Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Leo Tolstoy

The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Fatted Ram, Part 3

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In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy never actually mentions the hedgehog and the fox, but he does talk at length about another animal made famous by an ancient Greek. About a third of the way from the end of the novel, he inserts an extended aside about Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, which allegedly proves that all motion is impossible. Tolstoy notes that calculus, “a modern branch of mathematics having achieved the art of dealing with the infinitely small,” offers one possible solution, and he goes on to make the same argument for historical science:

In seeking the laws of historical movement just the same thing happens. The movement of humanity, arising as it does from innumerable arbitrary human wills, is continuous. To understand the laws of this continuous movement is the aim of history. But to arrive at these laws, resulting from the sum of all those human wills, man’s mind postulates arbitrary and disconnected units…Only by taking infinitesimally small units for observation (the differential of history, that is, the individual tendencies of men) and attaining to the art of integrating them (that is, finding the sum of these infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history. To study the laws of history we must completely change the subject of our observation, must leave aside kings, ministers, and generals, and study the common, infinitesimally small elements by which the masses are moved. No one can say in how far it is possible for man to advance in this way toward an understanding of the laws of history; but it is evident that only along that path does the possibility of discovering the laws of history lie.

Reading this section over again, I realized for the first time that I’d seen much the same language somewhere else. More than seventy years before the Foundation series, Tolstoy was talking about psychohistory, and in remarkably similar terms. For Tolstoy, the perfect historical science would be a matter of integrating all the infinitesimals of individual human behavior; for John W. Campbell, it would take the form of symbolic logic; for Isaac Asimov, it was something like the ideal gas law. (If there’s one thing we can say for sure, though, it’s that Asimov wasn’t directly influenced by Tolstoy—he says in his memoirs that he tried and repeatedly failed to finish War and Peace.) And all three men were interested in seeking what they conceived as the laws of history, which would allow it to be treated as a science with the same explanatory and predictive power as physics or chemistry. The problem, of course, is that this collides headlong with the troublesome notion of free will, as Tolstoy writes in a lengthy epilogue to his novel. The italics are mine:

In history what is known to us we call laws of inevitability, what is unknown we call free will. Free will is for history only an expression for the unknown remainder of what we know about the laws of human life…Only by reducing this element of free will to the infinitesimal, that is, by regarding it as an infinitely small quantity, can we convince ourselves of the absolute inaccessibility of the causes, and then instead of seeking causes, history will take the discovery of laws as its problem…And if history has for its object the study of the movement of the nations and of humanity and not the narration of episodes in the lives of individuals, it too, setting aside the conception of cause, should seek the laws common to all the inseparably interconnected infinitesimal elements of free will.

And Tolstoy was never able to reconcile his unmatched knowledge, as a novelist, of the unique qualities of individual men and women with his desire for a calculus of history, which requires, as Isaiah Berlin observes in The Hedgehog and the Fox, that all of its infinitesimals be “reasonably uniform.”

If Tolstoy were alive today, he’d presumably be interested in the rise of data journalism, which represents an attempt to implement some of these principles in practice. In reality, it’s as vulnerable to error and wishful thinking as anything else, and much of it represents the same old punditry dressed up with a fancy new infographic. Both the qualitative and quantitative forms of political coverage suffer from a tendency that Tolstoy identified nearly a century and a half ago:

Postulating some generalization as the goal of the movement of humanity, the historians study the men of whom the greatest number of monuments have remained: kings, ministers, generals, authors, reformers, popes, and journalists, to the extent to which in their opinion these persons have promoted or hindered that abstraction. But…the connection of the people with the rulers and enlighteners of humanity is only based on the arbitrary assumption that the collective will of the people is always transferred to the men whom we have noticed.

Replace “men” with “information” and you have a fairly good critique of the fundamental weakness of so much data journalism. Just because an available set of numbers is interesting, seemingly correlates with broader trends, and fits nicely into a spreadsheet doesn’t mean that it has predictive or analytical value, and equally important factors may go unremarked. And Tolstoy’s original point about the overemphasis on great men holds as well. Trump, if nothing else, is one of “the men whom we have noticed.” We can hardly help it. And this makes it hard to look past each day’s new outrage to get at anything deeper.

