Monthly Archives: April 2014

Because Life Imitates Art, the Fiction Writer Should Invent Beautiful Lies, Part 3

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.

Because Life Imitates Art, the Fiction Writer Should Invent Beautiful Lies, Part 2

The idea that life imitates art isn’t so surprising, right? Among other things, that’s the idea behind the studies showing that children become more violent after watching violence on television.

Oscar Wilde, in an essay published in 1905, claims that life imitates art more than art imitates life. He goes even farther and claims that even nature imitates art.

What? He actually claims that nature follows the landscape painter and takes her effects from the painter?

Exactly so, says Wilde.

"A Street at Night," by John Atkinson Grimshaw.

“A Street at Night,” by John Atkinson Grimshaw.

“Where,” asks Wilde, “if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to this particular school of Art.

“You smile. Consider the matter from a scientific or a metaphysical point of view, and you will find that I am right. 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. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence. 

"Reflections on the Thames, Westminster," by John Atkinson Grimshaw (1880)

“Reflections on the Thames, Westminster,” by John Atkinson Grimshaw (1880)

“At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them. Now, it must be admitted, fogs are carried to excess. They have become the mere mannerism of a clique, and the exaggerated realism of their method gives dull people bronchitis.

“Nobody of any real culture, for instance, ever talks nowadays about the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old fashioned. They belong to the time when Turner was the last note in art. To admire them is a distinct sign of provincialism of temperament. Upon the other hand they go on. Yesterday evening Mrs. Arundel insisted on my coming to the window, and looking at the glorious sky, as she called it. Of course I had to look at it. She is one of those absurdly pretty Philistines, to whom one can deny nothing. And what was it? It was simply a very second rate Turner, a Turner of a bad period, with all the painter’s worst faults exaggerated and overemphasized.”

"Flint Castle," by J.M.W. Turner (1838)

“Flint Castle,” by J.M.W. Turner (1838)

I attended a history lecture once in Boston. The lecturer was discussing the writings of a group of monks in the middle ages who traveled over the Alps. They wrote about their journey, but never once mentioned the spectacular landscape. There they were, traveling over mountains of incredible majesty and beauty — but they didn’t seem to notice or care. Instead, they discussed philosophy and religion.

Oscar Wilde would say that the monks in the middle ages didn’t notice the spectacular landscape because the painters of the Romantic era had not yet interpreted the grand landscapes in a way that taught people to see the beauty.

 "Romantic Landscape," by John Trumbull  (1783)

“Romantic Landscape,” by John Trumbull (1783)

“Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder,” is a cliche based on an obvious truth: Beauty is subjectively brought to the object by the person seeing it. Until artists taught people to see the beauty of a grand landscape, the beauty simply wasn’t there.

Wilde, of course, goes further and says that the landscape itself wasn’t there. While there was a physical world, it wasn’t the physical world we see today because what we see is imbued with our subjective understanding of what is there. (I’ll explore this idea more later.)

In the middle ages, when survival was a struggle, the natural world was menacing and frightening. The eighteenth century, which saw the rise in cities and the ability of humanity to become the master of nature, allowed artists to invent the spectacular landscape as a thing of beauty.

The two main points I take away from Wilde’s essay are these:

(1)  No great artist sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist.

(2) The telling of beautiful untrue things is the proper aim of art.

This brings me back to Ibsen’s Nora. In 1879, Ibsen invented a truly modern woman, a woman way ahead of her time. He departed from what was real, and commonplace, and dull. He told a beautiful lie. It could be said that Nora taught generations of women what they could be and could do. Or it could be said that because life is essentially imitative, the type of woman created by Ibsen has become fact.

Next week I’ll continue with a look at the ugliness in so much American fiction and consider why so much of our fiction and art lacks beauty.

 You can read Oscar Wilde’s entire essay here.


Because Life Imitates Art, the Fiction Writer Should Invent Beautiful Lies, Part 1

I’d like to explore the idea that because life imitates art, the fiction writer, as an artist, should invent beautiful lies.

I’ve been thinking about these issues as I write a children’s story about a group of children who, after surviving the experience of being stranded on a frozen island, set out to save the world using radical and unconventional methods.

I understand that there is much in the title of this blog post which requires explanation, so bear with me as I think out these ideas.

I’d like to start with Ibsen’s Doll’s House as an example of an artist inventing beautiful lies.

Here’s the story of The Doll’s House, in a nut shell:

Nora and Torvald have been married eight years, and have three children. Torvald sees Nora as his silly and irresponsible plaything, who he indulges and controls. Nora happily plays the role of the cheerful songbird who entertains and worships her husband.

