How much does you being moved by a work of art — be it a book, a game, a song, you name it — depend on your willingness to be moved by it? Above and beyond the craftsmanship brought to the table in the work’s creation?
This can be asked so pettily, and I don’t mean it to come across that way. At all. Lately I’ve been so frustrated, across mediums, when I bring something bright and shining to someone and say look, just look at this amazing thing! And the immediately response is, essentially, a lackluster sniff. “Eh, it’s ohkay.”
It could have been better.
The prose could’ve been tighter.
Those scenes were unnecessary.
That color palette is so derivative.
Etc. etc. Okay but. But. Guys. Do you feel nothing?
Because I want to feel everything. All the things! And I know that, going in. I block off whole days in which to experience DLC. I time my reading of the final chapters of a book so no one can see my sniffly reaction to it. I carefully arrange the angle of my face and hair in movie theaters, so no one can see me having feelings. When I love something, I fucking love it. I want everyone else to love it too. Or, to hate it! So we can argue. Because I love arguing (especially when I win). But to have just a “meh” response? To next to every piece of art you encounter? Who does that? And how is the answer to that question increasingly “Pretty much everyone. I guess. I dunno, who keeps track anyway. Keeping track is dumb.”
Is it defensiveness? Do people not want to be moved by things, lest it render them vulnerable? Is it hauteur? Since if everything’s beneath you, you have no reason to aspire to rise above and do better? Is it that? Because it has to be something.
And whatever it is, I hate it.
Admittedly, I am not without partisanship here. I want to be moved by things. I actively seek out work that will do so. As I grow older I’ve become less interested in the technical details of a work — its proper use of the subjunctive case; whether or not there were too many ships — and more interested in the end result. Am I weeping, when the tale comes to a close? Yes? Is it because the characters were so fantastic and now they’re gone? Yes? I had a good time, then. Majesty was achieved, in my heart, if not on the page, according to prize committees or your English teacher or something.
It could just be that I’m a sap. That’s completely possible! Let us never rule that out! But it could also be that people suck. And that the level of suckage is increasing, for whatever reason. If it were just millennials doing this then the cop-out answer would be “it’s their irony, duh!” But it’s not just millennials. It stretches across age groups. And I don’t understand why.
You want to see something majestic? Watch the intro to Civilization VI. I may have grown up playing these games, but I stopped for a long while, first due to a dissatisfaction with the lack of closeness to the world, and then — with college, I guess — a creeping unease with the plasticity imposed upon cultures I was taught formed the way they did for specific reasons. I wasn’t, admittedly, willing to suspend my disbelief, I guess. How could you play one historical character fixated in a specific point in time, who comes to stand over millennia as a figurehead not just for her one moment of grandeur, but for the entire history of her people? No one stands the test of time like that. We just don’t. I found bizarre the first-person address in the loading screen in Civ 5, telling us personally that we were to set about founding a civilization…which would, if things went well, last well into the space age. Yes but I won’t! I thought, not quietly. No way! And of course you wouldn’t. The plucking of people from the past is a way to give form to the otherwise too-vast, too mercurial nature of a people. If I am Cleopatra at the dawn of time, and I am Cleopatra as I stare down at my factories belching smoke into the desert air, I am not Cleopatra the person but Cleopatra the life force, the vitality behind a people. I’m the face on the coins, not the butt on the throne. That butt, historically speaking, would’ve died out eons ago.
Does it matter that you don’t know if that’s his wife or his daughter? (I read it as daughter, which is why I choked up in the original trailer, where I conflated the picture pan into the same picture, where she was a kid.) Does it matter that the people you see at first are long dead by the time the people you see last head to space? That visual continuity does, here, the same thing it did in Cloud Atlas: bridges, emotionally, the gap across time and generations at which I’d usually despair. Don’t pull me so far back from the people, I’d think. I want to see their individual struggles and I can’t, from this level. I have to imagine them. But with that visual continuity, it’s given to me. Forced on me, some would say. But I appreciate it. I want there to be people with faded polaroids of family members pinned inside their tiny capsules, beyond which lurks a cold, vacuum-sealed death. I want their tiny points of light to be, indeed, tiny, and fierce.
Preserving that knowledge, nurturing it, despite a top-down view of a map full of hexagons, where individuals are too small to even be seen, is an achievement. And while there is obviously a place for critique, and there always should be, one shouldn’t confuse critique with cynicism. The former is constructive and insightful. The latter is just being a dick and calling it wise. And while culture may reward you for it, you’re gonna be worse off. You’re gonna feel less. Maybe try feeling something once and a while. Try.