Tragedy and Comedy

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As I’ve posted earlier, I’m re-reading the Silmarillion, and this week’s readings have brought me to the passages that are among the highest – and lowest – in this whole book of profound joy and sorrow: the stories of Beren and Luthien, the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, and Turin Turambar.  And this gets me to thinking, as it often does, about the nature of comedy and tragedy and how they function in our artistic world today.

Common wisdom reveals that tragedy makes for almost universally higher art than comedy.  Shakespeare’s comedies, while often powerful and admirable, are almost always revered less than his four great tragedies.  Likewise, Aristotle held that tragedy far outshone comedy (which may well be a product of that culture alone: Aristophanes does seem to rely fairly heavily on the Greek equivalent of fart jokes).  And all of these observations would seem to be confirmed, if on a fairly shallow level, by our own artistic landscape’s insistence on equating “dark” or “edgy” material with maturity and worldly-wisdom.  (I’ll not dwell on that subject – my thoughts on nihilism are well-documented)  But I think, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, that this is largely a blind: tragedy is simply easier to pull off well than comedy is.

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How and Why We Read

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In an effort to combat the usual bout of melancholy I experience around November, I’ve started re-reading The Silmarillion, which is, if challenging, a book of such incredible beauty, sadness, and insight that I find myself returning to it on a near-yearly basis.  And while I may spend a post in the coming weeks writing about its many virtues, I think what is most on my mind now is more general and theoretical, dealing with why we return to books frequently, more than just reading them once for pleasure, as my thinking on this point is very much influenced by C.S. Lewis’ Experiment in Criticism, which proposes to think of criticizing books in terms of the reasons we read, and re-read, them.

See, Lewis’s thesis in the book is: while it is difficult to assess the value of a book from some theoretical objective standpoint, we may consistently judge a work of literature according to the way in which readers approach it.  A commercial mystery novel, for example, is rendered valueless as soon as the mystery is solved.  The reader will not return to the book, but instead search for a new mystery to solve.  But we read and re-read books like The Silmarillion, or Shakespeare, or the Bible for different reasons, and with different results.  I re-read The Silmarillion because I wish to see its beauty; I wish to study the way Tolkien unfolds his themes throughout the book; I wish to savor its language; I wish to spend time in his world, which even in its tragedy, often seems more just and good than my own.  I re-read the Bible to drive home its wisdom; to explore the teachings of God and Christ about Himself and ourselves; I wish to reaffirm its moral teachings and see the way it interacts with my life at this time.  Some books, like Fahrenheit 451 I re-read because they remind of my youth and because I simply like the story.  Some, like Invisible Cities, I read to inspire me and start my brain wandering.  Others, like The Man Who Was Thursday, I find a consistent source of consolation.  And others still, like Crime and Punishment or King Lear, are puzzles of human behavior I strive to understand and resolve.

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Art and Wonder

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So this week I couldn’t find the time to post, but last night I saw Interstellar and I want to talk about it.

Interstellar is a movie that is, at its heart, about survival, and the extreme lengths we are willing to go to do it.  This is its thematic heart and backbone, but its soul is about exploration and wonder.  And maybe it’s hard for the movie to reconcile these two subjects, along with its emphasis on a sort of transcendent love, but when I have spoken about what makes a work of art valuable in the past, one of the primary criteria I keep returning to is that it fulfills something for us that is rare or unique to the work.  And though we might well criticize Interstellar for its metaphysical and thematic failings, I feel positively compelled to recommend it on the basis of instilling a sense of wonder, which is something I experience less and less in art recently.

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Deus Ex Machina vs. Eucatastrophe

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Seeing as I’ve spent a good deal of time discussing happy endings, contemporary grimness, and the fundamental structural differences between so-called “realistic” storytelling now in vogue and more archetypal (and enduring) story structures, it seems that this discussion, which proposes to get at the fundamental difference between the two kinds of stories, was inevitable.  Deus Ex Machina is one of the bugbears of narrative style in this day and age, but Tolkien’s theory of eucatastrophe, which seems comparable, is the basis behind the wildly famous (and compelling) Lord of the Rings as well as The Hobbit (which leaves me with the thin shred of topicality for this discussion).  Are these concepts truly the same, and are they indicative of poor writing?

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The End of Friendship

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People used to have a lot to say about friendship.  Aristotle wrote a long passage in the Nichomachean Ethics which described various forms of friendship and lauded true friendship as the highest relationship a person could have.  Cicero, likewise, had a great deal to say about friendship in his essay on the subject, though he was a good bit more cautionary, concerned as he was with the Roman political machine.  Perhaps one of the most recent writers to present one of these serious essays in the same vein – at least that I am aware of – is Montaigne, who was very much aware that the classical sense of friendship (the friendship of Cicero and Aristotle) was on the way out.  He admitted that it was rare and truly valuable to find a lifelong, true friend in his day and age – and he was writing in the 16th century.  Do we, then, have a chance at all?

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Realism vs. Artistry

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Once upon a time, back before the novel was an art form, art was unrealistic and nobody expected it to ever be anything else.  This is not to say that all art was downright fantastic: rather, there was an acknowledged artifice in the style and production of art that emphasized form over mimesis.  For instance, nearly all of the literary arts, be they poems, plays, epics, or otherwise, tended to be written in poetry, not prose.  And even when a work of prose was written (say, Malory), emphasis was not on internal consistency (Malory famously recalls the death of several knights multiple times) but on the arc and craft of storytelling.  Let us pause, then, for a moment, and consider the change between this outlook and the one we bear now, which often aspires to realism far over the artistry of a work.

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The Protestant Work Tension

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We Americans take a great deal of pride in our work ethic.  Statisticians often point out that we take less vacation time annually than pretty much any European nation (even those legendarily industrious Germans); our first question upon meeting new people is usually “what do you do for a living?”; and we often hail our greatest entrepreneurs (like Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, the Rockerfellers, etc.) as some of our cultural heroes, in the same breath as patriot politicians like Washington and Jefferson or war heroes like General Robert E. Lee or Dwight Eisenhower.  On at least three separate Internet polls I’ve seen regarding the book that has the most influence on your life and outlook, Atlas Shrugged – that gigantic testament and ode to industry – came in second only to the Bible.  Often times, we attribute this fanatic devotion to work to the “Protestant Work Ethic”, and imagine this nation’s earliest puritan ancestors building a town virtually overnight to survive their first harsh New England winters.  But I’m not sure the Bible is really the Protestant Work Ethic’s best defender, and I really doubt we can claim it as the champion of our contemporary obsession with consumerism, capitalism, and industry.

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False Honesty

The stated purpose of this blog is to discuss, somehow, Capital-T Truth, without hedging or bullying or misrepresenting positions or using any cheap tactics to reach it.  And an obvious related discussion that I’ve neglected thus far is the discussion of honesty, which lies very much in the realm of what this blog is trying to do, and the lack of which troubles me to no end and is very much part of the reason I wanted to start this blog in the first place.  So this week I want to talk about what is perhaps one of the most subtle, ugly, and obstructive problems to trying to talk honestly: namely, false honesty.

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