One thing’s for certain: nothing’s funny anymore. Once upon a time, say back in the Middle Ages, monarchs and jesters held the mutual understanding that mocking the king in front of the court was fine, so long as there was a grain of truth to the jest.
Today comedians say their audience has become a puritan sourpuss, and one of the reasons for the so-called death of comedy is that the very bite humor is supposed to provide has become impossible in an era of information warfare and no shared truths, making comedians pariahs in the kingdom of cancel culture. And, as Danny Kaye put it in a film long ago, a jester unemployed is nobody’s fool.
So while nothing’s funny anymore — at least not intentionally — is anything cool, or have we lost that, too?
Miles Davis and Elvis Presley were contemporaries, albeit in very different genres. But surely both would agree that walking around in sweatpants looking like the contestant on a dystopian game show who fights robots for food, and hunching over a smartphone texting your way down the sidewalk, all while clad in a government-mandated face mask, doesn’t exactly give you an air of devil-may-care savoir faire. And while we’re on the subject of masks, what you do in your own bedroom is apparently none of the government’s business, but what you do in your dining room is. Which means holiday season 2020 might be the first time in history when attending a large family gathering is actually cooler than blowing it off.
Maybe cool is just a past-date product of midcentury America, as outdated as a gas-guzzling Oldsmobile. Perhaps we’ve outgrown it. The times we live in are too sober and serious, and cool can only be viewed through the kind of wistful nostalgia the middle-aged indulge in when fondly remembering youthful indiscretions. Or perhaps it’s the opposite, and the default mode of American life has not undergone a sclerosis of soul, but rather regressed to level of collective immaturity too timid to even conceive the audacity of cool.
Cool flourished in the era of affluence and suburban expansion, producing popular icons such as Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” and James Dean in “Rebel Without A Cause.” But now everyone has a cause, or at least feels he ought to, just so long as it’s social and human, not cosmic or divine. It used to be cool to hang out in coffee houses, smoke cigarettes, and plaintively lament one’s existential despair. The problem with today’s problems is that, compared to wrestling with God and the meaning of existence, they’re just so banal. Or rather so serious, since it’s often hard to tell them apart.
Both comedy and coolness require an outsider’s detachment, an ironic stance, a posture of revolt and the garb of resistance. By that I mean real resistance, not the socially approved kind, which is not resistance at all. A popular meme says that if all your opinions are shared by Hollywood, Silicon Valley, corporate America, mainstream media and the universities, you’re probably not part of any kind of “rebellion.” But convincing yourself you don’t care what anyone thinks is easier said than done, since in order for it to work you have to actually mean it. That’s tough enough for anyone, let alone those whose ego stability is dependent on social media likes from their peers. And so the movie industry keeps feeding us characters who are brazen and seductive outcasts — Vikings, pirates, vampires, superpowered mutants — who flout convention and provide us with an outlet for the dark shadow of defiance lying dormant within us.
As far as impassiveness and aplomb go, no one matches the Roman Stoics, who bequeathed to us a nugget of untarnishable wisdom: namely, that you cannot control external events, only your reaction to them. It’s just not cool to run around like a chicken with your head cut off, especially on the Internet. So for God’s sake get a grip, suck it up, cool your jets, and keep your head about you while all those around you are losing theirs. These timeless bits of wisdom owe as much to Marcus Aurelius as they do to Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neumann circa 1960, with his motto of “What, me worry?” and beret of a Greenwich Village beatnik.
At this point you might be saying all this is pointless twaddle. People are dying — actually people are always dying — and “cool” is a shallow indulgence we can’t afford right now. But saying cool isn’t cool anymore simply proves that it is indeed dead. Yet this is at odds with your actions, since you’re still consuming from sunup to sundown. Every new Netflix show to binge watch, every fashion collection that drops, every music video that goes viral is judged, by you, for its coolness. It’s just that this kind of cool is prepackaged, passively consumed, and anodyne. Real cool isn’t something that can be bought. It is an ontological state, an active presence, a spirit that permeates your being and surrounds you with an energy field that silently speaks of spontaneous actions that could burst forth at any moment.
This is a spirit that will never completely die, for its origins are not entirely human. To borrow from Baudelaire when writing on beauty, cool contains within it something that’s of the moment and something that’s eternal. Which is why five hundred years ago Machiavelli could utter the timeless adage “The world belongs to the cool of head.”
If that’s true, of course, then it means the world doesn’t belong to everyone. And that, in these troubled times, is simply not cool. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD