ethics

Thomas Merton On The Fear Of Suffering


“Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because the smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture. This is another of the great perversions by which the devil uses our philosophies to turn our whole nature inside out, and eviscerate all our capacities for good, turning them against ourselves.”

– Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

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I recently began reading Merton after years of knowing him by name only, and his work has not yet disappointed me. His life is an incredible account from the start, traveling with artist parents all over Western Europe and the U.S. by the age of 16. Although he was not raised religiously, his background was more Protestant and his views toward Catholicism were suspicious at best in his formative years. Over a decade later, he reflects on his pain through the slow tragedy of his father’s death from his position as a Trappist monk, and comes to the conclusion above.

I find not only that these statements ring true, but that they ring especially true in an age where so many have been taught to fear suffering. It is strange to see that as science and technologies advance, cultures seem to increasingly cling to them as a source of removal of suffering. We approaching medicine with a sort of mystical attitude, collectively treating the medical industry with the awe and respect that a tribal people would give to a witch doctor. This atmoaphere of fear and being constantly aware of the unknown leaves us a people crying “foul!” of any tragedy that befalls us personally.

I find Merton’s last spiritual statement here, as in many other places throughout his writing, to feel slightly non sequitur to someone outside his perspective. As someone raised surrounded by Catholicism without knowing much of a Catholic perspective, his deep philosophical thoughts are refreshing and require more contemplation on my part.

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Further Reading

Lewis, Tolkien, and The Land

Masanobu Fukuoka On A Philosophy Of Science

J.R.R. Tolkien Explains Creativity And Death

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To Adapt Or Not To Adapt: Intellectual Licensing and Creativity


Today, The Classics Club issued forth its monthly question (or barrage of questions) for members to ponder and engage. This one was especially poignant for me, so I thought I would bring together my thoughts on the idea of creative adaptations of another person’s work.

The question(s).

“What are your thoughts on adaptions of classics? Say mini-series or movies? Or maybe modern approaches? Are there any good ones? Is it better to read the book first? Or maybe just compare the book and an adaptation?”

 

I’m sure I won’t address all of these questions, but with so many prominent adaptations being made these days, it’s easy to find yourself making judgments without actually thinking through why you love or hate certain renditions.
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Freedom To Create

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
– C. S. Lewis

First, you should definitely watch the series Everything Is A Remix. This exciting mini-documentary series covers just about the entire universe creatively speaking, proving pretty explicitly that there really are no original creative ideas. Be it music, film, literature, or visual arts, the greatest and most revered work tends to be the most heavily and directly inspired by previous work. You begin to realize that not only is everything you ever loved an adaptation of something else, but that often the best work is borderline plagiarism. Ethically, many of these realizations make it easy to question the ideas surrounding intellectual copyrights and creative license.
banksy

I personally tend to err toward the belief that our creative endeavors should be left more open to re-interpretation, that we should give others free reign to play with the ideas we put out there. Creativity breeds creativity, and stifling a new take on previous creativity for the sake of monetary reimbursement is closer to stamping out creativity than encouraging it. This is obviously a big generalization and creatives should ultimately maintain the rights to their creations, but I think we should encourage a community that expands upon previous material, since we are always doing so, though often indirectly. Creative communities that thrive spring up around art forms that foster artists building together, such as in graphic novels, comics, and animation.

A perspective that exalts the creative process also disqualifies bitterness toward adaptations or artists who change or “sell out.” While critique is necessary and useful in both enjoying art and being creative ourselves, it makes no sense to be bitter about a creative work that adds new perspectives from additional artists, be it a remake or new creative direction in further work. Being able to view a film adaptation or listen to a new album without bitter nostalgia for the first material makes it easier to identify what inspires and qualifies both the original and the new. It’s also great to go back and find what inspired those who we find inspiring. Often the best work of a generation directly influences the next and then grows obscure as the next rises to fame. Find out what books inspired your favorite author and you might find your new favorite author!

