This is the third part of a series that began here. I suggest beginning with Part 1 and reading forward. Thanks for coming and reading.
Last year, I joined a book group – six women who love books and meet every month or so to discuss a book and select a new book. The group generally selects novels from the top of the literary bestseller lists, the books with five-star reviews from major reviewers.
I was taken by the ugliness in these books — the violence, the horror, the rapes, the murders, the sheer pain in the lives of the characters. The fictional worlds invented by the authors we read essentially presented a nihilistic view of life. The lives and suffering of the characters had no meaning, or very little meaning.
When the group met to discuss the books, I was highly critical. In fact, so far I have disliked all of the novels. The other members of the group seemed to enjoy the novels. One member startled me by using the word “entertaining” to describe one of the books. I was afraid I would be kicked out of the group for being so critical of the books we read.
No, I won’t tell you which books. But I will tell you that my most persistent reaction was, “But where is the beauty?” There was nothing but pain and suffering.
One member of the group, in response to my constant criticism, finally said, “But this is what life is like. Life isn’t all hearts and butterflies and happy endings.”
Whether life is, in fact, essentially nihilistic is beside the point. Her view was that the world is nihilistic, and art should present life as it is.
I agree with Oscar Wilde that if a creative work does nothing more than reflect the world as we understand it, it is not art, because it is not creative.
It is possible that the authors of these horribly depressing stories of rape and violence and pointless suffering do not believe life is nihilistic, but simply want to get published and make money, and they figured out the way to get published and read by book groups — and labeled “literary” by the publishing establishment — was to write about pointless violence and suffering.
This is not to say, of course, that all books on the literary bestseller list present a nihilistic view of life — but it seemed to me after six months in the group that a fair number did.
Now suppose Wilde is right: Life imitates art, which means all this nihilistic fiction is creating a more nihilistic world.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry cites impressive studies showing that television is a powerful influence in developing value systems and shaping behavior. Among the effects of violent programming is that viewers:
•become “immune” or numb to the horror of violence
•gradually accept violence as a way to solve problems
•imitate the violence they observe on television; and
•identify with certain characters, victims and/or victimizers
Studies on children show that sometimes watching a single violent program can increase aggressiveness.
There are campaigns encouraging people to reduce their smoking and intake of fatty foods on the grounds that smoking and eating fatty foods is harmful to the body. Perhaps someone should be cautioning people against a steady diet of blood and gore and pointless suffering on the grounds that it is harmful to each individual psyche, and the well-being of the country as a whole — not just for children in their formative years, but all of us.
Wait, you might say. Nobody claims that television is art. Television is a business run for profit. The point of programming is to draw as many viewers as possible so ratings — and profits — go up.
Publishing, too, is a business. Publishers want to earn money. For that matter, writers want to earn money. Therefore — the argument goes — nobody claims a work which attempt to make a profit can be art.
I disagree. The commercial aspects of television, and books, and movies, does not mean there can be no art. One has nothing to do with the other. The creators of the programs are creating fictions. They are using their imaginations to invent lies. Fiction means something made up — a work of imagination — whether the medium is television, movies, or books. Commercial fiction, commercial television, and commercial films are just as capable of creating beautiful lies as ugly lies.
If you watch enough of a certain type of movies and television program, you’d think exciting car chases are common. You might think police are constantly chasing bad guys, who careen around corners, narrowly missing startled pedestrians, jumping over barriers, sometimes even bridges, even though some of the car chases in movies include stunts that entirely defy physics and thus can only occur imaginatively.
In real life, thrilling car chases are extraordinarily rare. This makes the many car chases depicted in television and movies are a lie. Car chases which defy gravity and the laws of physics, which careen through crowded cities destroying trash cans but avoiding people is an even bigger lie. The exaggeration and falsity of the car chases make them a work of the imagination. Done well and for a point, car chases can be high art, the same as any work of imagination.
I suggest that literary novels consisting of 500 pages of trauma and horror to the exclusion of all else is probably also a lie, particularly when the main characters are an average sort of American family, at least outwardly. While the average American family certainly experiences times of trauma and horror and death and sadness, the average American family also experiences moments of joy, and hope, and love.
Telling only the ugly parts is a lie. Moreover, telling only the ugly parts for no apparent purpose other than to present ugliness and show that life is and can be ugly is an ugly lie.
Just as I don’t believe the commercial aspects of a work have anything to do with the artistic value, I don’t believe what is called genre, or commercial fiction, has less merit than what is called literary fiction. Whether a work of fiction has merit has nothing to do with such labels. Often, in fact, fiction labeled genre — science fiction or romance or fantasy — is often work of much greater imagination and beauty than work labeled serious or literary.
Okay, you may be thinking. What about, say, Romeo and Juliet? There is plenty of violence in Romeo and Juliet. Is that not art?
The violence in Romeo and Juliet — or at least most of it — serves a purpose. Shakespeare intended to entertain and earn a profit by drawing large crowds, and he was not above using horror or sexual innuendoes to draw the attention of his audience — but the violence frequently serves a larger purpose.
Romeo and Juliet, as symbols of young love, die — as young love must die. Even if Romeo and Juliet had lived to marry and have children and reach old age, something would have died because the intensity and feverish pitch of that first blush of youthful love cannot last. Perhaps such impulsive and youthful love is replaced by something more stable and more mature, but something would be lost.
Moreover, Romeo and Juliet, as characters, are clearly inventions. Romeo and Juliet are more heroic and braver than mere mortals. They love more deeply than mere mortals. Their love and heroism — particularly Juliet’s — are more perfect and complete than real-life love generally is. They are exaggerations, and hence lies.
But they are beautiful lies because in creating them, Shakespeare did not show what love frequently is. He showed us how great and powerful love can be.
That is what makes Romeo and Juliet great characters in a great work of art.
Even though Romeo and Juliet are larger than life, when we read the text or see the play performed, many of us imagine we are seeing a reflection of ourselves, when — most likely in youth — we loved with such intensity and abandonment. Shakespeare seems to hold up a mirror to our own experiences. We feel we are seeing parts of ourselves reflected. We are not. We are seeing perfection, which doesn’t exist in the real world.
Our real life experiences strive to imitate the perfection Shakespeare shows us. Life, which is essentially imitative, strives to be like art.
I don’t believe Shakespeare was trying to create art. He was trying to earn a profit and be a successful playwright. But when he invented lies, he invented beautiful lies. That is what made him great.
Not that Romeo and Juliet doesn’t have its plot and other flaws. It does.
But what we remember is the grand scale of the passions — passions great enough to shake the cosmos. Here are the concluding lines of the play:
A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun for sorrow will not show his head.
Go hence to have more talk of these sad things,
Some shall be pardoned, and some punished,
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
The tragedy was so important that the very cosmos were affected: The sun for sorrow did not show its head.
In the final scene, when the feuding families saw the bodies of their dead children, they agreed to end their feud. They erected statues of the young lovers in the newly peaceful Verona. The love of Romeo and Juliet, great enough to shake the very cosmos, also changed the fabric of their community.
Again, this blog post is running long, so I will continue next week, considering the world view in which human suffering can indeed shake the very cosmos.
Here is an interesting blog post claiming that the term “literary fiction” is a clever marketing ploy.