Saturday, May 09, 2009

Absurdism And Other Things

These are a lot of random, semi-connected thoughts I've been having lately, that I'm trying to connect. Hold on tight.

Jazz and Absurdism are my first thoughts.

I began reading the book Blue Like Jazz the other day. It's a questing, poetic book about Christian spirituality in the postmodern world. The opening Author's Note reads like this:

I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn't resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxaphone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.

After that I liked jazz music.

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.

I used to not like God because God didn't resolve. But that was before any of this happened.


I'm going to leave that there, hanging a bit awkwardly, for a bit before I return to it.

Absurdism. It's on my mind because here at Bethany we recently had our Director's Showcase. Everyone in the (Theatre) Directing class takes a scene from a play, recruits actors, and directs said scene, putting it on at this Showcase. This time the theme was unrealism, which mainly translated into Absurdism. I was in three different scenes, two from plays by Eugene Ionesco, who perhaps most famously wrote Rhinocerous. One of these scenes was from The Bald Soprano, which is subtitled an "Anti-play." It is basically full of nonsense dialogue:

"I can buy an egg for my brother, but you can't buy Ireland for your grandfather."
"One walks on his feet, but one heats with electricity or coal."
"One can sit on a chair, when the chair doesn't have any."
"One must always think of everything."

And so forth. This is typical absurdism. It is very existential, often; it reflects on a modern world and a modern experience that is, well, absurd. I'm sure that, were I younger, I would fail to like absurdism, perhaps because it doesn't resolve.

There is a type of person I have encountered often. They dislike jazz, absurdism, stories or movies that don't have an Aristotelian climactic structure. They almost always dislike Napoleon Dynamite. Usually they object to experimental art of any kind. The objection is often along these lines:

"It doesn't make sense."
"It doesn't have a point."
"It's ridiculous."

I don't mean to stereotype, but it's true when I say I've met many people whose opinions and expressions in these matters can fit exactly over one another, like a one-size-fits-all pair of spandex pants. And maybe what I'm describing is simply people who are "normal," although I object to the idea of there being a truly, deeply "normal" person in existence.

But wait. While it's implied in their judgments, the above-typified "normal" people have said nothing about a crucial topic: Truth. These people seem to be saying that all this lack of resolution is wrong, which implies a moral judgment as to their truth. But, perhaps because they don't think of it, our amateur critics don't say it.

In the second chapter of Reading Like A Writer, Francine Prose quotes Hemingway's method of writing fiction:

Sometimes when I was started on a new story and I could not get going... I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, "Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know." So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.


She expressed confusion over his use of the word "truth" as regards obviously fictional writing, saying that perhaps he has made the common mistake of confusing truth with beauty. I could not object more. There is all kinds of truth to be found in fiction, frequently more and deeper truth than can be found in non-fiction or in "real life." Dreams are only rarely beautiful, but they are always on some level true.

Another thing that "normal" people, even "normal" literary-minded people, often shun and run from is that oft-derided branch of literature known as Fantasy. Before its ascent in popularity beginning in the 30s Pulp magazines, the Victorians (who in literary taste if not in morality are the analogues of our currently-defined "normal" person) shunned fantasy and relegated it to the nursery, the children's book, and the seamy shops which the sort of person who has never outgrown his crutches of infantilism and substance abuse might frequent.

Perhaps not coincidentally, something that has often struck me about old fantasy (that is, fantasy before and up to Tolkien) is its often searing truth. A perfect example comes from Cabell's Jurgen:

For now had come toward them, walking together in the dawn, a handsome boy and girl. And the girl was incredibly beautiful, because everybody in the garden saw her with the vision of the boy who was with her.


This is not only beautiful, but also, in a poetic-device-riddled way, very true.