Once you’ve adjusted to assume that all creativity (including what goes into an adaptation) is a combined effort of both previous influences and a unique creator, it’s easier to understand what you value creatively and the good and bad in an adaptation. I personally find The Lord Of The Rings trilogy to be a far superior adaptation to the new Hobbit trilogy. Why? I could probably give a dissertation on the topic, but the short version is that Jackson made LOTR shorter, choosing essential core materials, and kept it an epic story like the books. On the contrary, for the Hobbit has been changed from a fairy tale to an epic, losing many elements of the original story in the changes of plot, characters, and pacing. Are the Hobbit movies still enjoyable? I find them to be so, but only if I look at them as a unique creative effort rather than an effort to recreate the original. That’s a big step to ask fans to take.

Iconic Droids With Striking Similarities

Iconic Droids With Striking Similarities

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Original or Adaptation First?

These days, I’ve done a complete 180 on the question of whether to read a book before the film adaptation comes out. As a reader, I’m always eager to read the book first. It makes sense to enjoy the adaptation as someone who has become a fan of the original, because I want my loyalties to lie with the original version. After a few films that finally motivated me to read the books (the Harry Potter series, to my shame), I realized that reading a book because you enjoyed a film makes the book so much better because you know a shadow of what to expect based on the adaptation, but you always end up getting more. If you always find that the book is better, getting a taste of it in a lesser adaptation before enjoying it to the fullest is a great way to become a fan of both. While it’s pretty counterintuitive, I find everything more enjoyable this way. I’m sure this opinion is wide open to debate, and I suspect myself to be in the minority.

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What Is An Adaptation?

Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves what an adaptation is. An adaptation is something a fan looks at as a creative opportunity to build upon original material. A fan is looking for the essence of the original, the unspoken aspects that made the print version great. Of course she wants to see stunning visuals that go beyond her imagination, but all of that is secondary. In contrast, the reason studios are making adaptations is that they are marketed to and by a preexisting fan base and are therefore a more secure financial investment in the film industry. So some highly creative screenwriters and directors who may or may not be inspired by the original source material become involved in creating what is often more of a spin-off or alternate version from the original. An adaptation always runs the risk of being less than creatively motivated.

So Many Sherlocks

So Many Sherlocks

The truth is that an adaptation can be a great thing. Even something that takes as many creative liberties as the BBC’s new Sherlock adaptation is met with great applause by most fans, because the core idea is to transplant all of the original elements into a totally different era. It was started by fans who were great writers, and done from a place of aporeciatation and exploration. Adaptations are always an exciting idea, because we love to see a good idea expanded on. Even when we’ve been continually disappointed in the past, we often hold out hope for a good adaptation coming soon. We want new ideas, expanded stories and worlds, and elements that shed a different light on our old favorite characters. For a successful adaptation, a thousand liberties can be excused if the original essence is well preserved.

I’m eager to hear your thoughts on good and bad adaptations and what you think the difference is!

 

Harry Potter Comic drawn from the Dorkly.com

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Further Reading

 

Bill Watterson, Michelangelo, and The Importance Of Play

Samuel Beckett and The Creative Value Of Depression

On The Unique Routines Of Creatives Throughout History

Bill Watterson Makes A Case For Art


These three strips [Peanuts, Pogo, and Krazy Kat] showed me the incredible possibilities of the cartoon medium, and I continue to find them inspiring. All these strips work on many levels, entertaining while they deal with other issues. These strips reflect uniquely personal views of the world, and we are richer for the artists’ visions. Reading these strips, we see life through new eyes, and maybe understand a little more – or at least appreciate a little more – some of the absurdities of our world. These strips are just three of my personal favorites, but they give us some idea of how good comics can be. They argue powerfully that comics can be vehicles for beautiful artwork and serious, intelligent expression.

In a way, it’s surprising that comic strips have ever been that good. The comics were invented for commercial purposes. They were, and are, a graphic feature designed to help sell newspapers. Cartoonists work within severe space constraints on an inflexible deadline for a mass audience. That’s not the most conducive atmosphere for the production of great art, and of course many comic strips have been eminently dispensable. But more than occasionally, wonderful work has been produced.

