I recommend satire.
This month I read “A Handful of Dust” by Evelyn Waugh. Set in the 1930s, Tony and his wife live a Downton Abbey existence but he is more Mr. Grantham than Lady Mary and does not change with the times. He just rolls along attached to the traditions.
She is a modern lady with modern ideas. She does not like the décor of their stuffy, uncomfortable estate, but does enjoy her monthly day trips to the city. There she meets a man, pushes him into an affair with her and takes a London flat to continue their dalliance.
This could be the subject of any genre, really, but the author is a master of subtle satire. Instead of intimately probing their goings-on, he shows the fallout how all they build, all they hold onto, it but ashes compared to the seriousness with which they give it.
The weight of their concerns likes in sentiment, how it feels. Sentiment is based on certain psychological associations and traditions. Emotions are a combination of cognitive and bodily sensations that can be as influenced by my prejudiced beliefs as by the meal I neglected to eat.
Thus satire can take our unspoken, unconscious conclusions and illustrate to us how they really look.
I recommend “The Princess Bride.”
This is not satire. This is comedy. This is the perfect romantic comedy in which everyone except the villain and his henchman is loveable.
During our most recent viewing, after Westley has been attacked by the R.O.U.S., his shoulder bitten and bleeding, my children marveled, “how come he’s still going if he’s hurt?” The innocents of our home are practically paralyzed by a small cut on the toe. To see a man persevere despite injury puts their passions in perspective.
“Some hard things are worth doing,” we tell them.
The classic hero-villain story in which we do not explore the psychology and woundedness of the villain is ripe with moral lessons children need to learn in their simplicity before they are cognitively ready to take them in their complexity.
I recommend the musical “Hamilton.”
My husband and I were gifted two tickets in July 2017. The musical, now available on Disney+, does the opposite of Waugh’s satire in “A Handful of Dust.” All the founding fathers seek to build something lasting, something built on principle, rather than emotions, sentiments, or passion.
As a modern composition, Lin Manuel Miranda explores and experiments with various ideas of what psychological motivations stood behind these historical actions.
Despite the complexity, George Washington is a hero, a man who is challenged, facing hard things, carrying his own regret, but pushing forward. “There’s nobody else in their country who looms quite as large,” King George acknowledges.
Washington is no saint, but neither is his legacy denigrated by his mistakes. He openly admits to having “led [his] men straight into a massacre” when he was younger. He cautions Hamilton in his desire for glory and upward mobility.
It is a wonder to think what individuals faced in order to build something that has lasted 224 years.
“Congress writes, George, attack the British forces/I shoot back, we have resorted to eating our horses.”
“A thousand soldiers die in a hundred-degree heat/as we snatch a stalemate from the jaws of defeat.”
Some hard things are worth doing.
While purists are put off by then creative license and avenues taken, when the facts are missing, storytellers are generally allowed to fill in the gaps of our knowledge as they tell the story. As in film, writers condense complex timelines and historical records to highlight particular aspects of the story. I do not recommend “Hamilton” for studying history; I recommend as a study of character.
The desire to build something lasting and the urge to make something of himself motivated Hamilton.
Ideals motivate Jefferson.
The desire to become important and essential motivated Burr. Finding another in the place he desired, his motivation, the emotion that moves his actions, turns to jealousy, leading to this final and conclusive action.
Whether literature, film, or Broadway, there are stories that can teach us something about ourselves. When we identify with a character, we see their actions and principles play out safely at a distance. We can learn without having left our seats. And hopefully, we can improve.