Here And There

I only remember a few things from my trip to the Beyond when last I was there. To begin with I noted that those who were There (and are no  longer Here) were simply doing the things they really wanted to do when they were Here. The Beyond is simply an eternity of doing that which we want to do. It’s a reward that, for many, turns out to be punishment.

So I vividly remember the flurry of activity among those who had been interested in so many things before they went There. Their curiosity and imagination were insatiable and in the Beyond they were always busy finishing projects they had long wanted to complete before they went There, searching hither and yon for answers to the mysteries that surrounded them, curious to know as much as possible and finally getting answers. Philosophers and theologians collected in groups listening to one another seeking the truth about those things that had long puzzled them Here. The scientists were busy conducting experiments that they knew would lead them to a deeper understanding of the puzzles that had confounded them Before. The artists and musicians were busy creating works of inestimable beauty and when finished sharing those works with others of like mind who were able to appreciate what they had done and applaud their efforts. Thespians were acting out the parts they craved while they were Here. All seemed very happy and fulfilled.

Those who were focused on petty things while Here were doomed to remain focused on petty things There. I recall vividly the throngs of people walking barefoot on scorching hot sand from which rising waves of heat could be seen; they hopped from one foot to another, bent over looking for gold coins and gold chains which they either placed around their necks or in the leather pouches at their sides which grew heavier and heavier as they went along, making their movement more and more difficult and the heat from the sand more and more unbearable — with no water for relief. Their attention was on the ground, the scalding hot sand beneath their feet suggesting the heat of the earth they left Before while denying that it was in fact growing hotter each day while the aquifers dried up. Their attention Then, as now, was on the growth of their wealth which they identified with happiness. Above all else, they were alone.

One figure especially stood out. I was astonished to see him because he’s still Here and hasn’t gone There yet. But apparently they have the ability to show us what is certain to be the case in the near future and this was simply one of the more impressive examples. While the others around him were thin and wore tattered clothing this one had very small hands, a permanent frown, was overweight, and wore a crown of gold to accompany the dozens of gold chains that were hot to the touch and dragged his head down until his body was almost doubled up. He was holding an electronic device in his hand and his attention wavered from looking at the ground for more gold and playing with the device in his hand. He couldn’t seem to leave it alone! But this is what he wanted. It is what they all wanted.  Now they were learning a lesson — a lesson which would go on forever.

In the distance, beyond the scalding hot sands I could barely hear the faint sounds of very loud music in a closed arena. There were also bright lights constantly flashing on and off that I could see through the windows — even at a distance. I heard from one of the people I was able to talk with that the arena was full of people who were being entertained though many were holding their heads and complained of excruciating headaches. They would remain there forever.

Those who loved other people while Here were surrounded by those they loved and admired who shared in their joys and even their struggles — because there had to be some struggles, even There, or those who were There would never fully appreciate the many moments of satisfaction that came with being with those they wanted above all else to be with and doing those things they most enjoyed doing. They seemed to be unaware of themselves while so many of the others I saw were oblivious to others and to most of what was around them.

The key here is that those I saw were simply doing what they wanted to do. If their wants were shallow Here, they were shallow There. And they would pursue those shallow goals forever. If their interests were varied while Here they would be so There.

(With apologies to Dante and his Divine Comedy.)

Are Artists Obligated?

Today’s post centers around the question raised in the title and will consist mostly of questions rather than answers. As Robert Hutchins once said, the only questions worth asking are the ones that cannot be answered. Perhaps our question cannot be answered, but it is well worth asking.

It arises in the case of such things as the extraordinary propaganda film “Triumph of the Will” made by Leni Riefenstahl in 1935 at the behest of Adolph Hitler. It turned out to be one of the most remarbable pieces of cinematic magic, incorporating numerous technological feats never before attempted — and tricks such as filming Hitler from below to make him look taller! But it was also incredibly effective, attracting thousands of young men and women to the Nazi fold. It does raise the question whether the film-maker did the right thing. Should she not have made that film?

During the Renaissance painters of considerable reputation used their mistresses as models for the Modanna to the horror of the spiritually certain who regarded such things as blasphemy, worthy of condemnation of the artist and a refusal to  even look at such paintings. So it is with the spiritually certain, and, though few of us would worry about such things as blasphemy these days, we might still ask the question whether the artist has an obligation to show only “morally approved” subjects and avoid even the hint of the morally reprehensible.

Is the artist, in a word, above the moral law? Does she or he have license to create works of art that not only convey immoral messages, but perhaps even promote them? China Achebe, the African novelist and critic, wrote an essay condemning Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness because of the liberal use of the “N” word. He argued that folks should avoid reading the novel because the novelist was a racist and his book promoted racism. I published an essay that takes Conrad to task because the case cannot be made the (a) Conrad himself is a racist and (b) his novel does not “promote” racism. In fact, his use of the “N” word — like Mark Twain’s use in Huckleberry Finn — is entirely appropriate since that is the way folks spoke at that time and place, especially seafaring folks. Novelists, like any artist, I argued, need not be overly concerned about the hang-ups of the slightly paranoid and overly sensitive. At the very least the text can be used as a platform for discussion about the morality of the use of prohibited terms.

We have found our way to the root of the “political correctness” tree that spreads its broad, dark shade over so much of what is forbidden to be said these days. It is argued that not only artists but all sensitive folks need to avoid saying anything that might possibly offend somebody some day some where. This is, of course, absurd. But there it is. We might call it the reductio ad absurdum of the argument that novelists and artists, not to mention the rest of us, must never offend anyone.

I do not wish to deal with the question whether there is a moral right and wrong. I take that as a given. But, granting that there is a right and a wrong, the question whether artists should avoid offending sensibilities is well worth asking. Personally, I think they should have license to say anything they want — short of inciting a riot — because there is no one holding a gun to the head of those who might read or see the work and who might just as easily simply avoid doing so. Censorship in any of its nasty forms seems to me to be out of place.

A similar problem arises in the case of the scientist, of course, who might be asked to curb his or her desire to work on weapons of war. Does science have a license to do whatever is required to “advance” human knowledge regardless of the consequences? As Tom Lehrer sang of Wernher Von Braun who worked on rockets: “If the rocket goes up who cares where it comes down? That’s not my department, says Wernher von Braun.”  His only “department” is to make sure the rocket goes up. Is it?? Should scientific medicine continue to find ways to prolong human life on a planet that is already overcrowded and in danger of facing widespread human starvation? These are serious questions and in both cases, that of the scientist and the artist, the issue is whether art and science trumps morality or the other way around.