But there are a few things Torvald doesn’t know about Nora. Earlier in their marriage, she borrowed a large sum of money so that he could recuperate from a serious illness. To get the loan, she forged her dying father’s signature. As she viewed her forgery, she was sparing her dying father the painful knowledge that Torvald was deathly ill, and she was acting heroically to save her husband.

Nora hides the forgery and loan from Torvald, paying the loan back herself by working on the side and saving from her household allowance. She doesn’t want Torvald to know about the loan because she believes that when he does learn her secret, he will understand he is indebted to her, and this will injure his masculine pride, thus ending their present happiness.

Meanwhile, Torvald gets a job as manager of a bank and promptly fires Krogstat, who was once disgraced for forgery. Krogstat is also the man Nora borrowed the money from.

Krogstat threatens to tell Torvald of Nora’s forgery unless she intervenes and convinces Torvald to rehire him at the bank.

Naturally, by the end of the play, Torvald learns of Nora’s forgery. She expects him to protect her by offering to take the blame, which of course, she will not allow him to do.

When Torvald learns of the forgery — to Nora’s shock — he turns on her, calling her names and telling her she is unfit to be a mother. Also to her surprise, he plans to submit to Krogstat’s blackmail — something she never expected him to do. He shows that he cares only about maintaining his own image.

The audience, of course, saw this coming, but Nora truly believed that Torvald would seek to protect her, and would feel grateful that she loved him so dearly as to take such steps to save his life. Instead he tells her that their marriage is now an empty shell. They will keep up appearances. She will remain in his house and the outside world will believe all is well, but she will not be allowed to raise the children because they might learn dishonesty, and he will keep her under close watch.

In a last minute reversal, Krogstat changes his mind as a result of his relationship with Nora’s friend and newfound happiness. He returns the forged note and will no longer blackmail Torvald into rehiring him at the bank.

Torvald cries, “I am saved!”

Nora has been watching Torvald’s reactions with horror and deepening understanding the emptiness of her marriage and life she has been leading. She has been a doll in his house, nothing more.

She thus tells Torvald she is leaving him. She tells him that he was right when he said she is unworthy to raise her children:  “I am not up to the job. There is another job I have to do first. I have to try to educate myself. You can’t help me with that. I have to do it alone. And that’s why I’m leaving you now. . . I have to stand completely alone, if I am ever going to discover myself . . .”

He tries hard to stop her, believing that they can return to the way things were now that the threat of blackmail has been removed, but she packs her bag, takes off her wedding ring, and walks out on her marriage and her children in order to find herself.

The play ends when she slams the door behind her.

When The Doll’s House was first performed in 1879, audiences were shocked. While it was not unheard of for a woman to walk out on her husband and abandon her children, the result was always scandal. Ibsen’s play, however, presented Nora’s decision to walk out of her marriage as a necessary step to maturity after a lifetime of allowing men to define her.

While feminists ever since have seen the play as showing the reality of marriage for women in the 19th century and championing one woman’s attempt to reach maturity, the play was also considered radical and somewhat dangerous by suggesting that all people owed something to themselves, including the right to stand as an individual. As Nora says in the end:

“I believe that, before all else, I am a human being, no less than you — or anyway, I ought to try to become one. I know the majority thinks you’re right, Torvald, and plenty of books agree with you, too. But I can’t go on believing what the majority says or what’s written in books. I have to think over these things myself and try to understand them.”

A Doll’s House was based on what happened to Laura Kieler, Ibsen’s good friend. Just like Nora, Laura desperately needed money to save her husband’s life. Initially she asked Ibsen for help, but he refused. Whether he was unwilling or unable to help isn’t clear. She therefore signed an illegal loan document to secure the money. When her husband discovered her secret loan, he divorced her and had her committed to an asylum. Later, at her husband’s urging, she returned to him and her children.

Shortly after she was committed to the asylum, Ibsen wrote the play, changing Laura to Nora. In making the change, Ibsen changed what actually happened, which was lurid and sad, to what should have happened.

In other words, Ibsen told a beautiful lie.

It could be said that Nora taught generations of women to find dignity and autonomy. If you haven’t read the play, I highly recommend it. Ibsen is a master of drama and character, and at least for me, the play still packs a punch in the year 2014.

This blog post is already long, so in my next post — which will be next week, on Friday — I will expand these ideas by considering Oscar Wilde’s theory that because both life and nature imitate art, the calling of the artist is to tell beautiful lies.