May 31, 2016

Beyond Human Nature

The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson
It’s been a few weeks since I finished Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, and I’m still thinking about it. I knew as soon as I finished The Argonauts that I wanted to read everything Nelson has written, and The Art of Cruelty proved a perfect follow-up. It’s a book that deals with our fascination with cruel works of art, and with the culturally prominent idea that they reveal essential truths about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. I loved it because it’s more interested in broadening the range of questions we ask, in “shaking our habits of thought”, than in providing definitive answers; to paraphrase Nelson’s own articulation about the kind of writing and art she’s drawn to, it’s a book that creates space.

Like all good criticism, The Art of Cruelty acknowledges that art is experienced differently by different people, or even by the same individual at different times: “not only do our work and words speak beyond our intentions and controls, but compassion is not necessarily found where we presume it to be, nor is it experienced or accessed by everyone in the same way, nor is it found in the same place in the same way over time. The same might be said of cruelty.” This touches on something that has long since been a preoccupation of mine: writing in such a way that acknowledges the possibility that different people will reach opposite conclusions about the same text, without requiring them to align one another with opposing values. This should perhaps be a given, but somehow it isn’t.

One of the reasons why I’m interested in the discourse surrounding the art of cruelty is that it often makes assumptions about human nature that tend to go unquestioned explicit; unsurprisingly, this is one of the key concerns of Nelson’s book. The following excerpt is on the long side, but it is, I think, worth sharing in its entirety:
The artist standing bravely in the face of the (inconvenient, brutal, hard-won, dangerous, offensive) truth, the artist who refuses to “evade facts”, or who can stare down “what the world really looks like”—what could be more heroic? Critics love the rhetoric used by artists such as Arbus and Bacon because it bolsters the sense that art and artists can rip off the veil, they can finally show us what our world is “really like”, what we are really like. I mean it as no slight to these artists (both of whom I admire), nor to the practice of truth-telling (to which I aspire) when I say I do not believe they do any such thing. Bacon shows us Bacon figures; Arbus shows us Arbus figures. This isn’t to say that Bacon’s paintings don’t tell us quite a bit about the human animal, especially when caught in a spasm of despair or carnage, or that Arbus’s don’t communicate quite a bit about the human animal in its freakiness, loneliness, absurdity, or abstruse ecstasy. Their works do all this, while also remaining products of their notoriously partial view of the world. There is absolutely nothing strange about this paradox, unless you’re looking to art to tell you “how things are”, rather than give you the irregular, transitory, and sometimes unwanted news of how it is to be another human being.
I titled this post after a book that pushes back against the notion that “culture is but a thin veneer hiding our true animal natures”; in the years since I read it, this has only become more important to me. It’s not that I want to replace the idea that humans are naturally selfish and cruel with the idea that we’re unfailingly kind; it’s that I believe we are capable of kindness and cooperation; that we get to choose to strive towards it in small, ordinary, everyday ways; and also that there are consequences to leaving this out of our account of ourselves.

If there’s anything we are by nature, it’s changeable and complicated; what we choose to emphasise is of course a matter of choice. This choice has implications for how I live my life: goodwill, I’ve come to realise, is absolutely essential to me, both in individual one-to-one relationships and in a wider sociopolitical sense. I’m moved by it, and I require the hope that it gives me. However, that doesn’t mean that when I choose to highlight our capacity for kindness and generosity, I’m choosing something slightly divorced from reality for pragmatic reasons — in order to comfort myself, so I can manage to carry on living in a cruel world. Choosing to highlight humanity’s darkness at the expense of anything else is every bit as much of a choice, and it creates a distorted picture — it’s just that pessimism happens to be the default, and is therefore the unmarked category.

I have sympathy for those who default to it as a matter of self-defence — this is something I’ve been known to do at various points in my life, and I understand all too well being immersed in circumstances that make hope feel unsafe. What I resent, though, is the appearance of neutrality that envelops this pessimism, and most of all its aura of depth and intellectual respectability. It’s not uncommon to see hope dismissed as shallow or naïve, while anything that portrays human beings in an unflattering light is praised as clear-sighted and brave. This isn’t to say that I don’t find value in many works that show us at our worst, but not because they provide a glimpse of “how things really are”. The view, as Nelson says, is partial, and its interest lies exactly in that.

