Thursday, 3 December 2009

All Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know...

Bob Dylan, confronted with listeners’ enthusiastic reactions to his album Blood on the Tracks (written in the wake of a painful and protracted break up with his wife) said he didn’t understand how people could enjoy hearing about that kind of pain. His Bobness, of course, is renowned for spiky utterances, and no doubt some of them are deliberately provocative and/or disingenuous. But the point raised bears some kind of investigation.

Why endlessly revisit Hamlet, Macbeth or the Greek tragedies? Why tread the dirty streets presented by Dickens or Dostoevsky? Fiction Books Why listen to Blood on the Tracks – or Joy Division’s haunting, sepulchral Closer? The obvious and easy answer is because these things – pain, tragedy, loss – are a part of human experience, but it could be countered that we get enough of those at home. Why seek out more—and just as crucially, why – how – do we get such pleasure from these works?

The Advaita Vedanta tradition of Hinduism states, essentially, that there is nothing wrong with the world, nothing that needs fixing—that pain and loss are part of a great drama that we act in. The correct response to being alive is to enjoy it all, but never to forget that it is, in the fundamental sense, unreal. Any atheist would have a hard time accepting this, and I fully appreciate why, but believing in any kind of deity or even a spiritual reality is not necessary to get the point here. There are people who reach a point where life does seem unendurable—I’ve been to the outskirts of that place many times myself, and I wouldn’t trivialise the feeling. But – there is something within us, so deeply buried in most cases that we cannot see it for what it is, that loves every moment of our lives, no matter how apparently painful. Crises wake us up, make us feel our existence more intensely (cf. Sartre’s comments on his wartime experiences). Even horrific events like 9/11 or the 2004 Tsunami present us with something so huge, so undeniably real, that is as if our hearts and minds are wiped clean of the everyday trivia that normally occupies our thoughts. And for all the accompanying horror, this feeling in itself is a good thing; it renews our sense of what life is really about.

This, I think, is partly what we seek when we revisit (or write) literary tragedy;Fiction Books the extremes of human experience, where we are most our real selves. And the beauty of experiencing these ‘events’ in a literary or dramatic context is that it is perfectly safe – as indeed the Advaitists (not to mention the mystical core of most religions) claim our life here is. Perhaps the literary experience of all extremes of life is so satisfying because it reminds us of something fundamental within ourselves, about the way we can choose to see life—about a possibly divine heritage?

And if everything in creation is good, as Advaitists say (and cf. Durrenmatt’s Angel in An Angel Comes to Babylon), then there is another reason why tragedy is so exhilarating. The truth, accurately and honestly expressed, is always beautiful.

1 comment:

  1. I'm with the Advaitists on this one. Nicely put, Tim.