Why Literature and Art Must Sometimes Embrace Ugliness: Insights from Homer, Conrad, Stevenson, and Picasso

Picasso painting
Picasso’s painting Cat Catching a Bird forces the viewer to confront disturbing facts about the world.

Cat Catching a Bird, Picasso, 1939.

I must admit, it took me a while to understand why Picasso’s work is held in such high esteem. The Greco-Roman tradition, from which I draw my aesthetics, interprets art as humanity’s humble effort to bring beauty into the world. It’s a way of giving earthly shape to Plato’s heavenly forms. It underlies traditional Western approaches to creativity, including classic literature books.

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. Who can deny that earth is a better place, thanks to Van Gogh’s The Starry Night or Michelangelo’s David? Those works have uplifted and inspired countless people, by showing them a world of ennobling ideals and boundless beauty.

Michelangelo's David
Michelangelo’s David is a prime example of the classical approach to art.

Image courtesy of Jörg Bittner Unna and Wikipedia

But Picasso? Few of his works are “beautiful” in the traditional sense of the word. In truth, many of them are best described as ugly; see the image above (the cat, not the bodybuilder). What compelled him to create such disturbing images?

For that matter, why do most artists spend much of their time dwelling on life’s darker side? Perhaps it’s because the rest of us spend too little time doing the same. We do so at our own peril.

To see what I mean, we need look no further than Robert Louis Stevenson’s celebrated novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Jekyll thought he could bury his inner ugliness beneath countless layers of sanctity, till at last it vanished forever.

He was wrong, of course. His attempts at repression only made his ugly side uglier. Rising to the surface, it destroyed all that it touched, including Jekyll himself. Ironically, it was the doctor’s refusal to face his inner demons that gave Hyde free rein to run wild.

Man walking down dark path
Each of us is haunted by our darker natures, whether we know it or not

This may explain why so many of history’s atrocities were committed by people who proclaimed only the noblest intentions. Stalin is a classic example. He murdered millions of working-class Russians in the name of ending class oppression. Now even diehard Marxists regard him as a monster.

Hitler was the same sort of creature. He saw himself as a Teutonic knight struggling to save humanity from the three evils of Capitalism, Communism and Jewry. It seems that reality-denying rationalizations are a common problem across the ideological spectrum. We confess different creeds but tell ourselves the same lies.

Nazi propaganda poster
Hitler envisioned himself as a noble champion fighting against evil, not as a murderous monster.

One of the jobs of the artist is to shake us out of this self-imposed delusion. The most effective way to do that is to force us to stare directly at the ugliness we try so hard to hide.

We’ve already seen an example from Picasso. Let’s consider two other examples, one from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the other from the Odyssey.

Conrad on the Death of Idealism

Even people who have never read Heart of Darkness are familiar with its signature phrase, “the horror, the horror.” This simple doublet captures the theme of Conrad’s novella, which is the inability of idealism to sustain itself in the face of cold, hard reality.

Conrad explores this theme through the character of Mr. Kurtz, a European ivory trader. Kurtz arrives in the Congo with the ostensibly noble goal of bringing culture and civilization to the natives.

His attitude towards the locals undergoes a seismic change over the course of time, as a result of the atrocities he sees on a daily basis. In the end, he prefers exploiting and exterminating “the brutes” to civilizing them.

To this end, he uses his innate charisma, along with all the tools given to him by late 19th century technology, to set himself up as a god-like figure. Conrad describes Kurtz in a vivid way towards the end of chapter two:

Whatever he was, he was not common. He had the power to charm or to frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance in his honour. He could also fill the small souls of the pilgrims with bitter misgivings…No, I can’t forget him.

Alas, Kurtz’s divine masquerade cannot save him from his own mortality. The fierce climate takes its toll upon his health. He dies aboard a vessel bound for home after uttering his last words, “the horror, the horror.”

