As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of Sullivan’s Travels, Preston Sturges’ film about a pretentious director who wants to make serious movies about man’s inhumanity to man and injustice and suffering so he sets out to experience suffering. Only without actually suffering, so it isn’t very effective. But then things change and in a startling twist, he gets some real suffering handed out. And thereby comes to realize that for some people a movie that simply makes them laugh and forget their troubles for an hour or two is a precious thing.
Which brings me to Michael Chabon, who says he’s stepping down as chairman of the art-centered MacDowell Colony’s board of directors because contrary to his early optimism, art isn’t saving the world: “Yet here we are, nine years into my tenure, and not only is the world not a better place—it has, in so many ways, gotten so much worse. I mean, really, what other conclusion is there? I’m sorry. Don’t hate me. I tried.” But in the end he concludes that even if art can’t stop the looming fascist night, it’s worth creating. Art connects us, art inspires us, art brings us together. “We’re just going to keep on doing what we do: Making and consuming art. Supporting the people who remind us that we are in this together. We are each only one poem, one painting, one song away from another mind, another heart. It’s tragic that we need so much reminding. And yet we have, in art, the power to keep reminding each other.”
An essay on the last decade in American theater ponders the same question: “Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day (his 1985 first play, rewritten and revived this year at the Public) is an extended meditation on how creativity can counter fascism, and he comes up with zero, bupkus, the big goose egg.” More optimistically the essay concludes that theater, being anything but a cash cow, has the freedom to push boundaries and open us up to the wild in us all: “What if we thought of theater as big wilderness corridors, cutting through all the polite, useful, domesticated stuff that makes up most of life? What if we stopped trying to tell people what not to do in the theater? What if we just abandoned all talk of how silly it is to spend time there instead of at a protest? Ecologically, we already know that we need wilderness so the world can breathe. Purposelessness is itself a kind of sacred purpose. A theater is a place for chaos, thievery, destruction, misrule, recklessness, imagination, adventure, courage, provocation, and possibility. Throw your MFAs into a bonfire! Forget the rules! The wilderness has always been the place for wild beasts—but also hermits on their pillars. Don’t despair if you don’t find an obvious mission there. Go back into the wild. It’s where saints go to study.”
I like that (with the understanding that running wild does not excuse being a jerk). I’m not sure how I’d apply it in my own writing, but … I’ll give it some thought. Even if I apply it, I don’t think my art or my work will change the world or stop the world that may be coming. It’s still better to create. Better to write books than burn them, better to lessen pain or give an our of respite than make people suffer more. As C.S. Lewis says, in Norse mythology Ragnarok will destroy everything no matter what the Aesir or mortals do to stop it. None of that changes our duty to fight against the darkness, the Fenris Wolf, the frost giants. If the night is coming, let’s at least offer a few candles.
#SFWApro. Cover image by Arthur Rackham, all rights to image remain with current holder.