Everyone’s got a Charlie Sheen theory, right? Riding a cab in Bronxville a few weeks ago I was treated to my cabbie’s: “Have you seen those women he lives with? Small-breasted. He still fantasizes about sixteen-year-old girls.”
I was content to let that stand as the final word on Sheen, though I’ve seen Bree Olson and find cabbie’s remark to be chest-slander. But then I heard Charlie say this: “I’m tired of pretending like I’m not special. I’m tired of pretending like I’m not bitchin’, a total frickin’ rock star from Mars.”
Then I heard a celebration of him come from the mouth of one of the smartest people I know, and so I started paying more attention. There are many reasons to take an interest in what’s going on with the man. I believe one of them is because we all believe we are special and we want to stand up for him for standing up for us.
Merriam-Webster’s first definition of special includes “being in some way superior.” The word comes from the Latin specialis – individual, particular – related to species, of course. I find that important. Special comes, in its roots, from individual. We are all told, in this day of self-esteem and no stupid questions, that we are individuals. Therefore we are all special.
We know at bottom that this cannot be true. We know that if everyone is special, no one is. We don’t really want to live in a world where The Incredibles aren’t allowed to be super; we want there to be superheroes and groundlings. We just also know which group we believe ourselves to be in.
Now, special seemed to be on its way out. A friend reminded me that it’s hard to think of an unironic application of the word these days, since it’s been overused by so many cheesy dramas (“She and I have something really special”), and mocked (Church Lady’s “Well isn’t that special?”) for being an emblem of 80s and 90s political correctness – special education, anyone?
But Charlie Sheen, with his bitchin’ retro lingo, is bringing special back.
“You can’t process me with a normal brain.”
Sheen dares us to specialness. As with art, we don’t want to be on the wrong side of his joke. I get it Charlie, I get it, man. I’m with you. I’m not with those normal people. You know, the ones who watch Two and a Half Men. See also Bret Easton Ellis’s overwritten article on this theme, in which he divides our current culture into Empire and Post-Empire (Anne Hathaway vs. James Franco, for instance; sincerity versus…lackadaisy?) and delights in ridiculing the square stiffs (Tom Cruise) who haven’t figured out the joke’s on them yet.
Or else the response to Sheen is yeah, you’re right. You’re a crack addict. You can’t see it, but I can. My brain is superior to yours. I’m special.
I started swirling in a cloud of Sheen around the same time I was emerging from a cloud of cancer. You know how sometimes you find yourself in a bubble and things just seem to all be related? I kept reading and watching and even experiencing things that all had to do with cancer. I’ll leave most of it up to your imagination, but one of the things I read was a memoir by David Rieff, the son of Susan Sontag (one of America’s greatest 20th century intellectuals), called Swimming in a Sea of Death. It’s about her third and final battle with cancer, the one that took her life.
Rieff writes, “just after she was diagnosed, she had said to me, ‘This time I don’t feel special.'”
Susan Sontag didn’t feel special. If you think that a beautiful mind is in any way special, if you think that being an artist and a writer and a contributor to culture and thought and society is in any way special, it is very hard to make sense of her feeling that way. But when you think of her sick to death with a cancer that was caused by the chemo she went through for her second cancer, you may understand it better, I guess. I don’t know. It still hits me like a ton of bricks. I want someone to hit Charlie Sheen with it though it won’t faze him. If Susan Sontag were alive, she, and only she, could stop the Sheen onslaught.
Sheen vs. Sontag:
Special v. Ordinary:
Non-Stop Porn Sex Winning v. Cancer.
Rieff, who admits to being a pretty depressing bastard, reminds us, “Of course, none of us are special…And yet feeling special is part of what makes us human.”
“My mother came to being ill imbued with a profound sense of being the exception to every rule.” This made me think of the beginning of Joan Didion’s famous essay “On Self-Respect” in which she remembers the first time she realized the lights would not always turn green for her. Rieff, himself a fan of Didion, adds, “On a certain level, all modern people who are not utterly beaten down by experience early and whose good fortune is that their tragedies come later in life feel this way,” that they are the exception.
We may understand that we’re not the exception to the rule, not truly special, but – and this is a theme in Rieff’s memoir – “to understand an illusion is not to rid yourself of it…we live in a society in which each person is encouraged to aspire to be, or thinks of himself or herself as being, not so much exceptional (that is an artist’s vice) but as having been granted an exemption from pain, illness, and even death itself.”
But I wonder if he’s right, if an innate feeling of exceptionalism is unique to artists. For one thing, what’s an artist? Someone who thinks that what they have to say is worth listening to? In that case please add to the list most teachers, lawyers, and people who tell you about their day before they ask you about yours.
Part 2 will answer this and so many other questions, like who would win in a Sheen/Sontag knife fight.