Category Archives: Romeo and Juliet

Broken Genius: True Art is Flawed

Art

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Well, that’s pretty obvious, you might say. Nothing in this world is perfect, so why should we expect any piece of art to be? Yet you point out faults in something that everyone accepts as ‘genius,’ and people wonder who you are to criticize the work of such a great artist. This is despite the fact that some flaws in great works of art are so glaringly obvious you can’t help but point them out. Pointing them out doesn’t mean it isn’t a great work of art, or that you think you’re better than whoever made the work. It’s just facing up to the fact that every work is going to have faults in it, no matter how ‘genius,’ and that the true measure of a work is how well it overcomes its own defects.

Here’s the quote that started me on this train of thought. Jan Swafford is talking about he loves Mozart’s The Magic Flute despite its flaws – a piece of music I know nothing about, but his main thought is pretty applicable anywhere:

 “When I first heard the opera in my mid-20s, I hadn’t yet learned, among many other things, that the greatest art is not necessarily the most perfect. Bach wrote tremendous vocal music but was strangely oblivious to the fact that singers have to breathe. He wrote vocal lines as if they were for violin. The finale of Beethoven’s Ninth is clunky and episodic in its form—enough so that Beethoven talked about replacing it. Shakespeare is notoriously weak in dramatic construction and often didn’t know when to shut up. I once sat through a reading of The Tempest with a playwright who bitched all the way through, saying that Shakespeare isn’t any good because his dramatic arc is so bad. Today I’d argue that among other things a great work is one that has the power to make its faults, even the obvious ones, irrelevant to the experience of the work.” (Slate)

Don’t even start me on Shakespeare! His plots drive me up the wall, because they are so contrived and unrealistic. Yet it’s true, no matter how much I complain about him, there’s something in Romeo and Juliet, and even Hamlet, that draws me in. I don’t know what it is, because I’ve never experienced star-crossed love, or being told by a ghost to avenge my father. I guess it’s just that in his endless lines of iambic pentameter, there is a gem or two of a line that perfectly encapsulates a human experience. I complain about him because so often people present his works as if they’re genius, and don’t have any flaws. But there’s still something to Shakespeare, despite his flaws.

(Truly, every time I read Romeo and Juliet I get this urge to fix it by re-writing it, but you’d have to be a pretty brave author to try to re-write Shakespeare.)

Another ‘classic’ I recently read is Dracula. Reading classics is a supposed to be a good thing, so I added it to my reading list. And I found it vastly entertaining – despite hating most of the characters, laughing at the ridiculousness of the plot, and being irritated at the immense number of inspirational speeches sprinkled throughout. The work as a whole was engaging. On a more individual level, well, it didn’t stand up to scrutiny. You’ve got several cardboard stereotypes for characters, such as the brave hero (Jonathan Harker), the devoted lover (Arthur Holmwood – I was suspicious of his devotion at first, but no, he was actually that true and devoted for all three hundred and thirty-six pages), and the pinnacle of American manhood stereotypes (Quincey Morris – oh, I hoped he’d spent more time in the novel doing the stereotypical American hero things, but he really was a rather minor character). Oh, and a ‘Dutch’ professor that talks far too much in a difficult accent, and does the typical mentor thing of requiring characters to do dangerous deeds without providing any preparatory information whatsoever. The female characters are so absolutely helpless, though Mina Harker is slightly better than Lucy. No one tells anyone else anything until it’s too late, because they’re all afraid other people’s nerves can’t handle the truth. The men don’t tell the women, because the women are fragile creatures, of course. The women don’t tell the men, because they don’t want the men to worry about them (and the men have so much stress already, the poor things!) So the vampire can run around doing what he wishes for half the novel, just because communication is so bad. Yet the novel is still regarded as a classic. And I was certainly entertained by it – almost too entertained, because you think of classics as dull, difficult things to read.

