We watched The Whistleblower the other night; and as the closing credits marched across the screen, my wife said, “So nobody was punished.” And I said, “It’s an awful world, and it isn’t getting any better.” Both statements were natural extensions of the movie’s horrific story, and ironically reflective of its “soul.”
I mentioned in the last post that my concerns over the “soul” of novels arose directly from reading a novel where the characters, and therefore the novel, were without soul even as the prose–the imagery and descriptions–exuded grace and beauty.
How can a movie have a “soul” if its story shows none? And how can a novel lack a “soul” if its prose epitomizes it?
These questions continue a conversation that began over three decades ago, when a friend asked me what I thought about a novel he’d passed on to me. I said, “It’s incredible and unredeemed.” He found the latter adjective surprising and asked what I meant. What I meant was that the novel in question was “unredeeming”–which is to say that it didn’t inspire the reader to greater humanity and goodness–and since it was “unredeeming” it was thereby “unedeemed.” In short, it had no “soul” because it didn’t enhance or uplift that same quality in the reader. Then, trying to be open-minded, I added that–since one person’s “uplift” might be another’s “downtrodden”–the novel was unredeemed for me. If others found inspiration or meaning in its grim chronicle, then more power to them (and the novel). But it didn’t work for me.
I think my friend found the whole idea of art being redemptive rather quaint and old-fashioned, perhaps even judgemental or–Heaven forbid–Puritanical. But at no point did I say or mean to suggest that unredeeming art (whether judged so by me or anyone else) should be banned or censored. I was simply indicating that it lacked what was for me art’s central purpose–to raise the human condition by lifting or inspiring the human heart and spirit.
The flip side of that coin is the artist has to tell the story he or she is told, come what may. To reshape that story to fit some preconceived notion of purpose would be to betray the story and its source, which is most definitely not a wise or appropriate decision. And if the story as it is told the artist comes out without a “soul” for this or any other recipient, then it comes out without a soul. Or maybe its soul is unveiled at some other time, in some altered world or state. The artist’s purpose is to get it down right.
Does any of this matter? The cynic and the philosopher would say “No–the world spins on with or without redeeming art.” The idealist and the theologian would say “Yes–good can prevail in whatever forms it takes.” I’d only say I cling to meaning and purpose in acts of love, in art and all other expressions. Lacking that, it’s eat or be eaten. Lacking that, it’s all darkness.
I’m putting the finishing touches on a short story titled “Carousel Ride.” (For the record, I think it has a soul; and even if it didn’t, as a depiction of a moment it might inspire such quality beyond itself.) Like “Whiteout” (http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/291355), it’s a Zach and Becca love story. But its tone is very different from “Whiteout.” Though it occurs earlier in their relationship, in some ways it has a wisdom and poignance of a much more mature love and understanding–or so I hope. I’ll post an excerpt or two in the coming weeks and get you the address for the whole thing once it’s published.