Enjoying, enjoy, enjoys; particularly the past tense, enjoyed. The first instinct when leaving a movie theater with someone else: “Well, I really enjoyed that. Did you enjoy it?” Over dinner with friends that night: “Oh, we saw that movie earlier today — we really enjoyed it.” Or on Facebook: “Just saw this! A lot of fun!”
Maybe I’m the only one who feels this way — I admit, almost everything I’m going to say in this piece runs the risk of sounding a bit snobby — but it seems to me that our language of pleasure in the face of art has undergone a severe reduction. I may be exaggerating how small the vocabulary is, but I don’t think by much. We talk about enjoying, or not enjoying, and that’s about it.
The extremity of this is what, I think, led me to basically stop talking about the pleasure of a work. I assumed that there just wasn’t much to say about pleasure; you enjoyed something or you didn’t, and that was about the end of it. (This, in turn, led friends to have basically no idea whether or not I liked something from what I said about it.)
I think I started to notice that something was missing when I was struck with what I’ll call Netflix paralysis. (It’s remarkable we don’t have a name for an experience that seems so common.) It can strike on any streaming site, or any time you have to pick between a large number of media choices. There’s just too much — so I end up watching nothing.
I suspect that what is at play here is the reduction of all pleasure to a single term (concept, mode, whatever). To the extent that all artistic pleasure is not just comparable but qualitatively equivalent, distinct only in quantity, then there is suddenly a best choice out there. You can make a wrong choice, picking X when you would have gotten a lot more pleasure out of Y — a paralyzing thought in particular for someone with Asperger’s, like me.1
All this has been in my mind recently, mostly because of The Company We Keep, by the great late-20th century literary critic Wayne C. Booth. Booth is a curious case, more assigned to grad students than read. It is perhaps a shame that his most significant books, like Company, are so long (too long — easily half of Company’s 500 pages could be cut). If read at the right time, they might save certain undergrads years of unhealthy delusions. It is also unfortunate that they, in particular Company and his earlier The Rhetoric of Fiction, are mired in particular debates of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s in literary studies; every few pages, he has to turn and fire a few potshots at the already-retreating deconstructionists.
What matters is not the particulars of Booth’s argument, which is somewhat shaky and reliant on a creaky commitment to defending the Great Works.2 What is important about the book, though, is that it suggests the validity of ethical criticism — genuine ethical criticism, a widespread criticism that would not merely apply to the most outré cases.
There is an understandable fear when we begin to talk about ethics that we are talking about censorship. Few want to be on the side of the naggers, and most want to be on the side of the laissez-faire when it comes to the consumption of art outside a classroom.
I have no interest in re-fighting that fight, so I am going to distinguish between a morality of watching and an ethics of watching. A morality of watching is about forbidding; it is the source of Comstocks and Nancy Reagans. Morality of watching is more about forbidding certain topics: sex and violence, mostly, with any number of implicit tag-along passengers (poverty presented in anything but the most pure way, for example).
Here’s where I want to start from, to avoid this kind of moralizing: that while a morality of watching is about watching itself — that is, these are materials that must be kept out of the hands of those who would watch it and be corrupted — an ethics of watching is about re-watching.
To judge without watching is to talk nonsense — although I’ll expand on this later. To forbid others watch after watching yourself is to place yourself as a kind of moral authority: I can handle watching this without being corrupted, but you can’t. That belief that some people are too pure to be corrupted is insidious and has a million gross consequences. But when it comes to me making an ethical judgment about a work of art, it has to come down to me knowing what the work is already.
To continue, let me pick a specific example somewhat arbitrarily — mostly just because it’s what I watched last night: Fellini’s 8½. It’s a movie that deserves all the praise it gets: it’s effortlessly fun, beautiful, and pleasantly shocking, like a sudden rainstorm. It’s also a movie that is, at its heart, about a misogynist: Marcello Mastroianni as Guido, a film director who is using his latest production as an opportunity to cheat on his wife, reminisce about a past sexual encounter with a prostitute, and fantasize about living in a harem with all the women he meets, a fantasy that literally ends with him whipping them back into subjection.