So where does that leave us? Tolstoy, unsurprisingly, ended by becoming cynical about intellectual claims of any kind, to the point of sounding a little like Trump himself, as Berlin writes: “Tolstoy looks on [intellectuals] as clever fools, spinners of empty subtleties, blind and deaf to the realities which simpler hearts can grasp, and from time to time he lets fly at them with the brutal violence of a grim, anarchical old peasant, avenging himself, after years of silence, on the silly, chattering, town-bred monkeys, so knowing, and full of words to explain everything, and superior, and impotent and empty.” (Tolstoy’s trust in “the untouched depths of the mass of the people” also has a slightly more sinister ring to it today.) Some degree of skepticism is obviously warranted, even if, as Berlin notes, it can all too easily turn into despair:

This, for both Schopenhauer and Tolstoy, is the central tragedy of human life; if only men would learn how little the cleverest and most gifted among them can control, how little they can know of all the multitude of factors the orderly movement of which is the history of the world; above all, what presumptuous nonsense it is to claim to perceive an order merely on the strength of believing desperately that an order must exist, when all one actually perceives is meaningless chaos—a chaos of which the heightened form, the microcosm in which the disorder of human life is reflected in an intense degree, is war.

The paradox of psychohistory—which we see in both Tolstoy and Asimov—is that it becomes especially attractive in wartime, when our desire to predict the future feels particularly urgent, even as the events themselves make nonsense of our pretensions. That’s worth remembering now, too. And perhaps the only lesson that we can take from all of this lies in Berlin’s conclusion: “We are part of a larger scheme of things than we can understand…We ourselves live in this whole and by it, and are wise only in the measure to which we make our peace with it.”

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2017 at 8:36 am

The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Fatted Ram, Part 2

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Almost a year ago, on the morning of the inauguration, I wrote on this blog: “Even now, I find myself wavering between seeing it as an outcome that could have gone either way or as a development, in retrospect, that feels inevitable.” That’s true not just of this election, but of human existence in general. As Isaiah Berlin puts it in The Hedgehog and the Fox: “Practical wisdom is to a large degree knowledge of the inevitable; of what, given our world order, could not but happen; and conversely, of how things cannot be, or could not have been, done; of why some schemes must, cannot help but, end in failure, although for this no demonstrative or scientific reason can be given.” The irony, of course, is that if fifty thousand votes had gone the other way last November, we’d be drawing a starkly different set of lessons from a confluence of circumstances that were fundamentally the same. In his discussion of Tolstoy’s view of war, Berlin brilliantly skewers the fallacy of so much of this kind of political and historical analysis:

With great force [Tolstoy] argues that only those orders or decisions issued by the commanders now seem particularly crucial (and are concentrated upon by historians) which happened to coincide with what later actually occurred; whereas a great many other exactly similar, perfectly good orders and decisions, which seemed no less crucial and vital to those who were issuing them at the time, are forgotten because, having been foiled by unfavorable turns of events, they were not, because they could not be, carried out, and for this reason now seem historically unimportant.

All history, to some extent, consists of retroactively picking out explanations that happen to fit with what actually happened, and since we tend to think in terms of narratives and protagonists, perhaps the most common model of all is the myth of the great man—and the gender isn’t an accident. Tolstoy is rightfully contemptuous of this whole notion, as Berlin notes:

There is a natural law whereby the lives of all human beings no less than those of nature are determined; but…men, unable to face this inexorable process, seek to represent it as a succession of free choices, to fix responsibility for what occurs upon persons endowed by them with heroic virtues and heroic vices, and called by them “great men.” What are great men? They are ordinary human beings, who are ignorant and vain enough to accept responsibility for the life of society, individuals who would rather take the blame for all the cruelties, injustices, disasters justified in their name, than recognize their own insignificance and impotence in the cosmic flow which pursues its course irrespective of their will and ideals.

