Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Five Great Mysteries: Towards a Personal Aesthetic

That's a rather high-falutin' title, but all it means is that I'm trying to figure out some basic principles and guidelines as to what kind of writer I want to be. As such, this will be even moreso notes-to-self than most of my blog posts; but like always, I welcome questions, comments, and all other kinds of input.

John Updike said famously that he wrote about the three great mysteries: Religion, Art, and Sex. For my purposes here I'm going to add two more: Violence and Love.


I'm not actually sure that this is as great a Mystery as the other four, but it does share a lot of qualities with them. It is something everyone will experience, in some form or other. It is easy to become obsessed with (as our popular culture seems to have done). There is much classical precedent for this, of course: the Bible, the Greek Epics, in fact most epic stories and most mythology from all cultures--all of these are very violent.

As a culture we are, as mentioned, obsessed with it, to the point that our video games and movies and TV shows and (to a somewhat lesser extent) our literature are saturated with killings, death, murder--and fighting and abuse of all kinds. To quote a cliche that is nevertheless true, we are increasingly desensitized to it, to the point that we are allowing violence in movies to a degree that would have been unthinkable even a couple of decades ago, while taking the opposite approach to sex (but more on that in a bit).

Flannery O'Connor, a great Catholic writer and one of my literary heroes, once said that violence was a way to wake her characters up: "I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace." We see simulated violence all the time, but when it happens to us, we never expect it, and it becomes real, and the world becomes a much scarier place, and sometimes a place much more filled with grace. My challenge--the challenge of my generation of writers--is to make violence real once again, to use it not to exploit or titillate, but to wake up the sleeping reader and guide them to see the big, scary world around them. Quoting O'Connor again:

The novelist with Christian concerns will find modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.


As a culture, we have two reactions to the topic of Sex, that seem to be polar opposites.

First, of course, we are obsessed with it. TV shows, movies, literature, even comic books seem to have ubiquitious sex scenes. It sells everything from sunglasses to medicine to politicians. Since the sixties, even the fifties, movies have been pushing the envelope as far as just what they're allowed to show, to the point that these days you can show pretty much anything (provided you don't mind an R or NC-17 rating, though usually just R). Literature seems bent on exploring the areas the movies don't get to. TV is sort of the last battlement, though it's a crumbling and poorly defended one.

This obsession, I think, is unhealthy.

The other reaction, which may simply be the physically lawful equal and opposite one, is summarily that of hiding. Certain segments of our culture--including the groups of conservatives, Lutherans, homeschoolers, and conservative Lutheran homeschoolers I tend to hang out with--have gone positively Victorian regarding sex. That is, you don't talk about it, you don't mention it (unless it's in a condemning voice regarding any kind of deviance), you don't refer to anything referring to it. You can talk about pregnancy, as long as no mention is made as to how it occurs; you can talk about giving birth, as long as no technical terms are used.

Strangely enough, the board of censors known as the MPAA (the people who determine movie ratings) seem to go along with this line of thought, to a certain extent. They'll allow extreme violence and torture, such as people are highly unlikely to ever see or experience, in a movie that very young children are allowed to see. However sex, which is something that the vast, vast majority of human beings will experience at some point in their lives, is something whose mere mention gets a movie a higher rating.

This Puritanism, I think, is also unhealthy, and just as dishonoring as the obsession.

Recently I read Frank Capra's autobiography, The Name Above the Title. Capra was a brilliant film director, his most famous movies being It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Meet John Doe, among others. He was a Sicilian immigrant, by birth a salt-of-the-earth Catholic. Of course, most of his films were made under the Hays Code, strongly restricting sexual content among other things. His book was under no such restriction. He talks about sex, when it comes up, frankly and openly. He does not obsess about it, but he does not avoid it or talk around it, either. He jokes about it occasionally. But he is almost never crude, and never disrespectful. He gives sex its due, which I think is all that should be asked.

He says, and Peter Bogdanovich says similar things, and I agree with both of them, that explicit sex scens in movies (and, I add, in literature) are one of the stupidest choices a director (or writer) can make. Unless your work is, like Updike's Couples, entirely about sex, there is no reason to show it. In fact, I find that sexual tension builds better the less sex is talked about. Tasteful fade-outs, people, tasteful fade-outs.


I anticipate being a writer in what many are calling a Post-Christian age. This is not to say that Christianity will go away, or even that it will cease to be a huge force in the world. But we will no longer have the cultural common ground of the Bible--it has been quarantined from secular discourse. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does change the rules somewhat.

Religion has not gone away. This is one thing I am and will be adamant about. Contemporary writers tend to ignore religion, because to introduce it in their text is to introduce an Issue that they then have to Address. The underlying assumption seems to be that we're all happy little Secular Humanists, which is a convenient one for telling a story. But with the amount of Christians still stubbornly clinging to their backward beliefs, and the amount of other non-atheists in the world--which is, in fact, the vast, vast, vast majority of people, surely it would be more authentic to assume some form of underlying religious belief, even if it is merely touched on.

Probably I should research other religions, learn enough so that everyone isn't Protestant in my fictional worlds. But at this point, that's my experience, so that's what they tend to be.

