We could and should violate the orderly logic and discipline of the story, but we must never ever violate what constitutes the exclusive and essential character of a person, that is, his personality, his way of being, his own, unmistakable nature.

This is from José Saramago’s novel The Cave. One meaning it has for me is that art is relentless. Every artwork develops (in the course of its creation) its own exclusive and essential character, its own personality, its own way of being, its own, unmistakable nature. If it doesn’t have that, what’s the point?

The artist then must be true to everything that’s in the work of art. If someone in a novel — a character the readers like (and whom the novelist may like as well) — has to die, then that character must die. If a composer hoped a piece of music would be pretty, and suddenly it isn’t, (because of how its inner nature suddenly developed), then the music won’t be pretty. Novelists often describe what this is like by saying that their characters develop lives of their own, but it’s true for every art, music most definitely not excepted.

Weak art either doesn’t have its own, unmistakable nature, or else isn’t true to the essential character it starts with. A small example: the movie version of The Devil Wears Prada, a film so disarming, so entertaining, that it hardly needs criticism. But at the end, it tries to have its cake and also eat it, to be realistic about something not exactly pleasant, but also show a happier alternative. The world of fashion, depicted in the film, is a snakepit. The naïve heroine succeeds in that world, discovers that she’s lost her soul, quits, and then finds her truer self by working for a newspaper.

But that won’t work. The newspaper, the “New York Mirror,” is of course a major metropolitan daily. In real life, a place like that might be just as much a snakepit as any major fashion magazine.

So a fully artful movie would have shown the woman tested once again. Art (as opposed to fairy tales, which also have their place) should be relentless. Happy endings should be realistic, earned, and just a bit provisional.

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  1. ken nielsen - sydney says

    Hmmm. That needs thought – which I guess was what you intended.

    I am currently studying Mozart’s Idomeneo for a production in Sydney. In particular, I have read widely about the origins of the story.

    Just reading the libretto, the plot does have a nice unity. But the myth on which it is based has been changed by many authors. The happy ending was added by Varesco for Mozart’s opera – previously it was a tragic ending.

    Does this fot with the theory?

    Maybe opera in an exception.

    Well, you’ve showed me one thing — I don’t remember Idomeneo well enough to know if I feel the happy ending makes sense. In the context of the rest of the opera, that is. Happy endings, in themselves, aren’t a problem. I’ve been reading a lot of Saramago lately (my new favorite writer), and he often has happy endings, which sometimes even come as a surprise. But they’re always grounded in everything the story has shown us. I doubt that opera is an exception to anything in art — but, at many points in its long history, it wasn’t treated very artistically. The silliest happy ending in operatic history has to be the one tacked onto Rossini’s Otello, when Shakespeare’s catastrophic climax was declared unacceptable.