Any individuals who believe that they can somehow influence the course of events are gravely mistaken, and Tolstoy devotes much of War and Peace to the castigation of “these hollow men, half self-deluded, half aware of being fraudulent, talking, writing, desperately and aimlessly in order to keep up appearances and avoid facing the bleak truths…[and] all this elaborate machinery for concealing the spectacle of human impotence and irrelevance and blindness.”

And it’s revealing that Tolstoy reserves his greatest scorn for the one person whom we’d be least likely to describe in such terms. His portrait of Napoleon is both hilariously unfair and not entirely inaccurate, and although any such comparison is inherently ridiculous, it’s hard not to read this description without thinking of Trump:

[Napoleon spoke] like a man who values every moment of his time and does not condescend to prepare what he has to say but is sure he will always say the right thing and say it well…It was plain that Balashëv’s personality did not interest him at all. Evidently only what took place within his own mind interested him. Nothing outside himself had any significance for him, because everything in the world, it seemed to him, depended entirely on his will…The commencement of his speech had obviously been made with the intention of demonstrating the advantages of his position and showing that he was nevertheless willing to negotiate. But he had begun talking, and the more he talked the less could he control his words. The whole purport of his remarks now was evidently to exalt himself and insult Alexander—just what he had least desired at the commencement of the interview…He evidently wanted to do all the talking himself, and continued to talk with the sort of eloquence and unrestrained irritability to which spoiled people are so prone.

And a little while later, we read: “It was evident that he had long been convinced that it was impossible for him to make a mistake, and that in his perception whatever he did was right, not because it harmonized with any idea of right and wrong, but because he did it.”

There are moments when Tolstoy deliberately takes this portrait too far, as Berlin writes of the views of the historian Nikolai Kareyev: “Napoleon may not be a demigod, but neither is he a mere epiphenomenon of a process which would have occurred unaltered without him; the ‘important people’ are less important than they themselves or the more foolish historians may suppose, but neither are they shadows; individuals…have social purposes, and some among them have strong wills too, and these sometimes transform the lives of communities.” This rings true of both Napoleon and Trump. But so does the following passage, in which Berlin goes beyond the hedgehog and the fox to uncover an animal that has been lurking in the background:

There is a particularly vivid simile [in War and Peace] in which the great man is likened to the ram whom the shepherd is fattening for slaughter. Because the ram duly grows fatter, and perhaps is used as a bellwether for the rest of the flock, he may easily imagine that he is the leader of the flock, and that the other sheep go where they go solely in obedience to his will. He thinks this and the flock may think it too. Nevertheless the purpose of his selection is not the role he believes himself to play, but slaughter—a purpose conceived by beings whose aims neither he nor the other sheep can fathom. For Tolstoy Napoleon is just such a ram, and so to some degree is Alexander, and indeed all the great men of history.

If Jared Kushner had actually read The Hedgehog and the Fox, I’d like to think that these lines would have given him pause, if only for a second. Tomorrow, I’ll conclude by considering what Tolstoy and Berlin have to say about the problem—which Kushner should be taking especially seriously these days—of “how and why things happen as they do and not otherwise,” and whether it’s at all possible to predict what might come next.

Written by nevalalee

November 28, 2017 at 8:04 am

The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Fatted Ram, Part 1

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Over the long weekend, both the New York Times and the Washington Post published lead articles on the diminishing public profile of Jared Kushner. The timing may have been a coincidence, but the pieces had striking similarities. Both made the argument that Kushner’s portfolio, once so vast, has been dramatically reduced by the arrival on the scene of White House chief of staff John F. Kelly; both ran under a headline that inclined some version of the word “shrinking”; and both led off with memorable quotes from their subject. In the Times, it was Kushner’s response when asked by Reince Priebus what his Office of American Innovation would really do: “What do you care?” (The newspaper of record, proper as ever, added: “He emphasized his point with an expletive.”) Meanwhile, the Post, which actually scored an interview, came away with something even stranger. Here’s what Kushner said of himself:

During the campaign, I was more like a fox than a hedgehog. I was more of a generalist having to learn about and master a lot of skills quickly. When I got to D.C., I came with an understanding that the problems here are so complex—and if they were easy problems, they would have been fixed before—and so I became more like the hedgehog, where it was more taking issues you care deeply about, going deep and devoting the time, energy and resources to trying to drive change.

