Anti-Climacus


"Thou shalt not extinguish thine anger, but shall master it, that thy conscience may not be blunted by adjustment to wrong causes."
-The Dutch Ten Commandments to Foil the Nazis

18.2.13

Oddly enough, Ron Rosenbaum may be onto something:


It has occurred to me that, silly as they are, the zombie, sea monster, and horror movie mash-up versions of the Austen novels are, if not deliberate, then unintentional expressions of What’s Missing From the Snow Globe World of Austen. That sense that she is not questioning the moral order of the universe, the horror of unredeemed human suffering, and the meaning of the human presence within it. She doesn’t have to, but let’s not ignore the fact that she doesn’t. She does not venture into the realm of theodicy, the attempt to reconcile the alleged goodness of God with the prevalence of evil—which almost every great novelist and dramatist does.

Austen writes brilliantly about Bad Behavior in a little world, which Deresiewicz distorts into little sermons on Good Behavior, but she doesn’t stare into the face of evil the way Conrad, Faulkner, and other Modernists—and 19th century novelists like Melville and Hawthorne—do. She could not write “Young Goodman Brown,” nor would we want her to. Her novels are a perfect expression of an exquisite intelligence valuable for itself not for domesticating Deresiewicz.

Combine this with Woody Allen's observation in Manhattan that people tend to create little problems for themselves so they can avoid thinking about the bigger problems, and we're most of the way to a theory about the current vogue for 'realism.'

Contemporary realism is a way of faithfully representing lived experience that conveniently ignores how much lived experience intentionally omits time for serious questions, and replaces great unanswerable questions for smaller ones that, while no less imponderable, are of a dramatically smaller scale. That is to say, just like real life, a pile of small details is taken for the whole. Which, as Rosenbaum points out, is not in itself a problem: it omits something significant, but it can still be done in an excellent manner.

Instead, it points out how much self-deception is involved in these cultural exercises. Take the rise of comedies with a serious dramatic element (someone at Slate pointed this out about Louie, but it applies more broadly). If the show happens to not be funny, the response is "well, it's not just a comedy, so it doesn't need to be funny all the time." If the dramatic notes fail, the response is "well, it's supposed to be a comedy, it's not surprising if it's occasionally a lesser dramatic experience," and, because it's 'experimental' or 'realistic' at turns, it somehow gets credit for experiments that no one much likes ("it's daring!") or, worst of all, for accurately representing life, as though this is a significant accomplishment and not the basic premise of almost all art. All of the critical energy goes into charges and counter-charges about realism and the proper category in which to slot what we see; the criticism, like the thing criticized, manage to replace serious reflection with petty squabbling. Which is not unlike regular life itself.

The consequence of this is that very little attention is given to what we don't see and this, I think, is the significant thing missing. When my students read a text, I tell them (as my own advisor once told me) to read with an eye to what's missing: the author has carefully chosen and constructed his argument, but of necessity or intention, many things have to be left out. To really understand the text, you have to have some idea of what these things are. Many are omitted for reasons of space, or because an author of that time wouldn't have considered them, or for other mundane reasons. Every once in awhile, the omissions are significant: why does Hobbes use the relatively obscure example of Naaman to argue that  the Bible approves of Christians publicly proclaiming a faith other than the one they believe in, and omit mention of the much more famous and significant examples of the opposite in the Book of Daniel? Everything does not, as my favorite saying goes, have to be about everything, but if what you are watching, or reading, is conspicuously or repeatedly not about something significant, that may be important.

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