July 29, 2013

The Dirty Magic of Life in Unresolved Art. ~ Ann Nichols

Even if reality is a little dirty, painful or shaky, that’s where all the good stuff—the real magic of life—is found.

I am not a killjoy—really; I enjoy a comedy, a murder mystery or a love story that ends with “happily ever after.”

But long before I was remotely “spiritual,” I was drawn to edgy, unresolved art. I felt a jolt of recognition and a little rush when someone made a movie or wrote a book that reflected my sense that pat resolutions are misleading. The real work of life is never on “pause” while we have a happy sitcom ending or find love (after all!) in the arms of the handsome-but-quirky guy we sparred with all through the movie.

Easy fixes and perpetual happiness are neither realistic nor even particularly desirable.

They are, however, worshipped and pursued in our culture. I prefer the ebb and flow of what is real. Even if reality is a little dirty, a little painful or a little shaky; that’s where all the good stuff—the real magic of life—is found.

In high school, I saw Woody Allen‘s, Interiors, with a group of friends. I was drawn into its depiction of a family trying desperately to remain in control as everything fell apart. I recognized the suffering of trying to “keep it together” when one’s heart is breaking; there is, after all, nothing a hypersensitive sixteen-year-old girl knows as well as heartbreak. Nothing could really be fixed or resolved in any way and the characters’ pain and isolation were magnified as they struggled against unavoidable change and loss.

My friends hated it and I was the morbid loser who liked a crappy, depressing movie.

Later, I saw Lost in Translation, which has become my favorite movie. It is far less tragic and difficult than Interiors because, rather than fighting against a complicated and unresolved situation, the main characters “sit” with it and allow it to unfold organically.

Its focus is two lonely people far from home, and the ways in which their lives intersect for a brief time with love, deep understanding and romantic longing. It does not end with them together or living happily ever after. There is no dramatic smack-to-the forehead, running to catch the train, “I almost lost you” moment. We honestly have no idea whether they will ever see each other again.

It seems right, and it seems wrong just as it does at the end of “Casablanca” when Ilsa gets on the plane with her husband—which seems right but really wrong—and leaves the man she loves, which seems wrong but really right.

The main characters in Lost in Translation have let a “moment” happen and not tried to define or prolong it. It is not abstract or manipulative but a beautiful expression of how love, pain, uncertainty and duty are with us all the time and sometimes the most serendipitous moments occur when we stop trying to make everything fit neatly into a plot.

In literature, my favorite is also a master of the unresolved.

J.D. Salinger didn’t publish much but what is available to us is a small collection of volumes that recognize life’s uncertainty with no attempt at varnish. My favorite is Franny and Zooey, where a young woman wrestles with issues of faith and meaning—coming to no permanent conclusion except that there is no permanent conclusion. There is no plot but there is a great deal of breathtaking character development and dialogue; it is not a wise choice for readers looking for an easily digested “take-home message.”

A shorter and more devastating example of Salinger’s ease with the uneasy is the short story, A Perfect Day for Bananafish. Because I’m hoping that you’ll read it someday, I won’t tell you what happens. Suffice it to say, it creates attachment on the part of the reader and then does what life does—pulls the rug out from any sense of comfort or predictability.

There is both classical and popular music that ratifies the tension between reality and our wish for easy resolution and happiness.

In the classical realm, I find this paradox in much of Mahler, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, in Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night and Bloch’s Schelomo. There is complexity, a yearning quality and an interplay of crystalline harmony and palpable discord. The best requiems also manage to combine the message of eternal life and release with acceptance of the sadness and loss of those left behind.

Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, moves me the same way; clouds, love and life may appear beautiful or terrible, but our characterizations and classifications of them are nothing more than passing illusions. Everything, really, just is and our attempts to trap, codify and preserve “good” things may well keep us from the necessary work of being mindful and present. It’s tough, it’s un-pretty and it wouldn’t work on the Hallmark channel but it’s ultimately far more rewarding than the stress of trying to create or hang on to some artificially generated standard of “happy.”

I am leaving this post unresolved.


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Assistant Ed.: Stephanie Sefton/Ed: Bryonie Wise

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