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Can a Story Save Your Life?

by Littlewit Philips 17 days ago in humanity · updated 16 days ago

Is there any non-fatal way that Aaron Burr could learn that the world was wide enough for Hamilton and himself? Burr himself wrote that art could have changed his life, but I cannot help but treat his claims with some skepticism. But if Burr is wrong, what is the power of art? Does it have a point, or are we just wasting out time on something vapid?

Can a Story Save Your Life?
Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

Towards the end of the stage musical Hamilton, in a song following Aaron Burr's killing of the titular character, Aaron Burr expresses regret by saying that, "The world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me."

This tragic scene popularized an obscure quote from an obscure early-American politician. It is true that Aaron Burr wrote a variation on those words when he wrote that, "Had I read Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me." (Emphasis mine)

It's worth remembering that when Hamilton first erupted onto the stage back in 2015 many of the primary figures within the play were not well-known within American pop culture. There were plans to remove Alexander Hamilton from the 10 dollar bill, for instance, and his now-notorious rival was little more than a Jeopardy! question.

Lin-Manuel Miranda had the unique opportunity to shape the pop culture perception of these figures, whether he realized it at the time or not, and he chose to end Aaron Burr's story on a sympathetic note. In time, Miranda suggests, Burr learned regret and maybe even remorse. In Burr's own words, had he focused his attention on different aspects in the arts, Hamilton's life would have been spared (as well as Burr's own legacy within history).

By Barry Weatherall on Unsplash

I wonder if this particular side-note in Aaron Burr's legacy appealed to Lin-Manuel Miranda for the same reason that it appeals to me: it places the arts in a respectful place. It takes on meta-textual impact when we realize that this is another form of the arts and here is the opportunity to learn from Burr's mistake. It's as if Miranda is inviting the audience to consider the tragic heroes of his play and recognize the danger of hubris. They become cautionary figures, and this allows Miranda to act almost like a prophet. There is something heroic about the idea that a story can bend the course of history, and that reading more thoughtful could have changed the course of American politics. Since Miranda is a writer (and I am a writer, although this feels a bit like comparing an albatross to a mosquito because they are both flying animals), I can imagine him being sympathetic to that idea.

But is it true?

Can a story save your life?

Was Aaron Burr's assessment of his own reading habits correct, or was this a bit of butt-covering revisionist history?

I hope all of the die-hard Aaron Burr fans in the audience will forgive me if I suggest that, when it comes to the life of Aaron Burr, Aaron Burr is a bit of an unreliable narrator. There's also the possibility of nostalgia. After all, while Hamilton definitely got the worse end of the deal, Aaron Burr's life was permanently marred by the duel. He still has his place as the third vice president in American history, but he will always be best known as the man who shot a founding father.

By Dan Mall on Unsplash

The idea that the forces that shape history are delicate enough to be swayed by some reading is enchanting, but let's step aside from this one historical anecdote in order to look at the transformative power of the arts as a whole.

The year is 1999.

Jon Stewart has just taken over as host of the Daily Show. He will hold that position for 16 years. In that role, he would win multiple Emmys and Peabodys alongside other awards. The all-star crew he cultivated goes on to shape the texture of TV entertainment for decades. Jon Stewart changed the way television works.

Full stop, end of statement.

But do you know what else happened during those 16 years?

Politicians who Jon Stewart opposed continued to get elected. Media networks that he opposed continued to grow. Stewart entered into his role in time to see George W. Bush get elected and he left just as Donald Trump's star was rising.

That all-star crew of satirists shaped the texture of TV, but they couldn't shape American politics.

By Jorge Alcala on Unsplash

His show was winning awards, but he made no secret of his feelings towards George W. Bush, and Bush still won consecutive terms as the president. There's no real evidence that Jon Stewart's show changed the minds of right-wing voters because the show was catering towards center-left voters. Any right-wing voter could turn on Stewart's show and learn fairly quickly that they would not be welcome in this space.

Which points to the problem of using the arts to change the world: people have the power to change the channel.

Perhaps Aaron Burr was right that changing his reading habits would have changed his destiny, but why would he change his reading habits? The way he frames it makes it sound like Voltaire molded his plastic, maleable mind, but isn't it more likely that Voltaire appealed to the biases that had already formed in his mind?

People often tell me that they read in order to experience new things or to be challenged in some way, but rarely do I get the impression that people who say that are truly approaching the situation with no previous bias. They might be trying to experience new things, but the chances are that they have something in mind when they choose what new thing they are going to try to experience.

By Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

Of course, The Daily Show is explicitly political, so there's always the possibility that other art can suggest new ideas in a less explicit manner.

I find that claim dubious as well, though. For one thing, I think it presents art as if it is this Trojan Horse, promising entertainment and actually providing life-changing insights. It's the spoon-full-of-sugar philosophy. There's some appeal to that idea (again, it's nice to imagine story-telling as powerful and heroic rather than quiet and introspective), but it also puts a huge burden on art to function in a particular way.

