Friday, March 9, 2012

Let Light In

What makes this picture fascinating enough that my English teacher shows it at the beginning of each year? Much of it, I think, is the mystery. We cannot see the man's face, and most of his body is covered--enough that I could argue that the wanderer is female, if I cared to. The background is fogged beyond recognition, even more so than the wanderer: we can say with fair certainty that he is a human male, and can see his hair. But does he look on fogged ocean, with rocks jutting from the waves? Does he look on the ruins of ancient temples in a wide, green meadow? Does he look on mountains? All we have are guesses, so we never need stop guessing.

The mystery adds to this piece's artistry. But not all work needs to be mysterious--there are other things even in this work. The careful brush strokes to make realistic hair, or the ragged edges and gradually layering of the fog itself.

The mysteriousness adds to this work, but a work need not be mysterious to be good. Yet critics often say the same thing of works that are comedic: They cannot be 'true' art--whatever that means.

Even our language reflects this reaction: is serious literature good literature, or literature that is not comedic? Comedy cannot be serious literature; it hardly matters. Franz Kafka put this idea as bluntly as one can: "I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?"

Comedies can teach us about life. If every piece of wisdom we gained left us a shattered wreck, all geniuses would be sociopaths in self-defense. There's a limit to how many times one can shatter before losing pieces. And an entirely angsty work has the same issue a saccharine one does: the audience stops caring.

Perhaps comedy does not fill our hearts the way tragedies do. But then, angel food cake won't do if one wants black forest cake. Comedy is not automatically immature. Comedy is not a failed attempt at being tragic. Comedy is a choice to look into another side of our lives.

Anyone who says rain washes away sin has never laughed in the sunlight.

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