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?

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.

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