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Courtesy of New Line Cinema

October 9, 2019

YANDAVA | When Life Imitates Art

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p class=”p1″>You may or may not have heard about Justin Bieber and Hailey Baldwin’s recent (second?) wedding, a star-studded affair that took place about a week ago at a luxury resort in South Carolina. Why South Carolina, you ask? Because, of course, the wedding is Notebook-themed. As in The Notebook (2004), the film based around a Nicholas Sparks romance novel starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, set in the 1940s. In the 15 years since it first came out, The Notebook, like Uggs and pumpkin-spice lattes, has come to be associated with the term “basic.”

Now, there’s nothing particularly wrong about being “basic.” The fact remains, however, that The Notebook is simply not a very good movie. (Maybe it’s just me, but “If you’re a bird, I’m a bird?” Really?) Still, there are a lot of bad movies out there. The real crime of this sub-par, lukewarm, sappy film is that the toxic relationship at the center of it is still — over a decade later — upheld as the shining paragon of romantic love to many impressionable women, especially teenage girls. 

If The Notebook had to be distilled into a single message, it would probably be that love is difficult, nay, that love is supposed to be difficult. Allie and Noah, the two romantic leads, spend most of their time arguing with each other, and the rest having steamy, hot-people movie-sex, as if the excess of one passion could cure the other. As feminist theorist bell hooks writes in All About Love, “This is one of the great sadnesses of life. Too often women, and some men, have their most intense erotic pleasure with partners who wound them in other ways.”

Earlier in the book, hooks makes another salient point, that although “Movies, music, magazines and books are the place where we turn to hear our yearnings for love expressed,” we often and increasingly find cynical or misleading portrayals of it in these sources. Indeed, we tend to view them as guides on how to love, but because they give us such skewed depictions, “we remain totally confused about the practice of love in everyday life.” That is to say, if the Biebers really do take the movie as seriously as making all their wedding guests watch it the night before the actual ceremony, are we to partly blame the messaging of such media if the marriage heads south? And should we ask for art to provide models for “the practice of love in everyday life,” as well as other examples of how to be a good person and live more morally “correct” lives?

On the other hand, however, it seems unfair to demand this — our most powerful narratives often turn on a great deal of emotional turmoil, centering around characters who are most likely people you wouldn’t want to meet in real life. How lifeless, how boring would our books and movies become if there were no violence, if it wasn’t for terrible people doing terrible things?

In an 1889 essay, Oscar Wilde wrote that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life,” arguing against the famous Aristotelian principle. To be sure, the idea of bringing art to life is incredibly attractive. How much richer, how much more fulfilling, we might think, our lives could be if only we were fictional characters? In Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History, a group of classics students toy with bringing Greek tragedy to life, only to face the very real and unfortunate consequences (not to mention the psychological damage) of “a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.” Life, after all, is not written in iambic trimeter.

Although art plays a crucial part in informing us about the world around us, acting as a lens through which we can understand complex emotions and dig deeper at difficult issues, we don’t have to twist our lives to resemble a work of art in order to gain from that work and enrich our lives with it. Instead, by thinking critically about the messages that art presents us, by engaging with it fully or simply allowing ourselves to enjoy it fully in the moment of consuming it, we can allow art to add to our lives in meaningful ways without (completely) forsaking our goodness or sanity.

Ramya Yandava is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ry86@cornell.edu. Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Thursdays this semester.