Diary 2016 (Jan 27th)-Missing the context

Another chain of thoughts sparked by a news article. I was reading about a peace deal between the Colombian government and FARC. ( Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). I didn’t know much about FARC and still don’t know. But I went through the Wiki article. The organization was born during a period known as ‘La Violencia’.

Now, it turns out that La Violencia is a recurring motif in the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He was probably the first Latin American author I read. I devoured 5–6 of his books during last two years of high school and first year of undergrad. I adored him but I had no idea of the historical, political environment in which he was writing. Does it hamper our appreciation of fiction when we are not aware of the context?

I believe fiction is capable of delineating truths, which non-fiction cannot even attempt to approach. The moment someone touches pen to paper or finger to keyboard, absolute objectivity becomes an illusion. Even reporting facts is not objective, as you have to choose which facts to present. Here, fiction has an advantage. It can dive into the morass, dissect events in a way good non-fiction cannot, because it is constrained by the demands of balance and objectivity.

Though I did know anything about the history of Colombia, Marquez’s writing had something potent, with universal resonance. But I still felt I had missed out on something. The first time I felt it was when I learnt about the 1967 Detroit riots. A year earlier, I had read Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. A few chapters of the book are set around the riots. But at that time, I didn’t know anything about them. I didn’t have the slightest clue about the racial politics in the US.

Cahiers du Cinema came out with the auteur theory for cinema during the 1950s. It basically said that a movie reflects or should reflect the director’s personal vision. It implied that to truly appreciate a movie, you have to understand where a director is coming from, his personal and not personal backstories. There are cinema-specific problems with it. But in general, as a theory for art, I don’t think it is universal. Context can add to the appreciation of a movie or a book, but if it is necessary, then there is something lacking in the work itself. A good example would be the best of the highly referential Tarantino movies. You do not need to be aware of a single one of the references, homages. Though knowing them might add to the experience.

But then again, I am unable to tell anything about visual arts. I think a bit of knowledge of art history, the different schools, periods etc. might be helpful. To counter that you could say that if you can’t ‘connect’ with it, then you can’t.

Also, how much context can you really expect to get. In an incredibly good year, reading two books a week, maybe you can reach 100 books a year. Fifty incredibly good years would add up to 5000, which is a minuscule number.

You could always Google it and get a crash course. But that also is not a clear solution. In an episode of Louie, Louie CK takes his daughter to see a play on Broadway. They have this conversation after they exit the theatre:

Louie: Give me your phone. Let me have it.
Daughter: Why?
Louie: Because enough already.
Daughter: What are you talking about?
Louis: You know… you’re lucky to live in this city. You’re lucky to get to see stuff like that. You’re lucky to be alive at all.
Daughter: So?
Louie: Well, so, in the most devastating moment in the play, I look over and you’re texting with your friends. It’s gross.
Daughter: I wasn’t texting!
Louie: It’s gross. It’s really gross. I saw you! I saw you texting!
Daughter: No, you saw me reading about the play.
Louie: How do you appreciate a play and Google it at the same time? 
Daughter: Because it was a great play and I wanted to know more about it while I was watching it. Do you even know anything about the play?
Louie: Ya… it’s…a 1960s thing with a…
Daughter: Did you know that this play was banned in Russia and in Israel? Did you know that, after he wrote it, Shelby thought about killing himself? Did you know that he rewrote the ending ’cause he was afraid that it would cause other depressed people to kill themselves? Don’t you wonder what that original ending was?
Louie: But you missed the one thing… when the kid said that thing, you missed it!
Daughter: No. I didn’t. He said, “I wish I were dead. That’s the truest thing I know.” It was really sad. And it was beautiful. I didn’t cry like you ‘cause I’m not a baby. But just because I can appreciate something on two levels doesn’t mean I don’t deserve to have my phone.

Louie prefers to immerse himself in the play itself. But for his daughter, what’s happening on the stage is not enough. She feels she can appreciate it at two levels. Maybe, focusing on the content should be the priority. But knowing the context is wonderful. When you love a book or a work of visual art or a song, it’s a thrill to learn more about the conditions in which it was created. Though I would say googling during a play is still not the right way to go.

This raises the question, if some context is good, when is the best time for acquiring it. Before, during or after the movie, book, play etc. I don’t follow any specific rules. I prefer to read the book first, before watching movie adaptations and read up on an art-house director I discover before jumping into his oeuvre. When I started watching world-cinema first, I found the pre-reading very useful. Now I tend to rely less on it. I usually read up on the movie and director afterwards. With a book, I find breaking off in between to read about the author to be distracting. I leave detailed book introductions also for the end.

Not all context is equally important. Sometimes, the work should be allowed to speak for itself. To take an example, when Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for literature, he was criticized by Chinese artists and authors for not actively opposing the Chinese government and supporting dissidents. I read a few of his novels. They savagely tear apart the government policies and people’s acquiescence through a mix of surrealism and an earthy realism . Hence, it is interesting but irrelevant to me that Mo Yan hand-copied Mao Zedong’s Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the speech, which described the writer’s responsibility to place politics before art. It is a good joke to me that his pen name means ‘don’t speak’. On the other hand, knowledge of a brief outline of 20th-century Chinese history would be invaluable in my eyes in enjoying his books.

Like most such questions, it is likely there is no absolute answer. What kind of context is important and when would it add the most is also subjective. I would lean towards assigning greater importance of the work itself. That doesn’t mean I would reject additional background information when I chance upon it. I am still trying to figure it out.