Dark woods
The world is filled with horrors that lurk just beneath the surface

Kurtz was of course a fictional character. Nonetheless, he stands as an archetype for all who find their nobler sentiments corrupted by the pitiless parade of hypocrisy they see on a daily basis.

In the end, they either renounce the endeavor that attracted their energies in the first place, or, more diabolically, they use the idealism of others to suit their selfish ends.

We see this dynamic on display every time we watch a politician twist the facts to match a convenient narrative. We see it whenever a religious leader falls from grace and starts to fleece the flock he was meant to serve. We see it in every uncovered conspiracy, in every headline-stealing scandal.

These are the people Conrad was trying to reach in Heart of Darkness. Its disturbing message is just as relevant today as it was 120 years ago. Wherever we find oppression or atrocities committed in the name of glorious ideals, we see the face of Mr. Kurtz staring back at us.

Homer’s Odyssey: Holding a Torch to the Illusion of Heroism

Greek statue
The ancient Greeks idolized cunning as well as courage

As a child, I was a voracious reader of Greek mythology. I especially loved reading about noble heroes such as Hercules, Perseus, and Ulysses. To me, they represented the payoff that awaits anyone who upholds their integrity and refuses to abandon their dreams.

What I didn’t know at the time was that I was reading, not the actual tales told by the Greeks, but carefully sanitized modern versions meant for children.

Fast forward 40 years or so and you’ll find me as an adult reading the adult versions for the first time, with disillusioning results. In no case was my disenchantment more profound than during my journey through the odyssey of Ulysses.

The Odyssey is to ambiguity as McDonald’s is to mystery meat. Homer makes it clear from the start that the hero Ulysses is far from heroic. He achieves his goals through cunning and deceit, engages in wholesale slaughter of helpless enemies, and uses lies rather than lion-hearted courage to sail his way home. Yet he also lauds hospitality and shows genuine concern for the wellbeing of his men.

Arriving home, he finds that his wealth has been devastated by his wife’s would-be suitors. He slaughters them in cold blood, after gaining their trust by perpetrating a ruse.

Afterwards, as he comforts his wife, he proposes a way to replenish his dwindling livestock herds. He will simply steal his neighbor’s cattle to make up for his losses.

Faced with the consequences of thievery, Ulysses’s solution is to become a better thief — just as he is also a better liar, schemer, and ass-kisser than his competitors. Thus, he survives while others perish. He’s a principled scoundrel, a scavenger guided by clear-headed pragmatism. This makes him heroic in Homer’s book.

The unfiltered Ulysses bears little resemblance to the noble, uncompromising hero I read about in my pre-teen years. The post-pubescent version has more of the Godfather than of Gandhi about him.

How does the Odyssey confront us with the world’s ugliness? By giving us a fictional equivalent of our own real-life role models.

Take the founding fathers for example. Washington and Jefferson founded a Republic based upon the ideal of equality and fed by the blood, sweat and tears of enslaved Africans.

Mount Rushmore
The founding fathers are prime examples of moral ambiguity

Lincoln passed the 13th amendment by peddling backroom bargains and engaging in outright corruption. He saved the Constitution by putting himself above it.

Had he been more pure, the country might have fallen apart. As it was, he kept it intact though guile and gunpowder.

FDR statue
FDR used lesser evils to defeat greater evils

FDR is my personal hero, the greatest president of the 20th century. He saved the country from the Great Depression and the world from fascism.

He did this by manipulating his associates, his closest friends, and the public at large. He was a consummate liar. He cut private deals with the same businessmen whom he publicly denounced. In other words, he was a brilliant politician.

FDR joined hands with the aforementioned Stalin in order to defeat Hitler. He defeated Nazism by empowering Stalinism, leaving the job of cleaning up the mess to his successors. He died at his cottage in Warm Springs, GA, in the company of his mistress, scant feet away from the bedroom his wife used during her visits.

When FDR’s remains made the long rail trip from GA to Washington, tens of millions of Americans gathered along the route to pay their respects. Many of them would have been dead, had it not been for his New Deal programs.