As far as being a religious writer, I don't think I could be as brilliantly overtly religious as Tolkien or Lewis. I tend more towards burying my symbolism--not so it's not there, just so that it's not exactly where it's expected, or what is expected. I model myself after Flannery O'Connor, Gene Wolfe, and Sufjan Stevens in this regard. (See O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find," or Stevens' song "Casimir Pulaski Day.")


As for Art, I am firmly in the Oscar Wilde camp: "The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless." Art should not have to have a moral, an instructional value, a use, or even a point. All art should be true, a perfect (often mythical in the true sense of the word) reflection of the human experience, or it should be beautiful. The best art is both. See the Preface to Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" for more. I consider that my manifesto.

To go theological for a moment, God created humans for one purpose: to love them. He made a useless thing, and His only excuse was that he admired it intensely. That is, he loved it. The human artist is merely a shattered reflection of the Divine.

One example of this type of art is the cultural phenomenon-fad Napoleon Dynamite. It was in at least one way a perfect film, a perfect expression of art: its only intention was to make people laugh, and it succeeded millions of times over. It had some poignant moments, indeed almost some beautiful ones; but they served, eventually and sometimes simultaneously, to further the laughter. Few times have I come across as perfect an expression of the Divine in art. (Though I have a feeling the filmmakers would laugh if they read this.)


Along with Violence and Sex, Love seems to complete the trinity of things with which our culture is obsessed. It's an interesting antidote to the other two: violence and sex, at least the way our culture thinks of them, are selfishly motivated. Love is by definition unselfish.

I find there is very little I can say that has not been said already, and better. I believe in true love; it is love that is true. (I can't link to it here because Nat has made his blog private, but subscribers should look at his post "Wuke Skywawker (geddit?)" from forever ago, which addresses this at length.)

I find myself not opposed to love at first sight, even if I am skeptical whenever it is mentioned. I used to smirk and say I believed rather in "lust at first sight," but having matured somewhat I can no longer do that. Who am I to put limits on when and how and where love is engendered?

Love is irritating and aggravating and mysterious, but I think Updike may have left it out of his Great Mysteries because really it is mainly Hard. It's hard to love; it's hard to love unconditionally. We know what we should do, and we don't do it. (Biblical reference here.)

My motus operandi so far seems to have been not to take the easy, trite, romantic comedy version of love, or even to take it and expand it so it's less trite and more actually true, though that would be a worthy endeavor. I seem to take it from the most unexpected angles, and look at how it tries, how it fails, how it works out anyway as the expression of a perfect thing expressed imperfectly by fallen creatures.


Certainly not one of the great mysteries, but we are living in a profane age, and the topic is worth addressing briefly. I've been told a couple times that cussing in fiction is always unnecessary, which I found wrong and almost offensive. We live in a profane age, and to address certain aspects of life, indeed nearly any contemporary one, swearing and cursing are going to have to be dealt with. Even with Christians.

But I find it less and less tasteful in my own writing, to the point where unless it is absolutely necessary, I tend to leave it out. Maybe this is a sign of maturity. I dunno.


Anna Joy said...

I enjoy your thoughts on art, but you failed to mention a hugely important area of artistic endeavor (yes, I'm biased): design.

I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on design, which combines both form and function. Function being either communicative or use based.

Ethan said...

I'm not sure exactly how you define design, so if I misconstrue what you mean, please forgive and correct me.

I honestly don't know that much about design, abstractly. What design there is in my writing tends to be instinctive, a result of having read enough and written enough. I use certain forms--poetry forms, Aristotelian story structure, or more experimental story structure, but the form is always there to support the story. That's a basic principle--don't experiment for the sake of itself, experiment to find a better way of telling the story.

I should have added that art that IS functional is not inherently lesser than art that isn't, just that the functionality is extra and not necessary.

Does any of that at all address the question?

NOT Freddy Jones said...

I believe what Anna Joy was talking about was designing something. As in, a design for a house, or an article of clothing, or another form of usable art. I may be wrong, but that is how I interpreted her message.

Nice post. I'd like to make some useful constructive comment, but, eh, brain no work right now. So.. nice post.

Oh, and I would like to see a story written by you about a non Lutheran/Protestant. Especially if they were something rather unusual, like Wiccan or Hindi.

Ethan said...

Haha. Hindi I could do; their gods and mythologies and so forth are rather cool. Wiccans... I've met too many of them, and the ones that aren't insufferable are creepy.

If you feel like making constructive comments when your brain do work, feel free. ;) :P

Darth Nemoyer said...

Computer, define "Aristotelian story structure".

Darth Nemoyer said...

As far as design goes, you do seem to be fond of stories taking somewhat symmetrical arcs.

Ethan said...

I do love symmetry, the more fine-tuned the better. It comes from reading James Joyce's "The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" at an impressionable age. One day I will best the perfect symmetry in that book, and then I can die happy.

Darth Nemoyer said...

Alright, I admit you're going to be one of the great American novelists and all, but: You're delusional. Seriously, look at what you just said. You are talking about besting James Joyce at his own game. You're only human, Ethan.

Ethan said...

You're right. I'm going to have to become immortal, too.

Darth Nemoyer said...

That should be easy. All you need to do is pull yourself out of our time continuum.