The Curmudgeon


Monday, August 02, 2010

Faut-il brûler la terre?

"Those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the Second World War"
Peter Cook

"Hitler brings nothing to my mind"
Karl Kraus

Is it possible (and I am only wondering, not asserting) that the responsible artistic attitude to an imminent and overwhelming catastrophe is to leave it alone? While I was giving Cormac McCarthy the treatment a few days ago, and again when I read Buck Theorem's response justifying it as a fairy tale, I was put in mind of my initial, visceral reaction to The Road: beyond my intellectual and aesthetic objections, and even beyond my boundless personal prejudice against ordinary decent folks and their charming little children, I thought the book was irresponsible. It reminded me of my reaction to Nevil Shute's post-nuclear Harlequin romance, On the Beach, which I read during my teens, at a time when nuclear catastrophe appeared to me as inevitable as climate catastrophe now appears to mere scientists. I am also reminded of certain critics' objections to Holocaust films like Life is Beautiful and Schindler's List: that they reduce a vast and terrible human tragedy to light entertainment or Hollywood kitsch. Having ended the world a couple of times, and having also used the Holocaust as a literary device (in an alternate-historical horror story, to boot), I am open to similar charges myself.

There is a difference between a historical event, however appalling, and the global catastrophe towards which we are now so eagerly toddling. Historical events have already happened; they are part of our common heritage and we may use them as we please, though it is arguable that in certain cases we should wait a decent interval before doing so. The Beyond the Fringe company received a certain amount of criticism when they poked fun at the Blitz myth in the early sixties; even two decades later, there were letters of complaint about 'Allo 'Allo! - a BBC comedy series set in Nazi-occupied France, whose humour relied almost entirely on doubles entendres and funny foreign accents - from those who felt it trivialised the war itself rather than the BBC melodrama, Secret Army, of which it was a parody.

Historical events are digested, mythologised, simplified, re-assessed and recycled for each generation; in Britain this is generally known as "learning the lessons of the past" or as "pride in our island's story", or occasionally as fashionable denigration of the magnificent achievements of our island's various pirates, bigots, tyrants and slavers. In the end, historical events are forgotten. One day, even the Holocaust will be forgotten. We of today have learned the lesson that it is better to kill people for their oil than for their Jewishness, and of course we are much the better for it; but even if by chance the human species should survive beyond Hitler's two hundredth birthday, one day the Holocaust will be surpassed in human atrocity and eclipsed in human memory. When that happens, the victims of the camps and the Einsatzgruppen will not be any more dead than they are now, whereas at the moment most casualties of global warming have yet to occur and are thereby preventable, at least in theory. Therein lies the difference between trivialising past calamities and trivialising future ones.

When Threads was first broadcast, a critic or one of its makers was quoted as saying that films of that kind are inevitably over-optimistic in that they show survivors. When we are led to identify with characters who survive a disaster, we lead ourselves to believe that the disaster may not be so bad after all. No work of art or entertainment can instil the sense of urgency required by our present situation, because the ability to consume a work of art or entertainment implies a level of comfort, or at least security, which militates against that very sense of urgency. One does not watch a thriller to feel a thrill of real death. Works of art and entertainment induce emotions safely, at second hand; that is their whole purpose. The disadvantage is that, however one may feel about the pen being mightier than the sword, no satire can make quite the same impression as a truncheon, a bullet or a bomb, just as no horror story can quite rival a terminal diagnosis from a qualified physician, whether for oneself, one's family or one's everything. Even when we are led to identify with characters who die at the end, even when the world is destroyed before our eyes, we are still here. We still get to switch off the DVD player or close the book, and go merrily on about our business of scoffing up the planet and defecating out the means of our demise.

No work of art, let alone entertainment, can give anything approaching an adequate perspective on the scale of the catastrophe that awaits us. The democratic majority of today's audiences have approximately as much idea of what is going to hit their children and grandchildren, let alone of what to do about it, as Jewish Germans in 1903 or the good people of Pompeii in 49 CE or, for that matter, the average hard-working family of dinosaurs at the wrong end of the Mesozoic. All that a work of art can do is depict the calamity and its consequences from a necessarily limited perspective, whereby the very act of depiction becomes a means for the audience to digest, minimise, accept, forget and continue bringing about the calamity.

Assuming for the sake of argument (and against all the most basic tenets of capitalism and Christianity) that human misery is undesirable, what justification can there be for works that underestimate the misery to come? There is one, of course: namely that when irrevocably faced by the gates of Hell and with only one direction in which to move, it is more pleasant to see the gates painted with pretty pictures, or even with improving slogans about work and freedom, than with advice to abandon all hope.