This brings us back to Ulysses, who was a classic template for the real-life heroes I mentioned above. All of them were imperfect men, which is why they were perfect for the task at hand.

The Takeaway

What are we to make of these unsettling epiphanies from literature and history, my dear readers?

More to the point, what do we do about them? How do we keep our sanity without selling out?

First, we take a good, long look in the mirror, without makeup or botox to hide our flaws. We remind ourselves that the line separating us from the monsters is vanishingly thin.

Second, we do business with the Devil, but only on a part-time basis. He’s a shrewd dealer but a reasonable one. I know; I’ve shaken hands with him plenty of times. You don’t have to sell him your soul, just let him lease it from time to time.

Bargain with the devil. He’ll let you cut a deal you can both live with. Trust me; would I lie to you?

Satan
The devil is always willing to deal. But we must go into the bargain with our eyes open.

Third, we temper our expectations. It took us hundreds of millions of years to change from muck into monkeys. It will take at least as long for us to turn from assholes into angels. Progress requires god-like patience.

Fourth, we take a fresh look at Picasso’s painting, this time from the cat’s point of view. She’s not torturing a helpless creature. She’s just doing what she must do in order to survive.

After all, she’s on Mother Nature’s turf, where sustenance matters more than sentimentality. She acts accordingly.

The feline has learned to live with herself, claws and fangs and all. We must do the same.

Final Thoughts

There are no saints in this world, my friends, only sinners with differing degrees of depravity. The first step to keeping Mr. Hyde in his place is to admit that he’s there. Otherwise he may slip out of his cell one day and wreak havoc on the entire world.

That’s a disturbing but necessary lesson, one which all of us must learn sooner or later. Just ask Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Kurtz.

When it Comes to Classic Literature Books, Less Really is More

 

“A book unread is a book unloved.” That truism has guided me throughout life, especially when it comes to classic literature books. But sometimes even the gentlest human heart has only so much love — or so much space — to offer.

I was confronted by this sad truth in 2018, when I was forced to downsize my belongings, including a large chunk of my personal library.

This presented me with a painful dilemma, as I stood before my 1000+ books deciding what to do with them.

I scoured book review blogs online, trying to find advice from someone who had experienced that same quandary. Sadly, the effort turned up nothing. 

I thought about putting my books in storage. But then I pictured what mice and mildew can do to defenseless pages. That idea was out.

I considered caching them in a waterproof, underground bunker hidden deep in the hills. But my budget precluded that option.

For one dark, godforsaken moment I even considered selling them. That of course was unthinkable.

As I pondered the problem, the answer came to me like an essay penned by the Great Author in the Sky: why not just give them away?

Ridiculous, I thought. That would be like giving away my children!

Again the idea presented itself: why not just give them away?

“No!” I snapped, my face flushing with defiance. “Part with my books? Never!”

After rebuffing the idea a second time, I assumed that I had banished it forever. But I was wrong. Undeterred, the notion bypassed the mental blockade I had erected and wormed its way into the deep, Freudian recesses of my psyche.

So it should come as no surprise that a few minutes later, I snapped my fingers and blurted out, “I know; I’ll donate them to charity! What a great idea!” Unconscious impulses always make sense, when they disguise themselves as carefully deliberated decisions.

Okay — one decision made, a million more to go. Which books would I keep and which ones would go to Goodwill? That question set the stage for a literary adventure that would change my life.

My Lifelong Love Affair with the Printed Page

The written word is my life. It always has been, since well before my parents enrolled me in first grade back in 1972. I was able to read before I could ride a bike or brush my teeth.

But, while my childhood was rich in many intangible ways, it was decidedly lacking in terms of practical assets; i.e. cold, hard cash. This meant that whatever reading material I owned was invariably in the form of a second- or even third-hand tome.

Fortunately, my mother was a capable and devoted scrimper and scrounger. She never passed by a yard sale without picking up a few new volumes for the home library.

