Don’t shoot the storyteller

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The Lincoln Center’s production of Aristophanes’ “The Frogs.” Photo courtesy of the Lincoln Center.

Can we find truth in artistic profanity?

Why do we read Aristophanes? There’s nobody else quite like him in the Core curriculum. Surrounded by epic fables of war and dense treatises on the philosophical good, you find a bawdy jokester who seems bent on turning common virtue inside out.

In Aristophanes’ play “The Clouds,” Socrates becomes a numb-skulled cult leader. In “The Frogs,” debates over the poetic merits of Euripides and Aeschylus are mixed with fart jokes and enough four-letter words to shake up a Scotsman. Everything that could be held sacred, from the gods to Greek political life, become caricatures that Aristophanes stretches to the extreme.

Yet Aristophanes was no mere rabblerouser; he was widely held as one of the great playwrights of his time and lives on today as a forefather of the comedic tradition. His crudeness may be perpetually shocking but in the midst of his humor lies well-composed commentary on Athenian democracy and traditions in a style appealing to the common man.

Freed from the boundaries of good taste, his plays were allowed to bring the powerful and holy down to earth as few citizens could and even shifted public opinion in remark- able ways. Plato himself blamed “The Clouds” for influencing Socrates’ death sentence. Like the Fool in “King Lear,” he held the power of unencumbered truthfulness, putting the silent faults of society to our eyes with a laugh and a skip.

It can be tempting to think of ‘the sacred and the profane’ as an irreconcilable contrast, where inspecting one side must mean that you totally shun the other. Christian morality may be rigidly clear on how to live: “hate the evil, and love the good,” says Amos. But does this mean that ‘the evil’, or even the slightly objectionable, cannot be reflected on, that it mustn’t be considered a part of human life worth depicting?

When art is expected to be purely moralizing, it loses any opportunity for critical reflection. All words and images must tell you exactly what they mean. The sinning protagonist must say out loud that his bad actions were indeed bad, lest we come away thinking that the work is endorsing them.

Huckleberry Finn must be judged exclusively by its racial slurs, “Oppenheimer” for its sex scene. ‘Cancel culture’ is painted as an ultra-liberal scheme, but history shows that its means have already been seized by any ideology that can find something it doesn’t like. For instance, a school district in Utah recently tried to ban the Bible after a complaint that it contained “pornographic [and] indecent” material. Under this dichotomy, can we say that it was entirely wrong?

This is not to say that we must necessarily celebrate profanity in art nor claim that it can never be excessive. It is righteous to reject blasphemy, especially when the point is to make fun of the sacred simply for an empty laugh.

Likewise, even genuine studies of the profane often tend to miss their mark if they don’t find a careful balance. For example, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” the controversial 1988 film by the great Martin Scorsese, may be sincere in its attempt to illustrate the ramifications of Jesus’ human nature but it takes that inspection to its extreme and it fails by portraying Christ’s hypostatic union as a sort of bipolar disorder.

On the other hand, Scorsese’s later film on religious doubt, 2016’s “Silence,” works well because his characters are simply human, with sympathetic resolves and subtle–yet complete– crises of conscience as they face the reality of religious persecution in 17th century Japan.

“Silence” is a violent, disturbing movie that has an ending that may cross the line of some viewer’s sympathies. It’s hard to say that any of its profanity is unearned, though; it is both deeply respectful of Catholic life and, without judgment, unafraid to show how oppression and flawed wills complicate it.

Most people would profess that we have fallen natures, but we never like to think about how exactly our concupiscence manifests. From slight rudeness to murderous crimes, reality inescapably frustrates our hope for goodness with the tendency to embrace evils of all kinds. Good art, as a thoughtful reflection of the world around us, should never be afraid to fully depict imperfection, whether to laugh at its absurdity, as with Aristophanes, or to expose the consequences of its oft-calculated depravity, like in “Silence.”

These works may discomfort us, they may offend our sensibilities, but if they have a purpose beyond pure shock value, we should not cast them aside. If we approach them with a mature, critical mind, we realize that they find a universal struggle of conscience, examining the same flaws that affect us in our own lives. Art alone will not lead us to salvation, but it can carefully illustrate the broken ends of falsehood and temptations, helping us to turn away and fix our eyes on grace.

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