Stories We Hear Again and Again

Deal W. Hudson
December 7, 2014

We welcome the retelling of traditional stories because we are always seeking both to understand and endure the stories we inhabit and ultimately the narrative which is our entire life. Why else would both the main characters in Casablanca, played by Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, ask for the same song to be played over and over? The subtext of “Play it again, Sam” is, “I am still trying to understand, to put the pieces of my life together.”

miracle

Why are we able to enjoy a movie that we have already seen, or tell a well-known story whose outcome we already know? My son, Cyprian, and I sat down over the weekend to watch the 2004 film, Miracle, starring Kurt Russell, about the 1978 victory of the US hockey team over the Soviets at the Lake Placid Olympics.

I had seen this movie at least two times. I knew the ending and several of the key plot points along the way, but I was completely absorbed watching all of it for 2 hours and 15 minutes. So was Cyprian, who knew the US was going to win because I had told him, and we both were disappointed when there were no “extras’ to watch on the DVD.

Much of the reason we were enthralled by the film was that it was extremely well-made, with Kurt Russell as the US coach, Herb Brooks, taking on the entire hockey establishment with his commitment to beat the Soviets, perhaps the greatest hockey team of all time. Not only was the story of the 1978 victory familiar to us but also the narrative trope of the underdog winning in spite of the odds, in spite of the resistance against him. In this case, it was Herb Brooks and his college hockey players overcoming the resistance of his own colleagues as well as the Soviet hockey team.

We knew everything that was going to happen in that film, but for two hours we were completely in the grasp of the storytelling, skillfully directed by Gavin O’Connor. It must be the case that our appreciation of art, whether a film, a novel or a painting is not found in its presentation of the new, per se. All art, with the exception of kitsch, offers its audience something new in the way the familiar is represented on stage, on the movie screen, on a canvas, or in a book.

When the human form was contorted in cubes by Picasso in his 1907 painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, his audience, no matter how shocked or delighted by the new cubist style, still recognized the human figures, the Young Woman, i.e., prostitutes of Avignon. Indeed, it would have been a superficial critic who applauded Picasso for the stylistic invention if it had not succeeded in revealing something interesting about the young woman it depicts.

In other words, we know in general what a young prostitute might look like, that’s not new. But Picasso succeeded by his new style in depicting the harsh realities of a prostitute’s life. One might say an artist employs the new, his creativity, to re-imagine or re-present what we are already familiar with, and in doing so offers us insight, or greater clarity, into the subject of the work. (Obviously, this description would be amended in the case of totally abstract works.)

Once we have it that art reproduces the human, nature, and the spirit we can appreciate how Aristotle in his Poetics captured the aesthetic experience with his description of Greek tragedy involving the “catharsis of pity and fear.” What we can tease out of this highly compressed statement is important for two reasons: first, the viewer undergoes an experience called a catharsis, and, second, that catharsis has something to do with “pity and fear.” Thus, even without defining precisely what Aristotle meant, we know that for him tragedy was about the human experience, about what we all face along the way, from the impact of misfortune to the consequences of our own mistakes, especially the mistake of pride.

Allow me to use Aristotle’s discussion of tragedy to apply to the arts in general, especially those that employ narratives such as film, novels, and paintings. What Aristotle meant by the “catharsis of pity and fear” is precisely what answers my original question: how we can enjoy a story we’ve already been told. First of all, the human stories we meet in the art are very finite.

I once came across a writer who had created a list of all possible human narratives, and it wasn’t very long. Secondly, these narratives are familiar, along with the emotions and worries that accompany them. Aristotle’s “pity and fear” represent the common thoughts and emotions we all have when, for example, a son rebels against his father, or young lovers disobey their parents, and so on.

We can enjoy, even be riveted, by the retelling of these human stories because their artistic representation, if skillfully made, provides us greater clarity, i.e., catharsis, about the dynamics of that story, our story, thus allaying our predictable emotions and worries about being faced with that situation ourselves.

Catharsis is not an emotional purgation, it is an experience of clarity, of insight, that in making sense of the human condition allows us at least a moment of relief from the anxieties that we bear from day to day. In fact, we welcome the retelling of traditional stories because we are always seeking both to understand and endure the stories we inhabit and ultimately the narrative which is our entire life.

Why else would both the main characters in Casablanca, played by Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, ask for the same song to be played over and over? The subtext of “Play it again, Sam” is, “I am still trying to understand, to put the pieces of my life together.”

© Deal W. Hudson

By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

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