Head Or Heart
On the pleasures of challenge
The list of Asinine Statements Made By Paulo Coelho is about as long as the number of sentences he has written. Some made the list from interviews. Here we find the popular pedlar of fortune-cookie mysticism diagnosing the problem with modern literature:
“Today, writers want to impress other writers. One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is pure style. There is nothing there. Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit.”
Thankfully, we have Coelho to save modernism from itself (and us, presumably, from modernism). In service to the personality cult of Coelho for which he is the high priest, he tells us, “I’m modern because I make the difficult seem easy.”
In seriousness (and because the sardonic tone is not the usual register for Art Of Conversation), do we want the difficult complexities of life presented in what must by definition be a reduced form to render them “easy”? I often have discussions with people who, in response to a criticism of a movie or book for being superficial in some way, ask, “What if I just want escapism? What if I don’t want to think, I only want to be entertained?” Essentially, they are comfortable with art emptied of the artistic to make room for the merely diverting.
Two caveats might head off some common objections. First, “I just want to be entertained” is often an excuse for the extremely low quality of certain movies and books. Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (a near-perfect comedy) demonstrates that entertainment need not be poorly made. Hot Fuzz and the recent Spiderman: Into the Spider-verse are incredibly well-crafted and no less entertaining for it; the fun is augmented by the technical proficiency of the filmmakers. Wright’s sense of movement in-camera lends itself to visual comedy that underlines the verbal humour, and the meticulous attention to the art design of Spider-verse creates an immersive world that demonstrates the inherent qualities of graphic novels and cinema at the same time. These are movies I can watch over drinks with friends and, in more sober hours, can scrutinise for an essay’s worth of analysis of craft.*
Second, and this one is crucial, if a person sincerely has no interest in deep thinking about art, if their “analyses” come down to “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” with no accounting for the why of that opinion, I accept that. But that person and I are having different conversations, and I am not interested in theirs. They, in turn, have no obligation to be interested in talking with me. For everyone else who sits on the fence, or disagrees vehemently and wants to debate it, or thinks they agree but need to examine the issue more closely, let’s do a little deep thinking on art together.
“He that loveth pleasure shall be a poor man.”
~ Proverbs 21:17, KJV
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche describes the conceptual Last Men. Like the hollow figures of T S Eliot’s poem, these are people who voluntarily empty their minds and their hearts just enough that they can live comfortably, with their sights set not on art and culture but on simply making money and shunning difficulty. They avoid excessive highs or lows of emotion, distrust complexity, and reject intellectual challenge. Zarathustra presents this figure to a crowd after they laugh at his conception of the Übermensch, the person who seeks transcendence; he hopes to disgust them with a lowly vision of humanity, and instead they jeer, “Make us these last men! You can keep your Superman!” In this, we find the origin of every passive shrug today and the question, “What if I just want my movies and books to be entertaining?”
It is absurd to see one’s own generation or society as distinct from all others in its resemblance to these Last Men. Every generation has its complaints about the degradation of values, language, or culture, and each generation has no shortage of those who look fondly backwards in time. That is the problem – every society, every generation, every person has the capacity to give in to the worst impulses of human nature. The fight must be fought repeatedly, just as André Gide pointed out that “everything that needs to be said has already been said, but ... everything must be said again”.
Besides, it is not the Last Man whom we most commonly hear from – it is whom we might call the Penultimate People: Those engaged with politics and culture just enough to justify resting on their laurels to binge-watch televisual chloroform. This passivity too often relies on a misconceived distinction between head and heart, seeing simplicity as fun and seriousness as probably important but dull. Work is what one does for others (they think), while fun is what one does for oneself. This is an impoverished view of both.
The pleasure of challenge is in the reward of skills gained and used. It is a joy to add weight to the barbell, having completed ten reps of the weight you couldn’t lift a few months earlier. It is also a pleasure to re-watch a favourite movie and notice the Dutch angles or editing style and realise what these techniques tell you about the story in that moment or make you feel and how. It is a pleasure to recognise a sentence of Proust, a quotation from the Bible, or the stripped down style of Hemingway being referenced in a contemporary novel. There is great reward in being able to discern a subtext or theme from a work so that, while appreciating the story on its surface, you can also think about the questions it is raising, grapple with its ideas, and have more to bring to other works of art you will engage with.
The Invisible Gorilla Test was a psychological experiment in which viewers of a short film were asked how many times a basketball was passed between participants on-screen, counting only the passes made by players in white. Halfway through, a woman in a gorilla suit walked into the middle of the shot and beat her chest for nine seconds, long enough for anyone to wonder what the hell was going on. Only half of the viewers saw her; this is known as “inattentional blindness”.
Artists are adept at directing our attention, passing balls on-screen to keep us watching, and often the subtextual gorilla goes unnoticed by our conscious mind. This does not make the gorilla pointless: The Great Gatsby, told in a different style or re-worded, might retain its story but lose its atmosphere and emotional impact, even without our being conscious of such literary techniques. The inverse also holds true, that becoming aware of the language in a novel, the palette of a painting, the visual style of a movie, or the use of tempo in a song adds to our appreciation. Seeing and hearing more adds depth to what we hear and see.
An important part of that depth is the ability to take part in a cultural conversation. Movies talk to other movies, books to other books, and so on, sometimes crossing media, aware of what has been said before, responding with counter-arguments and affirmations. In Carrie (a movie in conversation with its novelistic source material), Sissy Spacek adopts body language inspired by the artwork of Gustave Doré, whose wood engravings are in dialogue with Biblical stories. Doré was an artist within the Romantic movement, which responded to the cultural claims of the Scientific Revolution, which in turn spoke to the faith, philosophy, and art that had come before. Carrie, a twentieth century horror movie, is part of a dialogue that goes right back to the beginning of civilisation. All art finds itself within a tangled web of culture, a conversation we can take part in – if we make the effort.
