I’ve been thinking more and more lately about how artists make the ugly beautiful, how they keep it ugly but so artfully give an understanding of it. I’m thinking of those moments when I am simultaneously aware of how miserable or painful or revolting something is and also how skillfully and certainly I am shown a new way to see it.
There’s a scene in The Pianist, during the Warsaw uprising, when a woman is running down a street and she is shot, but she doesn’t just stagger and plop onto the pavement. She balletically folds herself down into a heap, and it’s a beautiful visual. The scene is a delicate collaboration between Polanski and his bit player. It doesn’t make what happened in the ghetto beautiful, but it makes her resistance beautiful in more than a philosophically prosaic way. It shows us there’s more than we have thought about those historic events. It makes us see them in new ways.
Recently, I read Down All the Days, by Christy Brown. Brown’s personal story is a hard one, and he uses it in this novel of Depression-era poverty. The father in this novel is a violent man, a drunk, who beats his children and his pregnant wife, blaming everyone else for everything, often making irrational connections between people and events. There’s nothing pretty about that. But Brown very bravely offers some of his pages to the father and allows him to show himself as a bewildered, defeated human being. Instead of milking the situation to generate a reader’s loathing for the father and sympathy for the mother, instead of taking that easy often-written road, Brown allows the father to speak.
As the man staggers home drunk, his belligerence is nowhere in evidence. He’s alone, and as he thinks about his life, about how he is confused by it, doesn’t control anything about it, didn’t get what he thought he would, Brown situates us with him and gives us compassion for him. We don’t excuse the things he’s done, the cruelty of his words and his actions, but we see how they have come about. We see that he is not solely to blame, that the powers controlling his society have set him up in some ways, and suddenly, he’s not a monster. He is to be pitied, too, as his family is.
Making the unpleasant and the ugly into beauty is a difficult thing, and I want to be able to do it. That has to start with knowing those things in an intimate way and confronting them when we really want to avoid and if possible forget. Look at them dispassionately and let them show their many aspects. I think it is hard to look them in the face for long enough, but the result is a kind of alchemy. It takes away their power and then gives them new power.