Not too long ago I discovered Italian Vogue online. For whatever reason, I don’t like most fashion magazines’ websites but I enjoy Vogue.IT and thankfully it is also available in English. Yesterday, in my browsing, I read an interview with the actress Jessica Chastain (from “The Tree of Life” and “The Help”) that stood out to me.
She said, “I have always known I wanted to be an actress, but my New York experience [at Julliard] made me realize that my desire had nothing to do with becoming famous or making money, I was interested in exploring the human soul, its complexity, I wanted to work to understand something about life and myself. Being an actress means being in another person’s shoes and therefore understanding what the person whose role you play feels; but also connecting with other human beings, as a mark of profound professional intimacy, that often touches the soul.”
Looking at the roles she has chosen, she seems to be true to her words. She reminded me of my grad school quest.
I had no lofty ambitions to be an actress; I was even second guessing my desire to be a writer at the time. What was driving me was the question, “Why do the Humanities (art, literature, philosophy) matter?” I couldn’t help but hear this question in the dismissive voice of Jack, my best friend Julie’s husband who is a physicist. This question was constantly in the back of my mind. At that time, there were three things that helped me begin to formulate an answer.
The first was a class I took called Narrative Thinking. It was about how stories aren’t just a method of communication. But we think and develop through stories. When we’re a child, the stories we are told are what help us to understand the world we’ve been born into. The stories we hear about ourselves shape how we understand ourselves. Eventually, the stories we begin to tell both shape how we live and are a way through which we affect the world around us.
The next came the following year when I took a class called Media , Identity and Development. The primary lecture that stood out to me was when Prof. Benavides talked about art. He said that often when people evaluate art they talk about authenticity. There are two dominate working definitions of authenticity. Some people interpret it as purity. These are the people who will say things like the only “real” rock music was from such and such era. They’re like the Christians who think 1950s culture is the hallmark of “true” Christianity. He said, “This definition of authenticity will always lead to some type of genocide. And it’s also a myth. Because everything is always influenced by something else.” But there is another type of authenticity.
When you keep coming back to a song or book or movie because something about it is so profoundly true and meaningful and genuine. This art is authentic because it connects to us honestly and intimately. “That connection, that’s love right?” He ended his soliloquy on that question.
His words echoed through “Frida” as I watched it the following evening. There is a moment in the film where Frida, an artist suffering from severe chronic pain, has a conversation with Leon Trotsky about her art. So much of her art depicts her suffering. For much of her lifetime she showed little of it, being content to allow her philandering husband’s art to be more widely seen and praised. Trotsky says to her, “You’ve said that no one would care about your paintings but I think you are wrong. Your paintings express what everyone feels. That they are alone in pain.” This is why he felt she needed to show her art, because others would connect to it in their own pain.
The conclusion I eventually came to, with the help of Narrative Thinking, Prof. Benavides and “Frida,” is that the Humanities (art, philosophy, literature) matter because their purpose is to do what Chastain realized she desires: to explore the human soul, in all its complexity. To come to understand something about life and ourselves, often through the medium of story, and in the process to find ourselves deeply and genuinely connecting with other people in their disparate and yet intimately connected lives. And that connection, that’s love right?