Topic and title were beside the point, as far as she was concerned. They were books, they had words, they offered intrinsic value; simple as that. As a result, our home was filled with everything from hard-core pornography to the Holy Bible, all within easy reach.

This made for some peculiar pairings at times. Steinbeck and Hemingway sat on the shelf next to Essays on Eroticism and Everything You Want to Know About Sex. Musty, dog-eared paperbacks resided next to handsome leather bound tomes that must have once graced the homes of the wealthy and powerful.

My parent’s free-range approach to child rearing left me free to explore whatever topics tickled my fancy. Once, on a sleepy summer day, I read my way through Animal Farm before switching to Conan the Avenger.

That evening, I fell asleep to a pot boiled detective novel, in which every woman was blonde and buxom and every real man smoked Camels.

Such were the intellectual and cultural influences that molded me into the man I am today. But I digress; back to 2019.

Seeking Sagely Advice

Faced with the challenge of selecting the books that would remain, I sought the counsel of those wiser than me. I recalled something I read once, a quote by a famous academic, in which he said that a person could gain a wonderful education by reading a set of books no more than five feet long.

Google led me to the author of the quote. He was Dr. Charles W. Eliot, who served as president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909. The volumes he recommended are now known as the Harvard Classics. They’re a common sight in used bookshops across the country. They’re also available online, either new or from sites like EBay.

I can’t fault Eliot for his choices. After all, he was president of Harvard for 30 years. I’m just a bald guy with a blog. Nonetheless, after perusing his list, I realized that many of his selections were simply not my cup of tea. They’re heavy on poetry and drama and light on philosophy and science. They also include a number of fragmentary works, giving them an unsatisfying “greatest hits of the ages” ambiance.

Most perplexing of all, Eliot included The Odyssey but not The Iliad. Why? Are the antics of Ulysses more memorable than the saga of brave Hector facing off against a bronze age terminator? Not by my standards. Thanks for the input, Dr. Eliot. I’ll keep it in mind.

I next turned for advice to Mortimer Adler, an American philosopher and public intellectual who compiled the collection entitled Great Books of the Western World.

Overall, Adler’s list was more to my taste. I even purchased a pre-owned set of his selected works online, with the intention of reading through it one weighty volume at a time.

My enthusiasm for the project soon waned, however. The collection tries to stuff too many words into too few pages. The text is tiny and the pages are laid out in double columns, neither of which lends itself to reading pleasure.

I had other problems with Adler’s list. One was its exclusion of works from the East or by female or non-white authors. The Dhammapada, Frankenstein, and the letters of Martin Luther King, Jr.provide insights on a par with anything produced by Plato, Emerson, or the early church. Why should I deprive myself of potential enrichment due to accidents of gender, race, or geography?

After pondering the problem for a few months, my mind traveled back in time to the motley crew of misfit tomes from my childhood. What if I could recreate it for the Internet Age, selecting only those works that still appeal to me? That should give me enough reading material to satiate me for the rest of my life.

If You Love Something, Set it Free

Thus inspired, I began selecting the volumes that I now call my “essential books.” I settled on three guiding principles for my project:

  1. Diversity: my list of books would include works from around the world and across the ages. It would incorporate female authors as well as non-whites and non-Westerners.
  2. Economy: I would stick with Dr. Eliot’s five feet rule. The final collection could occupy no more than 60 inches of linear space, or about 1.5 meters, for those outside the US. The nature of the task meant that electronic books were out of the question.
  3. Universality: each book would have to offer fresh epiphanies every time it was opened. This meant there was no room for Sam Spade or Conan the Barbarian. Sorry, guys.

The project occupied my spare time, and my spare change, for several months. Here’s the final result:

Like the home library of my youth, the set includes a variety of cover and print styles. Most of the books are used, purchased either online or at local bookshops.

