More than Organisms

vitruvian-300-333Recently, I attended a lecture by a respected writer who posited that we should write about the obscene, the vulgar, the disgusting, and the revolting. He said that his logic for this encouragement depended not upon shock value, but rather, upon the notion that all such things were true. Specifically, he called writers in the seminar to write about their bodily functions, sexual encounters, hidden diseases, and sources of physical shame. This, he said, would lead to writing that was absolute truth, and would liberate writers from their self-consciousness. Likewise, such writing would reach an audience that has apparently been searching for such literature — in his mind, there exists a group of people who want to know that others do, in fact, excrete waste, cavort recklessly, and wrestle with modern-day plagues (and desire to read about it). Perhaps so.

My response to the notion that we should write ugliness, though, is this: We are more than organisms, and because we are, we should elevate ourselves and our art above the crass. This statement is not intended as condescension or old-school literary snobbishness, but, somewhat ironically, as a statement of truth. Stay with me here:

As the leaders of all other species, and as cognitive, reflective, intellectually astute creatures, we should use our creative and mental faculties in the most supreme way possible. Keats was not wrong when he equated truth with beauty, even though his definition may have been an oversimplification. Yes, there is more to truth than just beauty, but as highly developed beings, we should seek the best and finest truths rather than those which debase or denigrate. St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and countless others (including the Romantics) have reached this conclusion well before our time.

To write about subjects primitive, desperate, and scatological can sometimes be a fun and bawdy diversion, but devoting oneself to these lesser ideas renders literature into the equivalent of monkey-flung feces, to borrow an image from the aforementioned speaker. Some will call this assertion elitism, and maybe it is. But if we are to leave a legacy of thought, shouldn’t we aspire to greatness rather than the sewer? Shouldn’t we leave behind something more than our literal behind?

All this theoretical explication probably won’t change the downward spiral of gutter-dwelling “literature” that is being written. I get that. But if one person lifts clearer eyes to consider things less coarse, less brutal, and less detestable, then this small epistle hasn’t been in vain. As writers, we don’t have to be Pollyanna, falsely portraying a world that is all sunshine and daisies; in fact, we have an obligation not to. But likewise, we don’t have to decrease our own personal and cultural worth by slinging words that glorify the gross and reprehensible. We are more than organisms.We are wonderfully made, and that wonder should shine in all we write.

3 thoughts on “More than Organisms

  1. Your observation is interesting but I feel like this just leads us to a semantic confusion as to what the obscene presents us with. We must constantly revise what is considered primitive and what isn’t, and the act of writing about anything primitive may not necessarily denote our sense of value. In fact maybe we do need to write about it more, but as an investigation- and challenge the notions of what is elementary and explicit, versus what is esoteric and complicated. There are truths in each spectrum and I don’t think any argument could be valid defending which genre of writing is better, since the act of writing itself is of fault- do we allow contextual fluff to determine the level of analysis we put into the reversed act of writing, our do we need to refine the act of writing to encompass the possibilities of exploring everything fruitfully?

    • I like your counterpoints. I’d lean on E.D. Hirsch, the father of cultural literacy, and Mortimer Adler, the inventor of the Great Books series and a proponent of classical education. Both have stated (I’m paraphrasing here) that valueless tripe remains such throughout history, no matter how we choose to subjectively label (or re-label) it. Exploration or creation of coarse dross doesn’t necessarily make it any less dross-ish, in other words.

      Adjectives like “vulgar” or “obscene” admittedly invite debate due to their lack of specificity and their potential for reassessment — mea culpa. But the ideal of human integrity in the act of creation surpasses time. Superiority is demonstrated through the critical consideration of higher-order notions (and creation driven by them) rather than by that which is animalistically base (see Socrates, Bloom, and Maslow, among others).

      How are we to find truth or beauty through solipsism, for example? While other species operate in the survival-mode belief that self is omnipotent, higher beings understand that navel-gazing is neither epiphany nor wisdom. If we ever hope to ascend beyond the gutter (yesterday’s, today’s, or tomorrow’s), we must devote our minds and our creative acts to things beyond the carnal, the superficial, or even the “vulgar/profane/obscene” (however we choose to define those chronomorphic terms).

      William Blake once said, “What is grand is necessarily obscure to weak men. That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care.” That’s as true in 2016 as it was centuries ago. We, as the cognitively greatest of all life forms, are “grand,” and we therefore should create grandly. Is the measure of that grandness up to individual tastes? To some degree. But we have cultural and ethical guideposts to help us along the way. If we value our artistic legacies, we will heed the signs and markers along our path.

      As the Apostle Paul once wrote, “Everything is lawful, but not everything is profitable.” Just because we can write or make or explore something repugnant doesn’t necessarily mean we should.

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