Friday, July 10, 2009

March of the Morons: classic sci-fi and the mind v. the heart

March of the Morons . . . with a title like that, I had no idea what to expect. And I still don't "understand" C. M. Cornbluth's classic sci-fi tale. But the importance of understanding the work has now taken the backseat to my interest in the way the story worked on me.

First and foremost, the story had an unsettling ending that elicited a strong emotional response. By packing the story with an emotional punch, the author made me care about his work and planted a seed in me, as it were. Throughout the remainder of the afternoon, the story kept popping up again and again in my mind as I tried to make sense of my reaction. In the process of trying to understand my feelings, I contemplated the story and the themes of the work.

The lesson I learned from this experience is that the best way to get people to think about something is to make them feel something strongly, first. That's because thinking is hard work. Speaking for myself at least, people will go as far as they can go in life without thinking. Most people will overcome their slothfulness, however, to make sense of their emotions. Emotions are impossible to ignore; they demand analysis. The times in my life when I have done the most soul searching and questioning have always been the times that are the most emotionally traumatizing. And the works of art that have challenged me the most intellectually are the ones that challenged me first, emotionally.

Thanks to Cornbluth's story, I've now developed a new criterion for effective art. The most complex and satisfying art begins by triggering an emotional response and then invites and holds up to rational analysis. That last part is key. If a work of art is emotional without also being intellectually rigorous, it will come off as merely sentimental.

So far in this post, I've been writing from the perspective that emotion and reason, the mind and the heart, are two separate aspects and organs. I'm starting to believe, however, that that distinction is artificial and that the two are actually linked. The heart will not engage with a work of art if the mind does not, and vice versa. Take a story like Flaubert's A Simple Heart. Flaubert, a proponent of naturalism, wrote this story to explore the sufferings of a poor servant girl living in a cruel, Darwinian world. His stated intention with the story was to jab at the reader's conscience, to make them feel pity and empathy for the sufferings of an innocent. But the world Flaubert created in his story was so thoroughly cruel and Darwinian that the behaviors of all the characters were too predictable. The work was not intellectually challenging because there was no tension in it, it was so deterministic that one did not need to read to the ending to know how it would end. For that reason, I never cared about the poor servant girl. The story never came to life. Because the story lacked powerfully complex ideas, it didn't tug at my heart strings.

So, when it comes to the age-old debate about reason v. emotion, I'd like to chip in my two cents and say that the two are inextricably linked. When we feel a strong emotion, our mind kicks in to think about it. But we wouldn't feel that emotion in the first place if our mind were not unsettled by something. Emotion gives rise to thought, thought gives rise to emotion. They are two aspects of consciousness that go hand in hand, two sides of the same coin. When we think, we feel; when we feel, we think . . .