Amazingly, much of the best cartoon work was done early on in the medium’s history. The early cartoonists, with no path before them, produced work of such sophistication, wit, and beauty that it increasingly seems to me that cartoon evolution is working backward. Comic strips are moving toward a primordial goo rather than away from it. As a cartoonist, it’s a bit humiliating to read work that was done over 50 years ago and find it more imaginative than what any of us are doing now. We’ve lost many of the most precious qualities of comics. Most readers today have never seen the best comics of the past, so they don’t even know what they’re missing. Not only can comics be more than we’re getting today. but the comics already have been more than we’re getting today. The reader is being gypped and he doesn’t even know it.

Some very good strips have been cheapened by licensing. Licensed products, of course, are incapable of capturing the subtleties of the original strip, and the merchandise can alter the public perception of the strip, especially when the merchandise is aimed at a younger audience than the strip is. The deeper concerns of some strips are ignored or condensed to fit the simple gag requirements of mugs and T-shirts. In addition, no one cartoonist has the time to write and draw a daily strip and do all the work of a licensing program. Inevitably, extra assistants and business people are required, and having so many cooks in the kitchen usually encourages a blandness to suit all tastes. Strips that once had integrity and heart become simply cute as the business moguls cash in. Once a lot of money and jobs are riding on the status quo, it gets harder to push the experiments and new directions that keep a strip vital. Characters lose their believability as they start endorsing major companies and lend their faces to bedsheets and boxer shorts. The appealing innocence and sincerity of cartoon characters is corrupted when they use those qualities to peddle products. One starts to question whether characters say things because they mean it or because their sentiments sell T-shirts and greeting cards. Licensing has made some cartoonists extremely wealthy, but at a considerable loss to the precious little world they created. I don’t buy the argument that licensing can go at full throttle without affecting the strip. Licensing has become a monster. Cartoonists have not been very good at recognizing it, and the syndicates don’t care.

And then we have established cartoonists who have grown so cavalier about their jobs that they sign strips they haven’t written or drawn. Anonymous assistants do the work while the person getting the credit is out on the golf course. Aside from the fundamental dishonesty involved, these cartoonists again encourage the mistaken view that once the strip’s characters are invented, any facile hireling can churn out the material. In these strips, jokes are written by committee with the goal of not advancing the characters, but of keeping them exactly where they’ve always been. So long as the characters never develop, they’re utterly predictable, and hence, so easy to write that a committee can do it. The staff of illustrators has the same task: to keep each drawing so slick and perfect that it loses all trace of individual quirk. That way, no one can tell who’s doing it. It’s an assembly line production. It’s efficient, but it makes for mindless, repetitive, joyless comics. We need to see more creators taking pride in their craft, and doing the work they get paid for. If writing and drawing cartoons has become a burden for them, let’s see some early retirements and some room for new talent.

– Bill Watterson, from his speech “The Cheapening Of Comics,” addressed to the Festival Of Cartoon Art, 1989.

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krazee1

Krazy Kat, by George Herriman

 

I recently watched the documentary Dear Mr. Watterson, and was immediately overwhelmed by a childhood’s worth of nostalgia and creative passion. The film is parts recollections on the personal impact of Calvin And Hobbes and part biography of the short and fascinating public life of Bill Watterson, a man shot to improbable fame before becoming a critic of his industry, retiring early, and successfully seeking reclusion. It’s a great film and it is available on Netflix among most other popular sources. Go watch it immediately if you find comic strips or artistic bios interesting in any way.

The film observes two aspects of Watterson’s perspective that I see as really being opposite sides of the same coin. Watterson was a very vocal as a critique of licensing and the stranglehold syndicates required of cartoonists before the internet age. The other point I came away with was that comics have never been considered a legitimate or “high art” form, regardless of their innovations in scripting and illustration. These two problems seem to be really one and the same, as Watterson indicates.