Is it a misogynist movie? By no means. Guido comes off as somewhat pathetic, trapped in a childish state, trying to re-enact the day as a child that he ordered a prostitute to dance for him. (It is no coincidence that he does his mistress’ makeup in the same way as the prostitute). It would be a gross mistake to simply say that the film is about celebrating Guido.
And yet, we spend the entire movie essentially in his head. We fantasize with him, and all the brilliant visual touches are in service of him: the final, justly famous moments, in which all the characters dance to circus music, are really just a recapitulation of his harem fantasy.
And so, I left the movie with a slightly bitter taste in my mouth. The question is not whether I regret watching the movie; at the very least, I can stop putting off watching it. The question is whether, knowing what it is, I would re-watch it. To re-watch it, right now, would say something about what virtues I value.
Virtue is an important word here. Thinking of valuation in terms of virtues is, I believe, one of the most important things Booth does in his book, and what I think is missing in valuating art exclusively on a scale of “enjoyment”. 8½ possesses a number of what we might call second-order virtues, something like excellences of expression. One could spend weeks dissecting the cleverness of the particular episodes, each of which builds on the last without creating a coherent sense of reality.
But it’s worth distinguishing those from what we might call first-order virtues, those things in service of which the second-order virtues are virtuous. A skillful presentation of horrible ideas is not worthy of praise. And to that question I wonder: do I really want to again spend 2 hours exploring the head of a misogynist? It’s not that it shouldn’t have been done — again, the movie presents Guido’s sexism as essentially infantile — but a matter of choosing in whose head one should spend one’s time.
I’ll almost certainly watch 8½ again, though, at some point. Why? Because I think it’s worth thinking of these judgments not as anything final, but as guesses, or bets. Right now, my gut reaction to the movie is this: that I bet if I watched this movie again, right now, I wouldn’t see any more active sympathy or interest in the female characters than I did last night, and that I would instead spend 2 hours exploring the psyche of a sexist.
But who knows what may happen in the future to make me change that formulation. I might come to bet that this time I may find more to them, or that the delight in the pure brilliance of form is enough for me to like it — that in future viewings, what seemed to be second-order virtues this time may become first-order virtues. Or I may watch more of Fellini’s other movies and come to believe that there was probably more in the women’s characters than I acknowledged, based on his sympathies elsewhere.
To extend this idea of betting a little bit more, and circle back to the idea of virtue being a matter of re-watching: It is extremely unlikely to me that I will ever watch another Friday the 13th movie. I’ve seen a few scattered entries, and found them cruel and vicious, lacking in even the virtues of the other classic slasher series (like Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street).
By choosing not to watch those other movies, I am making an ethical decision: it would be a bad idea to watch them, and a good idea not to. I can say to Friday the 13th Part III that I have no interest in watching it because I have seen the movie before — when it was called Friday the 13th, or Friday the 13th Part II. In other words, as long as we are using a language of “betting” that one won’t find something redeeming on a re-watch, one can use the same language to “bet” that the third movie in a slasher series won’t offer anything the earlier movies wouldn’t — or that another movie in a low-budget genre won’t offer anything that similar movies in the genre wouldn’t.
Here is the appeal of thinking in virtue language: virtues are not so easily commensurable. To watch something with virtues (and I’m talking about real artistic virtues here, not merely “moral instruction”) is enjoyable, and the reason to do it is in both the fact that it has a virtue and in the fact that it is enjoyable. (Some philosophers would say that that is two ways of saying the same thing.)
But it allows us to acknowledge the infinite flavors of “enjoy”. It lets us be aware of the way that enjoying a Godard movie is unlike enjoying Lady Bird, without trying to pick one or the other. It allows us to pick something from an overwhelming plurality of choices without trying to “optimize” our pleasure.
And it is, if nothing else, a way to talk about enjoyment without just saying: “I enjoyed that one a lot. Did you enjoy it?”
1 “Quantitative thinking” about media enjoyment like this is too large of a sea change for its causes to be easily examined, so I won’t spend too much time doing that here. However, while I think Rotten Tomatoes (and later, Metacritic) was responding to a growing trend, I definitely believe it encouraged the spread of this way of thinking.
2 Booth’s self-awareness is hit-and-miss; the entire book was inspired by his attempt to convince a black fellow professor of literature that he should not think Huckleberry Finn is racist, but he does acknowledge in other sections his biases.