The Post merely noted that this is Kushner’s “version the fable of the fox, who knows many things, and the hedgehog, who knows one important thing,” but as the Washington Examiner pointed out, the real source is Isaiah Berlin’s classic book The Hedgehog and the Fox, which draws its famous contrast between foxes and hedgehogs as a prelude to a consideration of Leo Tolstoy’s theory of history.

Berlin’s book, which is one of my favorites, is so unlike what I’d expect Jared Kushner to be reading that I can’t resist trying to figure out what this reference to it means. If I were conspiratorially minded, I’d observe that if Kushner had wanted to put together a reading list to quickly bring himself up to speed on the history and culture of Russia—I can’t imagine why—then The Hedgehog and the Fox, which can be absorbed in a couple of hours, would be near the top. But the truth, unfortunately, is probably more prosaic. If there’s a single book from the last decade that Kushner, who was briefly touted as the prodigy behind Trump’s data operation, can be assumed to have read, or at least skimmed, it’s Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise. And Silver talks at length about the supposed contrast between foxes and hedgehogs, courtesy of a professor of psychology and political science named Philip E. Tetlock, who conducted a study of predictions by experts in various fields:

Tetlock was able to classify his experts along a spectrum between what he called hedgehogs and foxes. The reference to hedgehogs and foxes comes from the title of an Isaiah Berlin essay on the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy—The Hedgehog and the Fox…Foxes, Tetlock found, are considerably better at forecasting than hedgehogs. They had come closer to the mark on the Soviet Union, for instance. Rather than seeing the USSR in highly ideological terms—as an intrinsically “evil empire,” or as a relatively successful (and perhaps even admirable) example of a Marxist economic system—they instead saw it for what it was: an increasingly dysfunctional nation that was in danger of coming apart at the seams. Whereas the hedgehogs’ forecasts were barely any better than random chance, the foxes’ demonstrated predictive skill.

As intriguing as we might find this reference to Russia, which Kushner presumably read, it also means that in all likelihood, he never even opened Berlin’s book. (Silver annoyingly writes: “Unless you are a fan of Tolstoy—or of flowery prose—you’ll have no particular reason to read Berlin’s essay.”) But it doesn’t really matter where he encountered these classifications. As much as I love the whole notion of the hedgehog and the fox, it has one big problem—as soon as you read it, you’re immediately tempted to apply it to yourself, as Kushner does, when in fact its explanatory power applies only to geniuses. Like John Keats’s celebrated concept of negative capability, which is often used to excuse sloppy, inconsistent thinking, Berlin’s essay encourages us to think of ourselves as foxes or hedgehogs, when we’re really just dilettantes or suffering from tunnel vision. And this categorization has its limits even when applied to unquestionably exceptional personalities. Here’s how Berlin lays it out on the very first page of his book:

There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel—a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance—and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels…without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit [experiences and objects] into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.

The contrast that Berlin draws here could hardly seem more stark, but it falls apart as soon as we apply it to, say, Kushner’s father-in-law. On the one hand, Trump has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams by harping monotonously on a handful of reliable themes, notably white nationalism, xenophobia, and resentment of liberal elites. Nothing could seem more like the hedgehog. On the other hand, from one tweet to the next, he’s nothing if not “centrifugal rather than centripetal,” driven by his impulses, embracing contradictory positions, undermining his own surrogates, and resisting all attempts to pin him down to a conventional ideology. It’s all very foxlike. The most generous reading would be to argue that Trump, as Berlin contends of Tolstoy, is “by nature a fox, but [believes] in being a hedgehog,” a comparison that seems ridiculous even as I type it. It’s far more plausible that Trump lacks the intellectual rigor, or even the basic desire, to assemble anything like a coherent politics out of his instinctive drives for power and revenge. Like most of us, he’s a mediocre thinker, and his confusions, which reflect those of his base, have gone a long way toward enabling his rise. Trump bears much the same relationship to his fans that Emerson saw in the man who obsessed Tolstoy so deeply:

