Monthly Archives: May 2014

Because Life Imitates Art, the Fiction Writer Should Invent Beautiful Lies, Part 6 — conclusion

This is the final part of a series that began here. I suggest beginning with Part 1 and reading forward. Thanks for coming and reading.

For some years now, dystopians have been all the rage, particularly among books published for young adults.

Nobody seems to be writing utopias these days, probably because our culture has grown too cynical for utopias. One writer friend told me it is not possible to write a true utopia: Either the story will not have any conflict, or it will be a dystopian in disguise. “It seems like a perfect world, but . . .”

If you want to talk about important utopias in western literature, you have to back a while.

Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) has been called one of the most influential books in western literature.

Utopia describes an idealized island community upon which perfect social harmony has been achieved. On this island all property is community owned, violence is nonexistent and everyone has the opportunity to work and live in an environment of religious tolerance. Many social movements throughout history have drawn upon More’s work for inspiration. While possibly unachievable Thomas More’s “Utopia” gives a vision of what could be.

Thomas More published his book in 1516. If nations, and cultures, have life spans, 1516 was surely the youth of western culture. The period was fraught with dangers and disease, but people largely held comforting beliefs: They largely believed humankind had been created in the image of God, and they believed humankind lived at the very center of the universe. They believed mere mortals to be capable of heroic greatness.

In 1905 H.G. Wells published A Modern Utopia in which two travelers fall into a space-warp and suddenly find themselves upon a Utopian Earth controlled by a single World Government. This other planet is exactly like Earth in every way, except that the people found a way to live without war in perfect harmony.

An other major utopia I know of is Skinner’s Walden Two, published in 1948. The characters achieve a utopian society by rejecting free will, and rejecting the idea that people have a soul or spirit. Walden Two assumes that people are entirely controlled by their environment, so altering the environment can generate a perfect society.

The last true utopia that drew a wide readership (that I know of) was published in 1954 by Arthur Clark.

Modern day utopias are often dystopians in disguise. An example is Lois Lowry’s The Giver. From the jacket flap of The Giver:

Jonas’s world is perfect. Everything is under control. There is no war or fear of pain. There are no choices. Every person is assigned a role in the community. When Jonas turns 12 he is singled out to receive special training from The Giver. The Giver alone holds the memories of the true pain and pleasure of life. Now, it is time for Jonas to receive the truth. There is no turning back.

The society is initially presented as utopian, but as the book progresses, the society appears more and more dystopian.

My favorite dystopian-in-disguise is The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, a story by Ursula LeGuin about a perfect society that can remain perfect only as long as all inhabitants close their eyes to the suffering of a child. The story serves as an allegory of how some people — the fortunate ones — live in luxury and abundance made possible by the suffering of others, with slavery as one example.

A dystopian is an imaginative way of presenting an exposé or a warning. The dystopian holds up a mirror up to life, magnifying and reflecting back the worst fault and excesses.

I see the value in dystopians. One of my favorite books of all time, Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, is a dystopian. The story is both horrifying and fascinating, showing what can go wrong if fanatics seize control of the government and where disastrous ideas and misguided behavior can lead.

Dystopians infuse us with horror. They wake us up from complacency and force us to consider how much worse things could become if we don’t set aside apathy.

There is also no denying that stories that scare us can be fun the way a thrilling amusement park ride can be fun. Screaming as the roller coaster careens around a corner is certainly a thrill. Horror stories, including dystopians, offer the same heart-pounding fright.

Horrifying stories can also purge us of certain kinds of fear by showing us that it is possible to rise above even the most adverse circumstances.

Most importantly, dystopians can serve as important warnings, teaching us to see evil and take action before the evil has a chance to take root.

Several classic dystopians came from the disillusionment and bitterness that resulted from the Marxist revolution in Russia. Animal Farm is both an allegory of the Russian revolution and a dystopian view of how a revolution can go wrong. The refrain “all people are created equal, but some people are more equal than others,” shows the corruption that arose from the revolution, and cynically concluded that even a revolution born from idealism is bound to go wrong because of human greed. Animal Farm, and stories like it, teach us to see warning signs of political corruption.

Nineteen Eighty Four has — in my view — been justly called one of the best books ever written. It’s depiction of how a totalitarian government can gain complete control over the hearts and minds of its citizens is a must-read for everyone who wants to understand how we can be manipulated and controlled.

