A matter of control

August 3, 2009

Because my wife is a stand-up comedian, I spend a great deal of time sitting in shows watching comics do their thing. Sometimes, though, I watch the audience instead of the comics. While doing just this a few days ago I came to a realization. Here I was, sitting in a room full of people who had willingly paid to sit in the dark, to sink into anonymity, and to listen to the opinions of a spotlit individual standing on a raised pedestal, holding an electronic tube designed to make their voice heard above all others.

This struck me as a little strange. Most of the time our basic human nature is to try to stand out from the crowd, to be noticed and remembered. Why then this willingness to pay for a night of obscurity and anonymity beneath the shadow of a stage entertainer?

After mulling this around in the old noggin’ for a while, I came to a possible conclusion:

I think we all like to be controlled once in a while.

I’m no psychologist, and Freud would probably play twister in his grave if he heard me say this, but it seems to make sense. Most of us are raised under a mantle of parental control; we have fond (or sometimes not so fond) memories of our parent’s authority. From an evolutionary standpoint, the offspring of our ancestors that were hardwired to at least pay a little heed to parental control were probably the most likely to survive, right? Maybe not, but it sounds rational to me.

It’s easy to think those people sitting wreathed in smoke and darkness in the comedy bar had paid to be entertained. But did they really? If we dig on a deeper – perhaps subconscious – level, is it possible they were really there to be manipulated?

As with most of the cultural arts, the theory can easily be extended and transferred to the world of writing too. If I’m perfectly honest with myself, when I sit down with a new novel, yes certainly I’m looking for entertainment, and yes, I’m probably hoping to learn a thing or two; but most of all – I’m prostrating myself, opening and offering myself up for manipulation. The authors I come back to again and again are those who have successfully controlled my thoughts and engaged my emotions in the past. They are the master puppeteers, architects of false affecting circumstances. The longer and more effectively they control me, the quicker I will pick up their next work and willingly pay for the contrivance.

In our society today, manipulative and controlling are largely negative terms. People to whom those words are applied are typically avoided; works of art to which they are applied are viewed as base, unsophisticated, and worthless.

But I would argue otherwise. I would argue that the very best literature is that which has the means to control us in the most subtle and powerful ways possible.



One Response to “A matter of control”

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with you, Craig. Except for one thing. I don’t believe the majority of people really want to stand out from the crowd at all. They may dream of it when they stand in front of thier mirrors and pretend to rock stars or movie stars, but that’s generally as far as it goes. Most folks, it seems, are perfectly happy blending in and not causing a ruckus. They need to belong. It’s the other ones, the separated ones…the ones with “The Gene” that want, no…need to stand out.

    Manipulation and control are absolutely the motivators, I think, on both ends of the spectrum. For “normal” people, the idea of letting go and allowing another person to manipulate their emotions through literature, stand up comedy, theatre, music or film is so valuable that those who excel in these areas become not only incredibly wealthy, but are also regarded as the American version of royalty. And for the writers, comics, musicians, actors and filmmakers…once one realizes that he/she possesses the ability to effectively manipulate and control the emotions of strangers, it becomes an addiction.

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