There’s a wonderful speech at the end of Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s stirring documentary film about the drag ball culture created by gay and transgender black and brown folks in NYC during the 80s. Dorian Corey delivers it, while she looks into the mirror and pats on layer upon layer of makeup, which is the way she conducted much of her interview. Several people were interviewed at length for the film, but she’s probably the oldest (and eldest, if you will), and her interview is the backbone of the movie in a way, which leads to her serving as a kind of narrator. To sum up her life as a drag performer, she says:
“I always had hopes of being a big star. But as you get older, you aim a little lower. Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world. Then you think, you’ve made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name. Then you’ve left a mark. You don’t have to bend the whole world. I think it’s better to just enjoy it. Pay your dues, and just enjoy it.”
I’ve watched this movie a couple dozen times and plan to keep on watching it whenever the mood strikes; it’s made a huge impression on me, with its lessons about what it means to survive and thrive and give a name to whatever it is that you are. This speech in particular is touching because it’s really, ya know, positive, despite the fact that it was delivered by a person who seems, in addition to being funny and intelligent and unceasingly dignified, pretty sad and embittered. (I’ve left out the more famous final line, which—breathtaking as it is—casts the rest of the quotation in a different, darker light. Look it up if you want.)
To a very young person, Corey’s speech probably sounds like resignation (especially that bit about aiming a little lower), and this view is completely supported by the culture we live in, which idealizes youth and considers mature a bad, embarrassing word. (In talking about all this with my husband he reminded me of the New Yorker cartoon we saw recently, in which one child says to another, “What do you want to be when you give up?”) But realizing that you don’t have to bend the world, but that you probably ought to work to make it better in your own small way, could be considered the essence of adulthood, the true definition of maturity, at least according to the philosopher Susan Neiman, whose new book, Why Grow Up? I’ve just started reading (and will try to read double-time, since it’s been out for two weeks and I’d like to review it). It’s interesting to me to note that I tend to consider this the essence not of maturity but of punk, at least the iteration of punk that my friends and I have adopted for ourselves, which talks about never giving up on your ideals while also refusing to blindly believe in dogma, which kind of inevitably leads you to conclude that the best thing you can do is use your life to make the world a little bit better and more beautiful for the people in it. And yeah, enjoy it, too.
Neiman is a philosopher and the director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, which hosts lectures and other programs to engage “the public” with important thinkers—to take their ideas out of the academy and share them with the rest of us. Unsurprisingly then, her book is easy to understand and serves as an introduction to some of the major themes of the Enlightenment, with a special focus on Kant and his ideas about reason and experience and the importance of both. I look forward to digging into this book further because it’s already making me feel fired up—in a somewhat punky sort of way, actually. In her introduction she paraphrases Paul Goodman in his 1960 book Growing Up Absurd: “When consuming goods rather than satisfying work becomes the focus of our culture, we have created (or acquiesced in) a society of permanent adolescents.” Which is as relevant now as it was 55 years ago.