Should one make entertainment out of the approaching climate catastrophe? Should one make art? The death and immiseration of millions, probably thousands of millions, is now virtually inevitable; the end of civilisation fairly likely; the reduction of the human species to a few tribes scattered around the poles a distinct possibility; the extinction of all or most of life on earth a not entirely unreasonable projection. Should one write fairy tales about it?


  • At 10:10 p.m. , Anonymous Madame X said...

    I suppose writing fairy tales about anything else is rather trivial. But I suppose we can now stop calling them cautionary tales, having past the point of no return.

  • At 2:33 a.m. , Anonymous finn said...

    Isn't this sort of writing really a kind of mythologising of a future catastrophy? A very familiar story, perhaps too familiar to have any effect? I'm not being glib here. One can ask what one is really doing when one 'faces reality' in this way.

    If we accept that we have no choice but to tell stories about it, the problem presented here is put into a different perspective. Allow me to wonder, not assert, as well: maybe the actual problem is that we haven't yet been able to properly mythologise global warming? We don't really know what story would move us to act to prevent it.

    Isn't it obvious that what we think of as the basic facts, basic reality, isn't enough in that regard? Right now, it appears that we know it will happen, but we don't truly believe it will, and in the future when it has happened, it will feel like something that was always inevitable.

    The problem could very well be that we can't cope with the situation "first hand", but would really need a good, "safe", "second hand" way to approach it.

    When do we ever want to approach anything directly? Everything we experience is cushioned by our mental machinery. Everything becomes a story. We are absolutely not comfortable with reality as it is, in any aspect of our lives, big or small.

    Art is meant to challenge us, safely. We're meant to adjust to art, not the other way around. Ethics and aesthetics, a grim view: we'll be destroyed by our lack of culture, because we were too used to comfort, making demands of art rather than letting art make demands of us, not able to allow ourselves be challenged by the story.

    The opposition between 'real suffering' and its representations feels suspicious. 'Real suffering' is already a story, representations are inevitable. Isn't the question really about the quality of the art (the story, the representation) rather than about the justification for its existence?

  • At 3:03 a.m. , Anonymous finn said...

    In other words, we have to become comfortable - with the fact that we face serious disasters. Let's not jump into conclusions about what art can and cannot do. I certainly don't see the point of agonising over what types of human misery art should and shouldn't represent. A sense of urgency comes after we've faced the reality of any situation, and we can't make confident assertions about how exactly we can get there. Maybe we really need the right mythologies before things happen, not just after.

  • At 3:19 a.m. , Anonymous finn said...

    By the way, this isn't an argument for kitsch, particularly. Art becomes kitsch when you try to capture the TRAGEDY of something in some simplistic, cheap way. As if to put it in a bottle so that you can show it - show the tragedy, not the story, not the art itself. Human misery itself can't be bottled and sold, no matter what its scale is - that's kitsch. Bottled tears. But that's just BAD art. A John Williams score of wailing violins isn't in any way necessary.

  • At 7:26 p.m. , Blogger Philip said...

    Thanks for all that, Finn. I cannot pretend to have thought all this through properly, but:

    maybe the actual problem is that we haven't yet been able to properly mythologise global warming? We don't really know what story would move us to act to prevent it.

    I doubt that any story, if conceived by its audience as a story, has ever moved any society to act on anything. The likely consequences of global warming (the catastrophic end of society as presently constituted) have been mythologised any number of times, from the Flood to the Rapture, usually as a prelude to a mythical renewal and rebirth. Even Ragnarök had its survivors, who thought "well, that wasn't so bad, was it?" and immediately started the whole dreary business of creation over again.

    Right now, it appears that we know it will happen, but we don't truly believe it will

    Some of us know it is happening, and most of us don't believe it will. At the moment, those with a vested interest in disbelief are the ones running the world. This is a social, political and educational problem, which can certainly be dealt with artistically in all sorts of ways, but which is quite separate from the problem of whether one can "safely" depict a prospective catastrophe without making it appear "safe" enough to ignore the prospect.

    Art is meant to challenge us, safely. We're meant to adjust to art, not the other way around.

    There seems a contradiction here. How challenging or compelling can a safe challenge be? Presumably each individual's capacity for adjustment determines their openness to the art's effect; anything demanding an uncomfortable or inconvenient level of adjustment is relegated to such categories as "incomprehensible" or "postmodern".

    The opposition between 'real suffering' and its representations feels suspicious.