There are, of course, ideological reasons for this disparity — pessimism does, after all, justify the core assumptions of neoliberal capitalism, our dominant political and economic system — but this is yet another reason why I resist it in every arena: in art, in politics, in cultural criticism, in life. I’ll end with another longish quote, as there’s no better articulation of the issue than Marilynne Robinson’s in The Givenness of Things:
Cultural pessimism is always fashionable, and, since we are human, there are always grounds for it. It has the negative consequence of depressing the level of aspiration, the sense of the possible. And from time to time it has the extremely negative consequence of encouraging a kind of somber panic, a collective dream-state in which recourse to terrible remedies is inspired by delusions of mortal threat. If there is anything in the life of any culture or period that gives good ground for alarm, it is the rise of cultural pessimism, whose major passion is bitter hostility toward many or most of the people within the very culture the pessimists always feel that they are intent on rescuing. When panic on one side is creating alarm on the other, it is easy to forget that there are always as good ground for optimism as for pessimism — exactly the same grounds, in fact — that is, because we are human. We still have every potential for good we have ever had, and the same presumptive claim to respect, our own respect and one another’s. We are still creatures of singular interest and value, agile of soul as we have always been and as we will continue to be even despite our errors and depredations, for as long as we abide on this earth. To value one another is our greatest safety, and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error.

12 comments:

  1. Oh, I wish I had read this review before I sent you my rambling email! Yes, 100%! I think what you hit on above that is most upsetting is the idea that a cynical or pessimistic person is objective and neutral whereas a positive/optimistic person is maybe a little off. While having a positive attitude may not help cancer disappear, it generally makes you more fun to be around, and that's worth a whole lot.

    I have this vague wonder in my mind about how pessimistic people were before WWI and WWII. I feel like the first half of the 20th century maybe really messed with our collective psyche and ability to think the best of humanity.

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    1. Yes, and the last few decades have had no shortage of horrors either, which I'm sure have left their mark. Then again, violence was pretty widespread before the 20th century too, even if different technology meant its impact was different. There's probably also something to the fact that we can see it more easily now, because the images are so widespread.

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  2. I've been wanting to read Maggie Nelson's work on this for a while, because it seems like she has a lot of value to say around these issues of evil and being a witness to evil. I bought a copy of The Red Parts and hope to read it soon, and I really want to read this book as well. I've always loved art about human darkness, and I've sometimes wondered why.

    I've had to struggle at times with being too cynical, even though I know in my heart (or at least want to believe) that most people are decent and doing the best that they can. This past year in particular has pushed me further toward my cynical side, having been a close witness to some quite shocking evil. But I know that my cynicism is to some degree a side effect of circumstances and not a reflection of reality. I'm not hurrying myself to shed my sense of suspicion, because I'm not sure that forcing myself to abandon it before I'm ready would be helpful. But I don't want to stay suspicious and frightened forever.

    And Marilynne Robinson always has the wise words.

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    1. "I'm not hurrying myself to shed my sense of suspicion, because I'm not sure that forcing myself to abandon it before I'm ready would be helpful. But I don't want to stay suspicious and frightened forever." I can really relate to this. Over the past year or two I've made a deliberate effort to be more hopeful, but I know it's something I wouldn't have been able to do at other stages in my life - and also that it's something I might be unable to do again in the future. Also, it definitely had a lot to do with not wanting to have fear be my primary motivator, and with feeling it was diminishing my life in tangible ways, even if fear is often a completely rational and legitimate response to outside events.

      The Red Parts is definitely the Nelson I want to read next. It sounds amazing.

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  3. Beautiful post, Ana. I think I must read this book!

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    1. Thank you, Tasha! I would love to hear what you think.

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  4. "It's not uncommon to see hope dismissed as shallow or naive." Yes, and isn't that ridiculous? The written works I love best--satires--depend on an agreement that there is hope, and that the person reading wants to make the world better.

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    1. That's a wonderful way to put it. It applies to Terry Pratchett's brand of humour, too, and is a big part of why I love him so much.

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  5. Wow, this sounds like the perfect book for you! As always, you've written such a thoughtful post that makes me wish I had your eloquence and insight. I particularly like what you say about pessimism being the unmarked/default category -- it's true, it becomes not worth remarking unless it goes to an extreme, and that's a dull state of affairs.

    Do you think the culture is undergoing a shift toward earnestness? I have been thinking about that the past few years, and I don't know that it necessarily carries with it a shift towards optimism (actually if anything people seem more pessimistic, but I know my view of that is colored by living in America during the worst election season that ever election seasoned). But it would be nice, at least, to acknowledge sincerity and good faith as things worth striving for, and maybe in the long term it would facilitate a revaluing of hope and joy.

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    1. "Wow, this sounds like the perfect book for you!" That's exactly what I thought the moment I heard about it :P And it was!

      To answer your question, I'd be inclined to say yes, but it's a little hard for me to tell because the differences I notice between, say, five years ago and now could also be down to all the ways in which *I* have changed - for example, it's a lot easier for me not to care now if people happen too dismiss me as too earnest or excessively emotional or what have you :P But if we've both noticed, then maybe there is something to it that goes beyond our individual perception. And yes, it's more about openness and the willingness to engage in good faith than necessarily optimism, but that's a worthy starting point.

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