The best art teaches us how we should behave

"Dancing With Mom" by Nagu Tron from Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.
“Dancing With Mom” by Nagu Tron from Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

On Thursday of last week I finally caught up on all my blog reading, including Chad Bauman’s recent post on reconnecting with the art he was marketing by actually getting in and seeing a show.  I can relate to that feeling of drain, of forgetting the value of what we are doing (and what we’re doing it for) sometimes.  Especially with a new baby at home, and commuting 75 minutes each way to work each day, I find it is a very very rare moment when I can make the time to enjoy a piece of theatre.  More than that, even on those occasions when I do get to see a show, I often find my brain beating like a loud drum in my head with admonitions about things I need to get done both at home and at work.

I’ve become that guy who is always preoccupied, and perhaps a little unsure of the world.  I find myself daily attempting to address problems for which I feel completely unqualified, playing at being a parent and co-running a household, paying rent, arranging nanny care, scheduling vet appointments, conducting job reviews, feeling my age.

After catching up on all my blog entries, for example, I headed with my husband and our baby to meet some friends for a quick drink between getting home and the baby’s bath time.  I had recently posted a video of our baby bouncing to a dance beat at a wedding, and asked one of our friends if she had seen our baby dancing, and she flinched a little before realizing what I was talking about and saying she hadn’t seen it.  It turns out she thought I meant another video, this one of the son of a good friend of hers, now six years old, dancing with his father.  She had just found out that that little boy had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and had about six months to live.

I don’t know that boy, but I was profoundly affected by the story in a way that really took me by surprise.  I think it was the enormity of knowing that, five years and three months from now, or less or more, my little baby girl might have some problem that would turn a simple video into a sort of memorial.  And if I felt out of my league making appointments for my dogs at the vet, I couldn’t imagine the sort of air-sucking uncertainty that would come from such a diagnosis.  The story made me feel this small moment of panic and maybe even despair before I pushed it down and forced myself back to the few moments of revelry we had before bath time and sleep.

The story kept popping into my head, though, over the next few days.  And then on Saturday, in a rare occasion, I was able to attend a staged reading of a new musical-in-progress called Proof at Z Space here in San Francisco.  The show, being written by the folk rock duo The Bengsons, is about a couple who, shortly after being married, finds out that the husband has a rare wasting disease that gives him only a short while to live.  In their despair they grasp about for how to handle this new fact, especially so soon in their young relationship, and they decide to gather in their apartment everything they can think of that they might need live out the next sixty years that they should have had in one year, lock themselves away, and live their lives on fast forward.

They distill their relationship down to those memorable moments that matter most—sledding down a hill (actually their stairs), boating on a lake (actually their couch)—creating for themselves, as he wastes away slowly, a fantasy world in their heads that encompasses an entire year of the best moments of a relationship that can’t actually happen.

Proof is a myth in the true, grand sense.  Heroes go on a journey, dance with death, experience magical moments and impossible phenomena, navigate a maze in a living room.  It has echoes of Hero and Leander, Orpheus and Eurydice, Baucis and Philemon.  There’s the sending off of a loved one into an endless sea from the Norse myths and the impossible climbing of an ever-growing mountain from Sisyphus.  And of course there’s the momentary break-up, the loyal best friend, the whirlwind of romantic love—some of our favorite modern-mythic tropes.

Recently, I’ve been spending some time dipping back into a book I first read a few years ago, Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth.  As the title implies, it is a short (though not dry) series of chapters walking through the role and nature of myths and mythology in human existence.  It was published as part of a series of modern retellings of myths from the likes of Jeanette Winterson, Chinua Achebe and Margaret Atwood.

I’m re-reading the book because when I read it the first time I came away with this incredibly powerful impression about what Armstrong had to say about the place of art in modern society.  Basically, Armstrong argues that myth was in many ways the ordering impulse in human existence for most of time until the dawn of the so-called Age of Reason, when mythological explanations were supplanted by data-based efforts to explain every aspect of the universe.  This adoption of science and analytics as the whole basis for explanation of the universe (for many in the population) has led to much uncertainty and a lack of hope and harmony.  In the modern context, Armstrong argues, the creation and consumption of art has essentially rushed in to fill that void.

As Armstrong says:

“Today the word ‘myth’ is often used to describe something that is simply not true…When we hear of gods walking the earth, of dead men striding out of tombs, or of seas miraculously parting to let a favored people escape from their enemies, we dismiss these stories as incredible and demonstrably untrue…We have developed a scientific view of history; we are concerned above all with what actually happened…but mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.”

Elsewhere, she puts it more bluntly:

“Myth shows us how we should behave.”

Proof, like the best that theatre can provide, is real and surreal all at once.  As I sat watching the Bengsons perform their songs—the wails of grief, the yipping of joy, the throbbing hum and thump of the folk rock score under abstracted lyrics—and watched this couple take this journey together, like Theseus and Ariadne following the string out of the minotaur’s maze, I got a little more clarity about some of the things that were upsetting me.  I learned a little bit about how grief looks, and what true love looks like in the face of impending tragedy.  I didn’t solve any of my worries, not really, but I saw them in a new light.  We can’t, any of us, truly live a life in a year, but we can take that spirit and run with it, should the need arise.

Seeing Proof reenergized me in a way I can’t really describe.  When I got home and attempted to describe what happened to me at Z Space to my husband, I couldn’t do it, not successfully.  I began describing the story of Proof and realized it all just sounded so morbid, even as what I had seen was so loving and even celebratory.  I realized I was describing the reality that the piece was about, not its essence—I was talking about the plot, not the myth behind it.

It turns out that myth is indeed uncertain, and can waiver and change as our needs and fears as a society waiver and change.  It reflects and distills the best advice, the most aspirational hope, that we as a society have to offer in the face of shame and fear and anger.  And if we’ve truly lost our mythology, as Karen Armstrong suggests, then we really are in need of a strong dose of art.

As she closes the book, Armstrong notes that art, “like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest.”  Even as Proof is in some ways a story of incessant navel gazing—of two people walling themselves off from the world and engaging in an intimate lightning-fast imitation of future decades—what makes it, and much art, so powerful is its ability to show us, in those narrowly-personal moments, something so incredibly universal.

Which of course we, as artists and those who support artists, sort of already know.  Right?  But it’s nice to be reminded of it, I think, especially when it actually puts to rest some small part of psychic turmoil and allows some clarity.  I pray I never have to dance with my child one last time in the way that everyone prays not to be touched by death.  But even so, I take comfort in the new myths being made around me that allow me to understand the goodness of love even here, now, today.

In her last line, Armstrong gives a (soft, academic) call to arms.  She says, “If professional religious leaders can [no longer] instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world.”

So.  Let’s do it. Go forth, tell stories, bring hope.

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  1. Sasha H says

    On Sunday, Mark Swed had a piece in the LA Times that expresses a wish for similar “re-centering.” He begged for arts groups to stop trying to “scam” their audience, particularly with technology-focused marketing schemes divorced from the art and/or art experience. Read:,0,4536914.story. He wrote this in response to this earlier article in the LA Times (and particularly many of the comments from readers):,0,4513986.story.