Thursday, August 20, 2009

More Reflections on Art and Social Change

A bit of an unstructured post follows: read at your hazard.

Many people say that art should not consider social change in its creation. Some of my favorite critics, like Harold Bloom. Poppycock. There is some terrific stuff that vigorously asserts its social conscience, of course, from the opera of Peter Sellars (the director) to the novels of TC Boyle to the theater of Tony Kushner (which Bloom praises and which he influenced, according to the playwright) to the work of Milan Kundera to any number of others.

There's also Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, which anyone reading this blog knows has obsessed me lately.

An Ahab-like character named the Judge reports through dialogue with the character called only the kid that, to the Judge's dismay, the latter has grown a conscience following their campaign of mercenary killing.

But no action or language on the kid's part really demonstrates that conscience, at least to my eye. The Judge, that great amoral havoc-wreaker, child-killer and Indian-massacre-specialist, antagonist of the whole thing, tells the kid that he saw this conscience develop and that it betrayed weakness. That's how we learn of the kid's change. But we are not subject to the kid's side of the moral debate. The book is an exploration of darkness, for whatever that term is worth. Therefore darkness has the stage, the floor, and the bar and balcony for that matter.

For me the book is a sustained moral commentary. Its ability to shock is its power. And the recoil that we experience repeatedly is our reason for reading, and it's a sign of our conscience, our humanity. Our humanity is recurringly invoked.

McCarthy's violence in that book does not desensitize us to it, though it's relentless. The book's brutality is surprising enough to awaken our disgust and pity and terror.

No Country For Old Men
, by contrast, goes through the motions and makes violence a tool toward no particular end but its own portrayal.

Our opinion of European conquest in the West informs some of our reaction to Blood Meridian. The cruelty of the "whites" is portrayed more graphically and with a loving attention to detail, and the Indians and Mexicans are not given equivalent arias of bloodshed. Minor ones, but not serious and central ones.

I think there's a pretension among writers who pen supposedly amoral work that they can assemble words that defy our conscious judgments. I'm not saying that violence can't be aestheticized successfully, and that something like Hamlet doesn't offer a transcendent, redemptive picture of blood retribution to some extent. (that's a vastly more complicated topic, of course). But all these works rely on our basic sense of right and wrong to provide astonishment when whatever we conceive of as justice is defiled.

Sigh. I wonder if anyone else has written more online about this book. I saw this blog post the other day and read it with interest (it's from 2008.) But I just can't seem to shut up on the subject. Oh well. I know my brother likes this stuff.

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