A Play is a World: Conservative PC, Liberal PC, and Taking Art Seriously

May 20, 2011 | 4 books mentioned 1 7 min read

1.
It’s a commonplace that beautiful art can, and often does, come from ugly souls: Caravaggio knifing a man in a Roman alley; Wagner writing Jew-hating tracts alongside his operas; Schopenhauer pushing an old lady down a flight of stairs. But what about the reverse? What about the hypocrisy of living well?

That’s the charge leveled earlier this spring, on a conservative National Review blog, against the Nobel-winning British playwright Harold Pinter—and I want to dwell on that criticism because, as ridiculous as it seems on its face, I think it can lead us in a roundabout way to a better understanding of what it means to take art seriously.

In her National Review piece, Carol Iannone cites an article about the late writer’s remarkably loving relationship with his wife—evidently three decades of not going to bed angry—and contrasts it with the much bleaker world Pinter painted in his plays during those years: “While Pinter was enjoying his high-level marriage of refined intellectual equals in the British upper class, he was inflicting on his servile public a dark vision of obscure miseries, casual cruelties, inarticulate vulgarity, strangled miscommunications, and menacing silences in sordid rooming houses.”

I’m no expert on Pinter, so for the moment I just want to take that harsh characterization of his work, fair or not, as a given. What interests me is the way Iannone goes on to justify it: “We shouldn’t imbibe the bleak visions of many modernist works (especially by left-wing writers), visions based not on life but on willed projections of darkness and despair.” There are a lot of assumptions here that go completely unjustified: that we should be “especially” wary of left-wing writers; that writing has to be “based on life” in some unspecified way in order to succeed. But the basic claim is this: we wouldn’t want to spend any time at all in the world of Pinter’s plays, we wouldn’t want to willingly take on that amount of darkness, when we could spend time somewhere brighter. And the fact that somewhere brighter exists is proven by the writer’s own life.

We might call that view conservative PC. And my first reaction was to dismiss it out of hand: “What’s wrong with a play about despair? Even if a play is nothing but cruelty and vulgarity, a play isn’t a world. I can spend an hour or two with something depressing and despairing, because I also know that there’s plenty of uplifting art for when I feel like being uplifted. The fact that the writer lived a good life—the fact that I can live a good life—is actually a point in favor of bleak, dark plays. I can watch them secure with the fact that that’s not all there is.”

What struck me about my reaction, however, was just how much it had in common with the defense against artistic PC from the other side. How often have we seen a movie or a TV show criticized for, say, a negative or stereotypical portrayal of women? And how often have we heard an instant response like this? “This movie (or show or book) isn’t portraying women—it’s portraying individual characters. You may not like them, but it’s unfair to make them carry the weight of an entire worldview about women, or about anything else. A movie isn’t a world.”

The argument here isn’t simply one over politics, over liberal elites or gender roles; the argument is between two different ways of reading. One is a sort of deliberate tunnel-vision: it asks us to fully inhabit a work, to treat if for the time we’re there as a self-contained world. The other view places a much lighter burden on artists: it tells us in the audience that it’s fine to watch with one eye, and to keep the other eye on the “real world”; and when we can remind ourselves that there’s always a world outside of what we’re watching, the artist’s choices carry a good deal less weight. What the second view is really promising us is art without responsibility—or at least with much less responsibility. That’s exactly why it’s so instinctively appealing. But, by stopping us from becoming fully involved with what we’re reading, watching, or hearing, it also carries a high cost—one I’m not convinced is worth paying.

2.
The term world-building, when we use it at all, is usually reserved for thick, Tolkeinesque fantasy books: world-building means inventing imaginary continents with their own geographies and landmarks and kingdoms. I’d argue, though, that all art is engaged in world-building—and that it can be accomplished as successfully in 14 lines as in 500 pages. Here, for instance, is a world without spring:

Those hours, that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,
Will play the tyrants to the very same
And that unfair which fairly doth excel:
For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter and confounds him there;
Sap check’d with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’ersnow’d and bareness every where:
Then, were not summer’s distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it nor no remembrance what it was:
But flowers distill’d though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.

