Last weekend I went to see a talk by one of my favorite present-day artists, a guy named Caveh Zahedi. He’s ostensibly a filmmaker, but in making his work so intimately about his own life that the distinction between the two starts to blur away, he’s essentially turned his entire life into a kind of performance art.
For example, my favorite thing he’s made is an ongoing web series called The Show About the Show, in which each episode is about the making of the previous episode. From that description, you might think it’d be ostentatiously self-referential, the kind of annoying modern-day meta storytelling exemplified by, say, the scene in the most recent season of Big Mouth when the animated characters meet the real Nick Kroll. But it’s not. It’s something deeper, weirder, and much more fascinating, likely due to the cascading nature of disasters that Caveh brings upon himself in the process of making the show. When I first discovered The Show a few years ago, I watched the entire thing in one sitting, riveted.
For example, in the beginning of the series, Caveh’s actual wife plays his wife on the show. Soon, you see them start to fight about the toll the show is taking on their marriage—all in scenes that are staged reenactments of actual fights they had, each of them willing participants in the recreation of their own worst arguments. This dynamic lasts until the eleventh episode, when Caveh’s wife leaves him—in real life and on the show—citing her (apparently newfound) unwillingness to have their entire life be fodder for his work. Forced to choose between his art and his marriage, he unhesitatingly chooses his art. He then re-casts the “role” of his wife with a new actress, and together they continue to reenact the collapse of his marriage, which gets more and more vicious, in part because of his insistence on continuing to reenact it for an audience.
This behavior is, obviously, completely psychopathic. It’s also mesmerizing. Watching The Show, you’re not always sure: is his commitment to making great art blowing up his life? Or is his blowing up his life what makes the art so great? The Show is like the first half of an addiction memoir, the part that takes place before the author’s recovery and redemption, with his “addiction” being not drugs or alcohol, but the very act of making the show. Except it’s happening in real time, and with the very real possibility that the redemption arc will never come.
Art like this is compelling because it’s true. Or is it? At the performance I saw, Caveh would tell stories from his life, then bring some of the people mentioned up on stage to tell their own version—like a miniature Rashomon, with much lower stakes. Invariably, their versions of the stories differed from his immensely. The slipperiness of memory is an old trope, but there’s something kind of funny about an artist whose entire ethos is unreservedly splaying his life open to the world apparently misremembering so many of the specific details of that life. Or maybe he misremembers because he shares so much. The writer Elif Batuman says that fiction is often more emotionally truthful than so-called “true” stories, because fiction gives its authors the freedom to explore truths that they might not be able to acknowledge if they had to fully claim them as their own.
I was thinking about all this at another performance I went to recently, a reading by actor/writer/NYC scene person Annie Hamilton. In her readings and in her stream-of-consciousness newsletter, she’s mastered the genre of the “troubled, but in a fun way, but maybe not in a fun way” young woman’s confessional, the modern-day heir to women like Cat Marnell and Elizabeth Wurtzel and Tallulah Bankhead. Her tales of sex and drugs and broken hearts and minor arrests have a disturbing, undeniable brilliance. But I wonder: if you make yourself the main character in your art, do you end up subconsciously motivated to act in ways that make for a better story? And if you do, can depicting those acts really be said to be “truthful”?
Caveh and Annie are both captivating artists, and watching them I had two simultaneous reactions. First, I was awed and inspired. And second, I wanted to run as far away from the genre of personal storytelling as I can. I was enraptured, but I was also disgusted, perhaps because I recognize the impulse that drives both of them in myself. Looking at them was like looking at a caricature of myself, and I didn’t like what I saw: there’s a certain grotesqueness to ripping out your guts for an audience like that. Like so many of the worst forms of self-indulgence, it’s also self-destructive.
By contrast I thought back to my admiration for David Sedaris, for how one of the things that makes him such a gifted essayist is that he’s actually very reluctant to talk directly about himself. Instead, he trains his incisive eye on the world, and much of what you learn about him is just implied through his observations.
I never actually intended to draw so much from my own life in this newsletter. I started off thinking I’d write about facts and culture, that I’d share my opinions and takes, but there are ten million people doing that on the internet already and I didn’t feel like I had anything to add. I tell myself that the fact that there are hundreds of strangers reading this means I’m not getting too self-indulgent, but my own admiration for self-indulgent work means that doesn’t prove anything. Still, I’m not sure I buy that writing about the world instead of about my life would be any different. It’s inherently self-indulgent to think everyone wants to hear what you have to say, even if you never write about yourself at all. After all, I started this piece thinking I’d just tell the world about some artists I like, that I’d finally write something that wasn’t about me, and look where we ended up.
Yours in hopefully the exact right amount of self-indulgence,