May 20, 2004
Describing a feeling versus presenting an argument

This comment from Peter Reavy, which was actually just the final bit of a comment (on this), got me thinking:

That said, I was thrown by Brian's argument, which is to insist that the film be judged by the reality of the world we live in.

And this is how it got me thinking. It got me thinking that there are really two kinds of artistic reaction, namely the presentation of an argument, and the attempt to analyse a feeling. And the trouble is that the second is liable to be confused with the first.

I was trying to explain what I, Brian Micklethwait, found unsatisfactory about a film I'd seen, which I found unsatisfactory but which Peter Reavy liked much more. And I was trying to explain, to myself, as much as to anyone else, why I found it unsatisfactory. And, although Peter may have understood very well what I said, he actually did not get what kind of thing I was trying to say. I certainly didn't think of myself as "arguing" that he ought to think of the film in the way that I was thinking of it, instead of in the way he did think of it. In this sense, I wasn't presenting an argument at all. I'm very happy that others enjoy this movie. I certainly don't think they should stop enjoying it on my account.

I want to emphasise that I intend no criticism of Peter Reavy here. I am sure that I am at least as much to blame for any confusion along these lines as he is. Peter, please do not take this posting as a criticism of you. It was merely sparked off in my mind by what you said, which means that I am grateful to you rather than in way resentful. (I might have got resentful if I had not understood what had happened, but ... well, see below.)

So anyway, does this distinction – between self-analysis and argument – matter? I think it does, because if people make an honest effort to respond to a work of art, and are then in their turn responded to as if they had presented an argument about how others should think (in the manner of a political manifesto), they may then be deterred from being honest about their feelings next time around. They may just clam up.

This may be especially so if the distinction that I have just offered is something they were not aware of. Our "critic" listens to what he just said (when he was trying to explain why he didn't enjoy himself), and it does indeed sound like an argument about what others besides him should think. So, he either pursues the argument, in territory which he did not originally intend to invade (the responses of others), or, he retreats in confusion, saying: "Well, that's what I think, so there. Take it or leave it."

The situation is complicated by the fact that describing your own feelings is – especially if you are a man? – often quite complicated. To be jumped on conversationally at the exact moment when you are trying to do this as best you can is to be caught at a rather vulnerable moment, which is why it feels like being jumped on even when the jumper didn't think they were jumping at all. Another reason to respond by clamming up.

You are especially vulnerable (because even more confused) if, when you are describing your feelings (rather than presenting an argument), you do not yourself quite grasp this distinction, and accept that, even as you grapple with all your other confusions (your feelings), you have to defend your non-argument as if it were a real argument.

Thinking about it some more, I do believe that I have heard this kind of argument a lot, and been involved in it myself, quite often, and on both sides. It can cause a lot of grief. We're not just talking about rows in newspapers or on blogs. We're talking failed relationships, unhappy marriages.

It will not amaze you to learn that I intend to go on trying here to describe my reactions to cultural objects, as honestly and entertainingly as I can, despite the danger I daily risk that I will be misunderstood as saying that everyone else ought to feel and think in the same way about all the stuff I write about as I do.

But, I will try to write more accurately in the future, so that you know better what kind of writing it is. ("It seems to me", etc.)

And, I will also try to avoid making the same mistake about the critical responses of others that I believe Peter Reavy made about my little piece the other day (with my help and encouragement - see above - blah blah). I will try not to jump down other people's throats and stomp all over their "arguments", when they weren't actually "arguing" at all.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:48 PM
Category: This and that