This is the fourth part of a series that began here. I suggest beginning with Part 1 and reading forward. Thanks for coming and reading.
In college, I stumbled on an idea which entirely boggled my mind. The idea was this: Ancient people didn’t simply see the world differently. They saw a different world.
Literally. The world they saw was not the same as the world we see.
I am not talking about the cultural differences which change with each generation. I’m talking about the physical world — the trees, the skies, the wind, the ground itself.
This makes sense, if you think about it. When you look up into the sky, you see what you understand to be there was well as what appears to be there. So doesn’t it make sense that the natural world changes its character depending on the understanding we bring to it? This, it seems to me, is the exact theory behind Oscar Wilde’s idea that nature imitates art:
For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing.
If so, it is not is not only the artist who changes the world we see. Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein, among others, have entirely changed the universe for us.
It’s like the question asked in Philosophy 101: If a tree falls in the woods, but nobody hears it, did it make a sound?
If you’re thinking, “of course it does,” consider the fact that sound waves are not something heard until the ear turns the sound waves into electrical signals that the brain can understand. So if there are sound waves but no ear to convert the waves to signals, there really isn’t “sound.”
So the answer is no. If the tree falls in the woods but nobody years it, it did not make any sound. The motion sent waves through the air, but those are not sounds.
If you look up into the sky and see a cold, unfeeling and mostly godless universe in which pain is pointless and human cruelty makes no impression on an unfeeling cosmos, the world you are seeing is different from others who look up and see the stars and planets revolving around the earth, with humanity at the center.
One of the major shifts in how people viewed the world of course happened in ancient Greece during the Hellenistic period. Earlier, during the time of Homer, the natural world was a mystical place, explained through the tales of heroes and gods.The Greeks knew the stories were not literally true, but they were used as allegories to understand nature and human nature.
Then, the pre-Socratic philosophers, came a new beginning — an attempt to understand the world scientifically — and ever since, there have been quarrels between those who want to understand the world via facts and those who want to understand the world via science.
In the words of Oscar Wilde, the ancients produced “delightful fiction given in the form of fact,” while the novelist today presents “dull facts in the form of fiction.”
Here is the problem with the modern worship of facts: Facts are limited and can only take us so far in our understanding of the world. This is why art and religion seek to answer the truly important questions — questions about the meaning of life, for example — through art and metaphor.
This brings us to a question: If, as a culture, we have grown bitter and cynical, seeing humanity as essentially depraved, the universe as cold and unfeeling, and suffering as pointless, how can we tell beautiful lies?
Carol Bly, in a lovely book called The Passionate Accurate Story, bemoans the fact that America has so much ugly-hearted fiction. She considers why, and suggests ways fiction can rise above what is merely ugly. Many of the following ideas are from Bly’s book. I should add that while I’m talking about fiction, the same may apply to other forms of art and entertainment as well.
Some of the ugliness in modern fiction, according to Bly, comes from salacious violence. The author gets a kick out of thinking about grotesque, sordid, and bloody details, and knows the reader will, too. The violence is gratuitous; it is there for no purpose other than to titillate.
Some of the violence, though, is there through a mistake in calculation: the author thinks that exposing the reader to this or that specific ugliness or evil will teach the reader not to participate in that ugliness or evil. In fact, as abundant psychological studies about the effects of violence on viewers demonstrates, people imitate what they see, rather than learn from the moral brought out at the end.
One flaw with modern fiction, according to Bly, is that people assume serious literature is some sort of exposé. Their mindset when reading or writing is exposé some evil or other.
Carol Bly says first the writer must leave the donnee, which is French for “given.” Leaping off the lily pad of the donnee is what divides fiction writers from journal-writers and autobiographers. Too often, a writer wants to “capture” some emotion or factual truth — but fiction, for Bly, “is not about capturing anything. A good story is never about what actually happened. It must at least partly be about humanity and our earth. What actually happened can be the gist, or the start-up, but the fiction writer cannot cling to what happened.”
This seems to me to be another way of saying that art doesn’t imitate life, that art is something imagined and invented. Art may take real life as its subject, but the artist reimagines and reinvents.
As an aside, I should add that exposés, investigative journalism, memoirs, nonfiction news coverage, documentaries and other forms of nonfiction are all absolutely necessary and important. They are not, however, imaginative art in the sense I am speaking. Autobiography and documentaries do — and should — hold a mirror up to life. Imaginative art is not, and should not be, autobiography. If the work reflects accurately, there is nothing imagined.
Bly says one way the artist can create imaginative works which, while acknowledging the evil and ugliness in the world, present stories which are not ugly at heart is for the work to be imbued with values and morals: If the artist comes to the work with a sense of values and right and wrong, the work will have meaning beyond presenting what is merely ugly or evil.
Carol Bly goes on to suggest practical advice for writers: Make a listing of your values. Learn to get past your own bitterness and cynicism by understanding that most conflicts are not between good and evil, but are more complex and subtle. Develop your powers of sympathy so you have less disdain for people in general.
At first blush, this seems to be good advice for people in general and writers in particular.
The problem I see with all of this is this isn’t enough. Carol Bly says avoid ugliness by making sure your villains are not pure evil. Let your villains be more multifaceted, as real human beings are more multifaceted. But is a work less ugly if instead of saying, “Ralph is an evil child molester,” the writers spends two hundred pages showing the abuse Ralph himself suffered as a child that turned him into a child abuser? While this may increase our sympathy for Ralph, and prevent Ralph from being a flat, cardboard villain without any real dimension, I don’t believe the work is any less ugly, or rises above exposé.
The business of the psychologist is to explain how and why abusers become abusers. The business of the artist is to imagine beyond what is.
Carol Bly also suggests that people try to be less disdainful and less cynical.
But if the culture is disdainful and cynical, what can the artist do? If the culture is essentially nihilistic, how can it be helpful to tell a person who is a product of the culture to stop being disdainful and cynical?
But once more, this blog post is growing long, so I will leave those questions to the next blog post.