The Good Catastrophe (What Is Art For? Part Two)

I didn’t know it when I first wrote it but this is actually Part Two about art and fiction The first was “The Purpose Driven Babel.” If you haven’t that post yet read it, please do.

I get a lot of sideways glances when people find out I read fiction. It’s even worse when they find out what kind of fiction. Fiction? Who has the time? And so I mumble about how important it is to make time to read fiction to which they reply, “Tommy, I’m very busy I simply don’t have time.” Then there’s that look that suggests maybe I’m wasting time.

(“Waste” by Phish)

So, I did some number crunching. The average American:

  • Works 47 hours a week
  • Sleeps 45.5 hours a week
  • Anecdotally, I’m guessing spend 7 hours a week in the bathroom
  • Between three meals (1 hour for lunch and dinner, and half an hour for breakfast) 17.5 hours a week eating.
  • One Nielsen report suggests that the average American spends 11 hours a day with an electronic device – that’s 77 hours a week. 5a2b0b1d187882ae90882079932b7cce_650x

That’s 194 hours a week spent on work, essential utility functions of a biologically healthy life, and wasted on electronics.

There’s only 171 hours in a week. We have approximately -23 hours to invest in relationships, rest and recharge, and for religious activity. We’re not living, we’re simply surviving ourselves to death. Where has the time gone? We’ve lost almost an entire day to God knows what…

The reward for our efforts has made us sub-human, widget factories. We’ve become automatons, or worse, cyborgs with our lives partially lived on the internet. It’s easy to begin feeling like all we’re doing is moving the Atlantic to the Pacific using only a water dropper.


(“The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster)

But this is not how it’s supposed to be. With our own hands we’ve built ourselves a prison of work, utility, and electronic devices. We’ve blocked out the sun with the gray brick, muted mortar, and cold iron bars of career, fast food, and retweets.

We’ve buffered our souls with shadow stuff.

JRR Tolkien writes in his essay, “On Fairy Tales,” that fantasy helps us recover, escape, and it console us. He is speaking strickly in defense of the fairy tale, but I believe the issue is more dire than that. Fiction of all sorts, poetry, music, painting, art needs defending against the tyranny of The Purpose Driven Babel.

Tolkien writes that fairy tales help us to recover what we ought to be, or, regain sight of how the world should be. Fairy tales bring into focus what our busy hands have made murky.

You don’t have to look far, maybe in your own recent history, for somebody who simply doesn’t have time for “escapist” entertainment but Tolkien would argue that you wouldn’t fault somebody for planning a prison escape.

When we clear away the muck and regain a clear vision we begin to see that all of our striving is an attempt at “…the Great Escape: the the Escape from Death.” As I wrote in the previous post, we obsess with making the most of the dash between the dates on our tombstone and leaving a legacy.

Tolkien goes on to argue the greatest benefit of the fairy tale is the consolation of the Happy Ending. And he coins the word “Eucatastrophe:”

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn”… this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not esentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale – or otherworld – setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace;…

There is a strange and wonderful world beyond our prison walls, and if you listen closely you can hear a string quartet of crickets and the sparrows sing. Out there the trees of the forest clap out of time to that Song, as the hills and the flowers of the field dance along. All creatures great and small – the iguana sunbathing on a high place, the centipede and its one-hundred squirming legs, a mother and child playing at the park, the heron by the lakeside – join the chorus and sing the Theme.


And we’re chained to the prison wall screaming, “All there is and ever was – shadows!

The only thing that can release us from these shakles is an outside force, a “sudden joyous ‘turn.'” It’ll take a Good Catastrophe to set us free. The Deus Ex Machina must break us out of our prison cells. The prosecution becomes our defense, “These ones are innocent and I – the prosecution, the defense, the judge – I am guilty,” he pleads on our behalf. He who knew no sin becomes sin so that we may be counted righteous– free men able to join in with creation singing that glorious Song.

Fiction, poetry, fine art, music, theatre – these are common graces that can help us recover our vision. It we let them they can remind us that there is a hope beyond this mortal life of toil and strife. That beyond our momentary struggle is beauty unimaginable.

Coming up next: “Incarne Asada (What Is Art For? Part Three)

The Good Catastrophe (What Is Art For? Part Two)

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