Or, in a further passage from the same book. The Centuar is speaking to Jurgen about the garden they are in, The Garden Between Dawn and Sunrise:

"For in this garden," said the Centaur, "each man that ever lived has sojourned for a little while, with no company save his illusions. I must tell you again that in this garden are encountered none but imaginary creatures. And stalwart persons take their hour of recreation here, and go hence unaccompanied, to become aldermen and respected merchants and bishops, and to be admired as captains upon prancing horses, or even as kings upon tall thrones; each in his station thinking not at all of the garden ever any more. But now and then come timid persons, Jurgen, who fear to leave this garden without an escort: so these must need go hence with one or another imaginary creature, to guide them about alleys and by-paths, because imaginary creatures find little nourishment in the public highways, and shun them..."


This passage, though beautifully written, is emphatically not beautiful. It is sad, it is tearful, it is depressing, perhaps somewhat cynical. It is also very, very true. Again, this is truth in the way a poem is true, or a dream.

Lud-in-the-Mist, another forgotten and shunned fantasy classic, contains statements even less poetic and even more bald in their truth.

...though, indeed, it is never safe to classify the souls of one's neighbors; one is apt, in the long run, to be proved a fool. You should regard each meeting with a friend as a sitting he is unwittingly giving you for a portrait--a portrait that, probably, when you or he die, will still be unfinished. And, though this is an absorbing pursuit, nevertheless, the painters are apt to end pessimists. For however handsome and merry may be the face, however rich may be the background, in the first rough sketch of each portrait, yet with every added stroke of the brush, with every tiny readjustment of the "values," with every modification of the chiaroscuro, the eyes looking out at you grow more disquieting. And, finally, it is your own face that you are staring at in terror, as in a mirror by candle-light, when all the house is still.


What is my point here? Is it that jazz is true, that Absurdism, with all its postmodern despair, is true too?

Well, what if, as our increasingly theoretical amateur critic implies, the opposite is so? What if all music should resolve, all stories should makes sense, dialogue following itself like a pack of wolves on a scent or a regiment of soldiers marching in step? If this is a reflection of truth, it seems to me, then life should make perfect sense. Economic and political systems that make sense should work. Theories that seem airtight should always prove to be true. Drawing should be as simple as tracing the lines one sees. People should be nice to one another. Relationships should be tit-for-tat, easy to screw up, but easy to succeed at. Life should be simple and easy to figure out.

Is any of this the case? Of course not. The world is not simple. The world doesn't make sense. So why should art have to make sense? Why should art have to resolve? Why should we even expect it to? I can come up with smug platitudes to answer these, but they taste to me of the bitterest kind of sophistry and closed thinking.

Perhaps art should be an escape, and often it is. Often it takes the stuff of real life, and creates a miniature world which looks very much like real life, but which makes sense, which resolves, in which everything that is begun ends, and everything that is started finishes in one way or another. But this seems to me a cheap cop-out; good art, even good popular escapist art, should be true; for art is one of the deepest mysteries. Even an escape from real life should contain in it truth about that life. And it is possible to unite the two.

Take, for example, Lord of the Rings. I wish I had my very beat-up paperback copy of the Trilogy with me; for nostalgic purposes, and because I could find one of the many, many very true passages within it and quote it here. Many of my readers will have their own copies. I challenge you to open any volume and read for twenty pages without encountering some profound truth about life, the universe, and everything.

The movies are this way, too, to an extent. They don't always have the grandeur of Tolkien's language or quite the profundity of his thought, but they capture the spirit of the books extremely well.

And this is a trilogy of books and especially of movies that my theoretical amateur critic would distinctly love, for many and probably most of the people I've experienced to make this theoretical straw man do love the books and/or the movies.

There are a lot of ways, it seems to me, that these thoughts could relate to God. But it is getting late, and I have been blathering on for far too long anyway. I will leave the reader to make the reader's own connections.

3 comments:

Ethan said...

Meh. I don't like this post. I will probably delete it.

NOT Freddy Jones said...

If you delete this post, Ethan, neither you nor your fedora will live to see the new year in one piece.

This is fooking beautiful. I could go on and on about how poetic it is, but it'd just end up sounding annoying and cliche. So be content with Don't you dare delete it.

Ethan said...

haha. Okay, Robin, I will, and tank you.