Sunday, February 27, 2005

Post Number Three: There's More With This Hobbit Than Meets The Eye

Of the hidden meaning of things, and of Art.

I am a fan of the Lord of the Rings. In fact, I have a fixation with the Lord of the Rings, which describes my attitude towards this novel more accurately. When I started off opening this Blog, I wanted to name it in Sindarin. This is the name of an artificial language invented by a Professor of Philology of the University of Oxford, whose name is John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Tolkien is known worldwide for being the author of the first, and by large and far still the best, fantasy novel of modern literature. Recently, a Newzealander movie director called Peter Jackson turned this masterpiece into an equally breath-taking collection of films. I have seen the three movies eight times already. I especially like the extended editions because they last longer. I have read the book only twice instead, and only in Italian, but I will soon read it again in English.
I hope Professor Tolkien's son Cristopher, and New Line Cinema alike, will excuse me if I dare borrowing a line from the Lord of the Rings to title this post of mine. It seems that this people take copyright issues very seriously. I think anyway that copyright laws concede the right to quote.
I have chosen this particular line because it perfectly suits the topic of this morning's thought of mine, although it is purely incidental that it is a Tolkien's quote.

I recently saw a movie starring Miss J. Styles. It was a romantic comedy of scarce value, deeply infected by too much lightness for my taste. Anyway, my instinctive attitude to search for in-depth meanings of things led me to note an important detail that turned a lamp on in my brains.
In one of the scenes of this poorly assembled collection of insipid film shoots, a blonde guy who happened to be a Prince of Denmark in disguise attempted to teach the meaning of a Sonet by Shakespeare to a typical American schoolgirl from Wisconsin. I will not mention the blatant inaccuracy displayed in portraying both Denmark and European aristocracy, not to mention my continent's customs and culture. I can excuse the director because I know he was just trying to film a tasteless comedy targeted to American teens well fed with pink clouds and bubbling floating red hearts. But the very scene I mentioned above revealed a great truth. The dull teen played by Miss Styles was unable to perceive the hidden meaning of the words written by Shakespeare. She required the assistance of someone else, to discover the ultimate truth beneath the surface of a poem.
This rang an alarm bell in my head. If the director portrayed such a horrifying scene, it means that he experienced the existence of people that fail to understand things don't really mean what they seem to mean. There are people that think there is Nothing More With This Hobbit But What Meets The Eye.
Maybe it's because the society has come to appreciate ephemeral superficiality so intensely, that whatever lurks beneath the surface will remain hidden to most. In this post I intend to tell the reader, if he or she wishes to bear with me, that more often than not things do not just mean what they superficially appear to mean.
This truth is of capital importance. Failure in perceiving the hidden meaning of things not only precludes the possibility of fully enjoying poetry and literature, not mentioning paintings and music, but also leads to the inability to read behind the lines spoken by those in charge (of you).
First and foremost, it is critical to understand that the surface, the appearance of things, is insignificant. It can be beautiful, but carries little value per se. It is exactly the lack of an inner, hidden meaning of things that distinguishes the unbearably light to the pleasantly ponderous (the allitteration of "p" is intentional as I perceive "p" as a heavy sound, opposed to "l" which is quite ephemeral). The beautifully crafted box of my first post provides a perfect example. When a present for one's birthday turns out being a wonderful, yet empty, gift box, it seldom provides pleasure. In front of a closed case, the first thing a child does is to open it, to see what it conceals. It is naturally human to be curious. And it is really frustrating to realize that a closed box contains nothing.
Literature, poetry, music... in one word, "Art", is actually a box. Forget whatever your bohémienne neighbour who defines himself as an artist ever told you about Art. Before the corruption of the twentieth century, before the world was contaminated by Lightness, and before Art turned into art without the capital A, an Artist was a Communicator. A person who used specific tools and techniques to communicate a message, a meaning. Art is a form of communication. Anybody can, with the right training, learn techniques to, say, compose a music, paint a picture, or write a poem. But not anybody is an Artist, regardless of how well he or she masters the tools. In fact, the techniques of an Artist are the means through wich the Communicator tells us something. It really does not matter what is being communicated. It could be a celebration of the Might of your Civilization, an attempt to express the turmoil of passion within your heart when you think of your boyfriend (or girlfriend), a message about the Word of God, or a description of the pleasure felt when eating a cake... What will ultimately make your artwork will be how beautifully you concealed your message beneath the surface of your work, by skillfully using the techniques you have learnt to master so well.
