Thursday, September 11, 2008

Art for comfort and perspective

btt button Today is the 7th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I know that not all of you who read are in the U.S., but still, it’s vital that none of us who are decent people forget the scope of disaster that a few, evil people can cause–anywhere in the world. It’s not about religion, it’s not about politics, it’s about the acknowledgment that humans should try to work together, not tear each other apart, even when they disagree. So, feeling my way to a question here … Terrorists aren’t just movie villains any more. Do real-world catastrophes such as 9/11 (and the bombs in Madrid, and the ones in London, and the war in Darfur, and … really, all the human-driven, mass loss-of-life events) affect what you choose to read? Personally, I used to enjoy reading Tom Clancy, but haven’t been able to stomach his fight-terrorist kinds of books since. And, does the reality of that kind of heartless, vicious attack–which happen on smaller scales ALL the time–change the way you feel about villains in the books you read? Are they scarier? Or more two-dimensional and cookie-cutter in the face of the things you see on the news?

Terrorists were never just movie villains and 9/11 was not the first attack on the innocent, but it was indeed a horror, and for some the first of its kind to occur near home. The cold organization of this franchise group of terrorist cells (I'm not putting the name on my blog. I don't want to forever be visited by crazies) whipped into hysteria by religious fervor and masterminded by someone who made murderous use of our penchant to divide the world into 'uses and thems' chills my blood. The attack undermined us by placing us in a state of fear and anger. Not only were the terrorists manipulated, we were too. I find that sad and I struggle against it. I am sad too for all the people who lost someone they loved. It still sends a jolt through me to see that big hole in my city's skyline. So how can it not affect what I read?

I was teaching acting for opera performance a few days after the attacks, when classes resumed, I asked my class - 'so, what is it like to be a performing artist today?' The responses were so various - those for whom singing finally found meaning, another said she started smoking and couldn't stand what she did. We ended up building a performance of poems and songs about the experience of daily life in New York following 9/11 which was presented a few months later and again on the first anniversary of the event. We ended up using language and music to express those many experiences the event provoked for us, more than just fear, rage, and sadness - awareness of our own racism, a desire to celebrate our city, and a desire to hide away in comfort. Each experience found its poet or composer. So a lot of my reading in those weeks following the decision to make the piece was poetry - Mary Oliver, Frank O'Hara, W. H. Auden, Shakespeare. Poets are good for that kind of thing. There is something about the non-literalness of the language - it's the polar opposite of reporting and I was sick of reporting. Explanations coming out of the heat of the moment are rarely nuanced, and usually wrong, so I steered clear of explanations.

I wasn't big on spy novels or terrorist plot thrillers before so it didn't change my habits too much in that department. And I still enjoy thrillers in the movies - as long as they don't get too close to the actual events, then I find myself rolling my eyes. Something about being literal seems, in light of the actual events, to fall short when someone tries to make it into a movie. I found I had a hard time watching the first episode of Lost with the plane crash. I found myself not wanting to read anything political whatsoever. I read fiction. I see, looking at my diary, that I bought The Corrections - I remember reading that. I read Turgenev's Fathers and Sons and some Arturo Perez-Reverte and Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass. I also went to the theater, movies, and opera a lot - I saw the operas Wozzeck and The Return of Ullysses, a theatrical adaptation of Tim Winton's Cloudstreet and Strinberg's The Dance of Death. Hmmmm, a lot of cheerful stuff. I did see the movie Zoolander and the latest Harry Potter movie and Amelie too. I vividly remember seeing a show of Giacomett's sculpture at MOMA. I remember it because of how the skinny drippy figures frozen in an abstract landscape seemed to me like bodies in the city frozen in time and that image became important for me in creating the visual language of the song and poetry piece which we entitled Spring Will Come Again. I went to the arts alternatively for comfort and perspective, it seems.

I find since that I hate political writing or reporting, I like lots of historical persepctive, a bare description of events and -basta. I'll draw my own conclusions, thanks. And I loathe the concocting of symbols for recent events. It's manipulative and takes advantage of our need for explanations when we are not ready to make them. It's fake. I'll take my symbols in the arts where they belong. I want complexity and nuance in my understanding of behavioral motivation and I've read for that more than ever since 9/11. I notice I also read Stella Adler's book on acting around then. She's a good for teaching the work it takes to understand people and their relationships to events in all their complexity.


Kat said...

Very well said. I live in a country where terrorism is very much a reality many citizens live with. Sometimes, people get desensitized, which can be a sad thing.

I prefer to pick books that make me feel good and guarantee a happy ending. I suppose it's an escapist attitude, but then, maybe it's just me.

SmilingSally said...

I too want sugar candy for the brain. There's enough horror in the world; I want to celebrate the good.

Anonymous said...

Too much of Sugar candy gives us diabetes.

WE need to read books on terrorists, terrorism and most important, The Holocaust.

So that we get a better understanding of the world and people. And repeat the mistakes.

Villainy is not the right word

Ted said...

I'm not much into pure escape, although I enjoy the occassional comfort read. I'm with Gautami on this one, inquiring, about what is going on and what has happened before is what is important to me. Understanding what is happening now is not totally possible but it's important not to look for quick explanations, simple categories of good and evil. But I look for this from many genres.

Anonymous said...

I'm for putting things behind but not completely be disconnected with the history. Like I have said in my post, I can never be comfortable in my own skin like I was before. It's just not the same.