coverThat’s Shakespeare’s Fifth Sonnet. The claim is that time will destroy the beauty of the poem’s subject, just as winter strips the leaves from trees, and the only defense is to bottle up and save “summer’s distillation”—in this case, as it turns out, by conceiving an heir. The sonnet’s urgency comes from the fact that it ends in winter: it is a world where spring, regeneration, and rebirth are all impossible. In The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the great critic Helen Vendler explains the poem’s power, and why it’s dependent on this cold ending:

In both quatrains, no possibility is envisaged other than a destructive slope ending in confounding catastrophe. Since Nature is being used as a figure for human life (which is not reborn), the poem exhibits no upward slope in seasonal change. It cannot be too strongly emphasized that nothing can be said to happen in a poem which is not there suggested. If summer is confounded in hideous winter, one is not permitted to add, irrelevantly, “But can spring be far behind?” If the poet had wanted to provoke such an extrapolation, he would by some means have suggested it.

coverEven though Vendler talks about what we are and are not “permitted” to see in a poem, this kind of reading is much more than an artificial convention or an English professor’s trick. It’s the kind of reading that is compelled by great world-building—by art that is so convincing or so powerful that we barely stop to think that it’s artificial. Just as one can make it through The Lord of the Rings without seriously reflecting that there are no such things as elves, one can make it through this sonnet without seriously reflecting that there is no such thing as a world that ends in winter.

Just as importantly, the kind of blinkered reading that Vendler argues for is our contribution to making a poem or a book or a film “work,” a contribution that is easier the more compelling the work we’re dealing with. If we read through the Fifth Sonnet constantly reminding ourselves of the artificiality of its world—repeating to ourselves at the end of every line, “of course spring comes after winter”—the experience of reading it starts to fade. Without immersion in its world, we can still admire the rhymes and meter and metaphors from a distance, but we are also shut out from them. The poem loses whatever power it had over our emotions; it stops to “work” in the same way. This immersion, or tunnel-vision, is really just a kind of suspension of disbelief, maybe the most fundamental kind. Just as it’s hard to fully experience Hamlet without temporarily believing in ghosts, it’s hard to fully experience this sonnet without disbelieving in spring. It’s hard to fully experience any work without, at least temporarily, treating it as a world.

3.
From that perspective, we can’t mentally protect ourselves from a uniformly bleak play by recalling that there are other, happier plays or other, happier possibilities for our own lives; the point of the play, if it works as theater, is to ask: “What if the world were like this?” Or take a TV series like The Wire, which paints the failure and breakdown of public institutions from police to schools to unions. To treat the series as a world is to understand that it’s passing a judgment not just on Baltimore, the city in which it’s set, but on cities and institutions in general, along with the men and women who run them. We can’t shield ourselves from those conclusions by remembering that there is, say, a well-run town somewhere in Scandinavia.

Or rather, we can—but only at the price of trivializing what we’re watching, reducing it to a forgettable entertainment. In fact, it’s those of us who put the greatest responsibility on art who are most willing to take seriously its power over us: to shape the way we see the world, and the way we act in it. It’s not surprising that the godfather of this view—Plato, who famously called poetry morally corrupting—was one of the most gifted writers who ever lived, as well as (by some accounts) a former poet himself: in other words, a man who knew the power of literature so directly that he came to fear it, arguably too much.

Taking a strong view of artistic responsibility doesn’t tell us what that responsibility has to look like. It doesn’t compel us, like Plato, to expel poets from the city. It doesn’t mandate that all of our art be uplifting. It doesn’t tell us where to draw the line between the kind of bleakness that’s bracing and the kind that’s just degrading. It doesn’t commit us to a view of the gender roles we want our movies and TV shows to embody. It doesn’t commit us to a particular ideology at all. It is the beginning of those arguments, not the end of them. It simply tells us that we can’t sidestep those arguments by protesting that it’s just a play, just a movie, just a book, just one entertainment among many.

Or rather, we can—but in the process, we also admit that those plays, movies, and books can’t really move us, at least not enough to care about the way in which they’re moving us. And to admit that is to flatten the distinction between those entertainments that really are forgettable, and the art that, with our cooperation, successfully creates worlds. The more compelling the world, the greater the obligation that it be one worth living in.

(Image: M31, the Andromeda Galaxy (now with h-alpha) from astroporn’s photostream)

is a Ph.D. student at Columbia University and a former congressional speechwriter. He is the co-author of Rome's Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar.

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