Saturday, June 30, 2012

Wonder and Paradox in Literature

Al Pacino played Michael Corleone
in The Godfather
When we surrender to works of art - whether a song, poem, film, novel, painting or ballet – and let the artwork stir our imagination, we are often changed in ways that are hard to quantify. Often the experience may be difficult to articulate and may actually lose something if we try to put it into words. This is what I experienced when I watched the foreign language film The Lives of Others (warning: there is at least one inappropriate scene that should be fast-forwarded).

Sometimes we have to simply let ourselves experience a work of art before we try to explain it, to let ourselves surrender to it in a way analogous to our approach to persons. The way to get to know a person is not to begin analyzing him or her, but just to enjoy the relationship, to listen to what the person has to say, to empathize with the person, to allow ourselves to experience life through our friend’s perspective. In doing this, the horizons of our own personhood are expanded. It is the same with literature.

When we approach literary texts like this, we often find that they are laced with paradoxes and evade any straight-forward explanation. For example, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, it can be tempting to see Brutus as the villain and to then approach the play as a straight-forward lesson about the dangers of treachery. But this approach actually destroys the ambiguity of the play. If you take Shakespeare’s play on its own terms, one of the things you have to wrestle with is that Brutus is not a textbook villain, but is actually motivated by good desires and wrestles with moral choices that are by no means straight forward. The same is true for the character of Michael Corleone in the iconic The Godfather films.

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