So I do see the value in dystopians.

But any way you look at it, a dystopian tells ugly lies. Children being set up to kill other children is ugly and evil — even though, of course, this is exactly what happens any time two opposing armies recruit seventeen year old boys and send them to meet on the battlefield, while the winners are cheered.

A dystopia, by its very nature, sees the meanness in human nature and imagines how thoroughly mean and evil people can be.  Dystopians, for all their value, tell ugly lies.

The question is whether the value of the lesson outweighs the presentation of violence and horror and the telling of ugly lies. Are we more likely to imitate the horror, or become numb to horror, or are we more likely to learn the lessons?

The answer for me is to walk down the middle. I think there is value when an artist shows us the forms evil can take. Having a “political doublespeak” as a metaphor helps us recognize it when it occurs.

On the other hand, the constant depiction of commonplace and meaningless violence and suffering as a form of entertainment is surely harmful and perhaps even depraved.

The larger question is this: What becomes of a culture when true cynicism and bitterness sets in, when artists can only imagine ugliness and horror?  Like a star in a galaxy approaching old age — is there nothing to do but wait and watch as the light burns out entirely?

Or is it possible to set aside bitterness and revive a youthful exuberance and belief in the greatness of the human spirit?

The answer, I believe, lies in Dostoevsky’s assertion that “The world will be saved by beauty.”

Who can better show beauty than the artist? Ages past have looked for a messiah or prophet, but it seems to me that the prophets of old were artists of a certain type: They were creative visionaries who can show the world as it might be and help us find a way to a better tomorrow.

If the artists are unable to imagine a beautiful the world as it should be, who can?

So I conclude this long series by ending up where I started: because life imitates art, the artist should tell beautiful lies.

That is how the world will be saved by beauty.

The 60th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education

I will take a break from my series of blog posts about how life imitates art to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.

On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court, under the leadership of Earl Warren, handed down its decision declaring segregation in schools illegal.

Brown v. Board of Education was one of those rare Supreme Court cases which entirely changed the fabric of life in the United States. While it took several decades for schools all across the country to be integrated, the handing down of the decision had immediate and very radical effects. When the Court said segregation in schools was unconstitutional on the grounds that “separate can never be equal” — that segregating black and white children tells the black children they are inferior — people caught the drift. If segregation was unconstitutional in schools, what about buses? What about lunch counters and drinking fountains?

Shortly after the decision in Brown v. Board of Education was handed down, Rose Parks stepped on the world stage, and the Montgomery Bus Strike got underway.

What I’d like to do, on this 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, is suggest a few books anyone interested in civil rights in America should read.

Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality, by Richard Kluger purports to be a history of Brown v. Board of Education. In fact, it is a stunning and remarkable complete history of blacks in America. I came away from this book with a new understanding of American history. What I understood was that we began fighting the Civil War at the time the Constitution was drafted, and the issue of equality for blacks was not resolved until well into the twentieth century.

To truly understand the miracle of Brown v. Board of Education requires a look at the enigmatic and fascinating chief justice responsible for the decision. While there are lots of biographies out there, Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made, by Jim Newton, is one of the most recent and comprehensive. In the words of one reviewer, “Earl Warren was the most important politician of the twentieth century not to achieve the presidency.”

Of course, it’s impossible for me to talk about books about Brown v. Board of Education without at least mentioning the fact that Barbara Rose Johns, 16 years old in 1951, played a much more important role in the civil rights movement than she has been given credit for.

Next week I’ll go back to thinking about life imitating art . . .

Because Life Imitates Art, the Fiction Writer Should Invent Beautiful Lies, Part 5

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.

Because Life Imitates Art, the Fiction Writer Should Invent Beautiful Lies, Part 4

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.

J.W. Krutch, in a fabulous essay, “The Tragic Fallacy,” gives an explanation for why modern fiction and literature contains so much ugliness and relatively little greatness of spirit.

He says the lack of greatness in modern fiction isn’t because readers and writers are interested in the commonplace and ordinary suffering, but because as a culture, we have come to see the human soul itself as common place, and emotions as mean.

