Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Art as Judge

Every novel contains a central moral presumption. That's because every author comes to his or her work with a set of beliefs about how the world should work and what happens when it doesn't. So, even if the author doesn't make a note of the moral presumptions in his work and tape it to his monitor, he still writes a story infused with, even guided by, his take on the world machine. Things like...

Equal justice makes a society humane.

Regret prevents us from living meaningfully.

Beauty is on the inside or nowhere.

The bad guy should pay for his evil deeds.

Happiness at the expense of others is fragile and dangerous.

I've read several novels recently that have pointed a finger at me. You might think that I would find this a bit like wearing a wool sweater in July. Not at all. I enjoyed the experience immensely because the author didn't write about an issue but about characters, fully developed and real, living inside the issues, wrestling with complex moral questions within the context of enthralling stories.

I noticed that in each story the stakes--emotional, psychological, or physical--were high. Squirmy high. Nose-bleed high.

I just finished reading The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman. A childless couple (2 miscarriages and one stillbirth) live on a rock of an island off the coast of southwestern Australia. The husband keeps the lighthouse. The wife considers a life without children as a great black void. But...a dinghy comes to shore with a wailing infant and a dead man. The dutiful husband is eager to make a report. The wife convinces him to wait, and then to take the child as their own. On their first trip to shore nearly two years later, they discover that the mother is alive. And so the working out of the moral premise begins.

Great story. It made me ask if I was living happily at the expense of others. Not comfortable to ask or answer.

Has art dared to judge you? What questions has art asked that made you squirm? Are you buying this moral presumption thing?


Susie Finkbeiner said...

OH! I love reading stories that make me squirm. I like writing them, too.

I think the first story that made me feel that unsettled wormy feeling was "Franny & Zooey". It was one of the first things to burst my squeaky clean, Christian school girl bubble. It forced me to wonder if I loved Jesus for who He is or for what I think He should be. After that, I read a healthy diet of Steinbeck, Dostoyevsky, Sinclair Lewis, Harper Lee, and on and on. All of them made me ponder and ask questions of myself.

Am I thinking of others? What is my motivation for this or that? Do I do the right thing out of a sense of obligation or because I want to be righteous? Do I blindly believe what I'm told? So. Many. Questions.

I don't care for reading that doesn't make me wonder about myself. That kind of story makes me feel dissatisfied and lonely.

Cherry Odelberg said...

"What questions has art asked that made you squirm?"
What a grand and piercing question. I may chew on that all day.

I was doing a casual read of "The Silver Chair, (C.S. Lewis)" to my four grandchildren, trying to beguile them with my best aloud reading voices and put off the inevitable request for video games or a movie, and then we got to the second chapter, which is all about the difficulty, fears and un-safty of accepting and trusting "Aslan." Yes, that made me squirm, because I am on a quest to feel comfortable, safe, secure, self-confident; and to do the RIGHT thing, the Secure thing, the wise thing - to not be embarrassed any more, ever in my life by my choices and foolishness. Then, in her quest to appear courageous, Jill shows off. Lord, spare me.

--And that is only a children's book. What other questions has art asked that made me squirm? Music makes me squirm; sometimes through evoking memories. Christian canvas art makes me squirm and not always in the direction of the church.

Patti Hill said...

Susie: "That kind of story makes me feel dissatisfied and lonely." Yep.

Cherry: I have to re-read The Silver Chair. I recently read a book that refers to it and the spiritual lessons within, and I thought, "Oh boy, I just remember being anxious for the troops to show up." That too is the sign of a great book, one that can be read on many levels, that meets the reader where they are.

Children's books can be especially squirmy. Kids aren't afraid of justice. In fact, they demand it.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

I just read 'His Love Doesn't Hurt" by Yaa Serwaa Somuah. "An African woman's story of rising up from under the oppression of extreme neglect, fear and the threat of AIDS"
I already have Africa in my blood. There are sooooooo many babies out there....
Her emotional expression is so honest, I question mine.

Megan Sayer said...

I don't have time to explain because I'm about to drive out of internet range, but THANK YOU! This gas been one of those times where it was the absolute perfect post at absolutely just the right time. Wow. Thanks again!!!

Patti Hill said...

Henrietta: Sounds like a great story and a good question to ask ourselves, especially as writers.

Megan: Thanks for stopping by while you're on vacation. Glad we hit the mark.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Oh, mentioning children's books! YES! Kate DiCamillo gets me every single time.

Patti Hill said...

Susie: Kate's latest is up for the National Book Award. Go, Kate!