

We visited a number of schools and also met with a business guy who was working very hard to transact with our group something so complex that I never even began to grasp the shape of it despite sitting in multiple meetings around the matter.

The trip was interesting for a number of reasons. The big man barely spoke to me for the first few days despite spending all day together. The schedule was brutal. I was reading Jung On Art on my phone as I was enrolled in on online course I never finished. Jung On Art is great and spends a lot of time on the surrealist painter Yves Tanguy. Finally the big man took a long look at me and said (in Japanese) “you read a lot, don’t you?” I confirmed this, and after that he spoke to me a little more.

The flunky was an archetype of the species. He handled the schedule, made the trains run on time. He did nothing else and deferred to the big man on absolutely every non-schedule related matter. My own strongest contribution to the proceedings was occupying the attention of a friend of the business man during an excruciatingly protracted whisky drinking session so that the business guy and the big man could talk turkey. I am not a great whisky drinker for some reason and making sensible small talk for three or four hours over whisky took a truly heroic effort.

The business guy had a kind of a house in a kind of a hotel, it was hard to say. A full staff was on hand to serve us a full course Chinese meal with white and red wine. This was before the whisky. It was a scene, all the way.

Anyway, all of that is context. I want to write about a specific incident that occurred when we visited one school. The principal who received us knew the big man and we were received by a group of about eight people. We got the school tour. Now, school tours are an occupational hazard in my line of work, and I have trained myself to be a durable recipient. But I don’t really like them. We went through the formalities, which predictably took forever. I daydreamed about Yves Tanguy and bed.

Toward the end of the tour we reached a wall with the school name or emblem on it. Here, the principal paused and asked the big man to write some Chinese characters on some poster board. This was to mark his visit, to consecrate it in a sense. The whole group fanned out into a kind of semi-circle and the big man went through a series of highly performative grimaces to index his deep thought. Or maybe he just didn’t know what to write. I certainly wouldn’t have. Finally he took the pen and with the pomposity of a South American dictator wrote a few characters. The message, to my recollection, was underwhelmingly anodyne. Basic. Or maybe it was gnomic and brilliant. In either case the audience made appropriately awed sounds. I murmured my own supposed appreciation–the role of the acolyte was there to be filled after all. The poster board was then displayed with a flourish on the wall.

At first blush I found the entire episode both deeply interesting and deeply narcissistic. However, the big man was invited to contribute some characters and he did so, so in that sense fair enough. Let’s zoom out a little before rushing to judgment.

You know how some restaurants and bars will have signed pictures of famous people that visited on their walls? Mickey Mantle, Bob Hope, Stallone, whatever. In these cases the visit of the celebrity was an event in the life of the establishment. It merited consecration across time. I understand this. But the big man was not a celebrity in any real sense. He was a university bureaucrat with a taste for acting like a big shot.

But maybe I’m seeing this all wrong. Because there was actually a hint of the classical in the occasion. A host had received an honored guest. The honored guest was asked to bestow words of wisdom and afforded space to do so. The whole performance was approached with apparent complete sincerity by all involved. I was probably the only one not acting in good faith. My feelings at the time were the same as they are now; on the one hand the whole thing was super pompous, on the other hand it had an old-world ceremony that I am not exactly against. An event should be eventful–my little motto–may at times create an unrealistically high bar for situations to rise to. Still, I have a nagging feeling that this visit was not of a sufficiently high caliber or general import to require consecration in kanji.

You know how in the old days a person would take a letter of introduction with them when visiting a new country and would receive an audience on the basis of this kind of letter? That’s probably an almost entirely lost art. When you presented someone with a letter of introduction, as I imagine it, you were then received. Your visit was authorized and elevated into a thing, an event. The eventification of aspects of life is important, even vital, however maybe we are going about the equation backwards. I go to see a lot of live music and at the end of the show the band will often gather at a table to sign merchandise and such. The opportunity to meet the band, if offered, is cool–I’m all behind it. However I myself often skip these lines, even if I love the band. This is because the chance to meet the band and have an experience of doing so is a built-in aspect of the entire evening and therefore pre-eventified so to speak. It’s still cool, but I’m not sure pre-eventified events are best positioned to be eventful. The true event takes place without being pre-planned. The true event emerges and cannot be structured. Most of the time when I see a supposed event transpire, an opening ceremony of some event for example that has been obviously rehearsed, I can barely suppress a yawn. In the immortal words of The Replacements, “color me impressed.”

The epigraph for this piece is from Conor Obrest’s 2016 song “Next of Kin.” It’s a jaded coda to a meeting that we might have supposed would have been eventful, and also a wry recognition that whatever happens to us we are always left with ourselves again. I saw a man sign a poster board. It didn’t make me feel different.

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