Happy Halloween and welcome to a special edition of things I’ve enjoyed lately.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
With the start of the semester, my time has been limited, so rather than examine a wide variety of entertainments, I prefer to concentrate my attention for a closer look at a select few.