What happened to our new Roaring '20s?

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(CNN)"The unendurable is the beginning of the curve of joy."

So says one of the characters in Djuna Barnes's 1936 modernist novel "Nightwood," set in the 1920s and defined by the intense grief, alienation and passion of its characters. It's the disjointed tale of exiles seeking a place to belong and characters who talk past one another. The words they speak to each other are both emotionally horrifying and wickedly funny; without being obvious about it, Barnes uses them to question the possibility of a common language for reality, for what human beings desire -- and to challenge what makes us human at all.
Is any of this sounding like 2021 to you yet?
    With one unendurable, joyful year coming to an end and another one before us, this week we're looking back to highlight some of the top social commentary and cultural criticism that helped us look hard into the darkness, bridge the gaps between us and sometimes, take hold of the light.

      Poetry is not a luxury

      2021 began with political upheaval and violence. But as the world looked on at President Joe Biden's inauguration in January, poet-turned-cultural-icon Amanda Gorman read "The Hill We Climb," and reminded us that poetry is, in the words of Audre Lorde, "a vital necessity of our existence" that galvanizes "our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action." Ashley M. Jones, poet laureate of Alabama, invoked Lorde as she paid tribute to Gorman for affirming her "belief that art is the thing that has and will keep saving us ...That quality of light where hopes and dreams can live is what this country needs."
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        Comedy isn't canceled

        In October, controversy erupted over comedian Dave Chappelle's Netflix special "The Closer." Critics blasted it as homophobic and transphobic and called for its removal; defenders cried "cancel culture." Any claim that Chappelle is a victim of cancel culture is ridiculous, wrote Clay Cane, who observed: "As a Black gay man, I exist between two communities. There is the White queer community, many corners of which are steeped in racism, and the Black community, which sometimes reeks of homophobia. The Black gay community falls in between. Both communities can be equally delusional in their bigotry and often exalt public figures who veil their dogmatism as 'art' ... That's not to say Chappelle doesn't have a right to run his mouth. On the other hand, viewers also have the right to react. It cuts both ways, but it's critical to remember that unlike the communities who bear the brunt of his jokes, Chappelle is in no way powerless."
        Weeks later, in the shadow of high-stakes judicial uncertainty about the future of Roe v. Wade, Cecily Strong took on the role of Goober the Clown and talked about her "clown abortion" on "Saturday Night Live." The skit was comedic greatness, wrote Judy Gold, who said as long she lives in a country where abortion is judged and restricted, she'll keep pressing play on the video of Strong: "If it's true what Cole Porter wrote, 'Be a clown, be a clown, all the world loves a clown,' then maybe we should use clowns to give a voice to other women whose stories we don't feel comfortable talking about. Think about it. Rufie the Date Rape Clown. Boobie the Breast Cancer Clown. Reese the Restraining Order Clown. Shari the Sharia Law Clown. Melanie the Menopause Clown. Penny the Gender Pay Gap Clown who only makes 80 cents for every dollar Bozo makes. Where are the clowns? Send in the clowns."
        More smart takes on cancel culture:

        Who are the heroes we need the most?

        Why do we keep going back to a particular world created for us on the page, or on the screen? Many of us are looking for heroes. Sometimes, we want superheroes -- and they're everywhere. For that, we can thank one of the most pivotal -- and overlooked -- artists of the 20th century, wrote Roy Schwartz. Jack Kirby, creator of the 1976 "Eternals" comic that was adapted for the big screen in 2021, was "foundational to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it currently exists" and his artistic influence "can be found today in virtually all forms of visual media and art, from film to advertising to photography."
        Other times, we want more than a hero. David M. Perry and Matt Gabriele contended that's what the wildly popular series "Ted Lasso" provides. Rejecting the common critical reception of Jason Sudeikis's character as a paradigmatic "nice guy," they wrote: "The show's tension and success stem not from its oft-touted emphasis on kindness, but from its ability to embody something that in the past would have been called caritas" -- a concept of love that is drawn from early Christianity, although it's not exclusively religious. Caritas -- like "Ted Lasso" -- "reminds us that there's a world possible in which people can count on one another."
        Heroes can be unexpected. Sara Stewart wrote that one of the biggest on-screen surprises for her in 2021 was realizing that Nicolas Cage's character in the movie "Pig" is an everyman. She writes, "We're all living in a time of unparalleled anxiety and sadness. What better time for a little movie about a man, a swine and the unbearable weight of grief? Are we not all in some way Robin Feld (Cage's character), struggling out of the wilderness with unkempt beards and dirty faces, squinting at civilization like it's a memory we've long forgotten, trying to get back something invaluable that we've lost?"
        Koritha Mitchell reminded us that who gets to be the hero is inherently a question of power. Analyzing the response to the Netflix series, "The Chair," she argued that viewers who criticized this fictional show as an unrealistic portrayal of academe were falling prey to a problem she sees in her classroom: an inability to treat female characters of color as protagonists in their own stories. Jemar Tisby praised "Colin in Black & White," the docudrama about Colin Kaepernick's youth and rise to prominence, for showing the world a hero-in-the-making that would have helped his own younger self find peace in his own skin -- and still has the capacity to offer that to others seeking "their own ways to become more conscious of their racialized place in the world."
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        Let's talk about the climate apocalypse