Photo Credit: Theatrical release poster for Birth Of A Nation depicting a heroic pose from a KKK member from Chronicle Of The Cinema, distributed by the Epoch Film Company, 1915: Badmachine/Wikimedia Commons/PD US 1923
“[The artist] is not there to depict man as he is but also as he might be.” (Nin, Ch. 7, location 3175; emphasis added)
One of my undergrad college professors once said that history tells us what happened while literature tells us what should have happened. I didn’t really understand what she meant until years later when I dabbled in writing historical fiction. I realized how much history was about the facts. While the fascination for history lies in how these facts are interpreted, they are first and foremost an attempt to tell what really happened to give an understanding of the facts and contribute to a collective memory.
I once taught an undergraduate history course. I showed my class a clip from D. W. Griffith’s epic silent classic Birth Of A Nation. We viewed a scene of Resurrection era former slaves capturing a Southern white woman and the KKK riding in on their horses to save her. We discussed how Griffith (a Southerner who had had family fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War) had reinterpreted the KKK as heroes rather than the terrorists and racists that many of us see them as today. My students, most of them young freshmen, were shocked at how a 1915 audience could be so accepting of a clearly twisted rendering of history.
The above example is maybe the dark side of fictional storytelling: that, when fiction shows us who we might be, it isn’t always what we want to see (in the case of Griffith’s film, the idea that, at one time, a wider American population viewed the KKK as heroes). But the idea that art opens up the possibilities, both good and bad is, I think, an important one to acknowledge. I would even put it as a P.S. on my list of why writers write fiction.
I talked before about how psychological reality is less about concrete reality and more about the hidden part of the iceberg. It is when we can look deeper than what is on the surface that we can really appreciate the potential of art. Nin writers of the artist:
“He is there to give us an example of the freedom of choice, freedom to transcend his destiny and his surroundings, master his limitations and restrictions.” (Nin, Ch. 7, location 3175; emphasis added)
I think the possibilities in art have always been part of its attraction. For the artist, part of this is about absorbing what the every day life doesn’t readily give us so that we can use it in our art. Jung argued that this kind of absorption, even among non-artists, is almost automatic:
“[W]e all see, hear, smell, and taste many things without noticing them at the time… The unconscious, however, has taken note of them and such subliminal sense perceptions play a significant part in our everyday lives. Without our realizing it, they influence the way in which we react to both events and people.” (Jung, Part 1, location 416)
For artists, such subliminal sense perceptions not only influence their lives but their art as well. But art becomes more than a pleasure when artists transform these sense perceptions in ways that open up the world, laying out these perceptions within a fictional context.
To record people and events as close to how they happened as possible is the job of the historian and very important work. To expose options (what something really means, what someone really meant when he or she said this or that, why someone reacts violently to one thing but praises another) is to take an active role in the world rather than sit on the sidelines accepting the status quo:
“Accepting what is… is an act of passivity, an act of resignation, of impotence, lack of invention and transformation, also an inability to discard what is and to create what might be.” ((Nin, Ch. 7, location 3167; emphasis original).
Looking past what is to what might be depends on personal interpretation and not always for a lofty purpose. For example, several weeks ago, I observed an elderly couple at a cafe. The woman was elegantly dressed and groomed, the man more casual, walking slowly with a cane. The woman pushed past me in the line, mumbling an apology. The man gave me a friendly smile. The woman ordered her drinks, then stood aside, busying herself with texting while the man paid. It was the man who waited with me at the other end of the bar, taking the drinks in a carrier, half-joking with me. Despite his struggles with the cane, he was left to balance the paper tray of drink when they left while his wife still preoccupied herself with her phone.
There is nothing earth shattering about this couple, no higher message about the way of the world (as maybe we can see Griffith’s interpretation of the KKK). But my interest in the couple was more a desire for personal interpretation, especially since I realized later that the couple, in their estranged but connected relationship, reminded me of my grandparents.
An article on quotes from Stephen King’s book On Writing: “ ‘Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground… Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world.’ “ (Harder, par. 13). The idea that stories are treasures waiting for us to uncover them shatters the passive acceptance and shows us what we might be.
Harder, Don. “22 Lessons From Stephen King On How To Be A Great Writer”. Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc. 11 August 2015. Web. 23 June 2016.
Jung, Carl G., Von Franz, M.L., Henderson, Joseph L., Jacobi, Jolande, Jaffe Aniela. Man And His Symbols. Dell Publishing, 1964. Kindle digital file.
Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.