The pathetic fallacy and the collapse of art

For some reason, they never mentioned ‘The Pathetic Fallacy’ when I was at school.However, judging by what they seem to be teaching now, the idea is back in vogue. If you are wondering exactly what the pathetic fallacy is, it is (allegedly) the attribution of human emotions or other qualities to inanimate objects. The term was coined by John Ruskin in Modern Painters, ‘Of the Pathetic Fallacy’. The sense of his argument is relatively straightforward: that the attribution of human characteristics to objects is literally and objectively untrue. However, the force of it is perhaps surprising: his final paragraph reads: “It is, I hope, now made clear to the reader in all respects that the pathetic fallacy is powerful only so far as it is pathetic, feeble so far as it is fallacious, and, therefore, that the dominion of Truth is entire, over this, as over every other natural and just state of the human mind.”

A little earlier, Ruskin writes: “I believe these instances are enough to illustrate the main point I insist upon respecting the pathetic fallacy, — that so far as it is a fallacy, it is always the sign of a morbid state of mind, and comparatively of a. weak one. Even in the most inspired prophet it is a sign of the incapacity of his human sight or thought to bear what has been revealed to it. In ordinary poetry, if it is found in the thoughts of the poet himself, it is at once a sign of his belonging to the inferior school; if in the thoughts of the characters imagined by him, it is right or wrong according to the genuineness of the emotion from which it springs; always, however, implying necessarily some degree of weakness in the character.”

Perhaps the sense in which Ruskin used it is not quite the sense in which the term is used today. The Pathetic Fallacy was first described to me as “in a film, when the main character is sad, and it starts raining to reinforce this.” In a certain sense, this is almost the opposite of what Ruskin was writing about, because in this case human emotions are not ascribed to the rain – rather, rain fulfils a role in influencing the mood of the viewer.

Ruskin’s original pathetic fallacy, and today’s use of the pathetic fallacy, are essentially different concepts. Both – I would suggest – are fundamentally mistaken, but the modern version is arguably more plausible.

Ruskin’s idea depends on his underlying belief that the purpose of art is to communicate the understanding of nature. Put as baldly as this, it is fairly clear that Ruskin is committing a larger and more intellectual pathetic fallacy of his own: even though he may not have put it in that way, he is attributing a purpose to art. What is more, unlike the writer who describes “The cruel, crawling foam.” (an example Ruskin cites), but is ultimately aware that foam is not literally cruel, someone who attributes a purpose to art is under the dangerous illusion that he is saying something which is both meaningful and universal. There are, of course, statements which can be made which are both true and universal. This notion, though, is not one of them. If we cannot attribute cruelty to foam, we certainly cannot attribute purpose to art: foam, at the very least, has a physical existence, ‘art’ is no more than a word to describe a concept. The person who uses the word ‘art’ may very well have a purpose. But the word itself does not have one, outside of the purpose of the person who uses it.

Perhaps this is a trivial point. At a more fundamental level, the notion that art must reflect nature is one which only really existed from about the time of Ruskin. In fact, Ruskin was one of its main proponents. It was a notion which was abandoned by visual artists at the beginning of the 20th century, largely on the grounds that art which is merely representational is merely an inferior kind of photography. The doctrine of ‘naturalism’ had a much longer life in literature. Although the extreme naturalism of Emile Zola was abandoned, novelists throughout the 20th century wrote fiction as if it were real life. The rather limited number of respectable literary figures, such as CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, who wrote non-naturalistic fiction, were looked down upon, while the less-well connected were confined to the despised categories of fantasy and science-fiction.

Ruskin’s essay is compelling because of the superbly dreadful examples he chooses to illustrate it. “The cruel, crawling foam”, Coleridge’s “one red leaf… that dances as often as dance it can” and others are laughable, but not because they attribute human qualities to inanimate objects, but because of the inappropriateness or tweeness of the images themselves. But if we construct an aesthetic which denies attribution of human qualities to objects, then we must quickly reject most of the literature commonly regarded as great. Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, and Marvell were all keen users of this principle, which might more properly be called ‘anthropomorphism’. More to the point, the bloke down the street who says “that’s a thirsty car you have”, or “it’s a treacherous stretch of road” finds it entirely natural to express himself in that way. If we arbitrarily determine that a particular artistic technique may not be used, and, if in doing so, we discover that we must exclude much of the art which is by any other standards ‘great’, then what we have really done is reduced our aesthetic to an absurdity.

Moving on to today’s usage, what should we say about a film maker who controls the weather in the film so that it reflects the mood of the characters? The argument against this kind of thing is that “real life isn’t like that”. This seems a bizarre and peculiarly short-sighted reason for determining how to make a film. Consider some other examples: in an action movie, the hero jumps out of the building just in time to escape the explosion. Since the 1980s, the hero will escape with the flames following so close they singe his clothes — one of the benefits of improved special effects. Is this realistic? In a certain sense it is, because, looking at real life stories, there are people who have survived many narrow escapes. But, in another sense, it is not, because all of the escapes in an action movie are as narrow as possible. In the films ‘Hero’, ‘House of flying daggers’, and ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, the fight scenes were clearly staged in a highly stylistic and non-naturalistic way. Unlike most Jackie Chan films, where the action is shot realistically, these fights could never have happened. However, the gorgeously saturated colour which is one of the films’ other trademarks is also unrealistic: it is possible that the light should fall in such a way that the colours are this rich. However, it is almost impossible that the light will fall consistently in such a way.

On the basis of the ‘pathetic fallacy’ being a fallacy, we ought also to rule out all other non-naturalistic elements in films. There may be some mileage in this: Lars von Trier’s Dogme school of film-making has pushed the pendulum back towards naturalism. But even within Dogme, there is the fundamental non-naturalism that the story is controlled, and the film is edited. Time can arbitrarily be broken – something which goes beyond the mere unlikelihood of it raining when you are sad, since, in ‘real’ life, time is never anything other than strictly linear. The moment that a film-maker points a camera, the moment that a writer begins to pen the script, naturalism has gone out of the window, and we are in the realm of the creative artist.

Would ‘Hero’ have been a better film if Zhang Yimou had decided only to use naturalistic colour? Almost certainly it would have been a lesser work of art. ‘My Darling Clementine’ is a more accurate representation of the famous Tombstone feud between the Earps and the Clantons, based on John Ford’s association with Earp in 1920s Hollywood, than the later ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral’, but the latter film is more memorable than the earlier for most first time viewers (arguably, the earlier film is artistically better but makes the viewer work harder to enjoy it).

Artistic shaping is a necessary, and, indeed, defining part of artistic activity. Even the most trivial form of art, the ‘ready-made’, is still artistically shaped because an artist chooses to place an ordinary object in a new context, that of the gallery. Without artistic shaping, there is no art. Whether that artistic shaping exploits a ‘pathetic fallacy’, or is the simple pointing of the camera or the selecting of the subject matter, it is not fundamentally different.

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