November 11, 2011

The Sun and the North Wind: an Allegory of Power

        Do you know the fable of the Sun and the North Wind?
        The Sun and the North Wind were having an argument over which of them was stronger.  When they saw below them a traveller, they devised a competition to settle their argument: whichever one could force the traveller to remove his cloak would be judged the stronger.  The North Wind went first and blew as hard as it could.  It was certainly very powerful, but the stronger it blew the more tightly the traveller clutched his cloak around him.  When it was the Sun's turn, the Sun simply shone bright and warm, and very soon the traveller was taking off his heavy cloak of his own will.
        In my single brief brush with the world of "real" artists, a summer class for art educators at MassArt, one of the visiting lecturers was an artist who conceived of his work as powerfully political.  He had done a lot of pieces depicting the violence in Central America, including images of executed bodies, tortured prostitutes, and leering politicians and soldiers.  Goodness knows this was an area in which the world could stand to be made an awful lot better, and goodness knows I admire anyone who sees a problem and tries to do something about it.  This artist's images were certainly powerful, and yet they were images that made me pull my coat more tightly around myself.
        Artists have a power that should not be abused.  We create.  We put into the world things that were not there before.  We give people new images, new stories.  G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown explains how he solves murders, "I don't try to get outside the man.  I try to get inside the murderer…  I am inside a man.  I am always inside a man, moving his arms and legs; but I wait till I know I am inside a murderer, thinking his thoughts, wrestling with his passions; till I have bent myself into his posture of hunched and peering hatred; till I see the world with his bloodshot and squinting eyes, looking between the blinkers of his half-witted concentration; looking up the short and sharp perspective of a straight road to a pool of blood.  Till I am really a murderer."  I believe this is what writing is all about - inhabiting each character, or finding each character within myself, feeling how any character might be me or I them but for the factors of chance and choice.  But if I truly have that murderer in me, how do I use that power?
        Or another analogy: I carve my blocks with sharp-edged tools.  The same tools, with their cutting blades, can be used to create beautiful works of art or could be used to destroy, to mutilate, to cause pain.  It's the same tool either way.  The tool is neither good nor bad.  The question is how the tool is used.
        I think it's important to be mindful of what we're adding to the world.  If I paint a scene of rape, am I giving the world a message that rape is horrible, or am I merely giving the world one more rape to look at?  If I describe the horrors of war, am I defying our culture's glorification of war, or am I merely dwelling amidst the horrors - and worse yet, forcing my audience to dwell there, too?  Am I sounding a wake-up call, or am I riding the shock value?
        I don't know the answers, and of course there is more than one way to try to make the world a better place…  But I do believe that depictions of violence must be handled as carefully as if they were real - that is, as if by painting murder we might really commit it.  We must always be cautious that we add to the world only what has the potential to improve it, and beware that we don't slip into degradation.

[Pictures: The Sun & the North Wind, rubber block print by AEGN, 1998;
The Sun and the Wind, wood engraving by Thomas Bewick, from Bewick's Select Fables of Aesop and Others, 1871 (first edition 1818).]
(Quotation from The Secret of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton, 1927.)


  1. Good thoughts, Anne. I often reject books, never finishing them, if I feel I am being forced to read the author's nightmares. What may have been therapeutic for the author is not sufficient to call literature.

  2. Powerful stuff. Thanks! It seems to my unsophisticated eye that artists too often are just trying to shock, or to be "new" for the sake of being different, or their "message" is so hidden that I cannot comprehend it. Our world needs hope as well as commentary that points to all that is bad and ugly with society. We need a vision of how we might change instead of being stuck on today's negative and destructive trajectory.