Thursday 29 May 2008

On Suffering in Art

“Love + Suffering = Art”

This is how Robert Gottlieb mocks the Hollywood formula for ever-proliferating movies on artists and their ‘process’ (New York Review of Books, Vol. 24, No.14/Sept. 27, 2007). In his view, it is the 19th century Romantics that are to blame, with their glamorization of public expression of private woes. True, it is hard not to snicker watching fictionalized Shakespeare, Austen, Molière, throw endless sheets of crumpled paper into their over-filling baskets, or pace energetically up and down their undersized lodgings. We snicker partly because all the crumpling and pacing start to look the same, but also because it is a bit naïve and overly clean – it doesn’t show more ubiquitous displays of suffering: unwashed hair, too much cheese cake (alcohol, drugs, sex, whatever), minor cruelties to others (and oneself), and so on. It doesn’t show artists suffering just like everyone else because their suffering appears to be work-related and therefore has a different, more sanctified, aura.

It is hard not to wonder. Of course artists suffer (they are people and all people suffer), but is their suffering somehow intricately bound to their work? Or do the two – suffering and creating – co-exist apart yet in the same person? This is precisely what we have set out to explore in one of our research projects: "The bitter-sweet labor of emoting: Linguistic comparison of writers and physicists" (which you can access in our archive of academic papers by clicking here). In it, we analyze language of award-winning artists as they talk about they work, and compare it to language of a group as intelligent and creative, award-winning physicists. The results do not surprise. There is a reason why a stereotype of a suffering artist, while preposterous if in extreme, is for most of us – believable.


Anonymous said...

First off, I'm happy to discover your blog. Your interests and mine appear to converge at a number of significant levels. If you're interested, check out my own little web spot: Wisdom of the West Especially check out one older post called "On the Couch"—but there are many many points where our interests overlap. I plan to keep an eye out over here. Best of luck!

Now, to business. I can see you all enjoy film. I've just been re-viewing the Coen Brothers's Barton Fink in connection with a theme I've been pursuing at my blog for the last couple weeks. This business of the cliche of the suffering artist struck me as the weak part of the early part of the film, and as I watched it detracted from my enjoyment. They were so obvious. But then after I finished, as I stood back and thought of the whole of the film as an extended surreal metaphor of the psychology of the writer, I gained a new appreciation of the film. These early 'suffering writer gets destroyed by Hollywood' cliches were merely the initial stating of a profounder psychological theme. Any thoughts?

Jim H.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Jim, for this comment. Good to be in touch, and I am glad you like our blog. I am travelling right now, but I shall look with interest at your web spot, and also go and see Barton Fink again. I enjoyed it the first time, but I can't now remember it well enough to have any coherent thoughts about the idea of art and suffering in it. Our approach to this is that many people write to solve problems and communicate about them. For fiction, the idea is emotions frequently pose problems, and that many novels, short stories, and films are explorations of, and pointers towards, solutions or at least partial solutions of these problems. So, thanks again for writing; more later.

Anonymous said...

"For fiction, the idea is emotions frequently pose problems..."

Is this another way of saying "we prefer psychological realism"?

"and that many novels, short stories, and films are explorations of, and pointers towards, solutions or at least partial solutions of these problems. "

I agree, though this cuts quite a broad swath, it seems, covering everyone from Bridget Jones to Leopold Bloom and beyond

Indeed. At Wisdom of the West, I ran a series of posts analyzing James Wood's How Fiction Works. I concluded that it was the writer's job to draw the reader into the perceptual life of the character and that, and only that, gave access to the emotional life of the character:

"Failure to bring perceptual content into play—a flaw we've noted in the analyses of both James Wood and Jill Lepore—renders fiction a mechanical thing, an intellectual exercise; no different in form than history. Distant. Imprecise.

"Failure, at the next level, to imbue perception with emotional content is a prescription for sterile fiction."

There are no minds without brains, no consciousness without a body.

Also, look for the quote from Martha Nussbaum stating what she takes to be the range of emotional responses to the work of fiction.

You might also find interesting my look at the emotional manipulation in political affairs in the discussion surrounding Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power.

Jim H.

Keith Oatley said...

Thanks very much, Jim, for this comment. Sorry for the delay. I have just got back from a trip.

I completely agree with you that it is the writer's job to draw the reader into the perceptual life of the character. You said: "that, and only that, gave access to the emotional life of the character." That puts it very well, I think. In terms of the psychology of emotions, what is involved are the character's appraisals of situations or, as you say, how the character distinctively perceives events in relation to his/her concerns. Then, at least in certain kinds of fiction, a writer can set up different centres of consciousness in a novel, and the reader, with his/her own centre of consciousness, can take part in something like a dialogue with these others. It is this kind of experience, I think, that may be responsible for the changes in selfhood (personality traits) that we have been able to measure empirically in response to reading literary fiction, as the reader moves towards the position of one character and then another.

I have read reviews of James Wood's book, but not yet read the book itself. I shall certainly read your discussion in your website.

Keith Oatley said...

Hello again, Jim. I have now read your discussion of James Wood's book, How fiction works, on your blogsite: very interesting, thank you. Certainly the book has a great title, but you, and some other reviewers, evaluate the book as delivering less than it promises. I think I need to read it myself to take part properly in the discussion.

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