In the 1967 Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back, we see a very young Dylan in a limo having a review read to him. The reviewer calls Dylan an anarchist because he “doesn’t offer any solutions.” To which I thought at the time, “Yes, that’s exactly the point.” Art’s strength is always the fertile open space afforded the audience. When I interviewed Yan Martel the other night, he described meeting a woman who was certain that his mega-bestseller Life of Pi was about the difficulties of marriage. Marriage hadn’t, in fact, been what he had in mind when he put a boy alone on a raft with a tiger, but if your metaphors are rich enough, readers easily supply their own meaning. Apparently, for this one reader, marriage was the tiger she had long been trying to tame.
This is why I have always found political art problematic. Despite the easy joke here, politics are about solutions—we may not always like the solutions, we may grow tired of the histrionics and talking-point-rhetoric that accompany those solutions, but the fact remains politics is the business of deciding exactly what to do next as a society. Bravo, I say, and thank God someone else wants to do it.
A human’s life always boils down to two questions: “What do I want to do?” and, “How will I do it?” Politics, and science also, deal largely with the second. Art, and religion in the broadest sense, try to answer the first. How does art help answer the first? By guiding us to that place where all authentic choices reside. You cannot do this by supplying solutions. No two people’s solutions to the question, “Whom do I love?” or, “What kind of book shall I write?” are precisely the same. Yet how those questions are answered authentically seems quite universal.
Perhaps that reviewer was right in a way. In the end, we all resist solutions provided by another. We may try them out, but eventually another person’s choices prove inadequate. This to me is the final stage of adulthood—complete responsibility. Only in taking responsibility for everything we think, everything we feel, everything that is our life itself, do we find the freedom that eludes us when we turn our happiness over to another, whether following some list of prescribed rules to prove that we are right, or crying victim to show how we were wronged.