Art Isn’t Supposed to Make You Comfortable

Art Isn’t Supposed to Make You Comfortable

By Jen SIlverman

When I was in college, I came across “The Sea and Poison,” a 1950s novel by Shusaku Endo. It tells the story of a doctor in postwar Japan who, as an intern years earlier, participated in a vivisection experiment on an American prisoner. Endo’s lens on the story is not the easiest one, ethically speaking; he doesn’t dwell on the suffering of the victim. Instead, he chooses to explore a more unsettling element: the humanity of the perpetrators.

When I say “humanity” I mean their confusion, self-justifications and willingness to lie to themselves. Atrocity doesn’t just come out of evil, Endo was saying, it emerges from self-interest, timidity, apathy and the desire for status. His novel showed me how, in the right crucible of social pressures, I, too, might delude myself into making a choice from which an atrocity results. Perhaps this is why the book has haunted me for nearly two decades, such that I’ve read it multiple times.

I was reminded of that novel at 2 o’clock in the morning recently as I scrolled through a social media account dedicated to collecting angry reader reviews. My attention was caught by someone named Nathan, whose take on “Paradise Lost” was: “Milton was a fascist turd.” But it was another reader, Ryan, who reeled me in with his response to John Updike’s “Rabbit, Run”: “This book made me oppose free speech.” From there, I hit the bank of “Lolita” reviews: Readers were appalled, frustrated, infuriated. What a disgusting man! How could Vladimir Nabokov have been permitted to write this book? Who let authors write such immoral, perverse characters anyway?

I was cackling as I scrolled but soon a realization struck me. Here on my screen was the distillation of a peculiar American illness: namely, that we have a profound and dangerous inclination to confuse art with moral instruction, and vice versa. Read the full essay at the New York Times.

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