art of surprise


In Bernardo Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution, one of my favorite movies, the young protagonist, Fabrizio—he’s in his early twenties—is torn between the doctrinaire Marxism he’s vowed to commit his life to—the revolution he professes to believe in with all his heart and soul—and the bourgeois pleasures that, presumably, the revolution is meant to put an end to. He’s so serious-minded—that is, he takes himself so seriously—that he can’t just admit that, like most of us, he’s easily seduced by sensual delights and youthful frivolities, which his sober politics are too narrow to permit. But he loves arguing about American movies over coffee with his (non-Marxist) friends and the bustling squares and antique architecture of Parma, where he grew up in a very comfortable home, and going to the opera with his family in the magnificent opera house that was built for the kind of people he’s not supposed to approve of. Truth be told, Fabrizio is a terrible fraud. And if he weren’t, if he were really as pure of mind and straight of purpose as he wants to believe he is, then we wouldn’t identify with him, and we wouldn’t sympathize with him.

The art I love most dearly emerges from an acknowledgment that we’re none of us pure of either mind or heart. It’s the art of mixed tones—buffoonery mixed with regret, as in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro; comic absurdity mixed with heartache, as in Chekhov’s stories; salvation that appears improbably out of despair, as in Shakespeare’s King Lear, or when all hope is lost, as in The Winter’s Tale.

more from The American Scholar here.