There was Courtney Love on David Letterman a couple of weeks agoan accident no longer waiting to happen. First, she flashed the stage hands, then Paul and the band, and finally Letterman himself. In a calm, genial manner, Dave said, ‘thank you very much.
Old Colony Mennonites live in Canada and Mexico. They are hard working, devout, world renouncing, low church Protestants who wish to be left alone. Recently some of them set up a drug ring. By the late 1990s, they controlled 20% of the marijuana market in Canada. They now traffic in cocaine and methamphetamine, sometimes working with biker gangs to do so.
We think we know what is going on with Courtney Love. Once credible, or at least interesting, Ms. Love can feel herself falling from the celebrity heavens and she must now engage sensationalism to maintain altitude. We know she knows this will not help, that the slide is inexorable, that this accident will happen in slow motion, and that the kindest thing that can happen to her is that she will be reduced to a Sally Kellerman character who waits on the edges of the red carpet of Oscar Night, hoping, sometimes pleading, for an interview. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make famous.
What is happening in the second case is harder to say and we might resort to something biblical. The devil is ingenious. He found a way in. There are more sociological explanations: a drought, a devalued peso, and new trade rules hit the Mexican community. The Mennonites became drug lords to remain simple farming folk. (Where is my Advil.)
But we cannot see the larger pattern here if we focus only on conspicuous players. Let us take the case of Neko Case, the singer who began her musical career in a punk band, and now sings Country and Western? Or a friend of mine who started out a sports writer and is now a museum curator. Or another friend who began as a radio personality and now runs a start-up. Or the case of Donald Trump who started out a short fingered vulgarian and eventually became well, not everyone changes.
There is no evidence that our culture has come to terms with this new modality. I think most of us believe that we can have the right of self authorship without stepping onto a dance floor strewn with ball bearings. This is to say we want the modernist right of self authorship without the postmodernist outcome of a slippery world. Most of us shake our heads at Courtney Love. I dont know anyone who nodded and said, “Yes, thats what transformation looks like.
in fact, the argument that explains the Mennonite drug lords should explain Courtney Love as well. After all, the Mennonites, in their 125 years in North America, did divorce themselves from the real world, and this makes their disaster a kind of “systems problem. Once they began to engage with the real world, there were almost no checks, no antibodies, no instincts, no precedents, no lessons in place to protect them. Their culture was missing an important piece of code. The long slide into drug trafficking was not inevitable, but once it started it was exceedingly difficult to stop.
We act as if Courtneys difference was her opportunity, and that her failure is therefore her fault. Unlike those poor, clueless Mennonites, Courtney was a product of a culture that knows all about the corruptions of fame. More than that, she, and it, know about the perils of self transformation. How many entertainers preceded her down the path of self destruction? (Michael Jackson, Jim Morrison, um, Kurt Cobain, the list is long.)
But in fact Love’s culture is not much better prepared than the Mennonite one. When it comes to personal transformation, it’s not clear than we have more checks, antibodies, instincts, precedents in place, lessons to protect us from the rough air of personal transformation.
In a more robust culture (more or less postmodernist, it’s not clear which), there would be a well established body of understandings of what transformation is and how it must be managed. We would understand it as well as we do city planning or smoking cessation. (Five days and counting.)
What we would not do is shake our heads reproachfully in the face of another Icarian descent. We would react to Courtney as we do to the news of the Mennonite disaster: with astonishment, sympathy and a deep curiosity about this could have happened. Because, honestly, we not know in either case.
For the next installment of the Courtney Love episode, see her appearance on the Jay Leno show scheduled for April 15.
Details on the Old Colony Mennonite community from:
Mitrovica, Andrew and Susan Bourette. 2004. The Wages of Sin: How God-fearing Old Colony Mennonites ’the plain peoplehave become some of Canadas biggest and most dangerous drug smugglers. Saturday Night. Vol. 119. (3): 29-36. (sorry, not posted on the web.)