This essay was written in the Fall 2010 semester as part of the Writing The Essay: Art in the World course at New York University, which is now numbered EXPOS-UA 5.
Reading the yellowed pages under dim lighting on a bumpy bus ride was difficult enough, but what made it truly painful –
they laughed, their daring growing with her fear; throwing the knife harder and closer to her feet; the knife skipping and billiarding away, picked up and thrown again at the dancing feet (the scene resembling one in a grade B western); the laughing, leaping and pirouetting stopping suddenly as the blade of the knife stuck in the calf of her leg (had it been a board, not flesh, the blade would have vibrated and twanged). (Selby Jr. 30)
– and as I read I felt steel puncture flesh, my flesh, thick red blood travel down from my calf to my heel… and I shut the book because it hurt too much.
This is what Hubert Selby Jr. does. He forces you to look at things you would rather not see. He makes you read by force of his images, his sounds, his words. To read on is to look in the mirror and see yourself in his tormented characters, both victims and victimizers – distorted, ugly, wild. To stop reading is to say, this book has nothing to do with me.
To stop reading is to turn away from yourself.
Last Exit to Brooklyn is not a pretty novel. It is a beautiful one. It is not an easy novel to read, and anyone who says otherwise has not really read it.
Tim O’Brien, walking the very fine line between revulsion and eulogy, describes some of the awesome sights one might see in war:
You admire the fluid symmetries of troops on the move, the great sheets of metal-fire streaming down a gunship, the illumination rounds, the white phosphorus, the purply orange glow of napalm…
It’s not pretty, exactly. It’s astonishing. It fills the eye. It commands you. You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not.
… any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference – a powerful, implacable beauty – and a true war story will tell the truth about this, though the truth is ugly. (“Things” ##)
How could something as abhorrent as war elicit such an impassioned defense of its capacity to cause men to be astonished by its beauty?
Because: war is wild. War is immediate. War is intense.
War puts men under pressure, and only under pressure is the true essence of man’s character distilled, like juice from a juicer. War forces men to respond according to their basest instincts, and it is under that pressure that we see what matters most to a man. How do we fault the man who shoots a helpless baby water buffalo – ear, leg, mouth, tail, ribs, spurts in the belly, left front knee, nose – throat – for grief of his friend? How do we fault the man who sings wry songs while peeling his mangled comrade off a tree? We cannot, for we see ourselves in these men; we know we would do deeds no grander than these men’s if we faced the horror they faced.
War is beautiful because it tells truths that are ugly, intense truths about ourselves as human beings we would refuse to face otherwise, truths that are indefinite and relative and subjective and deeply personal that are nonetheless true. When we refuse to face the truth of war, we refuse to face ourselves.
Art is wild. Art is immediate. Art is intense.
Art is a difficult animal.
Winterson refers to the animal trainer Vicki Hearne, whom she tells us “has written of the acute awkwardness and embarrassment of those who work with magnificent animals, and find themselves at a moment of reckoning, summed up in those deep and difficult eyes” (20). Why should we feel awkward and embarrassed when face to face with a magnificent animal – why could we not simply enjoy and appreciate that magnificence? Because we are inadequate and the animal has told us so. We lack the same fearlessness, the same abandon, the utter lack of self-consciousness that the animal has… all the things that define wildness, that define intensity. The animal, the art, the animal that is art – they convict us of “fail[ing] to meet intensity with intensity” (20).
Would you like to be an animal? To be wild, to be free of self-consciousness, of guilt, of fear? To not be able to care about what went before, what will come after, to be able to live completely in the here, the now, the right now? To live from day to day, hour to hour, moment to moment? To respond as instinct wills, without regard for consequence or for notions of good and evil? To be absolutely morally indifferent?
Even if you could, would you?
Self-consciousness is one of the things that define human nature. If we were to gain the immediacy that is required to live life intensely, we would lose our ability to reflect, to induce thought, to comprehend. We would lose the ability to build civilization in all its forms: physically, socially, emotionally. We would lose the ability to marvel, the very thing that gives our lives meaning.
To be self-conscious is to lose the moment, to lose the little details from one moment to the next that give a well-lived life its intensity, its vividness, its immediacy, that feeling of being alive. Yet we cannot live with absolute immediacy, without thought of what went on before or what will come after – we would be exhausted emotionally to live with that kind of intensity, and even if we should ever do, intensity itself would begin to lose meaning; we would lose our sense of what it means to be alive. Most of us lurch from one extreme to another, or exist in the dead space in between. Nonetheless, we need both extremes, for without one, the other would be meaningless.
