This Is Not a Defense of the Power of Art

If you’ve never cried while reading a book or watching a movie, this essay isn’t for you. There are only three times I remember out and out weeping in response to either: As a child on the roof of my mother’s house, in my wife’s and my first apartment, and this December, alone at the kitchen table while my wife and our three-month-old daughter slept. Each time I was surprised by the tears, and each time I welcomed them as some cleansing phenomena. I’m not talking about welling up. I put the books in question down and buried my head or stopped the movie so I could go hide in the bathroom. I was knocked off my tracks, interrupted, more than moved. At their very best, such instances capture part of what T.S. Eliot called the “moment in and out of time.” Most people, in my experience, like to talk about the latter, the way reading transports you or how movies melt away the daily grind. But crying while you read a book or watch a movie is very much in time, an experience that is physically immediate and which necessarily reflects the context of your life during which that moment hits. What’s more, the work in question becomes tied to a time, to a period or even a day of your life that will resonate through the work on any subsequent revisit. For me, there are three art-instances that struck water, one in adolescence, another in my early marriage, and again this last year, which saw the birth of our first child, and the loss of my wife’s first pregnancy. I wish I had a fancier argument to attach to these stories. They’re three modest tales, and all of them embarrass me. 2. My best friend at the end of grade school was named Skyler, and when we got together any afternoon or weekend, worlds were born. He had a definitive birthmark on his cheek, beautiful eyes, and elfin features. We lived in houses on the opposite side of a small neighborhood that were the exact same build. His yard was bigger. My basement was finished. Competition was mostly friendly, though I once shoved his head into a brick wall and was called into the principal’s office. An accident, of course. I didn’t realize the wall was so close. His blood terrified me. Originally from Idaho, his parents threatened to move back home from almost the first summer I met Skyler. Threatened me personally, I felt. They brought it up with amazing indiscretion. Sitting at dinner with them, watching their TV, shadowing every step of their lives, I wondered if they realized that discussing the desire to leave so openly was, ahem, rude. They were going to ruin my life, and that just didn’t seem to be much of a factor. When Skyler’s dad almost got a job in Amarillo, Texas, they brought me along with Skyler and his sister for a weekend road-trip to get the lay of the land. “Three kids, huh?” everyone in Texas said. They simply nodded, unbothered to have me on a one-way, seven-hour car ride that almost, to my mind, ruined their lives. We were from Colorado. The endless flat of the horizon unnerved us. This was the emotional atmosphere in which I read Where the Red Fern Grows the summer after fifth grade. Skyler hounded me to read the book, obsessed with the story’s two dogs, Old Dan and Little Ann, animals he projected onto his own mutts, Copper and Bear. Every summer, I camped in something like the Oklahoma Ozarks, where the book takes place, and encountered gummy elders who still noodled for catfish, who probably coon-hunted themselves. I saw my own grandfather set trot-lines and listened with reverence to his stories of angling audacity. Read the book? The book read me. Skyler felt the same, and liked to list the ways in which Little Ann explained Copper, or how Old Dan was as loyal as Bear. When I was close to finishing, I climbed out my second-story window to the roof of my mother’s house. I sometimes read there. Summer evening, a bright sun, warm weather, and I sped through the story’s denouement, the mountain-lion chase that ends Old Dan’s life, and eventually Little Ann’s, too, from grief. I couldn’t believe the dogs died, and maybe my reaction was some sort of Margarét moment, crying in the setting light for my own mortality. But what happens at the end of the book is not simply a confrontation with untimely death. The narrator must face his sudden aloneness, the fragility of his child’s community. He peers at the doghouse in the moonlight, and notes how “lonely” it looks, how he often “had lain in…bed and listened to the squeaking of the [doghouse] door.” There is a terrible isolation in growing older, when you realize the easiness of being-in-the-world, of being content with others, is going to fade because you will change, they will change, or their parents will move them to Idaho. Idaho, uh, being the universal dumping ground for everyone’s childhood friend. Skyler moved there when I was 12. He was a world-class buddy, and I was the boy left behind. That’s not some easy life lesson, but rather the source of quivering I feel every time I think of the book. It’s a happy thought, now. The book is better because of it. 3. I wish the second story revolved around some other tome, but this list doesn’t comprise my favorite works. I’d never hold them up as exemplary of my taste. Oh, well. In my third year of marriage I read A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken, and I will only read it again when I have a weekend to myself sometime in my 50s, a useful amount of scotch, and enough tissues to survive