Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Tyranny of Experience

One of the most annoying things about discussions of books and movies is how often the complaint - "I couldn't relate to it" (or its affirmative version, if it is a praise) - comes up. I once got involved into a heated discussion with a friend over Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher (a film I love very much) because he was so intent on dismissing it by saying that I have never known any woman like that and I don't understand why anyone would behave like that or that it doesn't make sense or worse, it is not logical. Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves engendered a similar discussion but in this case I was able to convince him of its worth (even though it is a film I love to hate).These responses are symptomatic of a much deeper and a more serious malaise which is the fear of venturing outside one's own domain of familiar experiences. Even when one comes across something genuinely new and unfamiliar, one is quick to mould it to fit into some preconceived and familiar notion. The whole idea of life for them is just an endless cycle of repetition. How boring can this get? It gets even worse when you realize that people like my friend (and indeed people like myself) have led such a sheltered, insulated, privileged and trauma-less life so far that it becomes absolutely ridiculous to judge other people's experiences and dismiss them as illogical or nonsensical solely based on the yardstick of one's own experience.

Now comes the other part. Let's assume there really is someone who is aware of the essential zombie-ness of his own life and is very eager to learn and understand what it must be to really live through such deep and stirring experiences (painful or joyous doesn't matter) and then in the process of learning invites censure from people who feel privileged to have experienced suffering. This is actually a common theme in Holocaust literature and memoirs for example. The argument goes that you really can't hope to understand or even imagine what it was like to live in Auschwitz. In fact the very interest one has in it makes one suspicious of some deep moral rot within. So finally we get experience-snobs on one hand and experience-vultures on the other. And yet I don't understand why the notion of second-hand experience should invite such contempt. Isn't the whole notion of art (at least the representational art) is that private, subjective and unique experiences can be represented in a communicable form, in other words to achieve a degree of intersubjectivity? Even if the aim is pure self-communion, there can be no detached reflection without representation, even if it is purely an internal representation.

I know, it all sounds a little naive in philosophical terms even a bit gobbeldygook but the final point is that one should be willing to venture out into the world beyond the familiar, be open and curious towards the new and the unknown. End of lesson.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you. One point: most good works of art have an internal logic that goes like this--> the character experiences one thing and then the behavior that follows is a consequence of the person's experience or the next experience is part of a logically connected chain of events and this chain becomes clear later. Antonioni's The Passenger is an example of the latter. In fact, the only movies/books I am not able to "relate" to are the fast paced, superhero kind of books. Clearly, no human could ever have Jason Bourne's abilities.


Alok said...

Yes relating with Jason Bourne is not possible but I was trying to argue that we should be sceptical even with characters who look like us.

The problem with all this "relating" business is that it ignores the fact that people are different from each other. We all have our own way of responding to the world.. even if the subjective experience is the same (Which is itself rare), that doesn't mean the outward behavior will also be the same. So if it doesn't match with your idea of how one should behave in that subjective state of mind, that behaviour doesn't necessarily become "illogical" as a result.

The aim as I said in the post should be to discover something new and unknown rather than just look for mirror in which we can find reflections of our selves.