Sheila Heti and The Fight for Art

On the fourth page of Pure Colour, the fourth and most recent novel by the Canadian writer Sheila Heti, it is proposed that there are three kinds of beings on the face of the earth. They are each a different kind of “critic,” tasked with helping God to improve upon His “first draft” of the universe. There are birds who “consider the world as if from a distance” and are interested in beauty above all. There are fish who “critique from the middle” and are consumed by the “condition of the many.” And there are bears who “do not have a pragmatic way of thinking” and are “deeply consumed with their own.” The three main characters in the novel track with the three types: Mira, the art critic and main character, is a bird; Mira’s father, whose death takes up the middle part of the novel, is a bear; and Mira’s romantic interest and colleague at a school for art critics, Annie, is a fish. The bird, the bear, and the fish are the basis for an inquiry into different value systems and the ways of perceiving the world that follow from them. The schema itself evokes a competition-to-the-death: birds and bears both eat fish. But the competition Heti is interested in occurs in the social world, not the natural one. There, conflict need not be fatal, but it remains a significant and even a necessary aspect of social life in modern secular societies. For what defines the three types is more than a matter of personality, or sensibility. It concerns what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls “strong evaluations”: that is, the kind of choices and commitments that individuals living in those societies make to express “the kind of beings we are or want to be.” Heti has spoken of

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