The Unmentionables

We spend our lives in minutiae. Trivialities have become — or perhaps have always been — the backbone of our existence. It’s a shame, really.

The things that matter, typically, are off-limits. So much so, in fact, that without the exile of the meaningful, art would not exist. It is the primary goal of art to shed light on the meaningful. Great art goes deeper than we are willing to, usually shocking our delicate sensibilities.

Kokoschka, by turning the mirror on himself, turned the mirror on us, and we did not like what we saw. Freud, though his conclusions were largely off the mark, exposed the cogs and the levers that comprise our depths- and we still struggle to confront the truths he illuminated.

For more modern examples, look to Zero Dark Thirty which takes us to a place we’d rather not go, makes us aware of a world we’d rather not acknowledge.

Even Louis CK, perhaps the most successful comedian of our day, has risen to the top precisely because of his willingness to spotlight the most revolting aspects of our nature.

Art would not exist without the need for it- but where does the need come from? From the depths of our souls, from the darkest corners of our being, where we hide the realities we dare not expose. Perhaps if we bury these things deep enough — if they never see the light of day — it’s as if they don’t really exist at all.

The tragedy of this suppression is not simply an abstract uneasiness between reality and our projection of it. Burying our very nature has pragmatic consequences.

To use perhaps the most poignant (and obvious) example, let’s talk about sex. It is perhaps the basest of all instincts, the most primitive of desires. In fact, I can think of no better word to use here than base, which is rooted in the Latin basis. We’ve twisted the word to mean that which is without moral principles, but the fact is that we attach these principles to instincts which are the basis of our being, essentially attaching man-made ideas to natural phenomenon. What is more foundational than the desires which spring from our need to procreate?

Yet we spent centuries, even millennium stigmatizing the act- and what has been the result? We’re no nearer to understanding sex than we were hundreds of years ago. Our suppressed desires culminate in the most profitable industry known to man. By condemning the act, we cultivate a world in which men and women are quite content to fork over large portions of their paycheck to satisfy their desires. We put sex in movies, in books, in magazines, even on billboards, because our appetite for sex is so unquenched that we must turn to other outlets to satisfy that appetite.

Yet perversions still exist, atrocities and molestations occur more often than we’d like to admit, or even acknowledge.

By its very suppression, its demonization, we give sex unparalleled power over us.

Does it not seem strange that parents still struggle to convey to their children the literal starting point of life itself? We have pamphlets, seminars, classes devoted to talking to our kids about sex, and by the time we’ve taken in all the information and prepared a plan, we find we are too late. They borrowed a friend’s mother’s magazine, or caught a cable show when we weren’t looking, or are even discussing the enterprise freely amongst their circles, and we are left to wonder what kind of world we live in.

That is a question we should, of course, ask: what kind of world do we live in? We must also be prepared to answer the question truthfully: we live in a world in which the most foundational aspects of the human experience are intentionally hidden from view.

Many great movies and books have taken a page from Woody Allen: expose, even magnify the neuroses to which we are all vulnerable. The Artist nearly swept the Oscars last year because of its naked portrayal of a man’s simple but unwavering desire for recognition, and the crushing consequences of the world withholding that recognition. The Catcher in the Rye masterfully opened the door to a world which we all experienced as a teenager: a world of overwhelming confusion and angst.

We love these stories because we identify with them. We see our own hidden depths in them. They touch us, they move us, and we applaud.

And as soon as the movie is over, as soon as we close the book, as soon as the heartbreaking song is silenced, we return to our lives, to our loved ones, and we strike up conversations about football, about the weather, about ohmygod, did you hear what Suzie’s boyfriend said about Jane?!

Art succeeds because it exposes these truths to the light, holding them up for all to behold, saying “See! This is what we are made of! Not atoms or oxygen or blood, but neuroses, fears, desires, and hope!” Art reaches inside of us, pokes and prods into our darkest corners, and finds the things that we have hidden- and when it finds something once lost to us, we applaud. We applaud art for having the courage to do what we do not: to look at reality with clear eyes and say: “I will not fear you.” The only sure way to control our reality is to withhold fear. To fear a thing is to see it through broken glasses. By removing fear, by embracing the truth of our reality, we remove the glasses; we see clearly- and mastery, even of reality itself, will only come to those who are willing to see clearly.