the experience. Let me set up the moment in time: my wife and I married young (23), and we both finished grad school during the first and second year of our new life together. Facing our third Christmas, we were in new jobs, I was listless and anxious about being a university office drone, and the way forward was suddenly a little murky. Our syllabi life was now without 16-week outlines. For years, my mom had suggested that I read A Severe Mercy, a true story about a guy who knew C.S. Lewis and whose wife died young. Spoiler: the wife in fact does die young, it’s heartbreaking, and the book is essentially a grief-stricken reconciliation with how so meaningless an event might have more meaning than it first appeared. I know! The entire situation is worryingly emotional, possibly cheap. But I kept reading because I grew up on C.S. Lewis and attended Oxford for a year, and the book had a vein of Oxford life I’d always wanted and half-experienced, and because I recognized in the love story of Vanauken and his wife, Davy, so much of what I desired. They were absolute romantics, promising not only never to marry if the other died, but to go to sea and die themselves. They were atheists, too, and the story of their love slowly becomes a revelation of their conversion, an almost Wauvian progression of romantic love giving way to ultimate, spiritual love. Stuck in an admissions desk job, swaybacked professionally by my master’s in literature, I vibrated at this literary return to Oxford. [millions_ad] What crept on me, however, was the slow realization of something I thought I knew, but was only now appreciating. My relationship with my wife was the great adventure of adulthood, and needed to take the place of adolescent dreams. The romantic hopes of childhood, of living with an intensity of purpose, were most possible in the very different romance of my marriage. The quotidian as heroic is a little overstating the situation, maybe, but that was about the gist. Commitment, sacrifice, excitement, all features of healthy intimacy. And yet we weren’t (and aren’t) some heart-burned couple canoodling over poetry by the fire. We don’t live every moment planning the next backpacking adventure. She’s a reader, and has become the best reader of my work to date, but at that point in time our great overlap of interest was that we liked each other. Sometimes we went skiing. Well, Davy dies, and Vanauken writes to Lewis and they discuss the possibility of ghosts during grieving, of there being a special presence for the mourning period that isn’t simply emotion, but is some Christ-like grace that we receive. Christ (you know, your mileage might vary on this) hung around after his death, appearing first to those who loved him. It made sense, they told each other. It hurt beyond bearing, and my own death-pact, that essential vow of marriage, became vivid. Our intention to part only at dying and the great goodness, the great grief all of this might mean fell on my stupid, mid-20s heart. Of course I cried. The best-case scenario was to have a romance that’d haunt me. Or maybe it was to die first. My wife read the book and did not cry, for the record. She decided she’d pick the next book, and I decided that literary experience will always trump one’s pretensions about literary quality. 4. At the end of 2016, my wife told me she was pregnant by handing me a note. We still have the note. We have what I wrote in response, my clumsy, bursting enthusiasm. I’m a depressingly simple human at times of great feeling. We have subsequent journal entries, too, which trace my wife’s discovery of miscarriage, and the final goodbyes both of us wrote to a person we wouldn’t get to meet. We both felt tricked, as if a promise had been made and rescinded, and we both feared that maybe something was wrong, that perhaps a second chance might not come around. Before we knew we were pregnant, a good friend from college texted me and told me she was sure we were. I had a similar premonition before my wife spilled the news, and before her period abstained for long enough to suspect anything with credibility, my wife felt sure the process was underway. We were probably reading physical signs without knowing, sensing and reacting and intuiting. Except my friend. She was in Ethiopia and the text was without precipitant. Nonsense or otherwise, there was an abundance of forward-looking that preempted the event, and once my wife handed me the announcement, our inner lives went even farther. I’d always thought we’d have a daughter first, and we knew the name we hoped to use immediately. The night she started to bleed, but before we knew what was taking place, we went to dinner and a movie with some friends. The movie was Arrival, based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. Amy Adams’s character learns a language that changes her perception of time and begins to see her daughter’s life and inevitable death before her daughter is born. She looks ahead, quite literally, and mourns her child before her child is even living. The resonance of our pain with the film was almost laughably parallel. I’d pictured a daughter, and felt grief without knowing her. My wife, the same. And, I guess, also Amy Adams? We avoided the film in any form thereafter, despite enjoying it, and my wife will always avoid it, I think. But this December, a year after the whole sad experience, I couldn’t help myself. I started the movie and skipped right to the heartbreaking moments, to Amy Adams’s character realizing that she has yet to meet the daughter she grieves in flashes. Someone else is welcome to explain my decision to me. I can only say I acted on instinct, and then fell apart. There was no breakthrough, no insight into life’s coming trials or a neat reflection the stages of aging. Instead, a memorial played across the screen for someone I didn’t get to bury. Our three-month-old daughter, conceived quickly after the miscarriage, was in the other room. Not some daughter we’d imagined, but one who we couldn’t, one too specific to grok with even prophetic foresight. Sobbing, I feared waking the baby, felt immense gratitude that she was born, and turned off the screen. 