Saturday, January 1, 2011

How Do We Stand Up?

I was at a bar on Thursday night with my younger brother, an art student at Pratt here in Brooklyn. We were discussing our respective modes of artistic expression (his visual, mine written) and I was trying to explain a notion that the visual arts are more about human feeling than about concrete ideas. I used the painting here (The 3rd of May, 1808, by Goya) as an example, and said that it captures, to me, "the flickering flame of human defiance in the face of despair." My brother liked the phrase enough that he wrote it down and later sent it to me. As prose, it might be a bit much, but there's something to the notion that's been on my mind since.

In that painting, the man in the white shirt seems torn between fear of death and a proud resignation: I did what I thought I should do for my country, and now the bill is due. I am struck by how hard it is to follow your conscience in the face of forces beyond your control. Here, in the midst of deadly retribution being dealt out by the French troops, we see the toll taken on one man, and realize that the dreams, memories, skills and relationships that make up his existence are about to be snuffed out.

How many of us, in that moment, would be willing to renounce our ideals, our causes, for a chance to walk away alive? And that, I think, is why despair is always present for us: no matter how much we believe in a cause and are theoretically willing to sacrifice for it, for most of us, we despair of the thought of death (and especially a futile death) and know we may not follow through on the sacrifice when it matters. And yet, there is that flickering flame, the possibility that we may be able to believe in something bigger long enough to do what is right. For the man in the painting, he may in that moment wish to take back his rebellion against the French and live a peaceful life, but he made his decision to fight the day before (a scene Goya also painted) and now it is too late to turn back. His heroism, if it happened, happened out of the context of the painting. A believer in God may hold to faith not knowing it will lead to his martyrdom, but that makes him no less of a martyr when he dies for it.

I write this blog to think about tomorrow, and indeed I question how human defiance will manifest itself in the future. It isn't that people are unwilling to stand up for what they think is right, but rather that our systems (social, political, economic) are so complex that it is hard to tell exactly what the problems are and what should be done about them. On the whole, this is a good thing: in complex societies, there is room to carve out your little sphere of righteousness, and walk away from what it is that you think is wrong. But it also leaves the individual unsure of how to act morally, and leads to the possibility that despair will creep in, a despair that we are powerless to make our society better, or to address the wrongs that we see.

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