Archive for July, 2011|Monthly archive page

Death and art

In Posts on July 17, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Yesterday, in lieu of watching the final Harry Potter movie, I read a lot about the series online. I was very interested to read JK Rowling paraphrased as saying that its central theme is Harry coming to terms with death. That reconciling death would be the main theme of a series of coming-of-age novels reinforced, or at least reminded me of, an increasingly strong impression I’ve been having about art: Mature art acknowledges death, and immature art proposes alternatives to it.

And there are a lot of alternatives to it. It’s hard to imagine the entertainment industry without them. (In fact, to stretch the point, perhaps proposing alternatives to death is what entertainment is.) High-status characters are so attractive because they symbolize invulnerability: since they have the situation under control, whether by dint of a rapier wit or a superpower, they don’t have to worry, and that’s how we wish we were. Bond films are built on this addiction to status symbolism, and are a crystal-clear example of compelling but immature art. Similarly, every part of every movie where one character leaves another gape-mouthed through an unexpected display of verbal fireworks is a play for status, and almost always an oblique denial of mortality—particularly when the character receiving the dressing-down is some sellout in a suit, whose lost agency is redolent of death. Gritty private eyes, antiheroes, chain-smoking existentialist poets, and punk musicians are another kind of escape from death: their nihilism supposedly beats death at its own game, as if you could learn to survive in a coffin by swearing off light and air. And the comforting flatness of sitcom characters and movie sidekicks denies death by embodying the impossibility of a safe, reliable world. How we might wish for a drinking buddy who always—always—has a ribald story to cheer us up, without suffering through real crises or unwelcome changes of his own. In real life, though, he’s wishing for the same thing in us.

In real life, and good literature, death is a constant fact (“of life”) rather than an individual event. When a situation escapes our control, we are confronted with the power of reality to contravene our wishes, symbolizing death. When we lose something we intended to keep, such as a relationship, a job, or a court battle, it symbolizes the fundamental indifference of reality to our plans, including our plans to exist. Good art may contain real heroism, but it does not present false alternatives to the least negotiable of life’s truths. By this criterion, Harry Potter is pretty good art for something so popular. And it’s interesting how the final book’s closing “All was well” is somewhat ominous, precisely because it’s so false. Anyway, I’ve heard the movie is great.