Thursday, November 08, 2007

Notes & Quotes at Semi-Random 2

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.
—Edith Wharton

This speaks to me about lit critic Harold Bloom's coinage of the anxiety of influence. No Bloom fan myself—in fact, I find most of his reactionary ideas about literature to be antithetical—the phrase sticks in the mind. It is about the confrontation of the modern artist (poet, composer) with his or her percursors, and the strength needed to attain one's own artistic "voice" in the face of the weight of art history.

What Wharton is saying here, though, is that even reflected light is still light, and still spreads light. A good performance is itself an experience: the performer matters as much as the composer, in that moment, because the orchestra brings the piece to life from its place on the page.

The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.
—Samuel Johnson

Not being a devoted fan of Dr. Johnson, the way many English-language writers are (and tell me I should be too), I nevertheless admire many of his comments, as quotes. This is a pithy one. It speaks to creativity as a balm. it speaks to the experience of art as solace. (Which then, for me, immediately calls to mind Scott Joplin's great piano composition, Solace.) It speaks directly to my own life's experience.

Earlier today, I was feeling a little at loose ends. I had just gone out to bring afternoon tea to, and visit with, an elderly friend who is now at home, being cared for by Hospice, and slowly dying of cancer; she and her family are probably experiencing her last few weeks of life. I chose to divert myself by stopping in at the local drugstore, rather than going directly home. As I walked in the door of the drugstore, Chris Isaak's masterful song Wicked Game was playing on the store's music system. The mood of this song, both melancholy and quiet, perfectly suited me. I bought nothing, I didn't even browse, I just stood in the store listening to the song, and left as the last bars played. On deeper levels, the song's message is very dark and bleak, an existential song about loneliness and isolation: but paradoxically it is also about endurance, and in its romantic complaint, it promotes the very things it claims to deny. It matches the mood, for me, of solace, and of Solace.

And so we get to a deep meaning of Dr. Johnson's quote: merely the act of writing, and reading, of art-making or experiencing great art, can help one endure. And endurance, if you know it's endurance, can lead to enjoyment.

To choose against the culture is not merely to disobey; it is to "die." Against what the culture knows is real, true, and good, one has chosen the evil, the false, and the unreal. To be or not to be, that is the question. To choose against the culture is to experience nothingness.
—Michael Novak, The Experience of Nothingness (1970)

This is one of those books I keep returning to, for validation, and also for solace. It was written during a turbulent time, and is full of questions about society, self, and meaning. Novak has gone on, since then, in directions I don't agree with, but his early radical books still speak to me. (And I do still read him, even though I usually disagree with him, now, beacuse he's a gifted writer who presents his case brilliantly.)

But this book, The Experience of Nothingness, is a seminal book for me. I have re-read it several times. It speaks to my experience of the dark of the soul, as well to other events in my life.

This particular quote speaks directly to the role of the artist in modern life: most art-makers are, in our commerce-oriented culture, outcasts. Artists who don't "sell out" are unbelievers in the domineering, universal Religion Of Money. they are heretics, untrustworthy, and are often burned at the stake.

To choose against the culture is to experience nothingness.

And yet it is necessary to do so, if to do so you are following where your art leads you. I'm not trying to promote the stereotyped archetype of the Lonely Hero-Artist here, nor the Starving Artist—both are stereotypes I despise. What I'm promoting here is integrity to one's own vision: the guts to stand up for your art, even if it's unpopular. The mere fact that you have become an artist—against all odds, against family and tribal pressures that to this day constantly ask you "When are you going to get a real job?"—is in itself an act of tremendous courage.

Don't sell your courage short by dismissing it as nothing special. To be an artist in this culture is completely necessary, whether or not the mainstream culture admits it, and is an act of integrity and courage, even when it is overlooked. And it is, also, an experience of nothingness: because you'll be on your own, without your Tribe to support you and validate you. Those are things you will have to learn to gain from within.

Under all speech that is good for anything there lies a silence that is better. Silence is deep as Eternity; speech is shallow as time.
—Thomas Carlyle

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