Writing great tragedy, according to Krutch, requires believing in the greatness and importance of humanity. Great art arises when “a people fully aware of the calamities of life is nevertheless serenely confident of the greatness of man, whose mighty passions and supreme fortitude are revealed when one of those calamities overtakes him.” In other words, in great art, the violence or tragic circumstances are introduced to show the nobility of the spirit which achieves its greatness through the suffering. The suffering has meaning.

Moreover, he claims that all works of art which deserve their name have a happy end. Tragedy, for Krutch, ends happily when some nobility or greatness of spirit is revealed. Juliet dies, but not before she shows the transcendent powers of love. Othello dies, but only after he fully understands the meaning of his actions.

Krutch then claims that as a culture we cannot produce great tragedy because we no longer see the human spirit as inherently noble and good.

“God is dead,” Nietzsche famously said more than a hundred years ago. More specifically, he said:

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

Nietzsche did not mean that God was literally dead. He meant that growing atheism meant that the belief in God could no longer serve as a moral compass or give meaning to life. He warned that growing atheism could lead to a belief that life is pointless, which in turn would lead to despair.

In past centuries, human beings believed themselves to occupy a center place in the universe. The belief that humanity has been created by a divine being in the image of that divine being similarly gives meaning to life and a belief in the greatness of the human spirit. Many blame modern science for dislodging humanity from its former position in the center of the universe.

The poets of the romantic era reinterpreted the story of Genesis, declaring that we are all born innocent, into a childhood Eden. Then, at some point in the child’s life, the child comes to understand eros and thanatos, sex and death, symbolized in Genesis by eating fruit of knowledge. God, in Genesis, said:

You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.

You have to wonder about the “you will certainly die” part because Adam and Eve did eat the fruit, but they didn’t die — at least not literally.

Something else died. But what? And why?

The romantic interpretation says that what died was their innocence. The eating of the fruit of knowledge taught them about sex and death, and after coming to understand these things, the childhood garden of Eden was destroyed.

The romantic poets saw the story of Adam and Eve as an allegory for the loss of childhood innocence each of us experiences in our lifetime. Each person, for a short time, experiences the wonders of childhood innocence before coming aware of sex and death, and being expelled from the childhood bliss of Eden.

As an aside, this interpretation of Genesis was a departure from a previous interpretation, which believed all people after Adam and Eve were born guilty, or born in sin.

Perhaps nations and cultures also have lifespans. A culture or nation can be born naive and hopeful and innocent, believing in its own greatness and invincibility and immortality. Then the nation or culture experiences trauma, sees and does evil, and loses its innocence.

I think the mid-twentieth century was a turning point for western culture, particularly American culture. I think it could be said that by the middle of the twentieth century, our own national innocence was lost.

There were certainly atrocities before 1945. There were genocides and virulent forms of slavery and institutionalized human cruelty. But when the methodical scientific methods of the Nazis and the horrors of an atomic bomb became known — when modern science was put to work to destroy millions of people in a sweep and whole cities in the blink of an eye — something changed. Combine these man-made horrors with the disappointments of the Russian Revolution and a growing atheism and a decline in the belief that the human spirit was great and central to the universe, and it seems to me American culture lost its innocence.

It makes sense, then, that people who grew up after the Holocaust, and after the dawn of the atomic age, and after humanity was dislodged from its central place in the universe, were born into a world which could not help being cynical and bitter.

It seems to me a few other things happened in the twentieth century which caused a national loss of innocence.

Since the drafting of the Constitution, there have been people who abhorred slavery an wished to see it abolished. Similarly, there have always been those who spoke out against the massacre of the native Americans. Nonetheless, for most of our history, large sections of the culture embraced the institution of slavery as morally acceptable, and embraced a belief in the manifest destiny of America to claim the entire country from the East Coast to the West Coast. But in the twentieth century, Americans were able to look back, and — as a culture — understand the evils that had been perpetuated through slavery and the massacre of the Native Americans. In other words, the country became fully aware of the evil it had committed.

A century that dawned with Nietzsche’s pronouncement that God was dead lost its cultural innocence and came to see the universe as a cold and uncaring place.

I think it could be said that in the twentieth century Americans tasted the fruit of knowledge, came to understand death and evil in a whole new nihilistic way, and a culture lost its innocence. Bitterness and despair and cynicism set in.

Perhaps this explains why so much American fiction, particularly that labeled “literary fiction” is essentially nihilistic.

I believe this series is moving toward a point, but this post, too, is getting so long I’ll have to continue next week.