5. Art has the power to warp and relieve daily life, but I also believe that art isn’t reducible to a few therapeutic instances, no matter how useful the unloosening. A good poem isn’t good because it was read many times at many funerals. That simply means a poem attended some ceremonies. Art’s value, if we’re wise, will never be commensurate with its utility. So where does that leave my above emoting? While fiction and movies offer pleasurable reprieves, I sometimes get the same kind of jolt from a good airline magazine, or lunch. People cry at commercials all the time. As such, a book’s use in my life says only so much about whether it is in fact an interesting art project or even whether it’d be a welcome addition to your life. But as a reader, I’m fundamentally left not with a bunch of premises, but with several anecdotes about when a story anticipated my epiphanies, reflected my numb-nuttery, or broadened my sense of wonder. Every now and then, we should try and let them speak for themselves. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Being Bad Is Sad: Bojack Horseman & Boethius

“You were born broken. That’s your birthright.” BoJack Horseman is an unlikely critical darling. A lewd, animated comedy about a talking horse, critics have heralded its “earned tragedy” and “hypnotic, often horrifying” pull. One simply called it “an unblinking, incredibly empathetic portrait of middle-aged melancholy.” So, not comedy as usual. But BoJack Horseman is more than a surprising treatise on depression. The show operates with philosophical heft, stumbling on big truths through bad behavior, felt observation, and anthropomorphic slapstick. There is no escape from despair for our eponymous equine. He brings it on himself and he firebombs it onto others. But BoJack Horseman isn’t a nihilistic show, however hard it sometimes insists on a meaningless universe. That’s not its final message or the most powerful truths it unearths (through season three, at least). Instead, along with self-destruction, the show features a pathology of hobbling regret, and the doggedness with which BoJack cycles through both gives rise to a curious philosophical correlate: We’re born broken, and yet our wicked choices punish us. Somehow, BoJack the alcoholic, humanoid horse has bumped into Boethius the 6th-century Christian philosopher. A former Roman senator jailed by Theodoric the Great around 524 AD, Boethius produced a treatise called the Consolation of Philosophy while imprisoned. And what an apt figure for gross-out animation! In the Consolation, however, Boethius attempts to explain how justice, despite all appearances, is carried out even when evil men seem to prosper and good men to suffer. This is an urgent idea for a guy who thinks he doesn’t deserve to be executed. The explanation isn’t satisfying in total -- almost no defense of the problem of evil is -- but it’s enlightening all the same. C.S. Lewis summed up the concept this way: “The good are always rewarded and the wicked are always punished, by the mere fact of being what they are. Evil power and evil performance are the punishment of evil will” (The Discarded Image, emphasis mine). A simpler way to understand the argument is a blunt, distasteful thought experiment. If you are a good person who has never murdered anyone, would you rather become a person who murdered someone, or become the victim of a murder? A crude hypothetical, yes, but being evil carries with it some harm, some tragedy, some awfulness which is recognizable from a general instinct to recoil. We don’t want to be bad, because that’s a hell in itself. Interestingly, BoJack Horseman builds to this idea by first establishing a personal take on original sin. BoJack can’t re-route a glitch in his system. A former sitcom star, he retains the immortal glow of 1990s success, but is a novelty more than a celebrity. The depression he feels, however, runs deeper than his superficial career or cultural irrelevance. We see how BoJack’s cruelty and narcissism inflict real consequences on others, and we also see that BoJack genuinely regrets these fallouts. His dying mentor and one-time best friend -- estranged by the horse’s overwhelming selfishness -- cuts to the quick on this front: You want to think of yourself as the good guy. Well I know you better than anyone and I can tell you that you’re not. In fact, you’d probably sleep a lot better at night if you just admitted to yourself that you’re a selfish, goddamned coward who takes whatever he wants and doesn’t give a shit about who he hurts. That’s you. That’s Bojack Horseman. BoJack drives home from this conflict in shellshock. His ghostwriter Diane is with him and unsure what to say. They stop, and in the midst of his self-loathing, his genuine ache of remorse, he