The treason of the artist

I was trying to think of something to post today, and I saw that someone had searched and found my blog using this question: What does “the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain” mean?

This quote is from the short story by Ursula Le Guin called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”

I thought I’d take a stab at answering this question. Alternatively, whoever asked the question might try contacting Ursula. Who knows, she might answer you. Some authors are quite friendly and happy to expound on the topics that interest them. But, sometimes I find questions in stories to be opportunities to do a little soul searching, a little probing to see what I can make of their significance.  So here is my take.

The quote that I put on my blog was this:

“They [the citizens of Omelas] were no less complex than us. The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pendants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”

Le Guin is contrasting the citizens of Omelas with us—the world she has created (a utopian world where everyone is happy) and the real world (where there is much hardship and pain).

The quote goes on to say:

“If you can’t lick ’em join ’em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy…”

To me, Ursula is saying that the treason of the artist is that artists regard evil as supremely interesting. Artists value pain and despair. These things drive creativity behind art; they are at its core. Artists don’t recognize the commonplace or ordinary nature of evil. Artists see evil as unique, worth writing about, worth centering stories around, worth painting and showing off. Evil fuels the news. We fight evil in our games. In a way, all this attention to evil elevates evil as though it were extraordinary, as though it were unique, as though it could be categorized as new and different.

But, argues Ursula, there is nothing new about evil, or pain. They are quite ordinary to our world and to our condition in the world. The treason of the artist, therefore, is to refuse to see evil this way. Artists idolize our world. Artists see the world as a place that should not have evil and pain, and therefore they continue their treason, that of regarding evil and pain as interesting above happiness, as extraordinary, as something worth examining in every creation. Evil and pain are the points of interest. Our resistance to them, how and why we resist, consumes our imagination as we obsessively and compulsively ruminate over these fundamental elements of our existence.

As for the terrible boredom of pain, I struggle with this idea. When someone is in pain, their pain fascinates them. Nothing else can absorb their interest. If someone, as in Ursula’s story, was condemned to a life of pain, I suppose there could be a terrible boredom in that. Would there come a horrible point when the pain became boring? And would that point result only from a hideous pain and psychological struggle hard for us to even imagine? I don’t know.

In the end, I think Ursula is saying that artists betray our trust. They commit “treason” against us by continuing to demonstrate that evil is unique/extraordinary and that pain is interesting.

But are artists by nature of our world and the very nature of our existence condemned to be treasonous? Writing exists (art) only when there is conflict. Art arises out of resistance to conflict. We regard our world as “creation.” Could “creation” exist without conflict? Is it even possible to have a world, “creation,” without pain?

In “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” Ursula has tried to not commit this treason; she has tried to create art, a utopian world, where pain is unique and not banal, not commonplace. This becomes a horrible world where everyone is in on inflicting the pain so that they don’t have to personally experience it. If there were such a world, asks Ursula, would you want to be part of it? Would you want to live in a world where evil is unique because wouldn’t that mean that if you yourself did not experience the pain of evil, wouldn’t you then be the one who inflicts the evil? To not rescue someone in pain makes you a party to inflicting the pain.

Ursula also tell us that the victim of this pain and evil can never be truly rescued, can never be healed, can never recover. They are permanently damaged by all this pain and degradation beyond all repair. There is nothing you can do to help them. Even if they were released from their bondage, they are forever imprisoned psychologically. You can’t fix this.

And so, some people, a limited few, upon realizing their powerlessness to affect change in Omelas refuse to be a part of that society and they walk away. They leave a world where their happiness is ensured and enter a dark world where they will know suffering and despair. They chose to take on their part of the burden of the world’s suffering.

So in the end, do artists commit treason? Are artists by the very nature of the creation we all live in compelled to commit treason? Is it possible to create an interesting story without evil or pain?

The Night Before Christmas

Night before Christmas GogolBy Nikolai Gogol, New Directions Books, 73 pages.

Nikolai Gogol was born in Ukraine in 1809. He died of starvation (and possibly depression) when he was nearly 43 years old. Gogol is best known for his book Dead Souls and for his short stories, “The Overcoat,” “The Nose,” and “Diary of a Madman.” He also wrote Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, which I would now like very much to read.

