How Rembrandt can help you survive in a sad, lonely, angry, and mean society

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How did we become a society where people shout at their neighbors, refuse to eat with relatives who didn’t vote as they did, honk at each other in traffic, yell at strangers on the social media, and otherwise snipe at each other. Whatever became of goodwill and neighborliness? David Brooks has got an answer: “I’d argue that we have become so sad, lonely, angry and mean as a society in part because so many people have not been taught or don’t bother practicing to enter sympathetically into the minds of their fellow human beings. We’re overpoliticized while growing increasingly undermoralized, underspiritualized, undercultured.”

What remedy? He makes one of the best cases I’ve read in a long time for the arts and the humanities in “How to Save a Sad, Lonely, Angry and Mean Society.” An excerpt the New York Times piece, which has more than 1,300 comments:

When I come across a Rembrandt in a museum, I try to train myself to see with even half of Rembrandt’s humanity. Once in St. Petersburg, I had the chance to stand face to face with one of his greatest paintings, “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” He painted this one at the end of his life, when popular taste had left him behind, his finances were in ruins, his wife and four of his five children were in their graves. I have seen other renderings of that parable, but not one in which the rebel son is so broken, fragile, pathetic, almost hairless and cast down. The father envelops the young man with a love that is patient, selfless and forbearing. Close observers note the old man’s hands. One is masculine, and protective. The other is feminine, and tender.

Though this painting is about a parable, it’s not here to teach us some didactic lesson. We are simply witnessing an emotional moment, which is about fracture and redemption, an aging artist painting a scene in which he imagines all his losses are restored. It is a painting about what it is like to finally realize your deepest yearnings — for forgiveness, safety, reconciliation, home. Meanwhile, the son’s older brother is off to the side, his face tensely rippling with a mixture of complex thoughts, which I read as rigid scorn trying to repress semiconscious shoots of fraternal tenderness.

Experiences like this help us understand ourselves in light of others — the way we are like them and the way we are different. As Toni Morrison put it: “Like Frederick Douglass talking about his grandmother, and James Baldwin talking about his father, and Simone de Beauvoir talking about her mother, these people are my access to me; they are my entrance into my own interior life.”

Experiences with great artwork deepen us in ways that are hard to describe. To have visited Chartres Cathedral or finished The Brothers Karamazov is not about acquiring new facts but to feel somehow elevated, enlarged, altered. In Rainer Maria Rilke’s novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the protagonist notices that as he ages, he’s able to perceive life on a deeper level: “I am learning to see. I don’t know why it is, but everything penetrates more deeply into me and does not stop at the place where until now it always used to finish.”

Mark Edmundson teaches literature at the University of Virginia and is one of those who still lives by the humanist code. In his book Why Read? he describes the potential charge embedded in a great work of art: “Literature is, I believe, our best goad toward new beginnings, our best chance for what we might call secular rebirth. However much society at large despises imaginative writing, however much those supposedly committed to preserve and spread literary art may demean it, the fact remains that in literature there abide major hopes for human renovation.”

I confess I still cling to the old faith that culture is vastly more important than politics or some pre-professional training in algorithms and software systems. I’m convinced that consuming culture furnishes your mind with emotional knowledge and wisdom; it helps you take a richer and more meaningful view of your own experiences; it helps you understand, at least a bit, the depths of what’s going on in the people right around you.

Read the whole thing here.

Micah Mattix also weighed in, with an excerpt from the introduction of his book, tentatively titled Literature as Encounter:

In 1959, Frank O’Hara complained in his sardonic Personism: A Manifesto about poets who worried about the reception of their work: “But how can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them? Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along? Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat.”

The same could be said of critics and scholars today. We are told, on the one hand, that we should read literature because it enriches our lives and our experience of the world. Poetry reclaims, “the power and grace of words,” as one New York Times columnist put it, and gives us hope. On the other hand, we are told that literature is a powerful tool in the war against oppression. It teaches us to love our neighbors and calls us to fight those who subjugate others. It preserves our democracy. How many scholars have argued that the reduction or elimination of humanities courses is a threat to our way of life?

But both understandings of the function and value of literature miss the mark. While certainly motivated by the best of intentions, such defenses of reading often end up reducing literature to little more than a tool of self-actualization or societal transformation. They admit too much to the utilitarian man—that only things that are morally and socially useful are worthwhile—and too often prove wrong.

After all, if literature makes us better people, why are the individuals closest to it—the writers themselves—so often so terrible? Gabriele D’Annunzio was a blood-thirsty warmonger, Ezra Pound was a fascist, E.E. Cummings was a misogynist, William Carlos Williams was a philanderer, Vernon Scannell was a wife-beater and a drunk, and Amiri Baraka was an anti-Semite. Anyone who thinks that reading literature makes us less petty, more empathetic, has never been to an English department meeting. …

Defending literature in terms of its therapeutic or moral value has also had the effect of making it more easily dismissed or censured. If reading literature is supposed to improve my emotional well-being, but I find myself “triggered” by its images of sexual violence, why should I read it? If a poem contains morally or politically objectionable material—and its primary purpose is to make us more moral and society more just—why should high school or college students study it? What is the case, in other words, for reading literature when the therapeutic and moral accounts of its value have proven misleading or wrong?

That some professors seem unable to give a clear answer to this question and even give warrant to its premise by removing “harmful” works from their courses or calling for the cancelation of certain writers shows how confused we have become about what literature is and what it does and doesn’t do.

In short, critical defenses of literature’s supposed utilitarian value do more harm than good. They say too much about literature’s secondary values, which disappoint or make literature into something it is not, and they say too little—or nothing at all—about what makes literature distinct from other forms of discourse.

He concludes: “What we need instead, I go on to argue, is a renewed understanding of the religious nature of all great literature. It provides us with an encounter—with something or someone “hors texte” in an idealized form that leads to a moment of recognition. This is the surprise of literature, which in the best works is also a moment of momentary transcendence. It is for this moment that we read, whether it changes us or not.



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2 Responses to “How Rembrandt can help you survive in a sad, lonely, angry, and mean society”

  1. George Says:

    Did it work for the Dutch? Three years after Rembrandt’s death, an Amsterdam mob murdered the De Witts, spectacularly enough to make “De Witt” an English verb.

  2. George Says:

    That was somewhat intemperate. I have just been reading The Sovereignty of Good by Iris Murdoch, which makes a case for the impartial attention required to create or understand art as a model for the attention that should inform moral judgments and behavior. And Elaine Scarry makes a similar case in On Beauty and Being Just.

    Still, this strikes me as a lay sermon for a specialized audience.