In the following (a reprint of the editor’s note for issue 6.2, available now at a presale rate.) EIC Brad Fruhauff tries to figure out how literature may help us process real life tragedy.
Only a few days after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary I sat down to watch the first episode of season two of The Walking Dead. The tragedy was not a relevant context in my mind when I began the episode, but by the end the two had nearly collapsed upon one another in a powerful way that, I think, is quite typical of fiction.
Without giving away too much for those who are even more behind than me, the episode ends with a shocking act of violence against a child. When it happened, my breath froze and my heart leapt and all the normal physiological responses to something truly horrible. I was in tears with something like real fear and distress for the child, and for the parents I felt something more like fellowship than the sympathy of the outsider.
As I decompressed during the credits, I thought, “Why—when real tragedies are happening to real children—why am I watching fictionalized versions of them?” The immediate possibilities were discomfiting. Am I simply that perverse? Am I so out of touch with my experience and my world that I don’t feel the contradiction? Am I seeking an escape from real pain in some aestheticized form?
No response to these questions can entirely escape the possibility of being mere rationalization, but the more I thought about it the more appropriate the whole thing seemed, and the reasons had a lot to do with how art works and what it does for us.
I have two small children at home, one of whom attends preschool twice a week. When the news from Newtown, CT, came across the radio that Friday morning, I reacted in disbelief and confusion like I imagine most people did, and I almost couldn’t think about it or my children at the same time. Later that morning, I scanned the Internet for more information, the kind of information that we need to construct a narrative that makes reality possible again. I realized it was not going to be available anytime soon, but I had to get to work, so I took a moment to meditate and live in the grief and despair, to offer my own helplessness up to God in prayer and to seek forgiveness for any lack of love in my own life that may be contributing to a world in which such grave sins befall us. And then I got to work.
My grief began to ebb from that point, as it must have done if I was going to go on living. My sympathy with the parents, families, friends, and citizens of Newtown, however, was necessarily distant. The only route from my experience to theirs is one of imagination—of moral imagination, even. A fictional narrative of the trauma of a child’s injury or death will never be identical to the actual experience (who would want it to be?). But it may have the power to bring one closer to that experience than any process of reflection could. I certainly felt the gravity of losing a child via the fiction much more powerfully than I did via the Internet.
The scandal of such a claim is actually that it seems so old, so dependent, apparently, on a mimetic theory that judges art by its consonance with some pre-existing reality and that comforts itself with the illusion that art provides real presence. This theory undergirds Aristotle’s account of catharsis, for instance. As Romantics like Coleridge realized, though, art need not imitate the reality of our senses so much as the reality of our human or moral nature, the kind of being all artists and audiences share by virtue of consciousness.
This is not, I think, the same as presence. I don’t know if Aristotle thought it was, but the Augustans of the 18th century seemed to. They didn’t make strong distinctions between the sympathy you feel for a person and the emotions you experience in literature. But this is problematic, and not because it treats reality like fiction but because it treats fiction like reality. It’s actually quite important that fictions are not real and that we know they are not real. There are some realities that we cannot quite process—that’s why we have trauma and repression. One of literature’s powers is to create a play-space wherein we can actually begin to feel traumatic emotion and to work through it alongside characters, through a narrative, or through the accumulation of and relationships among tropes—those revealing “twists” of reality we sometimes call images. The whole point of this play-space is to shift the stakes to the level of moral imagination, away from the deadly seriousness of our everyday physical survival.
Aristotle had an insight like this when he compared the pleasure of imitation in theater to the pleasure children take in imitation. And, just like when children play, this kind of imaginative engagement is not escapism but something more like therapy, art’s way of helping reconcile us to our reality, and if it returns us to the high stakes of life a little sadder and wiser, it also helps us to get back on with the business of life.
This is Relief, however, not the Midnight Diner, so there won’t be any zombies or the like. The works in here all act more subtly, inviting you into another’s experience and offering the opportunity, for those who will let the words work on them, to have an experience, to be taken somewhere and to return to a point different from your departure. To approach the world of someone trying to find a normal life after breast cancer, to deal with a rape in a small town and a mother’s anxiety about her daughters, to see a biblical tale anew as a miracle of moral action.
In the wake of a national tragedy, when we are all vulnerable to the impulses born of shock and fear, literature becomes all the more important. When reality becomes unreality it is in fact most real, the veil of comfort is ripped away and the world appears as perverse and inverted as it actually is. Good literature serves as the survival guide for this post-apocalyptic unreality, from which it will not let us escape. Every time apocalypse fires a warning shot across the bow of our complacency, we can choose to respond with the violence of our illusions or with the ennobling force of visionary art. May this issue of Relief serve you well as the world marches on towards its end.