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A R T S    &    C U L T U R E
Art as Sadomasochism
Emmy Chang • On the decoration of souls
October 1998

“For today we hear seemingly normal people… blithely speaking of love as though it were some frothy feeling of no consequence. They say it offers many pleasures, and that this contact of two epidermises is not completely devoid of charm. They go on to say that charm or pleasure is most rewarding for the person who is capable of keeping love imaginative, capricious, and above all natural and free.

“There are only two words in all this which disturb me: the word love, and also the word free…”

—Jean Paulhan, Preface to Story of O

“Art is born of humiliation.”

—W.H. Auden

Edith Wharton’s guide to home decorating defines “individuality” as consisting “not in an attempt to be different from other people at the cost of comfort, but in the desire to be comfortable in one’s own way.”

This is a sound enough principle when you’re deciding where to stick the ottoman. But today it is extrapolated far beyond the drawing-room, and life has itself become a “desire to be comfortable in one’s own way.” We are who we choose to be; the self, we insist, is inviolate; and even the higher things—love and art, to name two—are mere decorations, chosen to please the eye and match the furniture. The only thoughts we need have for the soul are for its pleasure, and for its freedom.

But the highest activities concern neither pleasure nor freedom, but in fact the opposite. Every loyalty is a surrender of part of the soul to someone, or something, else: Heloise wrote to Abelard, “I shall be thy whore.” Jean Paulhan expresses the soul in love as the declaration: I should like to punish myself for having been happy before I met you. This is a literally self-destructive statement, asking not merely for pain but, indirectly, for death. The self that says, “I did not exist before I met you,” has been violated; it is in love.

But the modern view would deny eros, would deny the sublime, because the most, and indeed the only sacrosanct thing is self itself. I am that I am, we say: Why should, or would, I acknowledge there may be things I do not know—that humble me? Why should I even believe, let alone admit, there might be things I lack? And why, finally, should I fear? We barter away beauty, with its concomitant terror, and settle for prettiness, which is merely familiar. We commit the original crime, in fact: pride, traditionally accounted the first, because the most godlike, of the deadly sins.

Out of pride we misconceive art’s functions and its capabilities. If we are to assume the self is already complete, we must conclude that all it gains from art is a confirmation of the beliefs it already holds. The work of art thus devolves into a conversation piece, to match, and thereby confirm, the furniture of your mind. Belonging to this class of art are the easy melodramas about correct political issues, whose function David Mamet described as one of permitting the audience “to reward themselves for seeing that the villain is bad, and [to feel] this perception is a moral accomplishment.” Schindler’s List and Amistad assure the audience that they are good people, that good and evil, no less than fact and value, are all things external to an inviolate self blissfully free to choose what it pleases. The world is a banquet and you can take some of whatever looks good to you—so why bother with The Third Man when there’s Titanic? Neither could possibly make the least difference to who and what you are, so why not stay with whatever appeals to our cheapest and easiest fantasies? Why set yourself up to be reproached when you can indulge in a good cry? At their most concrete level, these assumptions coalesce as multiculturalism, which holds that we need seek no universal truths, but only check that the skin pigmentation of characters and authors is, or is not, like our own.

The last stop of pride is solipsism—the ultimate belief that only the self exists. C.S. Lewis gives Coleridge’s example of two men standing before a waterfall, one of whom exclaims, “How sublime!” and the other, “How pretty!” According to a school primer he has lately been reading, Lewis reports, the lesson here is that though the first man “appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall, [actually] he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have sublime feelings… We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.”

Lewis, of course, has a number of bones to pick with this. To begin with, sublime art does not conjure sublime feelings any more than a purple sunset conjures purple feelings. The sublime inspires, not sublime feelings, but awe, another animal altogether—and one which, far from synchronizing with the self, in fact lays assault to it. If the waterfall were only about our feelings, it would follow that, it being in the eye of the beholder, beauty in fact does not exist at all. This finally makes aesthetics—and art—unimportant, for what could there be to gain from disagreeing about each other’s feelings?

Art has historically been misunderstood or underestimated according to various misunderstandings and underestimations of the self. Plato very famously banned art from his republic, allowing only for hymns to the gods. Epic, tragedy, and comedy alike were held detrimental to the body politic, because detrimental to virtue. In a city swayed more by emotion than reason, “pleasure and pain will be lords… instead of law.” This fervor may seem exaggerated, but really is not. Art is voyeurism, and (if done right) dangerous voyeurism. When a great actor declaims a line from Macbeth the line reverberates in your head for days; and after looking at a good painting you find the world ceases to look like the world and begins to look like the painting. Plato knew as overwhelming and uncontrollable a force as this could not be trusted: for art is necessarily about emotion and, ultimately, about unreason. Even Aristotle’s defense—that though dangerous, art could be useful, provoking a purifying catharsis—cannot hold up if your goal is a perfect, ordered society.

But art, as Braque informed us, is not meant to reassure (which is the job of science) but to disturb us; and we know too little to order a society or a world. Art is a discovery of reality; but reality got here first: We must conform to it, not it to us. If it is true, as Frost tells us, that poetry is a way of taking life by the throat, this can be so only because the distinguishing mark of good poetry is that it takes us by the throat. We read Dostoevsky not because he reassures, but because he terrifies.

