Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Beautiful in Character

So one locus of the beautiful in story is in character. In how the character responds to events and other characters. Other actors in the narrative.

Do we admire this character? Are we struck by his or her admirable actions or characteristics? Does this character do something admirable or achieve something admirable? Does this actor take us to a new or a fresh understanding of what it means to be human? What being human can mean? Has this character helped expand the field of human possibility for us?

You see, there is a hope in us for the admirable, which is a species of the beautiful. A hope in us that we will live among admirable others. That we ourselves may do something admirable from time to time. Isn’t there? Isn’t there is a wish to encounter a fellow human being who experiences what we experience or who experiences something similar to what we experience or who experiences something that we may conceivably experience and takes new ground. New at least for him or her. Ground that we are drawn to. That we perhaps have a chance of taking ourselves on at least one very good day.

And when we encounter this in narrative. The admirable actor. The remarkable character. Our sense of our own possibility is changed. Is enlarged. Is reopened and revised.

We do find the admirable beautiful. We experience pleasure in the admirable. We find ourselves to be greatly pleased that the admirable is possible. Can actually be achieved or stumbled upon or discovered in mere human beings. In deeply flawed people like us.

So we are always struck by acts of kindness, tenderness, and self-sacrifice in war, for example. Or acts or courage and wisdom and cleverness in war. War is the real world in extremis. An exaggerated version of the non-war world, in which death is always at work. Always cutting living things, including human beings, down. War is the accelerated death process, the entropic process, that stalks the cosmos like a great darkness, made obvious. Visible. Noisy. Visually arresting. Physically devastating. Brutal. Cruel. Indiscriminate. War is Death himself made obvious for all to see and hear and touch and smell and taste.

So war and conflict of any kind are the fitting backdrop to all dramatic action. To the revelation of all character. Because the choices are freighted. They are heavy with the weight of potentially deadly consequences. The possibility of death as a consequence to the good that one might do. Or try to do.

And so the cost of making the admirable choice is highest in war. Off the battlefield, it is often potentially high, but in war it is routinely and obviously high. And this makes the admirable choice most difficult. Most starkly dangerous. Most clearly a test of courage. A test of the sense of who one is and who one will be no matter what. No matter the cost.

And it’s the tendency for all of us in extremis. Of all of us when our lives may be on the line. Or our jobs. Or our family’s well-being. Or our own well-being. To become vicious. To become less than admirable. To become brutal and vengeful and destructive. To become callous and cutting and rude. To become self-centered and selfish and greedy and petty and vindictive. To engage in atrocities. To become defensive and reactive and egoistic. Egotistic. Prideful. To strike and keep on striking. To take arms against the sea of our troubles and by doing so think we will end them.

And so when we encounter a middle aged man in a documentary about Darfur whose children have been killed and who is not lashing back, who is not hateful and violent, who is not overwhelmed with anger but who is overwhelmed with grief instead. Who is grateful instead. Who has the courage to speak to a bunch of self-centered Americans about his loss and his grief instead. We find we are weak in the knees with admiration for this man. With pity for this man. With a desire to identify with this man and help him. Be with him. Understand him. And to enlarge ourselves with his being. To bring him somehow into ourselves and make our understanding of him into an understanding of the person we might possibly be.

And so when we encounter a boy. A young man. Who we learn about on the news. A boy who was a fine athlete in high school. Who enlisted to serve his country. To defend his country. And we find that he has thrown himself on a grenade to save an Iraqi family. And who has died. We find our hearts opening. We find our eyes filling and stinging. We find our sense of who we might be ourselves. To be. Well. Different. Possibly better.

Or we read Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Or we go see a production of it. And we see Hal. Prince Hal. The boy engaged in dissolute behavior. Engaged in wasting time and money and. Engaged in behavior that is not helping his father when his father needs his help. So we see him in an immature condition. In a selfish and self-absorbed and narcissistic condition. In a hedonistic condition. But then we are relieved to see him change. To see something admirable emerge within him. To see him exhibit courage and love for his father. A willingness to sacrifice. To risk his well-being for his father and his country. To go to war for his father and his country.

Or we see a movie like Schindler’s List. In which a German business man, a Nazi, during World War II, obtains contracts from the German military through bribes. He’s greedy and ignorant. He’s without particular skill or knowledge. He relies on Jews to operate his factory and make the goods for delivery to the military. And as he engages in business with the Polish Jews in his factory and as he gets to know these people, they become human to him. He develops friendships with them. And then he begins to help them escape the death machine of the Germans.

In the end, he spends his fortune on bribes to save more than a 1000 Jews from the death camps. And watching this. Watching this man change from a man like you and me. A man of no particular morality. No particular goodness. No particular virtue. A lazy man. A greedy man. Into something else again. Someone quite admirable. Quite willing to die himself, possibly, to save others. We feel the eyes begin to sting and water. We feel our hearts open. We feel that we are in the presence of the beautiful.

Or we watch a movie like The Kite Runner. Or we read the novel. And we participate in the cowardice of the protagonist. The cowardice and cruelty and selfishness and paralysis of Amir. And we are overwhelmed with the selflessness and patience and devotion and humility and forgiveness and faithfulness of Hassan. Greatness of spirit that we thought little boys had no idea of. And then as the grown Amir goes into Afghanistan and rescues Hassan’s son, Sohrab, we are with him. We participate with him in his fear and his outrage and his determination not to leave Afghanistan without Sohrab. To fight the Taliban for Sohrab’s life no matter what. No matter that Amir may be killed in the process.

And we are joyous at this risk-taking. We are proud of him and of ourselves for this risk-taking. And we are relieved when he has brought Sohrab out of Afghanistan. We finally are able to admire Amir, when this action is complete. And as he goes running after the kite that Sohrab cuts, back in the United States. In the closing scene. As he demonstrates his willingness to serve this child, this son of his boyhood friend whom he wronged. We are finally able to admire him. And we find that what he has done is courageous. We find that what he is now doing as he chases Sohrab’s kite is full of humility and kindness and generosity and love. And we therefore find ourselves once again in the presence of the beautiful.

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