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The facing page

May 29, 2012

An essay on the proper limits of our attachment to artifacts:

I look at the Dan Harmon era of Community—and most other shows that have been cancelled—and it feels monstrous to mourn in the same way. To ask for More.  More time. To equate this thing, this show, this collection of stories with a person. It feels completely out of balance with a healthy attitude towards the world. Of course, Community knew that, and in giving us Abed, explored that idea over and over again.

I know it’s neither healthy nor mature, and yet I can’t stop doing it. This kind of love is, it seems, hardwired into me. I want to have disdain for fans. I really do. But—as is often the case in these matters—that’s because I recognize myself in them. The impulses they celebrate are ones I’m ashamed of, but we still both possess them.  And so I’m left crying at a funeral, and then crying the next day when I watch the show’s season finale, and mixing them both up in my head so that perhaps it’s Uncle Bill that got fired and Dan Harmon who died suddenly and then unraveling these associations and thinking myself a monster for even having them in the first place.

Here’s my response; a trolley question of sorts:

Going to visit a friend, who happens to be a world-famous artist, you arrive to find his house on fire. You hear cries from the second story window and enter. Then, half-way up the stairs, you find your friend’s newest masterpiece hanging on the wall. You don’t have time to save both painting and painter. What do you do?

Say your friend is old, sick, has only a few months to live. Say that this painting, his last, is also his best. Say he has told you that he cares more for this painting’s survival than for his own. Or say it is not a painting, but a book manuscript, and that those who read it will learn not only about the possibilities of art, but about their responsibilities in life. Say you and he are missionaries in a faraway land and it is the only copy of the Bible for a thousand miles. Say he is a stranger, but you have seen the work and it is… “precious” to you. Does anything change?

Artifacts are not persons; they do not have faces. But they do have character (not just characters), and ethical value. Is our love misplaced because we conflate persona and ethos? I don’t know of any good defense of saving the artwork that doesn’t carry with it utilitarian implications I vehemently reject; but I also know that, given the choice, I would probably save the work, and later regret it. Strange.

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