Every so often Owl encounters artists like the souls who post on Thought Catalog and gets a serious attack of the vapors. Owl would very much like to declare herself an artiste, but then she reads the sculpted prose of the people who post on Thought Catalog, their descriptions of life as an artistic twenty-something, the hangovers and hangups, the breakups and breakdowns—la vie bohème.
Owl is a dull creature, fond of convention, even fonder of rules. She is capable of having a one hour conversation on knitting. She can be found at the library on weekends, and is utterly outraged that it’s closed on Friday nights. Her idea of Bacchanalian pleasure is a mug of hot chocolate and a slice of cardamom bread. She has no desire to experience la vie bohème. It sounds uncomfortable.
And Owl despairs. She cannot shake herself of the notion that the desire for a life without rules is the same spirit that goes into the creation of great art. In order to create anything you can’t look around and duplicate what has already been done. You have to stand on your own feet, see some crazy vision, nod and say—This is how it ought to be. And then do it. And then keep doing it even when people want to lock you up in a padded room.
This takes guts. A certain disregard for convention, and an unshakable madness. And perhaps this is why you get the mythology of the tormented artists. Maybe, in order to do these things, artists have to be slightly mad, completely mad, possessed by some wild beast that can not be contained in a single body so it manifests as alcoholism, angst, abuse, and at its highest and most purest form: art.
Lately Owl has been reading Roberto Bolaño’s much lauded The Savage Detectives which has added to her despair.
If anyone was possessed by this madness it is Roberto Bolaño who spent most of his life wandering through Latin America, stealing books, starving, reading and writing poetry. In Mexico he burst into poetry readings held by poets he thought were corrupt and screamed until he drowned out their words. Isabelle Allende was mediocre, Gabriel Garcia Marquez a mere socialite, and the less said about likes of Laura Esquivel and Paulo Coelho the better. He called for a literary revolution, and if he couldn’t make people get up and follow him, well then, he’d be the revolution. Ballsy, and belligerent, if that’s how a writer should live, than Bolaño the complete and utter badass, was the master of them all.
Owl was captivated by the first paragraph of The Savage Detectives:
I'm not really sure what visceral realism is. I'm seventeen years old, my name is Juan García Madero, and I'm in my first semester of law school. I wanted to study literature, not law, but my uncle insisted, and in the end I gave in. I'm an orphan, and someday I'll be a lawyer. That's what I told my aunt and uncle, and then I shut myself in my room and cried all night.
Owl wanted to be bff with Juan García Madero. Then he joins the visceral realist poetry movement. He stops attending class and starts going to bars to write poetry. He boozes up, gets laid, and gets high, all in proper artist form. (Here Owl sadly realized she and Juan García Madero were never meant to be. Owl is not the sort to cut classes. Or even booze it up.)
A hundred fifty pages in, Madero’s voice is replaced with a series of interviews that capture the lives of two poets as they travel from country to country. There are about fifty different people who are interviewed, the interviews span two decades, several different countries, and to make matters worse (or better) Bolaño chops up the interviews, layering them against each other so every two pages the narrative jumps from person to person.
The Savage Detectives is technically brilliant. Bolaño must have papered his walls with lists of his characters in order to keep them all straight. But the overall effect is discombobulating. It is difficult, if not impossible to keep track of all the characters, so they become indistinguishable, fifty or so angry voices, getting high, getting drunk, rolling into bed, rolling out, howling for love but managing not to love anyone, not really, not in anyway that matters, and then it just fades into noise, one continuous roar. At first it’s sordid, then it’s exhausting, and finally it’s boring.
There is very little about poetry, and when it is mentioned, like everything else, it gets lost in the roar. If there’s any lasting flavor the remains once you finish, it is about the emptiness of old age once dreams have grown sour.
The critics called the book genius. Owl wonders if this is because Bolaño lives up to the mythology of the tormented artist. Actually Owl does not like to think of Bolaño, when she does, she feels totally incapable of living up to such heights of madness. His vision of artistry seems exclusive—being an artist is like belonging to a club. Either you’re in or you’re out and if you’re out, you’re out and God help you.
Instead of God, Owl turned to Natsume Sōseki’s Kusamakura. Sōseki came of age when Japanese writers were turning towards Western literary traditions. While Bolaño raged against the conventions of Latin American writing insisted on the importance of a revolution, Sōseki turned back to traditional Japanese literature. A revolution, perhaps, but an opposite one, a desire to go back to the old structures of the past instead of rampaging ahead into unknown lands.
Kusamakura is plotless. It follows a narrator as he meanders up a mountain and around its hidden springs. There’s a lot of staring off into the distance and meditating on the nature of art. Where The Savage Detectives is noise, Kusamakura is quiet, where The Savage Detectives is long, Kusamakura is brief, and where The Savage Detectives ultimately has very little to say about the creation of poetry other than how it’s fifty odd characters mostly failed to create poetry, Kusamakura outlines an entire philosophy of art.
According to Sōseki art is more a state of mind than a product. To be an artist is to be able to create a certain emotional distance from personal experiences and view them dispassionately.
You must forget the pain of your own broken heart and simply visualize in objective terms the tender moments, the moments of empathy or unhappiness, even the moments most redolent with the pain of heartbreak. These will then become the stuff of literature and art.
Anyone can be an artist as long as they “cut [themselves] loose from the entangling strictures of gross self-interest.” It has less to do with creating than with perceiving. To be an artist is to experience life without getting consumed by emotional reactions. It is an attempt to transcend the immediate visceral reaction to realities of life and instead step back and passively regard the moment for what it is, untainted by personal interests.
Owl has no comment on which version of artistry—the wildness of Bolaño which is all about the visceral or the dispassion of Sōseki—is more true. Neither. Both mixed up and laid together side by side, after all both writers created books that are still being read today. But she knows which version she prefers.
On her birthday Owl went to the Asian art museum. It was not a particularly easy birthday, Owl was bitter—tired of her endless desire to write and how ill suited it made her for daily life, desperately afraid of her life without writing.
She stopped by a room full of ancient Chinese scrolls. In the manner of Chinese scrolls, the landscapes loomed large and the people were few and far between, a commentary on their relative importance. There were mountains surrounded by curling wisps of smoke, thick forests, riverbanks, and off in the corner a boat or a small hut where inside a scholar read a pile of books.
Owl looked at the largeness of the mountains, the smallness of the scholar reading and in that moment she broke free of all her doubts and attained a moment of clarity. She saw that her life was small, one of many, that her life was indeed good.
She came into possession of a certain serenity, a knowledge that she was one of a long chain of people who had come and gone but spent their lives reading books, that this was acceptable, unimportant even, and that regardless of what she does, the mountains will remain large, eternally beautiful.
In that moment she was absolutely sure one day she would be very happy.
This serenity lasted for days.