We were driving into the city to see an artist friend and had started joking about the stereotype of the flamboyantly tormented artist. “Maybe artists don’t think happiness is the most important thing,” I said. My companion, someone close to me, laughed briefly and said “That’s why I’m glad I’m not an artist.”

I had begun to suspect that art might be detrimental to happiness. This past summer I’d been reading “Buddhism without Beliefs” by Stephen Batchelor, a book on Buddhist principles of living, and had been struck by its observation that we spend much of our energy and time “reliving an edited version of the past, planning an uncertain future . Who ‘I am’ appears coherent only because of the monologue we keep repeating, editing, censoring and embellishing in our heads.” The book presented this mental process as a common habit, one that ties us to suffering.

The alternative – as I understood its explanation – is to live instead of to rehearse.

But what is the practice of art – something I’ve held to be a purely redemptive feature of a world where anguish of some kind is everyone’s lot – if not a repeated, edited, censored and embellished extension of individuals’ experiences? I’ve been mulling over a logical chain: If art makes us more human, does it also make us more unhappy?

We tend to rehash our experiences as stories. They have beginnings, middles and a moral that wraps the end – and there is an end – up nicely. Many stories try to filter experience as though our memory of it can end up a little closer to the truth. Stories edit a non-editable past and imagine an uncertain future.

I hope, and I think I can believe, that great art finds a way around this delusion. Some enduring works acknowledge not only the limits of our capacity to resolve the world, but our dogged impulse to try. I’m thinking of plays that remind us that we’re watching a play instead of trying to seduce us into a fabricated reality, literature that in its structure makes us confront what we want out of reading this story in the first place.

While researching the playwright Samuel Beckett for another column, I came across the playwright Harold Pinter’s evaluation of Beckett’s work: “He’s not leading me up any garden path, he’s not slipping me a wink, he’s not flogging me a remedy . he’s not selling me anything I don’t want to buy . he leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely. He brings forth a body of beauty.”

Although I can find emotional relief in music, when I truly feel low I resent its beauty. I resent its articulation of emotions into meaningful wholes, when in life, catastrophe flummoxes. Art that acknowledges its limits in describing life and how we can use it to grasp at answers has the greatest insight into its own modus operandi – it may not, though, provide the greatest comfort. When the series finale of “The Sopranos” left viewers with an unsubstantiated sense that something was about to happen just as the screen turned black, it acknowledged that life is life and that “The Sopranos” is a TV show. It showed us how badly we wanted the TV show to give us an answer. We don’t know what the import of the final shot is, we don’t know the story. But the shot happens all the same. Such is life.

A work like this has so much to do with the reality of death and the uncertainty that gives to life. It makes me feel more aware of being alive; it makes me feel more human. In the philosophy that provoked this line of reasoning, going beyond the human condition is kind of the point. Maybe art that increases our sense of humanity pushes its viewers to something beyond happiness.

I read an essay – under ten pages long – by Kurt Vonnegut on creative writing in which his narrator diagrams classic stories as line graphs. He arrives at “Hamlet,” whose graph is blank since, as he argues, we don’t know whether the events (the ghost’s appearance, for instance) are positive or negative. Vonnegut concludes: “the truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is . And if I die – God forbid – I would like to go to heaven to ask somebody in charge up there, ‘Hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news’? ” Hamlet, too is concerned with the lack of resolution life holds while we live it and with our need to make sense of it anyway. Appropriately, play-watching self-consciously replicates this concern in the audience.

I’m beginning to believe that part of what people do when they seek out works of art is search for narratives that feel more “telling” of their lives than the facts of their lives do. Facts exist as briefly as they occur, but the desperation of our inner monologue endures. By deliberately constructing meaningful stories using “untruths” (which is in fact the activity of any attempted work) Tim O’Brien in his novel “The Things They Carried” takes responsibility for the subjectivity of the story he narrates to himself and to others. By grounding it so obstinately and so obviously in human fallibility, he transcends his own life and creates something others look to. It makes his novel a work of art.

Once a piece admits to its willing fictionality, when it “conceals” the man behind the curtain in a transparent cloth, it reflects on an intrinsically human dynamic. We gather a sense of relief in what great art expresses and we discover that we require artistry to access that feeling. It is up to individuals, then, to decide whether they want to reside in humanness or whether they want to eclipse it.

-Colodner thinks sunsets are prettier than art. Discuss at abigabor@umich.edu

For a more in depth discussion of the topic visit michigandaily.com/thefilter.

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