I have long heard of Gogol but until recently had never read anything written by him. I am excited to discover him because he is so very very different and refreshing.

The Night Before Christmas was a fun read. It begins as a witch flies into the sky and fills her sleeves with stars. The devil has a plan to get back at a blacksmith/painter for an unflattering painting the blacksmith has done of him. The blacksmith is in love with the most beautiful (and spoiled) girl in the village and travels all the way to Petersburg to ask Catherine the Great for her slippers.

Here is a quote from early in the story:

“Meanwhile the devil stole silently up to the moon and stretched his hand out to seize it, but drew it back quickly as though he were scorched, sucked his fingers and danced about, then ran up from the other side and again skipped away and drew back his hand. But in spite of all his failures, the sly devil did not give up his tricks. Running up, he suddenly seized the moon with both hands; grimacing and blowing, he kept flinging it from one hand to the other, like a peasant who has picked up an ember for his pipe with bare fingers; at last, he hurriedly put it in his pocket and ran on as though nothing had happened.”

The book also has some very funny parts regarding the witch’s suitors hiding in coal sacks. All in all, The Night Before Christmas is a fun entertaining read with some insights on what it was like to live in Ukraine in the early 1800s.

To Room Nineteen

Cover of "To Room Nineteen"
Cover of To Room Nineteen

By Doris Lessing, @ 28 pages, (1963).

[Spoiler alert] When I see a short story over 20 pages long, I shudder. Will it be that interesting? Will I like it? Or, will it be a trudge?

To Room Nineteen did not disappoint. It held my interest all the way through, and the pages flew by. This, even though I felt myself arguing with the viewpoint of the protagonist, Susan Rawlings, pretty much the whole way through.

One of my problems, I suppose, is that I don’t have four children. I don’t fully know how draining that can be. But I can imagine. She did have help. She had a cook and later a nanny.

And granted, the personality type of the protagonist Susan Rawlings is not my personality type. I can’t imagine having no interests in life. If I had free time at my disposal, I would write, draw, paint, play music, compose, and hike. But I don’t, and I’m envious of those who do. It’s hard for me to understand those who have time on their hands and waste it.

Susan was restless. It seemed she had the dream in her grasp, and then it disappeared. Some of the uglier parts of marriage materialized and although everyone involved thought they were so intelligent, no one had the common sense to say “no.”

With four children, Susan couldn’t go to the parties any more. She had to stay home with the children. Why did her husband go? They were his children too.

There seemed to be this unspoken idea in the story that it was better to be unfaithful than to be insane. I don’t agree. Being unfaithful is a choice. Being insane is not.

I must have missed the point of this story somewhere. Was it that all marriages are farces? Was it that having four kids and a husband leads to insanity? Was it that people who think they are intelligent can make some pretty stupid decisions? Was it about a woman’s need for privacy?

But what about the man? He worked all day. When was he supposed to have any privacy? When was he supposed to have his own life?

So he cheated? So she went insane?

I’m not agreeing with all of these premises. How could Susan’s life have been so empty? Why did she not have any art in her life? Music? Something of her own? What about the children?

Maybe the story is about the traps people can fall into while trying to do everything right. Everything that society wants and expects. Then when you do those things, you’re in a trap, and society has no sympathy. And you have no life. 

But, all my complaining aside, the story kept me turning pages without agony.

Rules of the Game

Amy Tan, author
Amy Tan, author (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Amy Tan, @ 10 pages (1989).

Rules of the Game is a story about how a young Chinese girl living in San Francisco’s Chinatown discovers something she can take pride in and how to temper that pride.

This story is a breeze to read. It flows and carries you along with it. Its theme and promise are contained in the first sentence: “I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength.”

All of a sudden, I want to learn more. What is invisible strength? What is its art? The mother must be very wise. We know that this is a story about a mother-daughter relationship. What a great first line.

