What the fuck is cheese?
In Dave Chappelle’s “what the fuck is juice?” joke, poor black people limited to sub-quality “purple drink” have no idea about the concept of juice as derived from an actual fruit. The racial implications of Chappelle’s humor are too complex for me to get into, and not what this post is about, so let’s just say I find the joke profound. In D.F. Wallace’s “This is Water” speech, wherein fish, asking “what is water?” take for granted the most essential constituent of their existence, Wallace ends by telling us “this is water,” meaning, we are the fish, and that cognizance of the things around us, which leads to positive/proactive thinking, is our responsibility. (Of course, one thinks about the last decision he made, an act which deserves reticence.) And so, dear writerly people, at this juncture I ask you what the fuck is cheese?
Cheese, that which is cliche, corny, sentimental, and all other vague no-nos subject to interpretation. “Saint Judas” by James Wright, one of my favorite poems, tip toes on cheesiness with lines which I’ve strike-thoughed:
When I went out to kill myself, I caught
A pack of hoodlums beating up a man.
Running to spare his suffering, I forgot
My name, my number, how my day began,
How soldiers milled around the garden stone
And sang amusing songs; how all that day
Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone
Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away.
Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten,
Stripped, kneed, and left to cry. Dropping my rope
Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:
Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,
The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope,
I held the man for nothing in my arms.
“Banished from heaven,” “in my arms,” “left to cry,” and “to spare his suffering” reek of some Smashing Pumpkins song. You can always measure how little one has suffered by how much they glorify it — mascara running down the cheek was probably bought at the mall. However, the pain and humanity in “Saint Judas” do seem cloying, and I would prefer my restrained sans strike-throughed version. When writing, I’m constantly asking myself “is this cheesy?” I often wonder, is the fear of cheese nothing more than the flinches of a tired and wounded postmodern psyche? Or are cliches, originally awesome, simply overspent with time? I don’t know; I just know I don’t want any hugs or tears in my Saint Judas.
The hardened heart is a mysterious creature; our time is one of emotional stinginess. If it smells fishy, goat cheese and dill won’t hurt. Literature, like food, may just be a matter of taste — though cheese is a blurry line. The brain has two eyes attached at the front; the heart, blind, only has nipples. Nobody wants to be cheesy — it’s just so hard to stay sharp, brie brave, not get feta up, and wish for gouda luck.