    I think real suffering tends to hurt more; an effect which is not lessened by placing it in quote marks.

    'Real suffering' is already a story, representations are inevitable

    Very well. But surely there is a responsibility on the part of those who create those representations to ensure that the suffering is not trivialised. In the case of suffering which has not yet occurred, but which is both massive and highly likely to occur, the responsibility is greater still, because any trivialisation of the suffering militates against the likelihood being taken seriously and thereby serves to make it more likely.

    I certainly don't see the point of agonising over what types of human misery art should and shouldn't represent

    Well, surely there is an ethical problem here. Assuming that artistic depiction does lead to consequences in the real world, then presumably one should not depict human misery in such a way that more misery would be likely to result. Given the magnitude in this case, I wonder whether any mythology could have sufficient effect, or whether we might be better served by the superstitious awe that comes of a well-enforced taboo.

  • At 12:16 a.m. , Anonymous finn said...

    There's a lot there that needs clarifying, but take the final paragraph of your blog entry:

    >>Should one make entertainment out of the approaching climate catastrophe? Should one make art? The death and immiseration of millions, probably thousands of millions, is now virtually inevitable; the end of civilisation fairly likely; the reduction of the human species to a few tribes scattered around the poles a distinct possibility; the extinction of all or most of life on earth a not entirely unreasonable projection. Should one write fairy tales about it?>>

    This right there is a story, a simplistic mythologisation.

    Now, clearly it's not art itself that will put a "sense of urgency" into people's minds, and it's not the case that a story, "conceived by its audience as a story" (here meaning something that isn't real), will move a society to action - what matters is what is really happening in our world, creating art does not make the real world disappear but instead creates a connection to the real world and offers perspectives with which to view it. Art, the narrative, can help us process what is happening. I would say that's the way we process a lot of things, especially emotionally strong things.

    You said that it's safe and comfortable, and I said that it's that what might give art its power. Art is safe, in this sense, but it still challenges us to think and feel, at least when it's good - I'm sure this is obvious. So what I offered was a pretty simple idea to get away from the dilemma your presented: the resistance that makes us on some level turn away from the real catastrophy is not there when we experience art. That doesn't mean that people suddenly think that it's JUST art and not something that might be really happening - and there's no question that if we are ever moved to action, we are moved by the fact that it's real - but the problem is arriving at a mental state where one can face the idea of the catastrophy. I'm sure we agree that most of us are not able to do that right now, which, among other things, means that the narrative, the representation (and representations are all we have) we have been given has not worked in this regard. We are not moved by basic facts, we are moved by what we perceive their meaning is. It's not far fetched to think that art could help. In fact, I firmly believe that it would.

    And like I already said, I'm not advocating the creation of bad, trivialising art, which is why I specifically wrote about the quality of what is being produced.
    You were wondering whether or not artists should leave the subject alone. It's the very idea that you have to somehow do justice to the magnitude of human suffering that leads to kitsch. You can never do justice to suffering in that sense, you can't capture the real tragedy by representing it, and it's indecent to try. In the sense that you use your terms, all art based on serious topics is trivialising.

    That doesn't restrict our artistic choices in any obvious way. I think it was Zizek who somewhere said that you can't possibly approach the Holocaust as a tragedy - you end up with kitsch - but you might be able to get a better artistic depiction by writing a comedic tale, and I think I agree with the general point. From a certain point of view, which to me seems hopelessly simple-minded, a comedy about the Holocaust is trivialising, but as art it really might get much closer to the horror. Life is Beautiful remains a bad film, of course, because the question of what trivialises the subject is one about the quality of the art.

    Getting back to the main topic, of course there's no reason bad art couldn't have a beneficial effect. But perhaps for now we'll hold on to the idea that good art is somehow healthier than bad art.

  • At 12:55 a.m. , Anonymous finn said...

    >>I think real suffering tends to hurt more; an effect which is not lessened by placing it in quote marks.>>

    Yet you go on to accept the explanation that immediately follows the sentence you quote. Of course it's obvious that I didn't mean the kind of suffering that actually hurts, which, of course, is why it is in quote marks in the first place.

    >>There seems a contradiction here. How challenging or compelling can a safe challenge be? >>

    I think I addressed this, but I have to say this feels like a bad faith reading on your part as well. I'm not sure if my response helped or not. Seems like I just repeated what I already said.

  • At 1:23 a.m. , Anonymous finn said...

