The First Step of Justice Is Reaching Out, A History Boy, 21/12/2015

I thought I'd write a short follow-up of this weekend’s post about how abstract, theoretical thinking can blind you to real suffering. Because it isn't just complex theories of literature that make you think others’ suffering either doesn't exist or doesn't matter.

I’ve started working on a script for a film version of You Were My Friend, the play I wrote and helped produce in Hamilton last Fall. The story applies to this problem of indifference, in a lot of ways. It’ll take a few tangents through my memory to explain fully.

All the terror of our current century has followed from
the effects of this day. We should never take its
power for granted, or think of it as ordinary.
Don't worry – I won't spoil the story.

Let's start with yesterday's main topic. Lisa Ruddick ends her article about the moral coldness of modern literary theory with an appeal to heart, which is a little vague when you think about it. Aside from getting back into a more generally sympathetic frame of mind, how would you analyze or understand an artwork this way?

It reminds me of a conversation I had with my old friend D shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks about irony in art. So much of the most popular art in the 1990s had a thick veneer of irony and misanthropy, which were sources of humour. 

We sat and wondered what would happen to art, whether irony would be dumped, inadequate to the trauma that had just been inflicted on our culture. We imagined a new era of art whose primary tone was a heart-rending sincerity.

Because 18-year-old students can be really pretentious sometimes. 

But I sometimes think we were onto something. At least in terms of tendency. Intelligent art isn’t always drenched in disdain or contempt. Being a dedicated Seinfeld fan was appropriate to my self-absorbed teens, and it's not like that show stopped being funny. 

Throughout my 20s, I've been more drawn to works of art that explore real struggles, and either find humour in them or depict them in all their gut-wrenching intensity. The most remarkable TV comedies of the early 2010s, Community and Parks and Recreation, mined cartoonishly absurd humour from narratives of love, friendship, and dedication. 

Community was probably the perfect example of how
to combine thickly referenced media literacy, hip
sensibility, healthy irony, and genuine ethical
sympathy with its characters.
These are examples that impacted me the most anyway. Being able to take part in the online communities that grew around these and other shows also contribute to a powerful sense of belonging. These were our communities.

Able to reach out and form fandom communities with people all over the world. Where more and more of the best cultural entertainment properties combined humour, satire, and love. These intensely social environments and sympathetic ideas have shaped how I engage with art. 

So I’m trying to bring that same attitude to You Were My Friend. The warmth of watching a friendship come together, but in a world constantly haunted by the worst economic and family traumas that Mike Leigh or Lars Von Trier could come up with.

I’ve told Samantha before that her big moment in the storyline is when I go “the full Von Trier" on her. One of the most powerful moments in cinema that I think I've ever experienced is the end of Dancer in the Dark. I saw it in a theatre, and it left me frozen in my seat for at least 10 minutes. 

The ambition of You Were My Friend is to combine that kind of emotional power with moments of ridiculous levity and warmth in one movie. It tries to depict how real friendship can develop and fall apart in the pressures of the real economy and urban life.

So if I can venture an answer to Ruddick’s question. What would a literary theory with heart be? It would move away from finding significations that conform to a theory that sees liberation in the total explosion of personality and history. That’s what it's not.

It would understand an artwork in terms of its affects and its mission. What an artwork makes an audience feel, and what they learn from it. In my own case, they feel the real pain of people cast adrift in an economy and a business world more obsessed with empty buzzwords and quick cash than real struggles. They feel the real joy of the friendships that are our life rafts in these harsh times. 

And they understand the world where all this happens. It’s ours.

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