Through that lens, art's primary function is as a polemic. As well, this mode of imagining art elevates the role of the artist at the expense of the audience. The artist is a heroic life-changer, and the audience is the Trojan city, opening their mental gates without understanding exactly what they will allow in. The artist provides medicine, and the audience needs sugar in order to consume it. That idea is less concerning when the contents of that Trojan Horse are empathy and compassion and the cultivation of imagining the world more complexly, but couldn't it just as easily function to spread anti-social behavior and beliefs?

I don't doubt that art has had that impact throughout history, but I do doubt that this is art's primary impact.

After all, most audiences are fairly canny. Artists and audiences are ultimately just people, so the average audience member is probably as capable of seeing through the artistic facade as the average artist.

Of course, there is also an entire industry of critics who dissect the subtext of art in order to make it more obvious for a broad audience, so even if those ideas snuck past the bias of the original viewer, they don't tend to stay hidden for very long.

By Tayla Kohler on Unsplash

And yet, I still find it impossible to dispense with the idea that stories really are valuable, and if we completely shrug off the possibility for art to change lives, it starts to feel vapid.

Of course, I am biased here, but I am not just biased as a producer of stories. I'm also biased as a consumer of art. I look back through my own history and I see the power that art has had in my life, and I want to believe that, like Aaron Burr himself, my life's trajectory has been shaped by those stories. It's just that those life-changing stories tend to be few and far between, like mountain peaks emerging from a thick layer of fog. Most stories I read (even stories I enjoy) are that fog. They are present, and they dominated my thoughts to some degree or another for a few days, but I couldn't navigate my life by them.

So how do we square the circle? What is the role of art? Was Aaron Burr indulging in wishful thinking, or is there something to the idea that Sterne could have saved him and Hamilton both?

By Sudan Ouyang on Unsplash

Earlier this year, I read the Richard Bachman novel The Long Walk. In the novel, a group of young people walk down a long road. If their speed ever drops too low, they are killed by soldiers who are observing the event. It is an endurance race that stretches for days.

It's something of an absurd premise, made even more absurd by the fact that it isn't really explored. How did this race start? We know it is a recurring event, but unlike other death contests (think The Hunger Games) The Long Walk is entirely uninterested in exploring the origins of this race. What does the world get out of it? Again, the book doesn't delve deeply into those ideas. The premise is so strict that the story cannot be terribly dynamic. For hundreds of pages, the characters walk. They are killed. They're killed with little fanfare or excitement. It generally plays out the same way. Someone becomes too slow. Then they are shot.

And yet, the book worked for me.

When I read The Long Walk, it felt like a metaphor for life as a whole. We are all on our own "long walk" and we all know how that race will end. The book offers precious little in the way of hope or silver-linings, and that made it feel honest to me. As I followed the characters to their ultimate doom, I felt less alone, because here was someone who was seeing the same existential problem as I was and refused to offer pat solutions.

By Islam Hassan on Unsplash

Perhaps that is where art is the most powerful.

It is life-changing, if more subtle.

There's a desire for art to function as the magic bullet that will cure someone's depression or change someone's mind about sensitive topics, but more often it just feels like art exists to remind us that we're not alone. Other people have been here. Other people have felt what we feel--whether that's romance, or fear, or existential dread.

Rather than changing anyone's philosophy or convincing anyone of something they didn't believe before, great art can put a hand on someone's shoulder to let them know that they aren't alone. For a few hundred pages, or for a few hours of screen-time, or for as long as it takes for someone to observe of painting or a sculpture or whatever else, the audience isn't alone. A poem can give you words to describe what you're feeling. A painting can give your experience a visual expression. One of the great magic tricks that art can perform is creating a form for something that feels formless.

By Bret Kavanaugh on Unsplash

In John Green's novel, The Fault in Our Stars, the narrator talks about a book they love by saying, "Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book."

It's a delightful encapsulation of how art can feel to read, but the narrator is clearly in on the joke. They're over-stating the situation and placing it in such a heightened territory that we recognize the lightly ironic tone. The "shattered world" keeps on spinning regardless of whether or not everyone reads the same book, even if it changes your world.

In the end, I don't know that I believe Aaron Burr. I have no special insight into his soul, but I suspect that the act of killing Alexander Hamilton did more to change his perception regarding life than any book could have. I don't know that he could have changed his mind about Voltaire until he'd felt the end of that philosophy. Humans are incredible creatures, but we're also incredibly stubborn creatures.

But I'm also not willing to reject art's life-changing capacity either. I just think that artists have to be thoughtful with what they choose to aim their art at.

Jon Stewart couldn't stop the rise or re-election of George W. Bush, and his colleagues couldn't stop the rise of Trump. But in the quiet moments where you feel like you are alone in the universe, sometimes art can be a window into the broader human experience, and that is beautiful all on its own.

Sometimes the life-saving power of art is just a reminder that we are just one piece of a much larger whole.

By russn_fckr on Unsplash

If you enjoyed this post, please consider checking out some of my other writing. If you like what you see, I'd appreciate it if you left a like and subscribed.


Littlewit Philips

Short stories, movie reviews, and media essays.

The primary task of life is outgrowing the bio you have already written.

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