Among the eminent persons of the nineteenth century, Bonaparte is far the best known and the most powerful; and owes his predominance to the fidelity with which he expresses the tone of thought and belief, the aims of the masses…If Napoleon is France, if Napoleon is Europe, it is because the people whom he sways are little Napoleons.

Faced with a Trump, little or big, Berlin’s categories lose all meaning—not out of any conceptual weakness, but because it wasn’t what they were designed to do. But that doesn’t mean that Berlin doesn’t deserve our attention. In fact, The Hedgehog and the Fox has more to say about our current predicament than any other book I know, and if Kushner ever bothered to read it, it might give him reason to worry. I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow.

Swallowing the turkey

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Benjamin Disraeli

Lord Rowton…says that he once asked Disraeli what was the most remarkable, the most self-sustained and powerful sentence he knew. Dizzy paused for a moment, and then said, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

—Augustus J.C. Hare, The Story of My Life

Disraeli was a politician and a novelist, which is an unusual combination, and he knew his business. Politics and writing have less to do with each other than a lot of authors might like to believe, and the fact that you can create a compelling world on paper doesn’t mean that you can do the same thing in real life. (One of the hidden themes of Astounding is that the skills that many science fiction writers acquired in organizing ideas on the page turned out to be notably inadequate when it came to getting anything done during World War II.) Yet both disciplines can be equally daunting and infuriating to novices, in large part because they both involve enormously complicated projects—often requiring years of effort—that need to be approached one day at a time. A single day’s work is rarely very satisfying in itself, and you have to cling to the belief that countless invisible actions and compromises will somehow result in something real. It doesn’t always happen, and even if it does, you may never get credit or praise. The ability to deal with the everyday tedium of politics or writing is what separates professionals from amateurs. And in both cases, the greatest accomplishments are usually achieved by freaks who can combine an overarching vision with a finicky obsession with minute particulars. As Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, who was both a diplomat and literary critic, said of Tolstoy, it requires “a queer combination of the brain of an English chemist with the soul of an Indian Buddhist.”

And if you go into either field without the necessary degree of patience, the results can be unfortunate. If you’re a writer who can’t subordinate yourself to the routine of writing on a daily basis, the most probable outcome is that you’ll never finish your novel. In politics, you end up with something very much like what we’ve all observed over the last few weeks. Regardless of what you might think about the presidential refugee order, its rollout was clearly botched, thanks mostly to a president and staff that want to skip over all the boring parts of governing and get right to the good stuff. And it’s tempting to draw a contrast between the incumbent, who achieved his greatest success on reality television, and his predecessor, a detail-oriented introvert who once thought about becoming a novelist. (I’m also struck, yet again, by the analogy to L. Ron Hubbard. He spent most of his career fantasizing about a life of adventure, but when he finally got into the Navy, he made a series of stupid mistakes—including attacking two nonexistent submarines off the coast of Oregon—that ultimately caused him to be stripped of his command. The pattern repeated itself so many times that it hints at a fundamental aspect of his personality. He was too impatient to deal with the tedious reality of life during wartime, which failed to live up to the version he had dreamed of himself. And while I don’t want to push this too far, it’s hard not to notice the difference between Hubbard, who cranked out his fiction without much regard for quality, and Heinlein, a far more disciplined writer who was able to consciously tame his own natural impatience into a productive role at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.)