An allied approach to art is given by the novelist Ayn Rand. To Rand art is moral fuel: By portraying virtuous action, it provides the emotional push to live as morality dictates, “a concretized projection of [our] values, an image in whose likeness [we] will re-shape the world” and ourselves. A good instance of this kind of art is Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac—great art, but not the greatest.

Rand misses the boat because art is not solely concerned with the ideal. We read Hamlet not because it is pretty, but because it has the grandeur of something which seems—in Harold Bloom’s phrase—not art, but something that was always there. Rand allows—grudgingly—that Dostoevsky may be an artist, but only because he so effectively indicates what not to do. (Though she nevertheless prefers the positive Cyrano to Ivan Karamazov, and both to Hamlet.) But she, again, is prideful, missing—ironically, for a champion of objectivity—that not everything is up to us to murder and create. Her intentions are, admittedly, better, but finally it is the same old solipsism in new dress: Her dictum that “Man is a being of self-made soul” makes that clear enough. The most objectionable aspect of Rand’s aesthetics is that it demands that art be harmless.

By far the most inept understanding of art was given in Tolstoy’s What Is Art?. In it he rejects every previous aesthetic theory, which might have been a useful thing to do if he had been right. Beauty, Tolstoy held, merely confused “the whole matter,” and art was rather about “a means of union among men joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress towards well-being of individuals and of humanity”; it was about us all just getting along. The broader its audience, the better the art—and most decadent of all is a work such as the Ninth Symphony—a “large, confused, and artificial production.” Tolstoy reduced art to propaganda: If the spirit moves—however low or high that spirit may be—it’s art. But the spirit moved when Hitler spoke—even when (indeed, especially when) he did not actually say anything. And that was not art.

Tolstoy, too, forgot we are not gods. His claim that the better the feeling, the higher the art, instantly rules out Shakespeare (whose Lear could hardly be said to inspire “good feeling”)—and, for that matter, Hitchcock. Whatever else it does, Vertigo does not inspire joy. Aristotle knew education had to teach us what to like and dislike, for we can no more grasp beauty untutored than we can grasp truth. We wouldn’t deny the value of mathematics because a child cannot know that eip + 1 = 0; we don’t stop eating caviar because children think it gross: yet Tolstoy expects the highest art to come naturally and then cringes when it doesn’t. Tolstoy’s only criterion was infectiousness, such that “If a man without exercising effort and without altering his standpoint… experiences a mental condition which unites him with [the artist] and with others, then the object evoking that condition is a work of art, and however particular, realistic, striking, or interesting, a work may be, it is not a work of art if it does not.” Art is thus doubly maligned as a disease, and as a passive disease, which is disqualified if it is earned. An aesthetic that does not allow for education must demand, as does Tolstoy’s, not only that art be as low as the meanest savage, but that anything greater, anything “artificial,” large, or challenging, cannot be art. No distinction is left among pleasures: Danielle Steele, James Joyce—what’s the difference? This again rules out anything larger than the self—the natural self, shorn of education or higher calling—and effectively destroys any chance or ambition we might have had for greatness. Tolstoy, instead of demanding men the size of great art, demanded art the size of small men. It is no accident Lewis titled his book The Abolition of Man.

A variation on Tolstoy is given by Richard Rorty, who argues in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity that really the purpose of art is not to inspire awe, but to “help us become less cruel.” But in fact it is extraordinarily naïve of Rorty to believe that art’s function could be to make us nice, when much of the greatest art will have rather the opposite effect of making us hostile and even brutal. Art elicits passion and love, and the love of anything easily extends into hatred for whatever challenges or disappoints it. For whatever else we remember about art we should never forget it is la bella menzogna, and the simple-minded of us quite capable of constructing a lie more pleasing than reality. Edmond Rostand and Kenneth Grahame alike are able to construct characters and worlds infinitely more congenial than our own. (“[The River is] brother and sister to me, and aunts, and company, and food and drink, and (naturally) washing. It’s my world, and I don’t want any other.” How many of us love our life as much as the Water Rat loves his?) The temptation to reject reality and live only vicariously can be hard to resist. Even “unpleasant” works such as Lear at least possess a grandeur our world typically lacks, a glory that invites—indeed, demands—love. It is hard to forgive the people around you (and—if you are sufficiently honest about it—yourself) for not being Falstaff.

What is lost in today’s solipsisms is the fact that art inspires, because it is great—and inspires awe, because we are not great enough. “To each their own” is a despicable play of false humility whereby the subjectivist consigns beauty to a mere itch-scratching, saying in effect: Not only am I no better than anything, nothing is any better than me.

What is needed for art, as for love, is a correct understanding of the self and of its proper, in fact necessary violation. Books, Kafka said, must come upon us like ill-fortune; and art remains one of our best means of jarring the soul: No one can feel smug after The Brothers Karamazov. By reducing art to our lowest common denominator the moderns destroy our last miracle, in an age otherwise devoid of miracles, and strip us of the one thing that could, as Flaubert said, “conjure away the bitterness” of our existence: the revelation that there could be something better.

When we begin to react properly to art we will know it, because our response will cease to resemble The Decoration of Houses, and perhaps our lives might as well. Art will have strengthened us, through fear and trembling, and our relation to it will come nearer to that of the title character in Walker Percy’s Lancelot: “It didn’t just give me pleasure, it was the only way I could stand my life.”

—Emmy Chang ’97 is an alumna of Silliman College

 

   
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