23 September 2013

Realisms and Beauty

Here’s a philosophical problem that continually plagues me as a writer:

Is the primary aesthetic goal of a work of art, specifically in this case literary works of art such as the short story or novel, (a) to accurately portray a feeling or (b) to make the audience feel?

Let’s expand and define:

The portrayal of the private, emotional life of a fictional character is certainly an, if not the principle, aim of literary fiction. The writer plunks an invented character into some situation and explores that character’s experience—inner and outer. The character becomes a sort of virtual field (or virtual mind) to whom and upon and within which this experience occurs, analagous, say, to the two-dimensional action space of a painting.

Accuracy of the portrayal of this inner experience, what we might call its 'psychological realism,' is a quality often and widely (though certainly not universally) admired (as, of course, is how well-realized a world the writer depicts and how compelling a situation s/he creates: what we might call its 'narrative realism'). How truly human does this character seem? How well does the writer present the fullness of this character's interior life and his/her emotional engagement with the given situation?

But is this all? No.

In the classic formulation, this imitation of life serves to bring about an experience of catharsis in the audience. This is the purpose of tragedy: "There but for the grace of the gods (or fate or serendipity or overcoming my own flaws or whatever) go I."

Aristotle identifies the emotions tragedy produces in its audience. In summary strokes, tragedy is the depiction of the downfall of a noble hero due either to some flaw (hamartia) in his nature (e.g., pride) or, certainly in the older tragedians, to the actions of the gods. Feelings of disappointment, guilt, anger, resentment, shame, etc. are the sorts of feelings that might be depicted in the tragic hero, and the lifelikeness of their depiction is part of the art of the writer.

But, for Aristotle, these are not the same sorts of feelings the tragic work produces in its audience. The purpose/aim of a tragic work of art is to arouse the emotions of fear and pity in the audience. As the audience, we fear for the tragic hero. Though he does not recognize it, we know he is heading for a fall. And we pity him because we see aspects of ourselves in him. Once we come to this realization, we are able to overcome the same sort of hubris that might very well bring us low.

But, and this is the point, the depicted emotions are not the same as the emotions aroused in the audience. The audience's emotions are reactive, responsive to those of the tragic hero (and, of course, his plight). Sympathetic, if you will.

This helps frame the issue for me: Does the accuracy and, let's say, poignancy of the depiction of the nobility of the hero and his/her situation, the nature of his/her flaw, and the violence of his/her downfall determine the nature and quality of the audience's reaction? Is there a direct causal relation between the verisimilitude of the psychological and narrative realism and the nature and quality of the sympathetic emotions evoked from the audience? The closer our identification with the hero the more profound our catharsis?

Again: As the writer is my primary concern the perfection of my depiction of the narrative, and more specifically the psychological, realism or should I focus principally on how I want the audience to feel upon reading the narrative?

Some might say there isn't any real difference. Just write well and let the audience respond how it will.

I want readers to identify with my characters. I want them to feel sympathy for my characters' predicaments and plights. I am less concerned with whether they like a particular character than that they find her interesting/intriguing. I want them to experience a character's complexity—emotional and otherwise. To this end, my aim is akin to that of realism, both narrative and psychological.

(Aside: Thesis: I go beyond mere realism(-s) if I am able to depict a unique situation or a portray a new, or even fuller, emotional consciousness. But that's a point for another day.)

But this begs the main question. It is not just through literal, realistic depictions of situations or inner states of consciousness or even physical reactions that writers reach and, indeed, affect the emotions of their readers. Rather, it is primarily through techniques of persuasion.

As the writer, I want to show you how the overarching power of love can fulfill a life's course and make you feel the sadness of a missed chance at true love. (Love in the Time of Cholera). I want to show you how a selfish, adulterous act can be unwittingly cruel to an underserving character and can, in fact, destroy your own life—so don't do it! (Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina). I want to show you how religious belief can have a positive/negative impact on your life and, in fact, on society in general and persuade you to convert your lifestyle. (Brothers Karamazov, Origin of the Brunists) I want to portray the presence of evil in the world in all its multifaceted, larger-than-life-and-death enormity and terror and leave you in awe of its abject beauty and power. (Blood Meridian, Omensetter's Luck) I want to show you the power that unseen conspiratorial forces exercise over our daily affairs and make you feel that perhaps it's reasonable to be afraid, very afraid—paranoid even. (Gravity's Rainbow, and A-game Pynchon) I want to show you how certain political/social/economic situations are manifestly unjust and ultimately untenable and move you to want to change them. (Disgrace, and anything from early Coetzee) I want to show you that fascism is a bad thing so you'll recognize its symptoms in yourself and be repulsed by its very presence. (Animal Farm, 1984, Lord of the Flies, Auto-da-Fe)

Affecting catharsis. Scaring. Shaming. Educating. Moralizing. Sermonizing. Proselytizing. Propagandizing. These goals are not different in kind, merely in degree.

And how do I achieve these types of ends? Rhetoric, affective language, figurative language—the tools of aesthetics. Blatant or subtle manipulations. The realisms of discursive language—psychological and narrative—are, on this view, subsidiary concerns.

Granted, situational poignancy and its accurate depiction can take us partially there, can move us—but only to a certain extent. It takes persuasive power to amplify its effect and make it stick. And these same techniques can either "beautify" or "ruin" the work. That is to say, the techniques of beautification can quite easily be used for purposes other than aesthetic.

Therein lies the dilemma. And the delicate balancing act of/for the writer/artist.

I know this post has been longish and a bit rambling, and I apologize. Yet it has helped me clarify the problem I began with: As a writer, should I be more concerned about trying to keep my characters' actions (and emotions) true to (that character's) experience as I've envisaged it or should I constantly be keeping in mind how I hope to move my audience by my depiction? Should I be more concerned about the realism of the piece or its aesthetics? Which is more important, the verisimilitude or the message? The depiction or the rhetoric?

There is a difference, an important one. Please feel free to weigh in.There are reasoned approaches and well-thought-out positions in both directions on this issue. I'd like to hear from you.

I don't think I'm any closer to a resolution of this issue as a writer, but I do think I have a better handle on what a resolution must entail. Of course, it might turn out that my formulation of the problem is faulty and there's no real issue here. If so, how might that look? Or maybe there's something other than emotionality at stake?

1 comment:

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I'd guess the goal of any story-teller is emotional engagement.

So this could come from a compelling narrative, or compelling characters, or even how finely the narrative is related.