Wednesday’s Word: Vapid
This word refers to something that is uninteresting or unchallenging, something uninspired or dull. Unlike many of the words I’ve shared, there is nothing “fun” about this one. It represents a lack of effort, a casualness that simply couldn’t be bothered to try. It is often used to refer to a performance or a work of art. The word originally was used to refer to a drink which had little flavor, like old soda gone flat.
But despite the lack of enthusiasm this word might engender, perhaps it should be used more often than it is. The reason is that there is an awful lot of entertainment drifting across the stages, airwaves, and bookshelves out there which, when we really get down to brass tacks, is rather derivative, rather unoriginal, in a word, vapid.
Part of this is to be expected. In an information-saturated society, it is almost impossible to avoid some level of “vapidity” when it comes to a work being original and or inspired. It’s hard not to imitate what’s going on around you when everyone is reading everyone else’s mail, so to speak. This is one of the reasons I’m so down on genres. The minute you start thinking of works in terms of tropes and conventions and categories is when vapidity has the potential to creep in. It’s paint by numbers or story by formula and the end result is anything but original.
In defense of the typical artist, to produce something truly challenging and stimulating is awfully hard work. And even if achieved it is not always met with outward success. Bold originality is often rejected because a certain portion of the public actually prefers the comfortable, the familiar, the habitual. But habits work both ways and one may cultivate a taste for the inventive and the inspiring in the same way that one may prefer the mundane and the warmed-over. It is not wrong to have “favorites”, then, certain kinds of works that we enjoy over others. But I do think it is worth asking ourselves the question, why do we enjoy one particular sort of art or entertainment over another?
And as we answer that question, let’s be careful to distinguish originality of the ideas over mere novelty of presentation. An explosion is original in the sense that it is unique; no two are alike, but it is incredibly vapid in that nearly all explosions have the exact same effect: they destroy things. They certainly capture our attention but for all the wrong reasons and they leave our ears ringing in their wake. Much of art does seem to be of this explosive sort. Innocence is crushed, hope is trampled, and truth is slain in the streets all in the name of “originality” or “importance” or “relevance” when in fact such works represent little more than the same tired ideas that have been grinding away at humanity forever but with different window dressing. You may switch the label on the poison bottle but you’ll still find that its poison when you drink it. As G.K. Chesterton wrote regarding philosophy (and I think the same can be said of art, since art at its fundamental level is merely the communication of an underlying idea):
A new philosophy generally means in practice the praise of some old vice.
So it is with much of today’s writing and art and music. It may be shocking or brazen or irreverent, but it really isn’t all that original. The outer trappings may distract and sing their siren call but the substance is no different than a thousand others which came before it, no different in fact than the morning news or yesterday’s conversation at dinner. The reason such works are so vapid (and sadly the reason so many of us prefer them) is because they never push us outside of ourselves, never really challenge us to consider the world in a way that threatens all of our cherished little foibles and peccadilloes. We experience them and leave unchanged or changed for the worse and are never really exposed to a deeper, more expansive vision of reality. The tyranny of the now dominates such works, a self-absorbed focus on the transient, the popular, the zeitgeist of this present age.
There exist, however, timeless themes which are perpetually fresh and original whether they are heard or seen the first time or the thousandth. Things like love, loss, courage, and sacrifice, things that have resonated with people for time out of mind. The reason for this is because there is an eternality woven into the fabric of the universe that we so desperately need even if we are unaware of it. And when we pay attention to such things, notice them, and point them out to others, they fill that part of us, the best part, which is perpetually thirsting for a glimpse of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Such things never go out of style.
As C.S. Lewis put it,
All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.
So if we are to be inspired, challenged, uplifted, in short, moved in the best sense of the word, by any work of art, we may find that originality often comes in the plainest, the most humble of packages. For the outward form does not matter as much as what lies beneath. We may find that, paradoxically, the oldest things are often the most inventive, the most original of all. And there is nothing vapid about that.