To gain immediacy is to lose the ability to appreciate upon reflection.
In his book Story, Robert McKee summarizes the function of art thus:
“A story well told gives you the very thing you cannot get from life: meaningful emotional experience. In life, experiences become meaningful with reflection in time. In art, they are meaningful now, at the instant they happen.” (111)
Art, then, is a window into that intensity, that immediacy, that we cannot experience on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis. It brings us one step closer to the wildness that forces us to confront the truth of who we are.
Art is beautiful because it tells truths that are ugly. When we refuse to face the truth of art, we refuse to face ourselves.
Of all the images I have seen in my life, one always stands out as being the most exquisite expression of agonizing emotion I have ever seen and probably will ever see. A man stands on a bridge. His eyes look nowhere. His palms depress his jowls, forcing his face agape. Behind him, blood red streaks deep orange sky, and where sky hits horizon an abrupt front forms as midnight blue sea rises to meet it like an implacable monster rising from the depths. It is a terrible painting, not “terrible” in the nonchalant, pitiful way we use the word; it is not “terrible” the same way someone has had a “terrible” day, or someone has written a “terrible” essay or read a “terrible” book. It is terrible in the way something is terrible when no words exist to articulate terror.
The Scream, by Edvard Munch, is not a pretty picture. It is a beautiful one. It is not an easy picture to look at, and anyone who says otherwise is not really looking at it.
I have never managed to look at it for very long.
How often have we heard that “art holds a mirror to society”?
The quote is often attributed to Theodor Adorno, who also wrote that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” (“Criticism” ##). He was both right and so wrong.
Adorno takes the concept of art as mirror from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which Hamlet tells his players, “[playing’s] end both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (III.ii). Certainly art holds a mirror to society, but only as a side effect of holding a mirror up to nature, a nature that is under no obligation to reflect the civility that is implicit in the word “society.” Adorno had a complex conception of art as a meta-mirror, reflecting things in society that are false and thereby revealing their falseness – I say to hell with all that abstraction. Society is not a natural or instinctive construct. Art simply serves to reconcile the self-conscious part of ourselves that is dedicated to civility, and the wild, intense part of ourselves that is dedicated to passion.
As for Adorno’s other statement –
he is right. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. The notion that there might be poetry, that there might be beauty in Auschwitz repulses us. But he is also very wrong, for there is. Against – and only against – the backdrop of such human barbarism does every little kindness, every hopeful endeavor take on an equivalent excrucriating beauty. To deny that there was beauty in Auschwitz is to deny the capacity of human beings to hate or love or feel with all the intensity of an animal. To deny that there was poetry in Auschwitz is to refuse to look at it, to say, this event has nothing to do with me.
To refuse to look at Auschwitz is to refuse to look at ourselves.
John Keats once wrote: “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (“Ode”). It is all too easy to assume, based solely on this statement, that Keats believed there was no truth in the ugly. Yet Keats, who was most ill during the time he wrote his best poetry, endeavored in every poem and through every cadence to make the mundane marvelous, wondrous and worthy of attention, and on his deathbed wrote “… I have loved the principle of beauty in all things” (“Letter to Fanny Brawne”).
All things. Not some, not most, but all, even – perhaps especially – the ugliest, the things we would not look at if art did not make us look. For it is only in the wild, that which is ugly, abhorrent, barbaric to our conscience, that we find the truths that cut through to our heart.
Adorno, Theodor. Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft (Cultural Criticism and Society). Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1977. Print.
Keats, John. Letter to Fanny Brawne. Feb 1820. Available online at <http://www.john-keats.com/briefe/000220.htm>. Last accessed 5 Oct 2010.
Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats. New York: Modern Library, 2001. 238-9 Print.
McKee, Robert. Story. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. 111. Print.
Munch, Edvard. Skrik (The Scream). National Gallery, Oslo. 1893. Oil, tempera and pastel on cardboard.
O’ Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Muffin, 1990. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.
Selby Jr., Hubert. Last Exit to Brooklyn. New York: Grove Press, 1964. 30. Print.
Winterson, Jeanette. “Art Objects.” Writing The Essay: Art in the World, The World Through Art. ed. Darlene A. Forrest, Randy Martin, Pat C. Hoy II, and Benjamin W. Stewart. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010. 17-24. Print.