Thursday, September 22, 2005

"To generalize is to be an idiot"

We can thank William Blake for today's title. I came across this gem in the reading for my Theory course. It seemed to intersect nicely with my complaint about the movie "We Don't Live Here Anymore." In another essay, Bernard Paris, in response to Wayne Booth's comment that Robbe-Grillet's The Voyeur "does, indeed, lead us to experience intensely the sensations and emotions of a homicidal maniac. But is this really what we go to literature for?" answers "Yes." Paris's comment relates to a few of my complaints about the movie, and directly addresses Sleepy E's comment that characters do not need to be sympathetic in order to elicit our interest.
I agree both with Sleepy E and Bernard Paris. I do not need to like a character in order to be interested in his or her view of the world. In fact, sometimes I sympathize with a character more if he/she is NOT like me. I want to read a book that enlarges rather than diminishes my view of the world. I want my movies to do this too. "We Don't Live Here Anymore" did not enlarge my view of the world. Rather, it diminished it. To me the movie said "people are shitty. They do shitty things to each other. They pontificate on adultery and the nature of the conjugal contract." As Sleepy E points out, the Jason Patric character is not sympathetic. In fact, he is disgusting. But, he is morally and mentally complex. He's not simply "evil" or a placeholder for the "villian" function in the movie. Rather, he is evil, but in a complex way that is not easily grasped. He also, as we see in the end, seems to have some desirable quality that is also not easily named. He may be an asshole, but he's a decisive asshole, which seems preferable to the waffling banality of the other male characters.
My point is: the particular, the unique, the individual, the idiosyncratic makes great literature. The general is, as Blake so succintly notes, for idiots.


middlebrow said...

I'm here to provide a comment for the lonely Dr. Write. Ah lonliness, to be alone--the general quality of isolation!

Sleepy E said...

I'm glad you're here to articulate what I kind of generalize at. Well done. The great text "Understanding Comics" talks about how the more detailed a character is drawn, the less we are able to identify with that character because there are more differences between us that we can identify. Everyone can see themselves in a circle with two dots for eyes. It's a head, something we all have, so we can identify with it. But a very detailed Prince Valiant character becomes harder for us to sympathize with because they are clearly NOT US.

I think this explains why a lot of the biggest Hollywood stars are actually pretty plain and boring looking (Kevin Costner, Harrison Ford to some extent, etc). we can identify with them more because they are plain. Someone like Billy Zane, who I actually think is more attractive, will never be a leading man because he is too unique and interesting.

So I think there is some kind of inverse relationship between sympathetic-ness and interesting-ness. Absolutely sympathetic characters are boring, even though they might make for good populist cinema.

susansinclair said...

Your remarks are extremely timely por moi, as I work with beginning academic writers as they attempt particularities and concreteness, in opposition to the generalities of "of course you all understand what I'm talking about." And I like sleepy e's remark--that push-pull of like-me/not-like-me that is reading, at least reading that takes the text seriously. I'll have to check out "Understanding Comics"...