    Let me put it this way. When you paint a picture of the catastrophy that art may or may not, should or should not, take as its subject, you are already engaged in an attempt to give a compelling image of the magnitude of what we may be facing in the future. The opposition that I questioned was between this and other narratives that attempt to do the same. Facts alone don't describe it in human terms. You yourself are trying to engage people, not just account for the facts. Your ethical dilemma is based on the meaning of the situation in terms of human suffering, whether or not art can or should touch it - but this meaning itself is what can be deepened, clarified, made palatable, made emotionally resonant, and so on, by art. This is what art typically does, we're not talking about putting it to some special use. And it's this meaning of the situation in terms of human suffering that has not properly penetrated our consciousness.

  • At 2:37 a.m. , Blogger Philip said...

    All right, I think I understand your meaning a bit better now, and I apologise for being snarky about it earlier. I hope you'll accept that no bad faith was involved. I think I remember the Zizek article you mention (assertion substituting for argument in prose of such ugliness it would stun a Stalinist); I'm not sure I agree that the tragic approach leads inevitably to kitsch (it needn't necessarily involve a John Williams score, after all), but I think the point about comedy is an interesting one - I haven't seen Life is Beautiful, but the same idea may perhaps help explain why Dr Strangelove is so much better than On the Beach. Excuse me if I don't prolong the discussion any further, at least for the moment; you've given me a lot to think about, so thanks again.

  • At 4:17 p.m. , Anonymous finn said...

    No bad faith, I accept that. I accept everything - that's my basic approach to blogs and message boards. Perhaps I was still angry about you calling me a "psoriatic Turk" a few weeks ago. Because that is the one thing I can't accept. I'm really not at my best at 4 in the morning and I didn't know if I was able to get my thoughts across. Too big a topic, too many slippery concepts with two relevant, subtly different senses that one has to carry in one's mind, even for an occasional night owl like myself.

    Zizek's idea makes sense to me if it's more like the way one perceives something as Big Suffering and tries to do justice to it by creating a Big Tragedy of it, teasing out Big Tears from the audience - when art can't ever match its subject in that kind of way and shouldn't try to. From that point of view, a fetishised Holocaust is already the first step toward kitsch, and Zizek himself sort of takes that step by saying that certain special kinds of suffering are so great that they can't be made into good tragic art. If that's really what he said, I'm too lazy to check - I doubt he'd insist on any strong interpretation of the idea if you pushed him a bit.

    All these old familiar ideas that the Holocaust is so horrible it's beyond language, beyond representation, language itself breaks down and what is left is only silence, or whatever - always struck me as masturbatory, to be frank, many of those people seemed to sodomising the Holocaust rather than respecting it, it felt too lustful, like they were sucking juice out of the idea, although if you take it in its bare essential sense, it's obviously true, and it's obviously true about all human suffering.

    The artistic experience is safe, qualitatively different from the real thing. Looking at a painting of a man on a cross is different than looking a real man dying on a cross, let alone being the man dying. But perhaps our feelings and ideas aren't that clear or deep or organised when we look at the real thing. Perhaps we can't look at him at all and have to turn away. That's the basic problem with things that are too big for us to handle. We aren't built like the vulgar-enlightenment rationalist humanists on the left often would like to think. The problem here isn't the competing stories but how we relate to those stories, and that relation has multiple angles, multiple points of view, many ways of feeling and thinking; like there's this giant, mysterious, multi-dimensional thing that doesn't appear to have enough of its tentacles attached to us yet - we don't know how exactly we'll arrive at a state in which the story really gets to us and we begin relating with that aspect of the world in some less neurotic, more immediate way.

    Can't recall Life is Beautiful very well, but I suspect its primary weakness is its sentimentality, the way it tries to pull at our heart strings.

    That kind of sentimentality or cheap emotionalism is a big problem, probably outside art as well. It seems that in art you need some indirect approach strategy rather than a simple direct "human understanding". A formal view, a cold view, a comedic view, aren't any more inhuman and they can help bypass those problems. I suspect that a good artist intuitively senses that, or something like that.

    I didn't mean to go on like this again. There are no firm arguments on these topics. They're very shifty.

  • At 2:14 a.m. , Anonymous finn said...

    >>“I read that Tove Jansson’s book Comet in Moominland was based on fear of the atomic bomb. I remember from my childhood in the 1970s the drills, in which they taught us in school to dive under a table if the bomb comes down”, says Björk. [...]

    “There has always been a feeling of menace in the world of the Moomins. Tove Jansson did not soften the world too much for children. The traditional role of fairy tales is to prepare children for the world, to warn of its dangers. In the Moomins, fantasy links up naturally with everyday matters.”>>

  • At 1:32 p.m. , Blogger Philip said...