My last example: Pygmalion, or as its better known in its musical version, My Fair Lady. I didn’t like it the first time I saw it (the movie version, with Audrey Hepburn), because I didn’t understand it. The ending was so open-ended. The actual written play, by Bernard Shaw, is even worse, ending-wise at least. It was only later that I re-watched and was entranced by the power of the characters, Eliza Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins, and realized there couldn’t be any realistic happy ending. To do so would be to destroy the vibrancy of either one of the other of the characters. To be open-ended, as the movie is, is the best way to leave the characters in my opinion, because you know their story will go on as long as their life without ever truly resolving itself. You know, kind of like real life.

I could go on, include my favourite topics such as Lord of the Rings and Jane Austen, and argue that they overcome weak characterization (a complaint about Lord of the Rings) or a lack of exciting narrative events (a charge levelled at Jane Austen). But I’ll leave that for now. I’m sure you could list a whole ton of works you love despite glaring faults. In fact, feel free to discuss them below.

In the end, I think we have here what may be the source of disagreement over classic works, and why some people can’t understand why something is considered ‘classic.’ (There certainly are some I can’t understand.)

If you hate a work, its flaws are all you can see, and you can’t get past them.

If you love a work, it could be more flawed than it already is, and you’d still love it anyway.

Because maybe true art is something that has the power to speak to your soul in spite of its flaws, not something that lacks them.

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Filed under Creativity and Art, Dracula, Pygmalion, Romeo and Juliet

The Top Literary Couples as Bad Examples

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Healthy Romance Makes Bad Novels, Part II

Last week, I argued that healthy, functioning romances (which we’d probably all enjoy in real life) have trouble generating the kind of conflict that drives romance novels. Logically, the next step would be for me to look at some famous literary romances and see if they were healthy or not. Here goes:

 Romeo and Juliet

First of all, they’re teenagers. Juliet is thirteen. Teenagers aren’t exactly known for being clear-headed, or having well-thought-out romances with each other. Besides that, the two of them get married after knowing each other for a day. A day, and they’re supposed to be desperately in love with each other. Let’s examine their conversation before they tie the knot:

– a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet

– Oh no, you’re a Capulet/Montague!

– Parting is such a sweet sorrow

Does Juliet know Romeo’s strategy for dealing with a crisis is to bawl his eyes out in the friar’s cell? Or run through her cousin with a sword? Wouldn’t you kind of want to know how your husband acts in a tough spot before you marry him?

She doesn’t know him well enough to realize he’ll lose his head if he thinks she’s actually dead, and agrees to a plan where absolutely everything can (and does) go wrong. Which is why the story ends in tragedy.

 Wuthering Heights

Yeah, I’m kicking a book when it’s down here, because NO ONE’s going to argue Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship is healthy. But their destructive conflict certainly drives the plot. On one hand, Catherine marries another man because to marry the one she loves would be ‘degrading.’ In other words, pride trumps treating another person well. Of course, Catherine claims she’s marrying for money in order to better Heathcliff’s life, not bothering to think maybe it’d be downright humiliating to be rescued by the husband of the girl you love. On the other, Heathcliff marries another woman to spite her, holds a grudge, and gets revenge any way he can. In other words, he doesn’t exactly follow the “keep no record of wrongs” part of loving… Well, that’s enough about that.

 Gone With the Wind

Scarlett O’Hara is selfish and pretty blind (it takes her till Chapter 63 of a sixty-three chapter book for her to realize she loves Rhett, and she’d been married to him since Chapter 47!) Of course, Rhett never tells her he loves her until he’s quit loving her… that lack of communication again. The central problem is that she is so self-absorbed that if he’d told her, she would have cast him away like an old rag. But in spite of it all, he’s the old who sees her as she really is – “hard and greedy and unscrupulous, like me.” This dysfunctional romance is truly a result of two self-centered people loving each other.

 

So that’s that for three of the most famous literary romances I can think of. Any other novels you want to throw out there?

By the way, yes, I did run out of quotes to post this Wednesday.

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Filed under Gone With the Wind, Romeo and Juliet, True Romance, Wuthering Heights