Later, we see the protagonist, the daughter, learning how to get what she wants, tapping into invisible strength:

A man who watched me play in the park suggested that my mother allow me to play in local chess tournaments. My mother smiled graciously, an answer that meant nothing. I desperately wanted to go, but I bit back my tongue. I knew she would not let me play among strangers. So as we walked home I said in a small voice that I didn’t want to play in the local tournament. They would have American rules. If I lost, I would bring shame on my family.

‘Is shame you fall down nobody push you,’ said my mother.

During my first tournament…”

I love Amy Tan. Must read more! 🙂

Everything That Rises Must Converge

Everything That Rises Must Converge
Everything That Rises Must Converge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Flannery O’Connor, @ 14 pages (1965) .

Ok, quick. Flannery O’Connor: male or female? Well, I didn’t know. Female. Her first name was Mary. This short story was published after her death.

Everything That Rises Must Converge is a story that illustrates the old degrading habits of racism and the self-delusion that comes hand-in-hand with racist beliefs. Human ugliness, anger, degradation, violence, and what’s up with the ending? What is Flannery telling us? What does she want us to think? Are we to be utterly confused? We rejoice at and despise the hateful narrator son. We hate and despise his hateful mother. We get the feeling that they hate each other too. It’s all very hateful.

There is the interesting twist with hats. But I even found that annoying.

I disliked the story for purely personal reasons, not because of its merits as a story. I’m sure it meets all the criteria for success. I am caught up on the content; I have met people like these. I grew up with people like these. What callous hateful ignorance. How do people not recognize the evil that lurks behind it. I don’t understand.

Death by Landscape

By Margaret Atwood, @ 15 pages (1989).

This story took a little while to get going for me. The action of the present is bookended around the actual story. An event from the protagonist’s past is at the core of the story, so it makes sense that the author started a little farther away from the action than what we typically experience in contemporary short stories.

After I got to the action, I was glued to the page. The suspense was incredible. The following paragraph was especially suspenseful for me:

“She has gone over and over it in her mind since, so many times that the first, real shout has been obliterated, like a footprint trampled by other footprints. But she is sure (she is almost positive, she is nearly certain) that it was not a shout of fear. Not a scream. More like a cry of surprise, cut off too soon. Short, like a dog’s bark.”

And a couple of pages back there is foreshadowing:

“Out on the lake there were two loons, calling to each other in their insane, mournful voices. At the time it did not sound like grief. It was just background.”

I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone who hasn’t read it, but this story basically gives us an important event from the protagonist’s past and invites us to think about how it may have shaped her whole life.

An interesting story that raises interesting questions.

The Salesman

Talking Walls and CigarettesBy Kelli Beck @ 2013, from the short story collection Talking Walls and Cigarettes and Other Dark Tales.

I am still very interested in the short story form, so when I saw that fellow blogger Kelli Beck had just released a collection of short stories written by herself and Erin Beck, I had to get it.

The first story of the collection is “The Salesman.” I don’t want to give away the story, so I’ll just point out a few things that I especially appreciated. This story did a great job of setting a tone and a mood. I was transported into the scene. I had a sense that I was there.

When she was in front of the window a slight breeze slipped up her neck, caressing the small hairs that had fallen from her loose ponytail. She shivered, turned and faced the night. Fog started to wash its way across the street heavy like smoke creeping in from all directions, swallowing up first the hardware store and the small defunct movie theatre, moving in to the center until the entire parking lot was invisible behind the shroud of fog. A childish fear built up in her and she closed the window, securing it in place with the locks. She watched the haze, then, afraid of what might appear out of the mist, closed the shades, and turned her back on it.”

I thought the part where the protagonist turned her back on this scene was wonderfully creepy. It captured my attention and built suspense.

I think it’s important for stories to have a big idea. One of the big ideas of this story has to do with messes and responsibility. The protagonist ruminates over this and comes to the conclusion:

“Whatever mess you cleaned up, it always ended up somewhere else.”

I could identify with the protagonist and the guilt she felt at being put into a difficult situation and having to make some hard choices.

The pacing of the story is very effective, and I enjoyed the surprises that the author threw my way. These really added interest to the story.

“The Salesman” was a great diversion. I’m excited to read the rest of the collection.