Tragedy (not in real life, fortunately)

Have you seen The Tale of the Princess Kaguya? If you haven’t, go see it. Seriously. You don’t know what you’re missing.

Okay, have you seen it now? Good, welcome back. What was I saying again?

I’ve recently watched the latest Game of Thrones season, and belatedly treated myself to the last season of The Walking Dead, which I haven’t finished watching yet. By now everybody knows that both shows emphasise the contemporary tendency of killing off or harming characters for no reason, or having whole narrative arcs end up in complete failure, shattering the expectations of the audience. It’s got so bad, in fact, that right now I’m questioning whether I will keep watching both shows. The question I cannot answer is: why do I keep inflicting this on myself?

It’s a serious question. I find absolutely no pleasure in seeing a character I’ve grown to like get killed in the most offhand, random way the scenarists could find. I’m going to assume that neither does anybody else. So, why do we do this? There must be something we derive from it, a meaning, a message, a lasting emotion… something?

The authors of contemporary dark-and-gritty stories usually offer the same reasoning as a justification: life is harsh, the world they created is harsh, they want to gloss over no detail no matter how gruesome, and there usually is the unspoken implication that we should grow the f… up and realise that this is not a Carebear world and people die for no reason sometimes. Just like real life. That seems to make sense, at first glance. It’s arrogant, it’s patronising, it stems from the very misguided notion that audiences do believe they live in a Carebear world and the author is the one who can lift the wool from their eyes and show them what the world is really like, but it’s ultimately true: in the real world, people do die for no reason, sometimes in ugly ways, sometimes after a spectacular failure, and they don’t get to say uplifting last words to their loved ones before they go. Fair enough. I very much doubt that there are many members of an adult audience who have never in their life made a direct and traumatic encounter with death and seen how meaningless and cruel it can be, but still, fair enough. It’s still a lesson, even though it’s a useless lesson most adults have already learned by themselves.

I hate to call anything ‘gratuitous’, because most of the time, people who use that word are just personally upset by something they find unpalatable and don’t want to look any further. I’m still thinking about it. Is that what I’m doing? Are they just showing me more than I can stomach, and am I rejecting valuable works of art as a result of my upset feelings? Frankly, I’m not certain. When Shireen’s death on Game of Thrones sparked outraged reactions, the directors responded in an unsurprisingly patronising way: so you’re okay with seeing nameless characters getting burned alive, but as soon as it’s a little girl you’ve grown attached to, suddenly it’s not all right anymore? Why aren’t you outraged by the other deaths too? Are they meaningless to you? The reason I found this patronising and disingenuous is simple: of course we don’t care as much about the nameless deaths. Because that’s what your story is telling us to do. You’re writing an entire story to explain just how gruesome the world is and how death and suffering are normal parts of it. The whole point of your show is to tell us random death is normal, and you patronise us for not being outraged? But that’s how fiction works. That’s what the fiction you’re writing is trying to do. Don’t pretend otherwise.

I suppose that’s what my doubts come down to: in the end, it’s still fiction. And fiction has its own workings, of which many people are aware. When people engage with fiction, they attach meaning to it, whether you like it or not. If your story is supposed to have no point and no meaning because you want it to be just like real life, that’s still not the message most people will take away. The message we will hear is: there’s nothing you can do to make life beautiful and meaningful, and your own life is worthless and you can’t survive unless you’re an evil bastard. Which, in real life, is only true in some cases.

The beauty of real life is that you can make sense of it if you choose, but that meaning will be different for everyone. Sometimes ‘making sense’ involves believing in fate, a higher power, anything. Sometimes it just involves surviving. And to build this meaning, we always rely on fiction, whoever we are: even people who don’t read, watch movies or play games have heard stories of how things are supposed to be and what human nature is like. Stories are part of our lives, and thus meaning-making is part of our lives. When you strip that away to produce fiction that only shows meaninglessness and failure, you create something that is ultimately painful (and indeed I don’t belive that the Game of Thrones fandom gives off a very happy or healthy vibe, what with the constant anger at GRRM and the endless drama about character deaths–though of course I may be wrong), but also, perhaps, something that is not even true to life itself. Because life is not stripped of meaning. On the contrary, every single thing we do is meant to make sense of it somehow. Our lives are a collection of thousands of different goals, meanings, moralities. You can’t erase that and then claim that you’re being lucid about human nature.

I wanted to talk about the Princess Kaguya, but now I have to get back to work. I’ll be back soon–I hope.


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