Thursday, September 16, 2010

Skip to the End

     As a heads up, this post is kind of a stretch. Think Mr. Fantastic from the Fantastic Four. Kinda like that, I guess. It will make sense but only if you make a couple key stretches in logic and accept that this is being done because I chose one question to track. They couldn't all perfectly answer the question, there were goign to be some duds.
     And thus is the case with Sophocles's Oedipus Rex. Oedipus Rex, the story of a man who kills his father, marries his mother, and then gauges out his eyes opun the realization (truly the epitome of the American Dream). The work doesn't have a lot of in story stuff about stories and their role in society, but it has a little so i'll go off of that for starters.
     Tireseas comes to Oedipus and tells him the truth of his past. Oedipus refuses to believe it but in a fantastic bit of dramatic irony, the audience does. In a way Tireseas is a surrogate for both Sophocles and the audience. He's telling Oedipus the ending of the story he plays the role of hero in. It could be argued on an entirely meta level that Oedipus's story is fated to end in tragedy simply because that's the way the story is written. The author has painstakingly crafted a situation that his hero is bound to fall prey to. Tireseas attempts to warn Oedipus of how the story ends but fails.
     And what does any of this have to do with real world applications?
     Well it kind of doesn't. Mb on that one. (in my own brain, "mb" is slang for "my bad" though I can't seem to get it to catch on. But suppose every life is a story. It has a begining a middle and an end. Some are tragic, some are funny, and some are just run of the mil boring everyday lives. But let's say for argument's sake that each one is meticulously plotted by the great writer in the sky to be a concrete story of some kind. How would we react if an avatar for that writer came down and told us everything we didn't want to know about ourselves? Would we take it like Oedipus does, with a nearly violent hesistation to believe anything so terrible? Or would it come it a more profound sense of self understanding.
      In Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut literally writes himself into the end of the story as he goes around apologizing to his characters for the terrible lives that he has assigned them. Tireseas doesn't quite apologize though, instead he just haplessly attempts to make his hero understand.
     We as people never really get to understand, but the fact that we can oversee and comprehend the lives of fictional characters like god watching ants from up in the clouds is part of what makes art and especially fiction so damned special.


Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Brave New Post (Get it? I Love Puns)

     In AP Language and Composition last year, we watched The Lion King with the intent of comparing it to Shakespeare. This struck me as funny for some reason, so for the day we watched it, I had tape on my shirt that read "I appreciate The Lion King on a deeper level than you." I did this to be funny, but it's sort of cancelled out by the fact that I'd seen joke on a T Shirt before, but with The Muppets instead of The Lion King.
     So clearly I'm something of a smart-alec, and not even an origional one at that.
     I like but do not love Shakespeare. This is something that John Savage, the protagonist in Aldous Huxley's dystopic Science Fiction novel, "Brave New World", and I do not have in common. He most likely would have legitimatly appreciated the Lion King on a deeper level than me, and not even in an ironic or sarcastic way. Be he given the oppertunity, he probably would have delighted in seeking out the comparisons to Shakespeare's "Hamlet".
     Shakespeare's work, in addition to being the love of John Savage's life, provides the title of the book. See the following quote from "The Tempest":

    "O wonder!

     How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world! That has such people in it!"

     When John Savage comes to London, he finds what he believes to be an empty society. The people are happy yes, but there is no reason for their happiness. They take pills to be happy, they engage in orgies, and they bargin in meaningless sexual flings as opposed to concrete relationships. No one truly cares for each other, no one reads and no one writes. It's like a built house without anything inside- all the pieces are in place and it looks good on the surface, but closer inspection reveals how pointless it all is.
     To John Savage, Shakespeare and his work represents the antithesis of this society. It means something, maybe tangible, maybe not, but he finds it beautiful whatever the case. It's the only thing in the world that John knows is important.
     So perhaps that's the point of art, to mean something, to reveal a truth about humanity and a truth about life. Universal truth is a hard thing to come by though so maybe not.
     Personal truth though, that seems obtainable enough. Everyone who enjoys it has probably gained something from literature, learned something even. "Slaughterhouse Five" taught me that you can't change the past and that stuff happens. (Stuff is a substitute for a word that completes the phrase but is not neccesarily school appropriate). "Then We Came to an End" taught me to delight in the little things, because they could be gone immediately. And "The Great Gatsby" taught me that what you desire most might not make you any less miserable than you already are. Something about the American Dream, if I remember the fishbowls from two years ago correctly.
     But do stories have to mean something to be art? Some of my favorite novels ever have been written by a man named John Swartzwelder. He's an obscure middle aged recluse who is most famous for penning 59 episodes of The Simpsons. His stories are laugh a minute shenanagins, and I've never laughed harder at any piece of fiction than I have those novels.
     They don't mean anything though, and Swartzwelder would be the first to admit it. The stories are joke machines, not plots in any thematic or overaching sense. Are those books still art? It seems pretentious and a little wrong to say that they're not not, but I'm still really not sure. A part of me that I'm not quite proud of thinks it's not art. This is the hipster part of me that listens to indie music largely because no one else has heard of the bands and hates Avatar because the plot was cliched and everyone else loves it. That's a part of me I'm not proud of because I don't like being a pretentious hipster. For the most part I don't think I am, but it's certainly a part of me.
     It seems like any story that illicits an emotional response of some kind should be considered art though, be the emotions profound or fleeting. It seems inclusive, pretentious and wrong not to.

