In one of his many helpful letters of advice sent to young actors—published for the first time in this issue—Laurence Olivier describes the essence of a Shakespearean tragic character as a "perfect statue of a man," made vulnerable by a significant flaw that finally will destroy him. Olivier's remark calls to mind a quality of literature and indeed of all of the arts: they relate to the core of an individual, the human, not the "statue," and they articulate danger. The masks of literature, like those of primitive art and ritual, suggest "the other" that lies below the social being—the primal conflicts, the animal, and the sometimes scary forces within us.
By its very nature, literature comprises negativity. The reasons are both obvious and less so. If I sat across from you with a cup of coffee and told you that I had made a new friend today, a pleasant and virtuous person, you might feel good for me, but you would have a hard time seeing a story in my cheerful assertion. But if I told you that I had made a new enemy? Smooth sailing does not a story make. It doesn't even make a classical symphony, as Mozart showed in the suppressed discord and wit of even his most well-mannered music.
The less obvious reasons have to do with how true art reflects the uniqueness of human experience. No matter how many new wonders we uncover about the mental abilities of other creatures on earth, no other animal matches us for the combination of inventiveness, reality testing and abstract understanding of which our minds are capable. Humans can fly without wings because we can [End Page 5] imagine doing so; we can create and try different methods and models, draw abstract parallels, analyze failure and try again. In a sense we are human because we can—and want to—create and resolve higher challenges. And doing so invariably involves conflict. It involves divergence from the given and from the acceptable, from other people and even at times from common sense. It also involves failure. Conflict and creativity are the subjects of art because we are compelled by the pain of others and they are its source because they are what make us human. These qualities—imagination, challenge, fresh experience and even failure—are all part of the best writing. Literature and art are among the few places, besides dreams, where discord and tragedy can seem perfect. In a letter written in 1903, Rilke said, "Most events are unutterable, consummating themselves in a sphere where word has never trod, and more unutterable than them are all works of art, whose life endures by the side of our own that passes away."
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Much of the literature in this issue deals with the dangerous or hidden center of ourselves. In Mary Tabor's interview of Lore Segal, the author describes how having escaped the Holocaust as a child influenced her life and writing. Segal admits that she feels no survivor guilt, but she is interested in such issues as whether goodness and evil are inherent or acquired qualities in people.
In her essay "My Life with Hair," Elaine Orr depicts a classic conflict for intelligent women between achievement and appearance, in the context of an extended illness in her later life. It is an honest, unapologetic look at the importance, under any circumstance, of being able to "compose oneself." Yet Orr also recognizes that the motivation for composing oneself is partly to mask or conceal one's "secret self." In a less serious memoir, about himself on the cusp of puberty, Bart Skarzynski depicts an extended visit with his mother and her married boyfriend in Sicily. This awkward comedy of embarrassment and sexual awakening in an exotic locale of topless beaches and steamy movies centers around his mother's unashamed relationship with a married man.
"Kind" by L. E. Miller is a story concerning moral choices, above all the peculiar irony of altruism run amuck, as it describes a young woman's friendship with bohemian neighbors: a failed and desperate artist and a wife who has given herself over entirely to...