Where does the beautiful come from in a story? I remember as a graduate student in literature speaking with an undergraduate majoring in art history. We were talking about the beautiful. And she was shocked when I said that the beautiful was strewn like a hurricane of raindrops throughout world literature.
She thought painting, sculpture, music, and dance certainly contained the beautiful. Or maybe didn’t contain it in every sense of that word but embodied it or represented it. Or were capable of attaining, in a privileged sense, the beautiful.
But she had never thought about stories containing beauty. Oh, she would grant that lyric poetry had beauty in it, perhaps by virtue of its music or its connection to music. And perhaps drama, to the extent that it was in some measure still connected to and contained dance and music.
But prose fiction? That sort of literature was so far from its supposed musical and dance origins for her that my claim was a surprise. It ran up against the idea that narrative is prosaic and the prosaic is banal, quotidian, profane, and that it is a species of the ugly.
So for her my claim could not be true. Everyday life and the representation of everyday life in literature could not, by definition, have any significant beauty in it. Any essential or intensive or deliberate or extensive or sustained beauty in it. Any sustained aesthetic pleasure—gloss experience of the beautiful—found in it. To the extent beauty could be found in the quotidian, it was in her mind either accidental or trivial or incidental. Not central. And could therefore not be central in the literature that represents it.
But of course, everyone grows up, and after awhile, even the most stubborn ideas give way to repeated personal experience. To the reality of human experience. I don’t know if that particular undergraduate changed her mind about literature, but I hope she did. Recognizing the beautiful in story can certainly change one’s attitude toward the narrative of one’s own particular life and the narratives of the lives of others.
Last weekend when I was visiting my daughter, she put on a snippet of a documentary on Darfur. The director of The Trojan Women had encouraged the actors to research Darfur and other current conflicts, including the war in Iraq. The idea was for them to get a sense of what it feels like to be a victim of war.
So this snippet she put on was an interview with a middle aged man, thin from malnutrition, who spoke quite good English. He was a refugee from the violence in Darfur and was in a refugee camp in a neighboring country. He described a night of bombing that killed his children when he was still in Darfur.
He thanked the American camera crew for all the food that America was providing. He spoke about how he and his fellow refugees were Muslims and how they had received no food or other assistance from any Muslim countries. And of course their lives had been destroyed by fellow Muslims. And this seemed to be a source of great pain to him. He winced as he spoke about this.
And it was beautiful. This man was beautiful. This emaciated man struggling not to shed tears in front of the camera crew. In front of us. This survivor of unwarranted violence. Of cruelty. Of atrocity. A man who could not return to his home. Whose home had been destroyed. Whose family had been destroyed. Whose country was denied to him. Whose life in many respects had been destroyed.
Yet this man was persevering. He was grateful and wanted the American people to know he was grateful. And he wanted to retain his dignity. So when the interview was over, he walked away. Not rudely. Not inconsiderately. But politely. With dignity. But clearly overcome. He walked around a nearby building so that the camera would not catch him crying.
The camera followed him anyway, at a distance. Trust Americans to be that callous and inconsiderate and impolite. He had is back mostly turned to the camera there on the other side of the building. Wiping his eyes occasionally, trying to regain control. Looking down. Looking out into the wasteland distance. Shaking his head.
And this is of course why my daughter is an actor. To bring this news. To bring this sort of truth. To bring the experience of what it means to be human to others. To bring the possibly beautiful and the possibly ugly in human experience to us and show us this. Help us think about this. Help us get this down deep in our hearts, where actual understanding happens. Help us understand how the beautiful and the ugly—the good and the evil—are bound up together somehow in the narratives of our lives. In the narratives of our beings.
If we will allow ourselves to see what is here. Allow ourselves to be open to our own experience. To the experience of others. To be vulnerable to emotion and understanding. No matter how terrible. No matter how painful. No matter how inconsistent with our ideas.
At the end of the snippet, she burst into tears. To some extent, as she watched the thin black man in the documentary, she saw also a possible me, she said. A me who was not privileged to be born in America. A me who was dirt poor. Who lived in the dirt. Whose family had been destroyed. And who could do nothing about any of this. Who could not do anything about his own suffering. Except to. Well. Experience it and persevere. Cry. Cry for the loss of his children. And be grateful. Grateful for the food that was flowing into the camp to feed the surviving children.
And so what she was doing was taking this personally. Taking this beautiful man and his pain personally by thinking of him and me as one man. And why was she doing this? To get into character, of course. She is an actor, after all.
What was it Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, one of my favorite plays? Here is part of what he wrote:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts, …”