Some of the books are crisp and unopened; others are filled with underlined text and hand-scribbled notes made by the previous owner. I enjoy seeing a book that has been read before; it imparts character to the pages.

Some of the books fit in my back pocket and can be taken anywhere. Others are best read at a table or desk. Altogether they stretch 59.5 inches from end to end. Their pages are finite, but their truths are infinite. Here are three examples of what I’m talking about.

ANIMAL FARM: WHY OPPRESSION NEVER ENDS

Animal Farm is an allegory about the Russian revolution. It satirizes the tactics used by Lenin and later Stalin to drive out the wealthy ruling class and end centuries of political and economic oppression.

Tragically, the Communists did away with those horrors only to replace them with fresh ones. The peasants were still butchered, only this time it was done in the name of the proletariat instead of in the name of the Czar. The victims were equally dead either way.

This pattern repeats itself throughout human history. The oppressed throw off their chains, only to become the new oppressors. Why does this happen? Perhaps it’s because the leaders of the revolution have more in common with the existing tyrants than they’re willing to admit.

Animal Farm explores this dynamic with dark humor, and does so in a scant 141 pages. It’s an absolute must for any well-stocked library.

THE TAO TE CHING: SOMETHING FROM NOTHING

Why do artists and athletes talk about being “in the zone?” Why does intuition play a role in decision-making, even when objective data is abundant? Why does strict materialism fail to account for everything we see in the Universe, such as consciousness?

The Tao Te Ching has answers to these questions. But the answers are often as mystifying as the questions themselves. The text begins by saying “the Tao that we can comprehend is not the true and eternal Tao.The names that we give the Tao are not the true and infinite names.”

So what the heck is the Tao? It’s whatever gives form and substance to the universe. It’s the emptiness that makes everything possible.

All of us know the Tao is there. We use it every moment of our lives. We wish we could analyze it, engineer it, stick it in a bottle and sell it. But we can’t. Whenever we try, it dissolves into nothingness; yet it’s still there.

The ramifications of the Tao are more than philosophical. They affect the practical side of our lives as well. Have you ever had a moment in which you were engrossed in an activity and “you” seemed to fade into the background?

The work continues, the task is completed, you get the credit. But, looking back on the experience, you can’t remember actually being there. It’s like something else took over, using your hands and eyes to do things that you never imagined possible.

That’s the Tao in action.

This book comes as close as possible to putting words to something that’s beyond words. Read it and you’ll understand, even if you don’t. Trust me.

SHIRLEY JACKSON: EXPLORING THE SUBTLETIES OF EVIL

An odd choice, you say? Perhaps a better word is “subtle.” That’s the thing about evil, after all: its sheer subtlety, as Shirley Jackson understood well.

Only rarely does evil come rushing at us like a freight train. Most often, it creeps around the edges of our consciousness, like a shadow that remains undispelled, even at midday.

Evil is the disease in your DNA, the smiling psychopath on the street, the alligator that watches you and your family frolic in the sunlit pond.

It waits its chance, always alert for the opportune moment. When it strikes, the power of its subtle machinations are irresistible.

Literary horror, when done well, is our macabre yet meritorious friend. It keeps us alert to the evils all around us. It reminds us to lock our doors, to buckle our seat belts, to say “thanks but no thanks” to the shifty-eyed stranger offering help.

Fear, when exaggerated beyond all rationality, can wreck our lives. In the right proportions, however, it can save us from unimaginable suffering. So feel free to explore the works of Shirley Jackson, a horror writer in the very best sense of the word. But keep an eye out, just in case.

Why Stop Here?

After finishing this project, I realized that I had just begun. The lessons to be found in the great books are as inexhaustible as the Tao. Future posts in this blog will explore these timeless themes.

I welcome you to join me in this ongoing adventure. But, even if you decline my invitation, please give some thought to creating your own five feet list of essential volumes. You may find that donating some of your books gives you more of what you want from them in the first place: insight, adventure, and a road to discovery that stretches forever.