I like to think of myself as a romantic. I like to think of myself as an optimist. I’m much more interested in people working constructively on a shared goal than simply entering into competition for its own sake. I believe it's everybody's responsibility to do something to repair the tears that ail the world. But faced with the prospect of sitting through either a light comedy about suburbanite parents or a brooding, dystopic meditation on the collapse of civilization, you'll find me running for the darkness almost every time.
It's a funny thing, this love of being alive. In a creative life the challenge is always to keep the banalities at bay so that more interesting, more meaningful expressions can thrive. To be clear, I don't care for all things gloomy. I find myself repelled by self-destructive behavior, nihilism, and erosion of standards. I have no patience for hateful speech, and I tend to turn off when surrounded by people who's main goal is to prove why they’re better than those around them. I love a sharp wit. I relish friends who enjoy spending an evening sharing a kitchen and concentrated conversation. I delight in a road trip with the music turned up and the windows rolled down. Music, sunlight, art, love: these are the forces that pull me up each morning and into the day.
But moon-faced optimism? Campfire sing-a-longs? Sitcoms? I don't think so.
It's a delicate tension, a balance. I believe the attraction to darker creative ideas stems from a desire to vanquish the darkness, or at least shine a light and dispel it for a while. After all there's a great deal of it out there, ironically contemporaneous with all of the great and beautiful things that fill the world with promise and color. But artistic explorations of more brooding themes simply feel honest. It’s the kind of honesty that knows that if you want to prepare an elegant supper for friends it’s a good idea to make sure the sink is clear of yesterday’s dishes first. It’s a willingness not to shy away from challenges before reveling in easier comforts. It’s like the way an amoeba surrounds a foreign, even toxic body, and only by fully enveloping it can the amoeba turn that mass into something else and grow.
The great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurasowa said, “The responsibility of an artist is never to avert his eyes.” Indeed, the responsibility to keep looking without flinching is a big one. The fact that everyone on Earth endlessly faces entropic decline suggests to me a painful truth. The nature of things is a description of endlessly competitive, sometimes ruthless, sometimes lethal pressure. To pretend otherwise is to be a pollyanna.
No doubt humor is a tremendous lever when it comes to lifting the heavy realities of a competitive world. Good humor can upend the pain of existence and make it bearable. As Woody Allen once opined, channeling Mark Twain, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” But even in that golden dart of a declaration, there’s an implicit understanding that a ceaseless uphill road is the ultimate cosmic management challenge. Comedy may temporarily transform distress by surrounding it, re-claiming it, handling it like a sink of dishes, but the source material from which it draws seems to be endless.
There’s a mass and merit from dealing with serious themes that satisfies. Sweet things taste special precisely because they’re infrequent. They’re pure pleasure, but I’d never want a diet of chocolate and ice cream. Conversely, the hard work of exploring tough subjects yields a resonant honesty. Superficially this might look like the outward cri de coeur of a depressive, but I think there’s something else here to consider. Everyone should have the prerogative to pursue Jeffersonian happiness and I’m quite convinced that a far more evolved species will better appreciate the great value of enhancing each other’s efforts to that end. (We have many, many generations to go until we reach that level, I fear.) But with only a short stretch of time to contribute something valuable to the world, I would rather spend my time considering those things that scare me, that provoke clarification of values, that have the potential to move someone else then spend time distracting myself with lightweight personal comforts.
Will I ever again write something funny? I most certainly hope so! Will I ever intentionally watch a comedy, play frisbee in the park, tell jokes with friends? Of course. But for me pleasure often comes from serious themes, even if those serious themes are handled playfully.