R.H. Blyth

Which brings us back to the sentence that impressed Disraeli. It’s easy to interpret it as an admonition not to think about the future, which isn’t quite right. We can start by observing that it comes at the end of what The Five Gospels notes is possibly “the longest connected discourse that can be directly attributed to Jesus.” It’s the one that asks us to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, which, for a lot of us, prompts an immediate flashback to The Life of Brian. (“Consider the lilies?” “Uh, well, the birds, then.” “What birds?” “Any birds.” “Why?” “Well, have they got jobs?”) But whether or not you agree with the argument, it’s worth noticing that the advice to focus on the evils of each day comes only after an extended attempt at defining a larger set of values—what matters, what doesn’t, and what, if anything, you can change by worrying. You’re only in a position to figure out how best to spend your time after you’ve considered the big questions. As the physician William Osler put it:

[My ideal is] to do the day’s work well and not to bother about tomorrow. You may say that is not a satisfactory ideal. It is; and there is not one which the student can carry with him into practice with greater effect. To it more than anything else I owe whatever success I have had—to this power of settling down to the day’s work and trying to do it well to the best of my ability, and letting the future take care of itself.

This has important implications for both writers and politicians, as well as for progressives who wonder how they’ll be able to get through the next twenty-four hours, much less the next four years. When you’re working on any important project, even the most ambitious agenda comes down to what you’re going to do right now. In On Directing Film, David Mamet expresses it rather differently:

Now, you don’t eat a whole turkey, right? You take off the drumstick and you take a bite of the drumstick. Okay. Eventually you get the whole turkey done. It’ll probably get dry before you do, unless you have an incredibly good refrigerator and a very small turkey, but that is outside the scope of this lecture.

A lot of frustration in art, politics, and life in general comes from attempting to swallow the turkey in one bite. Jesus, I think, was aware of the susceptibility of his followers to grandiose but meaningless gestures, which is why he offered up the advice, so easy to remember and so hard to follow, to simultaneously focus on the given day while keeping the kingdom of heaven in mind. Nearly every piece of practical wisdom in any field is about maintaining that double awareness. Fortunately, it goes in both directions: small acts of discipline aid us in grasping the whole, and awareness of the whole tells us what to do in the moment. As R.H. Blyth says of Zen: “That is all religion is: eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired.” And don’t try to eat the entire turkey at once.

The great scene theory

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The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David

“The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” Thomas Carlyle once wrote, and although this statement was criticized almost at once, it accurately captures the way many of us continue to think about historical events, both large and small. There’s something inherently appealing about the idea that certain exceptional personalities—Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon—can seize and turn the temper of their time, and we see it today in attempts to explain, say, the personal computing revolution though the life of someone like Steve Jobs. The alternate view, which was expressed forcefully by Herbert Spencer, is that history is the outcome of impersonal social and economic forces, in which a single man or woman can do little more than catalyze trends that are already there. If Napoleon had never lived, the theory goes, someone very much like him would have taken his place. It’s safe to say that any reasonable view of history has to take both theories into account: Napoleon was extraordinary in ways that can’t be fully explained by his environment, even if he was inseparably a part of it. But it’s also worth remembering that much of our fascination with such individuals arises from our craving for narrative structures, which demand a clear hero or villain. (The major exception, interestingly, is science fiction, in which the “protagonist” is often humanity as a whole. And the transition from the hard science fiction of the golden age to messianic stories like Dune, in which the great man reasserts himself with a vengeance, is a critical turning point in the genre’s development.)

You can see a similar divide in storytelling, too. One school of thought implicitly assumes that a story is a delivery system for great scenes, with the rest of the plot serving as a scaffold to enable a handful of awesome moments. Another approach sees a narrative as a series of small, carefully chosen details designed to create an emotional effect greater than the sum of its parts. When it comes to the former strategy, it’s hard to think of a better example than Game of Thrones, a television series that often seems to be marking time between high points: it can test a viewer’s patience, but to the extent that it works, it’s because it constantly promises a big payoff around the corner, and we can expect two or three transcendent set pieces per season. Mad Men took the opposite tack: it was made up of countless tiny but riveting choices that gained power from their cumulative impact. Like the theories of history I mentioned above, neither type of storytelling is necessarily correct or complete in itself, and you’ll find plenty of exceptions, even in works that seem to fall clearly into one category or the other. It certainly doesn’t mean that one kind of story is “better” than the other. But it provides a useful way to structure our thinking, especially when we consider how subtly one theory shades into the other in practice. The director Howard Hawks famously said that a good movie consisted of three great scenes and no bad scenes, which seems like a vote for the Game of Thrones model. Yet a great scene doesn’t exist in isolation, and the closer we look at stories that work, the more important those nonexistent “bad scenes” start to become.

