Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sometimes sad fiction is also the most beautiful

My favorite musician Steven Wilson of the band Porcupine Tree once said before playing "Stop Swimming" on the live album Warszawa, "This is a sad song. But, if you're like me, I always find the saddest music is also the most beautiful."

What, as humans, draws us to sad stories? Or not necessarily sad stories, but drama. Melodrama, even. When we create fiction, we always have conflict on our minds. Conflict is important. You must have conflict, we're told. You need conflict in every chapter, in every scene, in every sentence. Is that true? No, not always, but it's something we live by.

Much of fiction is built around antagonists, whether displaced in the form of a villain or natural forces, or internalized within the characters themselves. There is always something working against characters to prevent them from getting what they want. And it's important our characters want something, or else why are we telling their stories?

But what draws us to this setup? What makes conflict interesting? There exists much fiction that succeeds with very little conflict, or very low-stakes conflict. There is successful low-stakes conflict all around us that makes us feel good and secure and warm and fuzzy inside, from the latest blockbuster romantic comedy to the hottest wish-fulfillment paranormal romance title to comic strips and Hallmark greeting cards to anime like K-On! and Yuru Yuri. These are fictions that bring us happiness and joy, and remind us of the simple delights of the little things in life. But do they change us? To what extent do they affect us?

My favorite movie of all time is End of Evangelion, renowned in otaku circles for how depressing it supposedly is, but it's raw and uncomfortable directness is exactly what I love about it. Good fiction makes us uncomfortable. The best of fiction challenges. My favorite prose comes from the pens of the likes of David Foster Wallace, Haruki Murakami, and Bret Easton Ellis, none of them known for writing happy-go-lucky fiction.

I read novels to feel, not to feel good. But what is it that's comforting about feeling bad?

Is it because we feel sad emotions more intensely than we feel happiness? Is it because that is how we feel alive?

I'm reminded of recent anime: Puella Magi Madoka Magica. For those of you who haven't seen it, it's basically a darker and edgier magical girl anime, which is ultimately about love, friendship, and sacrifice, and in the show, the magical girls in it have to battle witches, culminating in a final fight against the most powerful witch of all, called Walpurgisnacht. It turns out the witches are actually fallen magical girls, and most of them follow rules and are given backstories of how they became witches and what they represent. The final witch, Walpurgisnacht is so powerful that she breaks these rules, without any apparent explanation, and serves as the impending and inevitable doom against which the magical girls must struggle. It turns out Walpurgisnacht is canonically designated as a "stage-constructing witch." She exists solely so that the story can exist. The darkness and drama surrounding her presence serves merely as the external impetus and backdrop to the interpersonal angst and drama against which the magical girls are truly fighting, conquering their internal demons.

Evil is an illusion, but it is an illusion that serves the purpose of illuminating the good. Humans are flawed creatures, and its those flaws which make people interesting. Darker fiction can affect us more because it forces us to face our flaws. Sadness must exist in order for happiness to exist. If there were no bad feelings to measure the good against, we would just be trapped in a cage of bland uncertainty. If there is never any despair, then hope loses it's meaning.

It's often said that you don't really appreciate something until you lose it. I think that's what makes darker fiction work, and what makes it impact us so deeply. When I think back on the memories I cherish most, in many ways, it's the sadder memories that stay with me. Even my happiest moments are stained with sadness, because at the time, I knew they were fleeting, and that recognition of their ephemeral nature made me cherish them all the more, because I knew they would, in a moment, be gone. Those things which we know will disappear, we hold to our chests more tightly than those things which we know will stay with us forever.

Now that I think about it, I wonder if that is part of what makes budding romance so intense: the fear that is could evaporate at any moment and the lack of reassurance that it will last forever. Things which last forever are in some ways meaningless, because there is no reason to cherish them if there is no fear of losing them. And I wonder if that is what makes adolescence such an intense part of life. Perhaps some part of us instinctively knows that the times we have are fleeting, a mere instant of a potentially long life, that will slip away before we know it, and therefore we feel compelled to feel everything in every ounce of our soul, in every cubic centimeter of our being.

I like fiction that makes me cry. Without the cheap tricks like killing off a puppy for no good reason. I like fiction that challenges me. I like fiction that holds up a mirror to the parts of myself I'd rather forget, and makes me examine the chips and scars in me. Why? Because it's how I know that I'm alive. It's what reminds us of our existence. A review of the anime Saikano reads "Every time I watch the last episode of [i]Saikano[/i], I feel like I'll never be happy ever again. The world could end, and I wouldn't notice because I'd be too busy feeling the after effects..." I love fiction that can make me feel scraped raw and naked. Because every time we're stripped to our souls and forced to confront our terrible flaws, we are forced to reborn, and learn to crawl a little bit toward a newer, less broken version of ourselves. It's how we evolve. Stories are how we change ourselves, little by little.

And without the danger of losing something, there is no impetus to step forward. We can take only the things that are guaranteed in life, but that is just cowardice. In the end, humans cannot be born without other humans dying. A happiness without the possibility of losing it is an empty happiness.

That's why we read sad stories. Because we're all broken in some way. And it's only in recognizing in that that we can being to fix ourselves.

Appended afterthoughts:

What fiction has taught me is that to erase all sadness, to feel only happiness, or the illusion of happiness, would be the same as returning to the womb, a regression to an infantile existence. It may feel good, but I wouldn't really call it true happiness. I'm not sure I would even call it existence. It would just be blissful ignorance, without the possibility for change. I'm dreadfully familiar with why that can be dearfully desirable, to the point of catatonia, but I don't think it would be a good thing. It's just a return to nothingness.

Accepting the possibility of sadness is a necessary condition for hope, the possibility of love, the potential for understanding, and a prerequisite for the promise of the fulfillment of the dream that one day one heart can truly reach another.

1 comment:

  1. It's the need of a point of reference. How much you know how precious is joy if you can't compare its value to your everyday life struggle?

    Our human brains tend to compare new experiences to old ones and generalize elements for easier mental organization. Fiction, history and religious mythology allow us to have a smaller and more grandiose scope of events so we can compare them to our day to day basis: through archetype, a current event, say, Rick Santorum becomes Reagan, Willie Stark, the president from Escape of LA and Emperor Constantine. Depends on your point of view, but at the end it doesn't matter if the analogy is true or false. It only matters if is true to you.