Truth In Art

In this day of “false news,” alternative facts, and countless untruths told by our sitting president, it seems appropriate to turn once again to the age-old question of whether there is any truth in (of all things) art. At the very least it might help us recall that there is truth (and falsity) and that at times it hides its face but remains there for those who wish to take the time and trouble to look for it.

There are three ways in which something can be said to be true. In all three cases there must be corroboration by others. A statement can be said to be true if it corresponds with a fact. Thus “The president tells porkies” is true if, in fact, he does so. (And, as we all know, he does.) A statement can also be said to be true if it “fits in with” a body of known facts. Thus the statement that “humans and chimpanzees descended from a common ancestor” is true if it accords with a body of known facts — based on such things as the fossil records. This is known as the “coherence” theory of truth. And the third way in which something can be said to be true is if it is intuitively clear. We “see” it with the “mind’s eye,” as it were. This is the sense in which there is truth in the fine arts, including literature. Intuitive truth, which tends to be a bit subjective, must accord with common sense and be plausible.

To begin with literature, a good novel tells us a  great deal about the human condition — its strengths as well as its foibles. I just finished William Dean Howells’ short novel about The Rise of Simon Lapham, for example, and he does a skillful job of depicting the pretense of blue-blood Bostonians and their tendency to look down their noses at all who are beneath them — which includes all who are not to the manor born, not themselves several generations of Bostonians. The novel tells about Simon Lapham’s attempts to be accepted by the more “cultured” Bostonians. He has become very wealthy but his money cannot buy their acceptance. He eventually goes bankrupt and this is the start of his “rise.” As the narrator tells us, in one of those flashes of insight that marks the exceptional novel (there being so many more important things than mere wealth):

“Adversity had so far been his friend that it had taken from him all hope of the social success for which people crawl and trickle, and restored him, through failure and doubt and heartache, the manhood which his prosperity had so nearly stolen from him.”

In painting the artist seeks to show us the soul of the person whose portrait she paints or the hidden beauty in the ordinary landscape we are presented with on the canvas. The dancer seeks to show us the grace of human movement while the actor draws us into the world of another to enable us to know ourselves and our fellows on a deeper level. Even the raised middle finger of artists such as Marcel Duchamp, who placed a urinal in a museum, reveals our own pretense as we wander through art galleries and museums and glory in our self-importance — instead of acknowledging our own ignorance.

In a word, the artist who creates is intent upon showing us our own world in a clearer and more detailed fashion. She opens our eyes to the world around us and takes us out of ourselves — at least for a brief moment. This is a good thing in a world in which we tend to get lost within ourselves and preoccupied with our own small selves. We need to be reminded that our world is a world of tender beauty along with the mess we have created with our attack on the earth, our crass business models, and our dirty politics. There is considerable truth in the works of the poets and novelists as well as the painters, actors, and even in the music that is created to open our ears to the sounds around us and quiet the storms within. We need simply to open our eyes and ears.

In a world in which truth has been reduced to subjective opinion and annoying facts are dismissed as fictions, it is good to remind ourselves that there is, indeed, a deeper truth available to us in the works of genius that are readily available. Those works abound and the truth they reveal is undeniable and lends the lie to the notion that all is whatever we want to make of it. Truth in art is not always pleasant, but it commands our assent if we simply attend to what the artist has to say.

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The Hollow Man

Bartley Hubbard is a hollow man. He is a flawed character and totally without principles. He is self-absorbed and uses others to improve his standing in his own mind. He is not a wicked man in the strict sense of that word: he hasn’t killed anyone and hasn’t raped any women — so far as we know. Though, in all honesty he does flirt mercilessly with pretty young women while in the company of his beautiful wife. Oh, did I mention? His wife is beautiful and worships the ground Bartley walks on — which is why he married her. While she is away one Summer after they have been married for some years, he ruminates on his wife and his feelings for her, recalling that when they broke apart some years before, she was the one who sought him out and wanted to be with him, accepting all the blame for his many shortcomings:

“As he recalled the facts, he was in a mood of entire acquiescence; and the reconciliation had been of her own seeking; he could not blame her for it; she was very much in love within and he was fond on her. In fact, he was still fond of her; when he thought of the little ways of hers, it filled him with tenderness. He did justice to her fine qualities, too; her generosity, her truthfulness, her entire loyalty to his best interests; . . .[however,] in her absence he remembered that her virtues were tedious and even painful at times. He had his doubts whether there was sufficient compensation for them. He sometimes questioned whether he had not made a great mistake to get married; he expected now to stick it through; but this doubt occurred to him.”

Bartley and his wife Marcia have a child. He is only a fiction, of course, a figment of William Dean Howells’ imagination. But he is, in Howells’ words, a “modern instance” in the novella by that name. Bartley Hubbard, pragmatic and unfeeling at the core, is a modern instance of a hollow man whom Howells worried was beginning to become more and more common in the late nineteenth century, the so-called “modern” age. In our “post-modern” age his type is becoming legion. And in a country led by the grand pooh-bah of hollow men, we should be quite familiar with the type by this time.