The Function of Art (In Life and in The Odyssey)

     Fiction has always fascinated me. Maybe not paintings so much, but I understand the appeal and can appreciate it for what it is and what it's trying to convey. Fiction though, has always been a cornerstone in my life. Since I can remember, I've always wanted to be a writer. That might be a lie actually, I think there may have been a point in my kindergarten years where I wanted to be a paleontologist, but only because that was Ross's profession on the show Friends. I try to spent at least a half an hour a day writing, I often don't, because I'm lazy, but that's generally the intent.
     I don't believe myself to be a pretentious person, more often than not, I'm practicing in the delicate dance of self deprication. I think that's important so that I don't sound like something of an ass when I say that I believe the things that I write to be art.
     This is not because they are particularly good, or that I even think they are very good. More often then not, I shut off my computer in a rage or toss my notebook across the room as though it were hot potatoe. 90% of the time, I write bad stories, but that's just the thing, they're still stories. I think what I write, and in more general terms, what anyone writes, qualifies as art for the simple reason that the writing means something emotionally to the person telling the story, even if the work is terrible and nearly incomprehensible to others.
     As an example, I have written an insane, novel length story about how the destruction of the moon dooms the Earth. To anyone else, this would be incomprehensible rubbish, but to me, it's a reflection on what it means that my high school career is coming to a close and that the people I've spent the last six years of my life with will all be going their seperate ways. This applies to myself and no one else, it helps me to deal with my on again off again fear of change, and i sincerly doubt it would mean this or anything to anyone else.
     Better writers can and do make their own stories with their own meanings really mean something for the people reading. The best of fiction offers reflections of life in all it's forms, both grand and minute. This can apply to all types of fiction, be it literature, movies, spoken anecdotes, or dare I say even television, yes, television. I do love television.
     Storytelling in all of its forms is a cathartic medium and an emotional art. It is in this way that art applies to "The Odyssey", Homer's sprawling, expansive epic concerning loyalty, determination, and the major players of Greek mythos.
     At it's heart, "The Odyssey" is a story about storytelling. The main chunk of the book, detailing Odysseus's adventures as he tries to return home to Ithika, is told through the frame of Odysseus telling the story of his tribulations to the Phaecians in return for their kind hospitality. Even past this, large sections of the story are told through the frame of storytelling, often times, the reader has already seen the events play out, and the story is in exchange for hospitality. Clearly, the art of storytelling was regarded highly in Greek culture, as it was often given for hospitality, one of the most sacred aspects of common life.
     So why include this in the text? At somewhere in the neighborhood of 450 pages, "The Odyssey" clearly does not suffer from a lack of girth. Homer doesn't have to begin the main action of the epic through a framing device. Other than to act as a plot device in giving him a ship to go home, the Phaecians play little role in the rest of the novel. Clealry, this implies a greater signficance in Greek culture to the art of storytelling.
     But is there any catharsis in this? It could be argued that telling of his trials is something of a release to Odysseyus. I tend not to lean in that direction, as there is little evidence in the text, but I think it's certainly a possibility to be considered. Odysseyus clearly cares deeply for his family and for his homeland, so it's concievable that just the telling of how hard it's been to return home would be enough to effect him proufoundly.
     That's kind of a stretch though, but I think that's ok. If it's not ok to be wrong on a blog, then there can't be a lot of places where it is ok. Especially not Jeporady, I hear you don't win any money if you're wrong on that particular game show.
     Instead, I think I'll move away from my earlier point about how the point of art is to provide catharsis for the writer or reader. That's what I believe, but not necessarily what the text presents. It can't all line up I suppose. So I think I'll close by discussing how the role of storytelling has changed throughout the years and decades and centuries. Clearly, the role has changed through the years. In Greek times, one of the best things you could do for a person is provide them with shelter and hospitality, in exchange for this greatest of deeds, the benificiary would be awarded stories. Today, if someone does you a monumental favor, let's say saves your life, you can't quite repay them with a story.
     Let's say Bob is walking down the street. He's not paying attention, instead he's listening to his iPod or daydreaming about outer space or something along those lines. Because of this, a truck is bearing down on him and he doesn't see it. Being the brave heroic type that he is, Sputnik steps in and pushes him out of the way, saving his life. (I have always loved the name Sputnik and plan on naming my first born child that, regardless of gender or the mother's preference).  Bob realizes what has just happened and showers Sputnik in gratitude. "My god," he might say, "you've saved my life. I can't thank you enough, whatever can I do to repay you?"
     Sputnik, being in the business of saving lives because he's attempting to compensate for a fear that he doesn't care about anyone but himself and is nothing more than a selfish clod, has no interest in a reward of any kind. "Don't worry about it," he might say, "It was nothing."
     "Of course it was something!" Bob would say, "I tell you what, I know how I can make it up to you- let me tell you the story of the time I got jumped by shirtless holligans outside Franklin pool."
     As Bob tells the story, Sputnik might stare in amazement, incredulous that anyone might think a story could possibly be on par with saving a life. He might even start to regret saving such a person in the first place.
     Clearly, storytelling isn't held in quite the same stature that it was when "The Odyssey" was written. Why is that? What has changed and why has it changed? Why isn't art as important as it once was?
     Throughout this blog, I intend to explore the following question- "What is art and its function in our lives?" Is Odysseus repeating his story art? Is it important that he does so? I have no idea right now, but I suppose that's the point.