Comics were bred as a form of bizarro advertising. Think of them as visual editorial columns, intended to draw the eye and lure readers to commit to a certain competing newspaper through the use of staff illustrators. After a lot of natural evolution, the comics became individual artistic creations sold to multitudes of papers through syndications. This makes for a lot of odd standards as far as what relationships are considered normal. Watterson wanted integrity for comics as an art form, which was undermined completely by the continuation of their advertising roots. The art form quickly grew away from that starting point in a golden era but slowly waned back toward simple advertising through licensing when the money moved away from the papers themselves.

Watterson can feel a bit extreme in his condemnations at times, but he stands as a living example of exactly how much value a work can retain in itself when it doesn’t go to auction for the production lines. His tested his argument for himself and found greater success and finer work. The problem is how do you convince and entire industry to hold creative integrity over financial profit?

Pogo, by Walt Kelly

Pogo, by Walt Kelly

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Further Reading

 

Norton Juster On The Agony Of Creating

Hal Foster On Story V. Illustration

Bill Watterson Encourages Playing

Jules Feiffer Encouraged Failure

Bill Watterson On Ethics In Business And Art


Like many people, I found that what I was chasing wasn’t what I caught. I’ve wanted to be a cartoonist since I was old enough to read cartoons, and I never really thought about cartoons as being a business. It never occurred to me that a comic strip I created would be at the mercy of a bloodsucking corporate parasite called a syndicate, and that I’d be faced with countless ethical decisions masquerading as simple business decisions.
To make a business decision, you don’t need much philosophy; all you need is greed, and maybe a little knowledge of how the game works.

As my comic strip became popular, the pressure to capitalize on that popularity increased to the point where I was spending almost as much time screaming at executives as drawing. Cartoon merchandising is a $12 billion dollar a year industry and the syndicate understandably wanted a piece of that pie. But the more I though about what they wanted to do with my creation, the more inconsistent it seemed with the reasons I draw cartoons.
Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules and rewards.
The so-called “opportunity” I faced would have meant giving up my individual voice for that of a money-grubbing corporation. It would have meant my purpose in writing was to sell things, not say things. My pride in craft would be sacrificed to the efficiency of mass production and the work of assistants. Authorship would become committee decision. Creativity would become work for pay. Art would turn into commerce. In short, money was supposed to supply all the meaning I’d need.

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You will find your own ethical dilemmas in all parts of your lives, both personal and professional. We all have different desires and needs, but if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled. Sooner or later, we are all asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success.

Many of you will be going on to law school, business school, medical school, or other graduate work, and you can expect the kind of starting salary that, with luck, will allow you to pay off your own tuition debts within your own lifetime.

But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.
You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.

 

– Bill Watterson, excerpts from his Kenyon College commencement speech, 1990. (Emphasis mine)

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In this age, comics are no longer part of an arts minority that deals closely with business. In there heyday, and still to come extent when this speech was written, comics and animation occupied a unique space closer to advertising. Today almost any artist in any medium, be it musical, visual, or otherwise, is encouraged to sell an image apart from the art itself. In such an interactive age, we have a hard time latching on to anything that isn’t heavily pitched and surrounded by positive reinforcements like ads and personalities. Artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey have advanced graffiti as George Herriman and Winsor McCay advanced cartooning, bringing something seemingly overlookable to an inspiring level of creative genius. Graffiti is all the more potent, a form that is in itself a satire and push back against the dizzying advertising seen everywhere today. The documentary “Exit Through The Gift Shop” shows just how difficult it can be to keep motivations straight when fame and fortune lies in the route of getting famous by decrying the age of adventising.

demise-of-comics

For Bill Watterson to proclaim that there is a “good life” available that is strategically lesser in material contents and governed firstly by ethics and second by personality and skill really splits the crowd. I can think of a good number of people I know who I would expect to respond to this type of thinking with a “but can’t we be ethical while climbing ladders and gaining affluence?” Sure, I suppose you can try, but you only get one go at it. Keep your eyes open, and good luck!

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Continue Reading

Charles Schulz’s Anxiety

J.R.R. Tolkien On Creativity And Death

Bill Watterson On Playing Well