10 February 2004

Heroism and Happy Endings

Albert Goldbarth's poem "Far: An Etymology" is lovely and affecting, written in a style which mingles the lyrical with the vernacular with grace and skill. These early lines caught my eye:
In 1950s sci-fi idiom: space--"far"er,
with its smug and kickass certainty that interstellar travel is
the farthest: so, the most heroic.
I immediately thought of myself at twelve years old, sitting in my bedroom, reading a couple of fragile copies of Galaxy from the '50s which I'd gotten at a used bookstore, entranced by the idea of a space beyond myself, of worlds Out There, of heroism.

I'm not a big fan of heroism anymore. It was a nice escapist fantasy when I was 12, but now I've seen the effects of people trying to be heroes, scattering lives and resources in the wake. Heroism is a vastly different concept to me now, one not linked to strength and power, but more to sacrifice -- I find myself most awed by people willing to give up comfort and clarity, to lend their life to something other than their self. All those heroes we meet in space operas and space operettas seem like egomaniacs to me.

Perhaps that's why I tend to revere the darker, drearier literatures to the ones which tell us everything will be okay. There's an honesty and nobility to unhappy endings. I've seen so many readers complain of "depressing" stories winning major awards, and didn't Janet Asimov write an editorial some years ago (for Asimov's, of course) with a title saying something to the effect of, "Writers! Lift us up!"

Please don't, I remember thinking, I couldn't bear it.

"These are people who began as the same/ meiotically rendered egg as you and me," Goldbarth writes. Easy to forget that when "these people" are space cowboys and dragonlancers, as alien as any bug-eyed monster.

The desire for escapist fiction is understandable, but we should not be required to respect it. Entertainments serve their purposes, and we all need breaks from the heavy weather of daily life, but that's what TV is for.

I once went to a reading by the poet Donald Hall, and a friend asked me if I expected Hall would read a bunch of "depressing" poems, because his wife, Jane Kenyon, had recently died. I said I expected so and hoped so, since the only poem of Hall's which I've ever adored is "Without", which is about Kenyon's death. During the question and answer session after the reading, I asked Hall how he would respond to my friend's fear of depressing poetry. He said something to the effect of the deepest feelings being the darkest, and that art should be about the deepest feelings.

Which is not to say, of course, that we shouldn't laugh. I like my laughter mixed with darkness, yes, and I'm more likely to value a work which probes deeply than a work which is clever and humorous -- but Dorothy Parker, whose wit was so sharp it drew blood, wrote four of my favorite lines in English:
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania.
She calls it "Comment", but I'd prefer "Credo". It's enough to strike a happy writer dead.

And then there's one of the best fictional explorations of the whole subject, Margaret Atwood's "Happy Endings". It shows everything I'm trying to tell.

Except this: I've known some writers of very dark and painful work, and some of them have been happy people. (Happy in that they are not overhappy ... the overhappy get rubber rooms...)

Perhaps there are two kinds of readers in the world: those who want to dig deep, and those who want to be diverted. Two kinds of personalities, really, because such proclivities don't determine a person's literary values alone, but also what sorts of movies and music they like, how they interact with friends, what they do at parties (if they go to parties at all). I could rant about bread and circuses, but the truth is that we all find our own ways to live. Myself, I'll keep looking for dark bread and Quin's circuses.