Essay: The Role of Art in Life and History, 18 August 2015

I once wrote that a book was a haunted house, serving to scare the shit out of complacent, naive people. And in a sense, I still think that to be true; but my perspective has changed; the perspective is change. These ghosts aren’t here to scare us; they’re here to tell us their stories, their struggles, their ideas; they’re here, living through the words, telling us they lived, telling us who they are, telling us that they lived and that their lives had value and, reassuringly, so did ours. They ask only for our time, these characters, for our sympathetic understanding.

         The reason writers write is the same reason mockingbirds sing; it’s something in our childhood, something in our coming of age, something in the enjoyment of stories and imagination; if reading is how the imagination breathes, writing is how the soul exhales. To write is to dream while you’re awake. As different peoples of our world are different and inherit different genes, different cultures inherit different stories, and as products of a unique culture ourselves, we produce stories to contribute to our culture, to intermix among the existing, more popular imaginings of better artists.

Our stories have escaped our planet, finally, and are in interstellar space. The messages encoded on Voyager 1 and 2 were message from our entire species. We wish to be remembered; this message may be a murmur, but it is the echo of our planet and our species, with one purpose, to express: Remember us. If nothing else it will be a haunting, a ghost’s way to perpetuate itself, a more eloquent ghost perhaps.

There are a variety of images and sounds, extravagant and mundane, natural and contrived—Mozart and Stravinsky, Chuck Berry and greetings in fifty-five languages. Sounds of animals are also included; for example, the record contains sounds of crickets and frogs, hyenas, elephants, dogs and chimpanzees. There are soundbytes of a kiss, a mother and a child, footsteps, heartbeats, and laughter.

It is a golden message in a bottle, a time capsule, a record of our species looking to be remembered with this encyclopedic representation of what it is to be a citizen of Earth, to be human, to be empathetic and hopeful that someday, when this Golden Record approaches another solar system, it will not only be found—it will be understood. The message included from then American President Jimmy Carter sums up the desires and yearnings of the human race to have a place in the history of the cosmos. As Carl Sagan said,

‘These are the murmurs of Earth.’ It is a beautiful summation of the highest nature of mankind. It is ambitious, noble, and hopeful.

‘We cast this message into the cosmos … Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some—perhaps many—may have inhabited planets and spacefaring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and understands these recordings, here is our message. This is a gift from a small and distant planet, a token of our sounds, science, images, music, thoughts and feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live in yours. We hope, someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope, determination, and goodwill in a vast and awesome universe.’

And through our understanding comes empathy, through empathy identification, and in that identification, we see our lives anew; forever permanent, figures drawn by words; and in this mausoleum, we live—and death for us loses all unease and fear in knowing that memories are those ghosts, and ghosts the authors of those stories, and those stories evolve into who we are, and stand in our place when our legs are too weak to hold us and, forever young, we join their company to say to you we lived and when you’re gone, we’ll welcome you to our palace, to our gallery, and the living will redraw you when you leave. They’ll resurrect you in their paint and in their ink.

Literature isn’t a haunted house, no place for a banshee; a book, a poem, a play—each is a prism, a palatial gallery of characters we love and hate and envy and desire and need, and each book is its own room at the palace, complete with its guide, complete with its perfectly framed snapshots, snapshots from all the world, from every moment of the small slit in the window we have on record for our species, every emperor and conqueror, every peasant and chambermaid, every hero and every villain, the men and women we dream of, the men and women we strive to be. You are alive, brief though it is, and when you pass into Dylan Thomas’s sweet night, there’s a place for you on the page with us, with us in the Shadow Gallery, to say not only that we lived, but in this we are alive; and in this we do not die. And for the rest of the time this little blue ball of ours keeps going and churning and the sun still shines, somewhere on a shelf, this book might one day be found, and when it’s opened, I spring to life again to say that I lived, I loved, and ,my life had value.

Writing is the chronicle of our fantasies and our lives, and within them the obsessions and passions are amplified, and we think in broader, brighter colors, in glorious Technicolor. We will rise each time that page is turned. Here, as Dylan Thomas said, death has no dominion. You can’t kill the idea; you cannot kill the living word.

Art and music and literature gives humanity to oppressed people. It lets us understand victims as they were, not as just broken people. It acts out the moral and religious schisms in our culture. It looks through the past into the present. It refines us. It defines us. It gives us a sense of where we came from, and where we’re going. It gives us heroes and comfort and passion. Art is the religion of a faithless world.

2 thoughts on “Essay: The Role of Art in Life and History, 18 August 2015

  1. Excellent argument for the careful preservation of art (film,literature, art etc.) Also hammers home why these things should be readily available to as many people as possible.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read Cody. Art and literature and music are great ways of instructing the heart, enriching the experience of experiences, to see the world from the eyes of others lets us see more worlds than one, looking into books (necromancy and telekinesis!) with gilded frames letting us look back into time, to the death of Socrates or to the Oath of the Horati. It instructs in a way we’re not always aware of or conscious of its processes, but there’s something that grows in people when they hear Don Giovanni for the first time, or see Caravaggio paintings or Bernini sculpture, to hear Beethoven or the Beatles, to see the great films — it imparts a sentimental education that, with time, brings an approximation of wisdom. I’m glad you took the time to speak! We have at our disposal more texts than there ever were at Alexandria, great library of the ancient world, and even of the library at Bagdad, in our pockets, and to not avail ourselves of the greatest tool of learning in history is to waste and insult the people whose ideas built the foundations our memes and blogs are built upon. 😛 Have a good morning my friend!

      (Movie rec: Agora – it’s about Hypatia and the fall of the intellectual sort of heritage at Alexandria after the Christianizing of the Roman Empire and the ensuing early dark ages)

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