Saturday, December 15, 2012

Why Art Matters

Yesterday, twenty-six people, including eighteen children, were killed at Sandy Creek Elementary School. That afternoon, my brother-in-law, the poet Josh Robbins (whose book Praise Nothing is forthcoming from University of Arkansas Press), asked the following question on Facebook: "I'm about to Skype about poetry with a high school class in rural Kansas. What would you say to them about poetry in light of today's violent tragedy?" The question has haunted my thoughts ever since.

It's not the first time the question has come up. After 9/11, I heard the story of an award-winning violinist who sold her violin in the wake of the tragedy. She felt that, with so much pain and violence in the world, art had become meaningless. As much as I respect that undoubtedly hard-fought decision, I cannot agree with it.

I've just wrapped up grading for the semester, and I've been thinking a lot about my courses, their strengths and weaknesses, and how I want to improve them in the future. I realized that, over the course of the semester, more than anything else, I've been pushing my students to delve more deeply into the psyches of their characters. In their excellent Tin House podcast, Steve Almond and Aimee Bender talk in great detail about the need to put characters into emotional danger, to explore their psychological complexity, and I've come to think that this, as much as language or story or theme, is what distinguishes great literary fiction. It's also some of the most terrifying work a writer does. 

My answer, then, to my brother-in-law's question what this: "You tell them this is why we write. The man who shot today had lost his humanity, his compassion. Writing is a plunge into humanity--that's why it hurts so much when you're doing it right, and it's why we have to keep writing as passionately and honestly as we can."

It seems paradoxical that imagining one's way into the mind of a killer or a pedophile or even just a typical lost and hurting human being performs any sort of good work. For writers and other artists, putting themselves in that kind of depraved mental space can feel like a descent into madness. After all, isn't this the same work that drove Heath Ledger over the edge? If so, why put ourselves and our readers in so horrific a frame of mind? And yet, some of the most important works of literature do exactly this. We inhabit Alex's mind in A Clockwork Orange as he beats and rapes and murders. We inhabit Humbert Humbert's mind in Lolita, knowing even before we open the book that he is a pedophile. We explore the violent west of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, knowing that what we see there will hurt. Why? Because doing the work of sympathizing--even with those we most abhor--is the opposite of doing works of violence.

Aristotle argued that we turn to dramatic tragedy so that we can experience catharsis, a sort of purging of our collective sadness, an airing of dangerous emotion. If so, it's no surprise then that we turn to art in times like these. We need that collective act of catharsis, but I believe we also need that collective act of sympathy. I know I was not alone in crying for yesterday's victims, for their friends and families. As much sadness as I feel, I know I cannot begin to understand their pain. God knows, we need healing right now. 

Writing feels like a small and useless thing in the face of such a tragedy. Yet, writing--art in general--is one of the things that makes us human. We need our compassion, now more than ever, in whatever form it finds.

Thank you to Josh Robbins for the following links:


  1. Good thinking, my dear. I remember that in an interview with Bill Moyers shortly after 9/11, Barbara Kingsolver said something akin to what you're arguing--and she also said, basically, that reading literature (and writing it) trains us to feel "sympathy for the hypothetical other." That phrase has stayed in my mind all these years.

  2. What a wonderful quotation. I love that.