Leo Tolstoy

I got to thinking about this last week, shortly after I completed the series about my alternative movie canon. Looking back at those posts, I noticed that I singled out three of these movies—The Night of the Hunter, The Limey, and Down with Love—for the sake of one memorable scene. But these scenes also depend in tangible ways on their surrounding material. The river sequence in The Night of the Hunter comes out of nowhere, but it’s also the culmination of a language of dreams that the rest of the movie has established. Terence Stamp’s unseen revenge in The Limey works only because we’ve been prepared for it by a slow buildup that lasts for more than twenty minutes. And Renée Zellweger’s confessional speech in Down with Love is striking largely because of how different it is from the movie around it: the rest of the film is relentlessly active, colorful, and noisy, and her long, unbroken take stands out for how emphatically it presses the pause button. None of the scenes would play as well out of context, and it’s easy to imagine a version of each movie in which they didn’t work at all. We remember them, but only because of the less showy creative decisions that have already been made. And at a time when movies seem more obsessed than ever with “trailer moments” that can be spliced into a highlight reel, it’s important to honor the kind of unobtrusive craft required to make a movie with no bad scenes. (A plot that consists of nothing but high points can be exhausting, and a good story both delivers on the obvious payoffs and maintains our interest in the scenes when nothing much seems to be happening.)

Not surprisingly, writers have spent a lot of time thinking about these issues, and it’s noteworthy that one of the most instructive examples comes from Leo Tolstoy. War and Peace is nothing less than an extended criticism of the great man theory of history: Tolstoy brings Napoleon onto the scene expressly to emphasize how insignificant he actually is, and the novel concludes with a lengthy epilogue in which the author lays out his objections to how history is normally understood. History, he argues, is a pattern that emerges from countless unobservable human actions, like the sum of infinitesimals in calculus, and because we can’t see the components in isolation, we have to content ourselves with figuring out the laws of their behavior in the aggregate. But of course, this also describes Tolstoy’s strategy as a writer: we remember the big set pieces in War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but they emerge from the diligent, seemingly impersonal collation of thousands of tiny details, recorded with what seems like a minimum of authorial interference. (As Victor Shklovsky writes: “[Tolstoy] describes the object as if he were seeing it for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time.”) And the awesome moments in his novels gain their power from the fact that they arise, as if by historical inevitability, from the details that came before them. Anna Karenina was still alive at the end of the first draft, and it took her author a long time to reconcile himself to the tragic climax toward which his story was driving him. Tolstoy had good reason to believe that great scenes, like great men, are the product of invisible forces. But it took a great writer to see this.

Tolstoy and the art of the unfamiliar

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Leo Tolstoy

After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it—hence we cannot say anything significant about it…Tolstoy makes the familiar seem strange by not naming the familiar object. He describes the object as if he were seeing it for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time. In describing something he avoids the accepted names of its parts and instead names corresponding parts of other objects…

Tolstoy described the dogmas and rituals he attacked as if they were unfamiliar, substituting everyday meanings for the customarily religious meanings of the words common in church ritual. Many persons were painfully wounded; they considered it blasphemy to present as strange and monstrous what they accepted as sacred. Their reaction was due chiefly to the technique through which Tolstoy perceived and reported his environment. And after turning to what he had long avoided, Tolstoy found that his perceptions had unsettled his faith.

The technique of defamiliarization is not Tolstoy’s alone. I cited Tolstoy because his work is generally known.

Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique”

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May 14, 2016 at 7:30 am

“And they lived happily ever after…”

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Harold Bloom

In old age, I accept unhappy endings in Shakespearean tragedy, Flaubert, and Tolstoy, but back away from them in lesser works. Desdemona, Cordelia, Emma Bovary, and Anna Karenina are slain by their creators, and we are compelled to absorb the greatness of the loss. Perhaps it trains us to withstand better the terrible deaths of friends, family, and lovers, and to contemplate more stoically our own dissolution. But I increasingly avoid most movies with unhappy endings, since few among them aesthetically earn the suffering they attempt to inflict upon us.

Harold Bloom, Genius

I’m starting to feel the same way. For most of my life, I’ve never shied away from works of art with unhappy endings: in movies, the list begins and ends with Vertigo, the greatest of all sucker punches ever inflicted on an audience, and includes films as different as The Red Shoes, The Third Man, and Dancer in the Dark. When I’m given a choice between ambiguous interpretations, as in Inception, I’m often inclined to go with the darker reading. But as time goes on, I’ve found that I prefer happy endings, both from a purely technical standpoint and as a matter of personal taste.

Which isn’t to say that unhappy endings can’t work. Yesterday, I cited Bruno Bettelheim on the subject of fairy tales, which invariably end on an unambiguously happy note to encourage children to absorb their implicit lessons about life. As adults, our artistic needs are more complicated, if not entirely dissimilar. An unhappy ending of the sort that we find in the myth of Oedipus or Madame Bovary is psychological training of a different sort, preparing us, as Bloom notes, for the tragic losses that we all eventually experience. Just as scary movies acquaint us with feelings of terror that we’d rarely feel under ordinary circumstances, great works of art serve as a kind of exercise room for the emotions, expanding our capacity to feel in ways that would never happen if we only drew on the material of our everyday lives. If the happy endings in fairy tales prepare and encourage children to venture outside the safe confines of family into the wider world, unhappy endings in adult fiction do the opposite: they turn our attention inward, forcing us to scrutinize aspects of ourselves that we’ve been trained to avoid as we focus on our respectable adult responsibilities.

Kim Novak in Vertigo

In order for this to work, though, that unhappiness has to be authentically earned, and the number of works that pull it off is vanishingly small. Endings, whether happy or unhappy, are very hard, and a lot of writers, including myself, are often unsure if they’ve found the right way to end a story. But given that uncertainty, it’s wisest, when you don’t know the answer, to err on positive side, and to ignore the voice that insists that an unhappy ending is somehow more realistic and uncompromising. In fact, a bleak, unearned ending is just as false to the way the world works as an undeserved happy one, and at greater cost to the reader. A sentimental happy ending may leave us unsatisfied with the author’s work, but that’s nothing compared to our sense of being cheated by a dark conclusion that arises from cynicism or creative exhaustion. Simply as a matter of craft, stories work best when they’re about the restoration of order, and one that ends with the characters dead or destroyed by failure technically meets that requirement. But for most writers, I’d argue that being able to restore a positive order to the tangle of complications they’ve created is a sign of greater artistic maturity.

And while it’s nice to believe that a happy or unhappy ending should flow naturally from the events that came before, a casual look at the history of literature indicates that this isn’t the case. Anna Karenina survived in Tolstoy’s first draft. Until its final act, Romeo and Juliet isn’t so different in tone from many of Shakespeare’s comedies, and if the ending had been changed to happily reunite the two lovers, it’s likely that we’d have trouble imagining it in any other way—although it’s equally likely that we’d file it permanently among his minor plays. On the opposite end of the spectrum, The Winter’s Tale is saved from becoming a tragedy only by the most arbitrary, unconvincing, and deeply moving of authorial contrivances. In practice, the nature of an ending is determined less by the inexorable logic of the plot than by the author’s intuition when the time comes to bring the story to a close, and as we’ve seen, it can often go either way. A writer has no choice but to check his gut to see what feels right, and I don’t think it’s too much to say that the burden lies with the unhappy ending to prove that it belongs there. Any halfway competent writer can herd his characters into the nearest available chasm. But when in doubt, get them out.

Written by nevalalee

January 7, 2014 at 9:26 am

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