“It becomes its own Thing”: Lisa Simpson on Aesthetics
Occasionally I’ll get bored enough to watch a DVD commentary. Either that or I’m just too lazy to take one DVD out, march upstairs to my library (shelf, really) and find another one. People talking over a movie isn’t all that appealing to me (aside from the Mystery Science Theater riffs). That said, I did hear something that stuck with me awhile back when listening to a commentary track for a Simpsons DVD.
It was said by Yeardley Smith, the woman who plays Lisa Simpson. Like most professional voice actors, she also has a distinctive speaking voice. Adenoidal might be the best way to describe it, high-pitched but more adorable than grating, well this side of Minnie Mouse. Betty Boop might be a more apt comparison, although there isn’t that weird neotenous sexpot thing happening with Yeardley that bombshell Betty had going.
In the commentary in question, Yeardley and some other Simpsons staff were watching an episode, maybe The Old Man and the Lisa (a bona fide classic). Someone asked her, “So when you watch an episode, do you see Lisa and think of her as you?”
“No,” Ms. Smith replied. “Because it becomes its own thing.”
I think what she meant was that her own voice, her contribution, was subsumed in the overall effort, interweaved with the craftsmanship of the animators, other voice actors, and the musical cues and stings provided by the underrated film and TV composer Alf Clausen.
The work of art itself, when properly done, provides relief from the burden of ego and self-consciousness, and all the other petty vagaries that come with being a human being. Art is something made by people, but when done well, sincerely and with great effort and care, we find ourselves seeing the work alone and not the creator behind it. That is ultimately the beauty of art, relief from the burden of being in the struggle that comes with being a person “flattened by trivialities,” as Charles Bukowski once put it. When we interact with each other our guards are up, as if we are in a competition, and at the most basic level we are. For resources, for praise, for jobs, and, at the most primal level, for mates.
Art allows us to filter out the extraneous and ugly things about human need and desire that mar communication (even when the work of art in question is focused on human ugliness). It allows us to establish a link with another human that is unburdened by the weight of all this normally heavy baggage. Inferior works of art remind us of all the things we can’t stand about other people and ourselves. How many bad movies have you seen in which you could sense the mercenary nature of everyone involved, the shallowness of the actors and vapidity of the director and screenwriter, buffered by and beholden to nothing greater than momentary trends?
Hell may be other people, as Sartre said, but I think Bradbury was right when he suggested we could stay perma-drunk (without the hangover) on the words (and the songs and the films) of others.
I think we all struggle with some fears of inferiority, fears that we’re talentless (no matter our level of success or the praise heaped on us or our works that are supposed to serve as concrete benchmarks of our accomplishments). And when we encounter something good created by someone else, the admiration carries a slight undercurrent of jealousy, the threat that our fear of being frauds is going to be exposed in the presence of the real thing. It’s best to just be honest about this. “It was good and I was jealous,” is how Bukowski put it in Ham on Rye when he wrote about his first time reading a story written by his best friend, a fellow aspiring scribe. It’s a sentence not many would be honest enough to write, and a feeling not everyone would even be eager to cop to. To be fair, maybe some of us are actually above such pettiness. Not me, at any rate.
Here’s the thing, though: while encountering something good might bring these residual and myriad petty feelings to the surface, when I encounter something great I forget that it was created by a person. My disbelief is suspended and my ego goes with it. Greatness is so rare that when I encounter it, I’m relieved to find that it still exists, no matter the source (well, maybe if my younger brother wrote a great book, I might have to kick his ass).
But here’s the other thing: that same egoless spirit in which I received the work was probably the one in which it was conceived. This is the reason, I think, that someone like Norman Mailer could never really craft a great novel (no matter what prize committees or critics say): he was too consciously trying to aspire to greatness to subordinate him and his talent to let something shine through him rather than trying to shine in and of himself.
In his book How to write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card points out that the main difference between poetry and fiction is that fiction impresses at the subconscious level, while poetry has its most striking effect in a much more manifest manner.
You read a great poem and think That’s great. You read a great book and think, I believed that. Or, I was transported by that. Your admiration for the author only begins once the book is closed. The experience and not the creator is the focus. Felt everywhere and seen nowhere, as I think Zola or Flaubert said.
And if you write a great book or a great poem, what do you feel then?
Hell, don’t ask me. I have no idea. When I read something I wrote, and I don’t wince and feel a sense of shame, that’s victory enough for me.
Maybe one day I can get to the place where Tolstoy was on his deathbed when his daughter (I think) pulled a book down from the shelves in his paneled library and proceeded to read a passage to him.
“That’s beautiful,” Tolstoy supposedly said after she finished. “Who wrote that?”
“You did,” his daughter replied. But he had written it so long ago that only now, on his deathbed, could see his work with fresh eyes, a Christian death absolving him not only of his sins in this world but the usual and pesky interposition of his (overly)critical faculty.
Half the battle is won or lost in getting to that point where your characters, previously puppets, start to caper around like voodoo dolls, animated by something besides your fingers on the keyboard or the ego lodged in some secret chamber of your mind.
Some writers claim it’s an artistic defect in control to let the characters dance too far free of the leash, while others claim that when the creation slips its tether, that’s where the fun starts.
Maybe that’s the key. Forget about creating something great. Have fun, instead, amuse yourself first and then go from there.