What you read and watch is, for these reasons, less important than how you read and watch. I am not arguing that “serious readers should read serious books”, but that we should read, watch, and listen seriously. Not exclusively (the hungover movie-fest is a favourite of mine) but a majority of the time. This will lead to serious reading, watching, and listening becoming a source of pleasure and in turn, as Aristotle notes in The Nicomachean Ethics, “The pleasures arising from thinking and learning will make us think and learn all the more.”
What Nietzsche was warning of with the Last Man was a propensity to seek comfort at the cost of complexity, order at the expense of chaos. Order is seductive in its appeal to the primal urge to stay safe and not take risks. It should not be disparaged cheaply or rejected entirely, but order of this kind is not where beauty is found. As Nietzsche wrote, “One must have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: You still have chaos in yourselves.”
“There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.”
~ Beverly Sills
It would be easy for me to leave things at an indictment of excessive order and in praise of chaos, but I am not advocating easy answers. Irony, paradox, and nuance are where the best things are found. So – chaos may be the birth of art, but it is also a large measure of what art frees us from, by supplying a healthy dose of order.
The lesson of the last century has been that life is messy and there are no objective narratives that make sense of existence. The response to this from modern art has been to lean into that fact, to portray the absurdity of life, the meaninglessness and subjectivity of it all, and then sit back self-satisfied. But some art (especially art that has survived from before the twentieth-century) offers ways of coping with this chaos. This art does not fear reaching for the universal and transcendent, does not balk at the idea that there might be a condition we can call human and experiences that speak to most of us.
In accepting homogenised, pre-digested stories, we insult our own intelligence, deny our humanity, and wilfully accept a narrowed view of the world, the strict confines of which are determined by values not in line with what allows us to thrive. The safe, formulaic movies and books put out by big studios and publishers teach us to be consumers, encouraging us to passively accept what is on our screens and pages. By becoming active participants in the art-work and even creators ourselves, we hold a power to shape rather than merely be shaped, and we become, as a consequence, more engaged citizens.
Rising to the challenge of difficult art – and learning to find pleasure in it – also better equips us for the reality of daily life. We face down our demons from the safety of a reading chair, reconsider estranged relationships through the prism of an onscreen family, or strengthen ourselves for the shocks and griefs that occur in life. I have found my way through many personal crises with the help of great novels, movies, and music that did not allow me to ignore those problems but face and transform them.
When we read of Emma Bovary’s existential boredom, when we hear the hope struggling against melancholic resignation during the reflective meditation in Massenet’s Thaïs, or when we watch Eliza sign that the fish-man in The Shape of Water is the only one who “sees me as I am”, we understand intellectually what this means in context and we understand emotionally what this means for each of us in our own lives. This is a synthesis between the chaos of life and the order of art. It is the meeting place of heart and brain, and neither can be left out.
If “escapism” is the kind of thing that protects you for an hour or two from the pain of existence and the difficulty of thinking for yourself, then I would call art “transformational”. This is the literature, cinema, and music that confronts the difficult, the unsettling, the real and transforms it into something honest and beautiful, and in the process transforms us as well. As Alain de Botton puts it in The Consolations of Philosophy:
“Artists and philosophers not only show us what we have felt, they present our experiences more poignantly and intelligently than we have been able; they give shape to aspects of our lives that we recognise as our own, yet could never have understood so clearly on our own. They explain our condition to us, and thereby help us to be less lonely with, and confused by it.”
My only contention with this useful summary is the implication that the artist does all the work; we must only turn up and be transformed. But simply turning up can be an exercise of will. There is a lot in favour of not trying in the first place, much that appeals to the lazy, scared, confused parts of our humanity. And there is a need for some escapism, just as the mind needs relief from thought with sleep. Our emotional state requires time without duress to recover and grow. But no genius ever achieved greatness by remaining asleep, and Schwarzenegger did not build his body to the point that Clive James described him as a “brown condom stuffed with walnuts” by making every day recovery-day and never going to the gym.
We have to overcome the will-to-give-in with the will-to-will-power, meeting the artist in the art-work rather than expecting them to come to us and hand over an epiphany. The revelation must be deciphered. Translation of this kind is a lifetime’s education that is, for the most part, autodidactic. No one can make you turn up for class.
The rewards for attendance, on the other hand, are of inexpressible value. You will not be the same, and you will be glad for it. Some things will be lost to you: movies you once loved and books read many times will lose their shine as flaws glare through, but the insights and pleasures and experiences and sheer joys uncovered in more difficult works will more than make up for that.
“In their different ways, art and philosophy help us,” de Botton writes, “to turn pain into knowledge.” Pain given up for knowledge. In this way, the felt becomes the known, the experienced the understood, and the heart and the head are brought together.
* To this list I might add: Jurassic Park (the movie), Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver, The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, The Bone Clocks, The Lost Time Accidents, and many more.
Thanks to my patrons:
Happy new year to everyone reading. I appreciate everyone who has shown their support through Patreon, and I want to say a special thank you to Hayley Whitehouse-Jones and Max Smith for being patrons. Your support keeps Art Of Conversation going.
• Paulo Coelho interviewed in Folha de S. Paulo (2012)
• Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1891)
• André Gide, The Treatise of Narcissus (1891)
• Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics (circa 340 BC)
• Beverly Sills, quoted by John L. Mason in Conquering an Enemy Called Average (1996)
• Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy (2001)
• Clive James, quoted by Christopher Hitchens in Hitch-22 (2010)