    I remember being read Finn Family Moomintroll in school and liking it a lot, but somehow I never got around to the rest of the books.

    I certainly don't wish to deny that fairy tales can be pretty ruthless; one has only to look at Hans Christian Andersen's "The Red Shoes" and "The Mother". Even "The Little Mermaid", despite an ending that combines sentimentality and finger-wagging in near-Spielbergian fashion, is convincingly painful for most of its length.

  • At 2:21 p.m. , Blogger Philip said...

    I also don't wish to imply that one shouldn't make art (of whatever kind) about any catastrophe or instance of human suffering. What I said in the post applies specifically to one possible catastrophe, which I take to be a unique case. This does not apply in cases like the Holocaust (as you note, such things have happened before and, as I said, will undoubtedly happen again) or even to such disasters as the Black Death - at least in Christian Europe, even if people believed it was the end of the world, they also presumably believed that life in some form continued after death. Nuclear war is different again: certainly a global nuclear war could lead to the end of life on earth, but it seems to me that, despite the best efforts of our leaders, this particular threat has receded somewhat. I do think the case could be made that in the face of an imminent threat of such a war it would be irresponsible to depict it as something that could be got through like any other disaster. Since the climate catastrophe is both imminent and unprecedented and anticipated and thus theoretically mitigable, it occurred to me that it constitutes a unique case.

  • At 11:35 p.m. , Anonymous finn said...

    Never read any Moomin books myself that I recall. I do remember an animated series on television.

    First of all, I completely disagree that the nuclear threat has diminished. There is a general impression that it has, perhaps, but I see absolutely no rational basis for assuming that. But even if it has, say, diminished by half, it doesn't justify any change in our attitudes toward it.

    You begin by writing, "Is it possible (and I am only wondering, not asserting) that the responsible artistic attitude to an imminent and overwhelming catastrophe is to leave it alone?"

    To be quite honest, I have zero sympathy for that position. If, like you write, "the end of civilization [is] fairly likely," I don't see anything responsible in categorically refusing to address the issue artistically if that choice presents itself to you.

    Of course, like anyone else, an artist has a responsibility to evaluate what kind of effects her work might have - which is true in general, not just in this case. But then there are moral implications to choosing NOT to confront it through art as well, especially if it's a "unique case" that is either preventable or mitigable.

    And I remain suspicious of making it a special case in this fashion, especially now that you put it in a different category from a global nuclear catastrophy, which would in all likelihood be even more devastating than climate change and certainly quicker. It's literally something that could happen any moment. For example, the automatic Russian response systems are ancient, as far as I know.

    So that brings me back to mythologising. Aren't you in danger of making global climate change into a holy object? 'The end of civilization' story is pure mythology, especially if you regard it as "fairly likely" or "virtually inevitable", it just looks forward in time rather than backward. By "leaving it alone" instead of finding new perspectives with which to approach it, you end up with the Big Story, fixed as if in a holy book, and that Big Story by itself, unexamined, distant and mythological like a story in the Bible, does not seem to have the power to move us. Once again, I would suggest that art is one aspect of our lives that could help make it relevant to us and to get us beyond whatever resistances we have put up against admitting its reality and human implications.

    To enrich the mythology, so to speak, or perhaps to deconstruct it altogether. I don't know what the correct path is, but it seems to me that you're greatly exaggerating the possible negative effects and overlooking the positive. The first thing is to get people thinking, feeling, talking about it, from different angles, meaningful angles.

    You write, "When we are led to identify with characters who survive a disaster, we lead ourselves to believe that the disaster may not be so bad after all," and I have to respond that this feels very papery and theoretical. To put up such a moral barrier, to insist that the disaster itself is not enough and you have to make it absolute because that's one possible outcome - it tastes weird, and the possibility that it might just be the worst thing you can do is assumed rather than reflected upon. But it's an option for an artist, certainly, maybe a good one.

    Even if you disagree that art helps us orient ourselves with regard to the realities of the world, good and bad, in a similar sense that Björk speaks of fairy tales preparing children, you're still left with the children, who need proper ways of dealing with the future. Between nothing happening and the end of civilization, there is an infinite number of possible futures, and much of it will depend on them, including what will happen after the fall of human civilization. Even if we're hopelessly in denial, which I don't think we are, they don't have to grow up to be the same way. A lot depends on the level of culture they inherit from us, and that starts with fairy tales.

  • At 1:43 p.m. , Anonymous finn said...

    Christian Groups: Biblical Armageddon Must Be Taught Alongside Global Warming

    Are Violent Video Games Preparing Kids For The Apocalypse?


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