Sometimes understanding builds slowly: disparate elements slotting slowly into place until the last piece falls and other seemingly unrelated pieces cohere into a whole. In a way, that’s all understanding is, a feeling of coherence. This week a puzzle came together in such a way for me, with the final part being a couple of graduation pieces my Drama colleague and I put together for our Year 13 students: two plays that both looked at the danger of the isolated teenage boy, desperately wanting to connect, yet lacking the skills or confidence to make it happen. Another colleague, on seeing what was a compelling yet bleak performance, asked ‘where were the answers?’
For a great deal of my writing and teaching career, I would have turned to my locked and loaded answer without thought or hesitation – ‘It is not necessarily the place of art to provide answers. It is enough to provide insight and perspective, to provoke thought.’ I still think that’s true, but there is a danger that comes from embracing this perspective too easily. It is the risk of falling into a habit of relentless cynicism, of endlessly rehashing and representing the dark and the dangerous, as if this in itself constitutes a radical and edgy act. From there, it is only a small step to exploiting shock value for the attention it can bring in a crowded market. And yet, cynicism in art is easy. Hope is a much more difficult act to pull off, because when it misses the results are cloying and twee.
Offering answers, in other words, exposes us. To say ‘here’s a problem’ is no stretch. Problems are easily identified and expanded upon, and their very nature is dramatic. Story, in the end, is the playing out of the tension between desire and impediment: the exploration of problems. But, at the point we say not just ‘here’s the problem’ but also ‘here’s how we ought to solve it’ we offer up our inevitable inadequacy: the depth of our ignorance, and also somehow the universality of our frightened desires. We are much more likely to be ridiculed for our solutions than our stating of the problem. And so fear of appearing less substantial than we would like to seem drives us towards the safer expressions of darkness.
Critical response reinforces the effect. Everybody loves the clown, but no one gives them the prize. Scan through the lists of literary titles offered for study in any high school or university, and see how much of it dwells on the darker side of our nature. As if there is something intellectually unworthy about wishing to live well, in love and joy. Which speaks both to the base unhappiness of those doing the choosing (perhaps it is this misery that sends the avid reader in search of an escape form the world that so offends them) and their desperate desire to appear clever in an intellectual, rather than emotional sense.
In all likelihood, a teenager will make it through their secondary years never studying a love story with a happy ending. And yet, it is love, and nothing else, that can lift our lives beyond the drudgery. Finding love and sustaining it is surely the very thing we most wish for our children, and yet God forbid we should let them read about it. How trivial that would be.
The other parts of the puzzle having been accumulating for a while now. Watching my own children grow, and this year writing them their own novel, and feeling how strongly my instincts were pulled towards letting them believe in a world where their avatars could find companionship, security and hope. Studying Brecht with My Year 13s, and facing the inevitable question of what most moves us to the betterment of others, radicalised intellectual response, or personal identification and empathy. Thinking from there about history, and wondering what were the impulses which led to our greatest triumphs? Revolution makes for better epics, but empathy, I suspect, has been the more powerful force in the long run.
Starting a new novel was in there too, having the plan laid out, the story solid, the characters alive ready to lead me through the pages, and noticing how reluctant I was to return to the story, how little heart I had in it.
Going back through some of Hilary Putnam’s offerings in the year of his death, and being struck by his clear assertion that the rejection of an objective morality was the great intellectual fraud of the 20th century, and connecting this to our reluctance in story to embrace the hopeful and the good. But don’t you know, says the mistaken intellectual, goodness is relative. There’s no such thing.
Thinking about my ongoing love affair with The West Wing, the series I always go back to, despite it not having quite the same gravitas or production values as the great series of our time, The Wire for example, or Deadwood. But knowing nevertheless that for me it will always be the better show. Yes the dialogue is smarter, the story lines faster and more gleeful, but more than that, I’m sure, Aaron Sorkin’s true love for the universe he wishes to inhabit offers the viewer the chance to be uplifted. Sure, sometimes it misses and we feel preached to and patronized, but there’s a rare beauty in the moments when he succeeds. And at least he was brave enough to try.
Thinking too of a talk I’ll give next week (September 27th, 12.15, St Andrews on The Terrace) on the nature of morality, and the difference between moral realism, and moral objectivism. I’ll be claiming that the relativists, in rightly rejecting our capacity to access any kind of moral reality, rather threw the baby out with the bathwater when they erroneously concluded that a theory of moral objectivism could no longer be constructed.
There are lives worth living, and what little we can glean of these we must surely shout from the rooftops. And so a challenge lies ahead for this writer. For my next play, and my next novel too, I must celebrate all that is best in us. Anything else is just whistling in the dark.