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If Trauma is Real, and Art is Real in a Different Way, How Do We Square the Two?


Rene Magritte, "The Interpretation of Dreams"


Sometimes it seems there are two fundamental ways we can see the world through, and I suppose, because I am a Johnsonian like Boswell, and because I prefer Johnson's interpretation of Shakespeare over anyone except Bloom's (to argue that Shakespeare invented the human is, to my mind, the coolest argument all-time), I think those two ways are joy and sorrow. (Johnson argued that Shakespeare was a fascinating playwright for many reasons, among which was that he didn't write exactly write comedies and tragedies, but melded or mingled or tangled the two in a new way, and that his plays were shifting textures of these moods, these feeling worlds, and for that reason contained a verisimilitude, a truth, by holding a mirror up to nature, to the ways things are, or the way the world is).


If we view the world through the lens of sorrow, what we see is the world refracted through the lens of our trauma. And this is, though a harrowing experience and phenomena, a legitimate lens, I suppose, if only because trauma is real, and the pain we experience in this world is not something we can shoo away with any easy religious explanation, nor should we, if we wish to continue growing. I suppose this one enormous contribution to the human being by the field of psychology - the realization that, in talking to a therapist say, especially a skilled one, we can over time understand the conditions of our childhood, and the conditions in which we grew up, but doing so requires a kind of very protracted and basically endless circling in and out, touching upon that pain, fear, anger, bewilderment, abuse, circling out, back and forth, endlessly. I think religion, in its most mature frameworks, does not deny trauma, and helps us to heal without sugar-coating or white-washing while also holding out hope that healing is possible and that we can get better. And that is undoubtedly legit.


But when we view the world through the lens of sorrow, we cannot survive for long. Because too much honesty withers the soul, and we become desiccated caricatures of ourselves, holding onto a bleakness with both hands instead of perhaps only with one. And because the nature of the human being, or life, or Shakespeare (who invented the human!) is a mixture of joy and sorrow, then it would follow that looking only through the lens of sorrow, or for that matter joy, would be a one-sided affair. So then we could ask ourselves, how do we balance the two, or how do we remain temperate in a world of constant sorrow, or how do we not drown in trauma, or on the other hand, how we do keep our exuberance without giving in to a kind of guilt?


I have bipolar, and perhaps these are temperamental questions connected to my own character, but I think regardless of whether you are actually diagnosed with the illness, or whether you have no mental illness whatsoever, everyone has trauma because everyone has emotional issues from childhood, and so I think these are universal questions for people trying to figure out how to live. And I suppose one answer to this question about balance can be found through art. How so?


Art teaches us to be more truthful about our lives, but because it happens cathartically, via a form of confrontational indirection, we can somehow sense where we come from, get a taste of the truth, while also seeing it with compassion, for a performance, regardless of whether it is predominantly a comedy or tragedy, cannot not carry within it a spirit of play, and play is also a form of indirection, a form of slant, in Emily Dickinson's term. What I'm trying to say is that art leavens off the steam of trauma, or gives it to us in a form that frees us by allowing us to view it with both compassion and honesty. And I think the imagination itself, fundamentally, because of its nature of play, connects us with both our damaged child and our inner whole child, since when a child plays, especially a traumatized child who turns to art to play, he or she imagines in order to escape in the best way, meaning he or she plays to say, "hey, what if things were like this, or what if I wasn't in this shitty situation but rather on a ship battling the bad guys," and he or she identifies with these characters and, in doing so, finds new self-images to escape the self-image of the damaged child from trauma. And that "hey," that recognition, that identification, is why and how art heals, because it holds out new self-images - a term from Richard Rorty - so that we do not only imagine new possibilities for the world, but new possibilities for our own selves, new identities, even new characterological make-ups. The cliche about couples living together for a long period of time and growing to look like one another holds here - when we get to know a character in a book - especially in the best books, where the interiority, like Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace, my favorite character, or Clarissa Dalloway, or Nathan Zuckerman, or Aleksey Fyodorovich Karamazov - then we get to know someone deeper, in a way, than we know most people in the world. It is one of the strangest realities of literature, that we know characters in books deeper than we know actual human beings.


What's even stranger - going back to Bloom's argument in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human - is that these characters change our lives, and in some way we become them, just as we become the people in our lives we identify with most or - not become them, but become ourselves in relationship to them, meaning we individuate, but since nothing exists in isolation, we individuate while carrying those who have formed us with us. But Pierre, Clarissa, Nathan, Aleksey, none of them escape the world of fiction in which they are created unscathed, and neither do we. But our world, shorn of fiction, is unlivable, because it is honesty - or dishonesty - without check. When we can open tunnels of imagination within it, we can unite our damaged child with our inner whole child, and accept the traumatic lens as something we will always carry with us, but not as the be-all end-all of life, and perhaps simply only one side of it. Art saves, not like religion - not in the sense of any notion of perfection - but because it frees us via imagination and compassion to accept who we are in order to become we need to become. It is not a form of weak forgiveness, since forgiveness itself, to my mind, is mostly a bankrupt concept. But we can forgive ourselves, for the trauma we have experienced is in our minds; and we are honest about our own traumas, I suppose we can find forgiveness, not for the abusers, but for our own characters, and therefore experience peace.

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