It goes without saying that watching just the surface of an artwork, in awe of the technical ability of the author, without perceiving or grasping what the artist was trying to say, equals to being unable to understand an artwork. I for one do not understand paintings. It seems that there is a sort of "incomunicability" between visual arts and music. I perceive with instinctive ease the inner meaning of a Symphony by Tchajkovskij, but in front of a painting I struggle to understand what it was meant to really portray. So I don't demand for my reader to be able to understand the hidden meaning of any work of art. Being able to perceive a hidden meaning is often the result of an education and of genetic predisposition. It suffices to realize that a hidden meaning is there, and then we can humbly confess to be unable to grasp it, because the technique used to convey it is not resonant with us.
It is typical of our era of Lightness, to believe that what counts the most in an artwork is the emotional impact it has on the viewer. This emotional effect is actually the result of two combined truths contained in an artwork:
1. the hidden meaning
2. the tricky technique used to convey it.
Needless to say, failing to perceive that the emotional effect is but a trick used by the artist to make you stop in front of his work and pay more attention to it, equals to break the link between you and the artist, ultimately preventing you from grasping the message the artist was trying to convey.
"This painting is beautiful because it makes my heart beat faster"
While there is nothing inherently wrong or bad with this sentence, it only makes sense, and pays the required tribute to the artist, if it is paired with a deeper understanding of what the painting meant. Besides, once the inner meaning is perceived, one's heart is likely to beat even faster.
As I said I don't understand paintings. So I do not represent a good example in this field.
On the other hand I think I can fairly understand literature, poetry to a lesser extent, and certainly music to a much greater level.
The difference between an artwork and a beautifully crafted item is precisely the hidden meaning. A vase, however beautiful, however cleverly designed, regardless of the awesome skill displayed by the crafter, remains a vase. It is not intended to convey a hidden meaning. It is a tool that serves a specific purpose. The crafter might have achieved a level of skill equal, or even superior to that of an artist, but still, the result of his work is not an artwork. This happens because the crafter really meant nothing else but to create a tool.
Too often, in the modern era, we use the word artist to describe a good crafter. It is not enough to master a technique in order to become an artist. It is necessary to have something to say first, and to be able to bend the techniques you mastered to the message you are trying to convey.
This is, needless to say, a Lightness vs Weight issue. The inner meaning provides what Kundera would define "Weight". The lack of it makes something "Light". The love for lightness is the greatest plague that ever struck humankind.
Words can be used to create artworks. You can mean what you are saying, and then you are a good crafter, or you can wonderfully say something totally different from what you mean, but that hints to something else which is what you really meant. That is Art.

In the movie with Miss Styles, the American teen thought Shakespeare meant nothing more than what he was saying. Then the Bard's word made little sense, they were, yes, nice to the ear and strangely vague about the sun and the clouds, but they carried no value. But the Prince in disguise told her there could be a hidden meaning, and although the movie turned Shakespeare's words into distilled romance, the director didn't fail to grasp the truth I tried to tell here.

This is not the place to dig further into the meaning of specific music and poems, but it will suffice to say that even the Lord of the Rings is a forest of hidden meanings. There is much more with The Lord of the Rings than meets the eye. Next time you read a book, or a poem, or listen to a symphony, or watch a painting, depending on which art is most resonant with you, try asking yourself "what else is there here?". It takes time, and training, to finally be able to grasp the hidden meaning of things, but once one achieves this result, a new world opens to one's eyes. And the Unbearable Lightness of the modern ephemeral world will become even more intolerable. Guaranteed.

There's more with this Hobbit than meets the eye.