Thursday, October 30, 2008

artistic honesty and the human condition

While I've always been a fairly introspective guy, I was never really able to put my temperament into words until I was introduced to my now favorite philosopher, William James. In his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, James describes how different religions appeal in different ways to people of differing temperaments, and sets forth two general kinds of temeraments. He calls them the Healthy-Minded and The Sick Soul. These are admittedly general categories, as James is always the first one to admit that "individuality outruns all classification," but they are good general categories.

The Sick Soul

I've found that I fall into the latter of the the two. The Sick Soul is characterized by the view that "the evil* aspects of our life are of its very essence, and that the world's meaning most comes home to us when we lay them most to heart" (Varieties, 124). For the Sick Soul, the recognition and admission that evil is an elemental part of both our existence and our interpretation of the universe, is key to achieving any kind of peace or solace.

This is me to the letter. Yes, I'm a generally happy guy, but my thoughts and feelings are all underpinned by a general melancholia. My thoughts tend to center around what James claims to be the general observation of religion, which is that things are not as they ought to be. My optimism stems from what James says is the the general response of religion, which is that things can be made at least better than they are by unification with or reconciliation to something greater than us. For me, this is meliorism, the idea that "that the world tends to become better or may be made better by human effort."

But, despite all this purported optimism, the melancholy remains. No, I'm not saying that I'm clinically depressed or anything of that magnitude (in fact, I took a free screening on campus and they gave me clean bill of mental health!), but I'm saying that for me there is a certain amount of general melancholy that comes with being mortal, living in a mortal world. Despite my belief that the world can (and ultimately will) become a better place, I am ultimately aware that I suffer real pains, real mistakes and real losses.

Because there are different temperaments, there are different kinds of art and more specifically, different approaches to creating art. Among many of my musician peers, and many of those whose place it is to instruct me in the same, there is a popular ideology which says that for music to be "uplifting" its lyrics have to be "happy" and have to avoid negative topics. While I believe that art should uplift, I don't think this method is a particularly effective or honest approach to achieving that end. I unable to speak for other people, but I personally can't get to the point where a piece of art can edify me or provide me with solace if it casts a blind eye to the things that are causing my turmoil to begin with. For me, there is no catharsis until after the conflict. That's the way it is in my life, and art doesn't make sense to me if it isn't in some way a mirror of that. Even an idealistic piece can tip its hat to the fact that things are not as they are being portrayed.

Voicing the Voiceless

This is the paradox of tragedy. Aristotle wrote about it, Plato and pals argued about it. Why is it that we find joy in seeing a tragic film or play, or in hearing a sad song about the broken heart of a fornlorn lover. To make the paradox clearer: How is it that we somehow find joy in being sad? I think that sad songs speak to us because in order to be healed or to find peace, we must first find a voice for the grief we're up against. I'm convinced that we're incapable, by ourselves, of saying everything that we need to say in this life, and thus need others to help us say the rest. This, to me, is the role of tragic art. It is the voice we give to pain so that the pain can be understood and handled.

I watched the film "The Deer Hunter" this week. It was a Viet Nam Era piece starring Robert Deniro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep (to name a few), and was heartwrenching for me to watch. The majority of the time, I had a lump in my throat and was blinking back tears. The film depicted death, grief and the depletion of human will... yet I came out of it feeling profoundly uplifted. It did not have a happy ending by any obvious means, but I came away from it filled with an enriched view of the nature of loyalty and love, and with a hightened sense of . . . gratitude? Yes, it was gratitude, and this is a perfect example of "voicing the voiceless."

When I was in first grade, my father was shipped off to Saudia Arabia to fight in Operation Desert Storm. I missed him terribly, but for the most part, I handled it quite well. When you're that young, your mind has a pretty big buffer so that emotionally devastating things don't hurt your development as much. I remember being well aware that the news had just stated that the city my dad was in was being bombed and seeing the fear in my mother's eyes and sometimes hearing her crying softly in her bedroom, but my little six-year-old brain would never allow me to process any of it. So as a result, my heart and mind were aware that I should devastated, but filed the information away for later processing. Fast-forward to this week. Seeing the horrible depictions of war, and grief and worried families and loyalty to one's country depicted in The Deer Hunter, suddenly fills me with an incredibly heartwrenching sense of gratitude for my father's willingness to serve his country and his eventual safe return. For the first time in 19 years, the pain I felt had been given a voice. It was finally in a form that was comprehensible, and consequently healable.

The music that means the most to me and has the deepest emotional impact on me is the music that doesn't shy away from the sad things of the world. I am perpetually impressed by the lyrics of Sufjan Stevens who finds the beauty in those who we would ignore and the wisdom that can distil in times of sadness. Let me end with a line from one of his songs, called "For the Widows in Paradise," which stuck in my mind the first time I heard it and has stayed with me ever since:

"Even if I come back, even if I die
Is there some idea to replace my life? "

I hope that as a musician, there is at least one idea I can get across which will remain to take my place when I'm gone.

*To be clear, I use the term "evil" in the general philosophical sense, meaning anything that causes pain or sadness, which includes - but is not limited to - moral evil.


  1. I am not an artist in the musical sense, but music resonates with me. I find comfort in the lyrics of sad songs(and happy songs, too) because 1.) I am feeling the same way at the time, or have felt that way at some time, and 2.) I know someone else has felt the same way I do. Like you said, these artists are giving voice to the voiceless. I cannot create music to express the way I feel (although I desperately wish I could), and so I look to others to create it for me. And it's really amazing that so many people are able to give me voice the way I would if I could. Make sense?

  2. Agreed!

    "The poetry that comes from the squaring off between,
    And the circling is worth it.
    Finding beauty in the dissonance."

    Or 2nd Nephi and all that... I can never really enjoy a happy ending unless the movie has had a good amount of loss/struggle/suffering...

  3. First of all, those mental health screenings are so easy to cheat on if you know what you're doing :)

    Second of all, I have a crackpot theory I'd like to share. The difficulty--and in a roundabout way the beauty--of art is that it can only really teach you something you already know. I think that's the experience you had watching the Deer Hunter (which is a great movie BTW): you saw something portrayed that you already knew on an emotional level, and the portrayal pushed that knowledge onto the conscious level. I had a similar experience watching one of the last scenes of Fargo--the scene where the cops catch William H. Macy in his hotel room. The way he howls--oh, the way he howls, the way his muscles tense up, the way he gnashes his teeth! I watched that scene and I knew what was meant by "the sorrows of a damned soul." But I couldn't have gotten that from the film if on some level I didn't already understand that concept.

    I hope that made sense.

  4. yeah, i feel ya, Nate. i do think, however, that music can teach you things you don't already know, but in a textbook, second-hand sort of way. like the difference between learning something in a classroom and learning it by experience.
    i agree that the most poignant experiences we have with art are those in which something we already know on some level are made conscious. that's what i was saying in the second half of this post, and my point is that being brought to a conscious level is the thing that makes it possible to deal with it.
    and yeah, i really know what you mean about that scene in Fargo. holy crap. i almost couldn't look at William H. Macy in that scene.