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Martians and Art

“They quit trying too hard to destroy everything, to humble everything. They blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle. They never let science crush the aesthetic and the beautiful. It’s all simply a matter of degree.” Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles, p. 67-68.

I read this part of the book this morning. (I’m reading several books at the moment, which means that each of them goes more slowly, but I have to haul fewer books around. The Martian Chronicles is the book I read when eating in the kitchen.) Up until yesterday, I wasn’t liking the book much. It felt dated, as if Bradbury was trapped by his own invisible social conventions as he envisioned Martian society. I persevered because I have to hate a book a lot not to finish it and I’m glad I did so, because the sections I read yesterday and today were moving and thought-provoking.

If I had to describe the underlying theme of the parts I liked, I would say that what we love destroys us. It’s not very cheerful, but it is a great premise for fiction. The speaker of the quote above is a man from Earth who has decided that he has to kill the entire expedition he’s with lest humans ruin Mars the way Earth has been ruined. He’s an extremely thoughtful person, deep, ethical, and totally crazy.

He’s also somewhat wrong about Martian society. In the earlier parts of the book, the Martian society is far from perfect and Martians kill the members of the previous three expeditions, once through jealousy, once through what is essentially a cultural misunderstanding, and once in clever self-defense against a perceived threat. His misunderstanding is based on the fact that he meets no Martians; they have been wiped out by chicken pox introduced by the other expeditions. He judges them from their artifacts and not their behavior, which is tricky.

I am thinking of Rivers and Tides, a film about Andy Goldsworthy. He makes beautiful things and he is a total jerk to his family. Given just his work, one might justifiably think him only amazing, if a little obsessive. Given just his behavior, one might wonder if any work could be worth putting up with the man. Reality, as always, is complicated.

And I, of course, want to be perfect. I want to be a cheerful and good and kind person and I want to make wonderful things. Yeah, yeah, I know. Good luck with that, either half.

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