The Arts and Real Life

I wrote this years ago but for those who  are new (or who haven’t bought my book where it appears!) I reprint it here as it is a topic close to my heart. Consider it my Christmas gift to one and all! Happy Christmas and a very Merry New Year!

I would like to take as my text a brief passage from a lecture Lionel Trilling gave at Harvard University in 1970. His topic is sincerity and he has this to say about literature and the universality of the messages we receive when we take it seriously:

“Generally our awareness of the differences between the moral assumptions of one culture and those of another is so developed and active that we find it hard to believe there is any such thing as essential human nature; but we all know moments when these differences, as literature attests to them, seem to make no difference, seem scarcely to exist. We read the Iliador the plays of Sophocles or Shakespeare and they come so close to our hearts and minds that they put to rout, or into abeyance, our instructed consciousness of the moral life as it is conditioned by a particular culture — they persuade us that human nature never varies, that the moral life is unitary and its terms perennial, and that only a busy intruding pedantry could ever have suggested otherwise.”

I shall begin by confessing that I have devoted a majority of my life to the defense of both literature and the universality of certain fundamental moral precepts — such precepts as justice and human rights, which I insist are at the core of every civilized (and indeed uncivilized) society and whatever religion they happen to practice. Trilling is suggesting there is a connection and I suspect he is right.

But I would add all of the arts, including dance, painting, music, and poetry to the list of things that demonstrate the universality of what we call “human nature.” The arts, and naturally literature as one of the core elements of the fine arts, prove indubitably that we are all basically alike despite our superficial differences. What this means is that as human beings who share a common nature, we are held to the same ideals regardless of our cultural or historical differences. As Trilling suggests, those differences make no difference. We all espouse justice, fairness and the rights of others as fundamental principles of a common moral code. We may view this code differently or stress different elements at one time or another — shrinking or expanding our grasp of what constitutes justice and allowing or disallowing that some who have been denied also have rights. Moreover, we may espouse those universal principles and yet refuse to act on them. But when push comes to shove, or when we stop and think “what if….?” we realize that we all demand fairness, justice and the recognition of our human rights, though, of late, we may tend to ignore the responsibilities that go along with rights..

The fine arts, including literature, attest to the correctness of those demands. They demonstrate as cannot be otherwise demonstrated that we are all fundamentally alike. We share Achilles’ outrage at his treatment by Agamemnon despite the fact that he lived in a different culture ages ago. We commiserate with the seventeenth century French playwright Molière’s character Alceste when he comes to realize that one must play a role to succeed in the real world. We suspect this is a profound truth, even in our day. We can feel the hatred that permeates the soul of Keiko, one of the main characters in Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness,and share Okonkwo’s outrage over the presumption of the Christian missionaries in their attempts to colonize his country in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

Moreover, when we view a painting or see our fellow humans dance or hear them sing (despite the fact that we cannot understand the words) we respond, as Trilling says, with our hearts and minds to the same emotions or others very much like those of the artists themselves. We note the presence in symphony orchestras of people of different ethnic backgrounds and from different countries who tap deep into the emotions of the composers of their European music and project it into the audience made up of a heterogeneous grouping of their fellow humans and we share a common experience.

Thus, when we hear that “it is all relative,” and that we shouldn’t be “judgmental” because we are all different, we know this is at best a half-truth, a “busy, intruding pedantry.” We are all different in so many ways as those who would ride the “Identity Politics” horse would insist. But at the core we are all the same and when we do the right thing or the wrong thing we know that this can be seen and recognized by our fellow humans who also seek in their own way to do the right thing or avoid the wrong thing. We all seek the moral high ground — or if we don’t we should.

The fine arts demonstrate in no uncertain terms that we all suffer outrages and seek approval and love in the same way and take delight in the same joys and are repulsed by the same atrocities committed by those who seem very real though they be mere “fictions,” products of an artist’s imagination. This is why we read and why we open our eyes to the beauty that surrounds us in whatever form it may take. Because it deepens our sensibilities and makes each of us a little more human.

 

The Poet’s Place

Shelly is supposed to have said that poets are the legislators of the world. Ernst Cassirer later said that poets create culture — using the word “poet” in the broadest sense possible. I assume Shelly was speaking about poets like himself; Cassirer was speaking about artists who could create with words and pictures and thereby help us look at the world anew.

I think Cassirer was right, though I’m not sure about Shelly. But soon after Cassirer made his pronouncement the poets became journalists who wrote stories and in writing helped us see our world as they saw it and to make it into something new whenever they got tired of the old way of seeing things. Recently the print journalists have been replaced by media journalists of the entertainment variety. Our world is now created for us by those in the entertainment industry and consists almost entirely of pictures, moving and still: films, TV, radio, the arts, and the internet. And we are pounded relentlessly.

In any event, the world they are creating is one that centers around the self. It is a theme I have developed in past blogs, but it is worth mentioning again in light of recent events. We are so much in the middle of a world of self-absorbed individuals we may not be aware of it. But just listen and watch: note how many popular songs refer to “me”; watch the TV commercials closely as they stroke the viewer; note how many reality TV performers will resort to any trick to grab the spotlight (and how many thousands want to be on stage); note how many politicians talk about themselves and see themselves as the center of the political world, how the sense of entitlement is ubiquitous, and how the internet is full of images and words telling us about those who post them. Or just consider U-Tube. Note also how materialistic we have become and how fame and wealth have become the center of so many young lives in our culture.

All of these are sure signs of a narcissistic personality.  And this desire for fame, which triggers millions of words and images on Facebook and My Space and the millions of U-tube episodes involving self-absorbed people who want to be seen and heard, is spreading like the plague. In fact, it has been argued that the craving for fame at any cost is the major reason for much of the violence that has become alarmingly commonplace in this society, such as the recent shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. The kid who takes (his mother’s) guns to school and kills several teachers and twenty young children may simply want to be seen and heard: a wasted life for a few minutes in the limelight. It seems unlikely, but studies have shown that our cultural narcissism runs that deep.

As readers of my blogs will recognize, I am drawing on Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell’s important book The Narcissism Epidemic. They make a very strong case that what started as a push to make kids feel better about themselves in our schools and in their homes has blossomed into a pervasive sense of entitlement and even cultural narcissism. We have become a society in love with itself, just as Narcissus in the Greek myth fell in love with his own reflection upon seeing it in the water. If they are right in their assessment of the situation, the repercussions are serious indeed.

The two main features of narcissism are the inability to build interpersonal relationships and what Freud called a weak “reality principle.” What this means is that we are becoming increasingly unable to get close to one another and we tend to live fantasy lives. Our electronic toys make this easy as they keep us from making human contact and push us deeper into a make-believe world where everything that happens is all about us.

As Miranda says in The Tempest, “Oh, brave new world that has such people in’t!”  In Shakespeare’s day Miranda was filled with wonder; if she said that today she would be snickering. And the major player in this drama is the entertainment industry that creates fictional worlds, invites us in, and tells us we are the most important part of the drama.  And we lap it up.