Bartley drifts along writing for newspapers and accepting the accolades and financial rewards, when they come, as a matter of course. A turning point in the novel, when Bartley steps over a line and becomes less a hollow man and perhaps more a cad, is when he steals intellectual property from an old and trusted (and trusting) friend, Kinney, “the philosopher from the logging camp.” Kinney was, among many things, a cook at that logging camp in Maine who had befriended Bartley because he saw in him a bright and good-humored person. One evening Kinney shares with Bartley and another friend stories of his exploits during his long and fascinating life. He plans one day to write them down and get them published, but before he can do that Bartley has written them down and had them published himself to wide acclaim. In the process he allows it to be mistakenly believed that the friend who was with him that evening wrote the stories — his friend is allowed to take the blame for the theft of another’s intellectual property when it becomes known. Needless to say, in the process Bartley loses two close friends. But he cares not. Not really; after all, he has lost a number of friends along the way, people who have seen through the facade and don’t like what lies behind. After all, his story was a success and it garnered him a large financial reward.  And money is very important to Bartley — along with the prestige it gives him.

The truth slowly comes out about what Bartley has done and he finds himself fired from his high-paying job on one of Boston’s most popular newspapers and set somewhat adrift. He borrows some money from a man he regards as a friend and proceeds to gamble it away. His wife finally begins to see the sort of man she has married and sends him packing, though she immediately regrets it because she can never quite shakes the image she has of the man she still loves. It bothers him not, because he can rationalize that what he did is not wrong and others are wrong to persecute him. Bartley is very good at rationalizing and placing the blame on others. As a hollow man he has no center, no principles that might otherwise give his life meaning and direction. This in one reason he remained with his wife as long as he did: she had been very willing to take the blame for his many faults and brush them aside as they did not fit in with her image of what her husband is.

William Dean Howells is a brilliant novelist and A Modern Instance may be his best work., But in any event, he is prescient as he saw coming soon after the Civil War that the Bartley Hubbards would become increasingly numerous, men who are hollow at the core and who are lost within the labyrinth of their own diminished self whose only goal is to seek pleasure and financial ease. And like any great work of literature, there is much food for thought and many insights into the modern, and the post-modern, temper. We can learn a great deal from those old, dead, white, European (or in this case American) men, can we not?

 

Religion and Mammon

I recently blogged about what I argued was the inverse relationship between morality and wealth, insisting that we have somehow lost the proper perspective — one that the Greeks shared, for example — between wealth and morality. Aristotle, for example, insisted that the accumulation of wealth was a means to an end, not an end in itself, and that too much wealth was a threat to a balanced character. The goal of humans is to be as happy as possible and a certain amount of money is necessary to that end. But when the accumulation of wealth becomes all-consuming it is problematic. In my argument I suggested that the preoccupation with wealth in this country since the Civil War has brought about the reduction of our moral sensibilities. But, it might be asked, what about religion? Folks like Gertrude Himmelfarb insist that Americans are among the most religious people on earth. Doesn’t this undercut my argument somewhat?

I would say not because, as I argued in a blog not long ago, much depends on what we mean by “religious.” If we mean, simply, that many Americans attend church regularly, this is probably true — though there are a great many empty churches in this country and traditional religions are struggling, especially in attracting the young. Furthermore, mere attendance at church hardly sets one apart as a deeply religious person. In any event, William Dean Howells noted in a most interesting novel, A Modern Instance, that religion — even in the late nineteenth century — had become something less than all-consuming and considerably less important than such things as the pursuit of pleasure. Speaking of the small New England town in which his novel was set, the narrator notes that:

“Religion had largely ceased to be a fact of spiritual experience and the visible church flourished on condition of providing for the social needs of the community. It was practically held that the salvation of one’s soul must not be made too depressing, or the young people would have nothing to do with it. Professors of the sternest creeds temporized with sinners, and did what might be done to win them to heaven by helping them to have a good time here. The church embraced and included the world.”

Howells was good friends with Mark Twain and we can see the same scepticism in his novel that I noted in some of Twain’s comments quoted in the previous post. The Civil War did something profound to the ethos of this country. The death of 620,000 young men almost certainly had something to do with it. But the sudden accumulation of great wealth by many who took advantage of the war to turn a profit was simply a sign to others that this was the way to go. And the Horatio Alger myth was born as inventors and business tycoons seemed to appear out of nowhere. The cost to the nation as a whole was the conviction that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Wealth increasingly became a sign of success and even of God’s favor. As I noted, the relationship between the accumulation of wealth and the sacrifices necessary to pursue one’s sense of duty was turned upside down and instead of looking askance at those with fat pocketbooks, as was the norm for hundreds of years, the rich became instead role models for the rest of the country — and the world, as it happens. Simultaneously, as it were, morality was set on the shelf by many who now insisted that right and wrong are relative concepts and virtue is something to be read about but not to bother one’s head about. It certainly shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with pleasure and the accumulation of as much money as possible.