kisses her. The problem is she’s dating a close colleague, and at the moment he wishes he could change, he just screws up again and regrets that, too. BoJack’s mishaps and self-induced mayhem escalate. At the end of season one he burns down his relationship with Diane, a confidant as well as his ghostwriter, and then begs her to tell him if he’s a good person deep down. She says nothing as he pleads. In season two, he wins a Golden Globe for a book he didn’t write and is replaced by first-rate CGI for a movie. The situations are as whacky as they sound, only they’re paired with BoJack’s self-hatred and crippling need to find something that lasts, a success that will validate his existence. It’s almost too easy to note the parallels to Boethius’s take on Fortuna’s Wheel, wherein the blind mechanism of nature meets out worldly goods without considering moral conditions. BoJack is awarded and punished in terms of societal well-being arbitrarily, which tells us (and him) nothing of his goodness, happiness, or ultimate punishment. He seems to accept this reality, only to fall so far down a hole of cynicism and escapism that he nearly seduces an old friend’s 17-year old daughter. This occurs after months of receiving the same family’s charity and comfort. He’s a wreck, and feels every splinter of self-devastation. BoJack decides he needs a friend, one friend, and he might be okay despite the hollowness of success. Season three ruptures even this possibility as he betrays his only intimates again and again, and receives the broad side of a sermon truth: “You are all the things that are wrong with you. It’s not the alcohol, or the drugs, or all the shitty things that happened to you in your career or when you were a kid. It’s you.” At some point, amidst all the mistakes of our lives, however much we’ve been caught in someone else’s crossfire, we’re left with the ugly truth of our own shame. We are shameful, and we can’t seem to shed the slick of it from our bodies. This is the emotional core of the doctrine of original sin. Which, wow. Heavy, right? BoJack Horseman: like The Simpsons, but depressing. BoJack, in this light, is Boethius’s successful evildoer, well-paid for bad behavior and unpunished by society for cruel decisions. Yet he can’t escape his self-made pain, whereby the whims of fortune -- money, fame, and even friendship -- seem as nothing compared with the stings of wickedness. He wants to know if he’s a good person deep down because he can’t live with himself, can’t stand himself, and feels punished by the very fact of his own behavior. And then by the end of season three he might even be a killer. Not a murderer, if such a distinction is possible, but an accessory to a former cast-mate’s overdose. Sarah Lynn, who played one of the children on his old sitcom, becomes his bender buddy, and after they scream across America in a haze of blackouts, they sit together in an illuminated planetarium. BoJack rhapsodizes about the beauty of the moment, and then realizes she’s dead. Even if she was courting disaster on her own, maybe she wouldn’t have died without someone pushing her, a father figure, a horse with drug stamina with whom a skinny former child star could never compete. The zaniness of the show -- the fact that its lead is a horse -- bleeds directly into its tragedy. BoJack is the problem. “I don’t know how to be,” he says. “It doesn’t get better and it doesn’t get easier… I’m poison.” Boethius’s argument is more nuanced than “bad people feel bad about being bad,” but BoJack’s behavior and subsequent unraveling serve as an emotional outline wherein his selfishness punishes itself. All of these specific theological and philosophical ideas are no doubt alien to the explicit vision of Raphael Bob-Waksberg, creator of BoJack Horseman. For all the moralizing, pseudo-psychology, and downright pontification of its characters, the show is written by comedians struggling with felt truths. The pain of depression, of repetitive and lasting self-deprecation, is their entry into all larger statements. The regret of a hangover, of months of hangovers, of breaking trust with everyone you know and love, is the moral center of this weird, cartoon universe. But the moral center is there, however undercut by the jokes, and the larger truths are there as well. Other dramas dabbling in nihilism lack such a vulnerable heart of regret either because they don’t show enough fallout or because they don’t show enough compunction. Other satires, meanwhile, might match BoJack Horseman joke for joke but rarely plumb the depths of the darkness they acknowledge. Yet, importantly for any parallels to Boethius, the show retains a concealed romanticism through all this tragic contemplation. The latest season finale shows BoJack Horseman driving into the heart of the West, into big-sky hopelessness, closing his eyes and preparing to die. He can let the car veer. He can be done. But he sees a herd of horses in the distance. He sees them sweating, and he doesn’t kill himself. They look free, and even though he deserves all the pain he’s brought upon himself, BoJack keeps control of his car. This is the hope of something beyond justice, but that only a justice like Boethius’s could allow: some sense of purpose, a whiff of a plan, in the midst of a desert. The tale of BoJack’s brokenness is powerful because he doesn’t want to be broken; while he can’t seem to fix himself, nor can he resist hoping that someone, or something, might.