Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Art, Artists, Artistry

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.


  1. The comment disappeared! It had links... it had... *sob*


    Well, the very brief, prosaic version: I really love your concluding three paragraphs here; they remind me of the conclusion of the poem "Love Letter," which you can read here.

    And the mad genius who boozes it up and makes a lot of noise is the most tiresome trope about creativity ever, honestly.

  2. @asakiyume

    'm convinced blogger lives off of eaten comments. hoards 'em up in a cavern, especially the ones that shine like pomegranate seeds, and then slurps them down.

    agreed. but somehow I keep hearing so much about them I'm beginning to be afraid there's truth at the bottom of it.

  3. Well, I'll grant that not being bound by conventionality may make you more free to see things from unusual angles, and that that might bring you insights that were worth sharing... But that's it! No other compromises!


  4. I think my comment was too long, so here's it in 2 parts...

    And adding to the conversation so far... If all mad genius gets you is a boring book, well then what was the point?

    I like the structure of this entry, how you start at one extreme, move to the other extreme, meanwhile I'm going but-but-but maybe it's not worth it? And then you end somewhere in the middle and somewhere not even close to the middle at all. I really liked the ending.

  5. I think blogger likes really short comments...

    Your ending paragraphs remind me of a conversation in high school I had with my best friend. Both of us remember this conversation, we bring it up occasionally. We were both exploring religions at that point, looking for the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. I remember watching a movie about fish in the deep ocean, how there's a fish which has a "large" female and a tiny male. The female will catch food and eat it and the male lives as a parasite off the female, I think like a leech, though I may remembering wrong. They stay together as soon as they find one another so that the female has someone to fertilize her eggs -- because the deep ocean is so empty the chances of finding another of the opposite sex is really really small.

  6. And the last...

    Somewhere along the way this translated into me thinking "so they get born, they eat, they mate, they die -- what's the point of life?" There was no "oh I'm so much more awesome as a thinking human being" it was all "they're alive for a reason, so what's the reason?" and the reason I came up with was *drum roll please* to live. So simple. Just live and be happy living. I told this to my friend during lunch one day. We were eating outside around the empty side of the school building, sitting on benches in the sun, and walking around them and jumping around because it was our only time standing all day. My friend jumped up onto the bench and was like "that's perfect!" Because it gets rid of the pressure. Life isn't racing, it's skipping just because you feel like it. Though sometimes that's hard to remember.

  7. Anglerfish. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglerfish#Reproduction

    The nice thing about having a background in biology is slightly less angst about our Ultimate Purpose in Life. Ultimately all living things are alive because their ancestors survived long enough to reproduce. What you do with that from there is your own job.

    Also, about "mad genius" - the problem with living a radically different lifestyle is that most people want to read/interact with things that are relevant to their lives, with the threshold of relevancy being variously defined by different people. If nobody can relate to you or understand/connect with what you're saying... it's just mental masturbation.

  8. @danceswithwaves

    Kinda my question. Seriously. I'm looking around all sheepishly going what did I miss what did I miss, because Bolano's the cool boy. People lined up out the door for his last book when it came out. I'm interested in seeing if he lasts.

    Holy crap. You could start a new religion with that epiphany. It'll start with the parable of the angler fish, and you can go around telling people--it's just life! Chill! And it'll be beautiful. There's a beautiful simplicity in your answer. Most of the time I'm not even capable of understanding--not really, not in a letting go and calm down kind of way.

  9. @Gilrandir

    Continuing on that trajectory someone should really start the cult religion of biology. Main tenants. Eat. Replicate DNA. Sleep. Die.

    I wonder if the mad genius is attractive because everyone has a mad genius side to them but very few people have the guts to express it? So admiring the mad genius is a way to safely express that side without paying the consequences like pariahdom. Or you know, sleeping in a leaky shack.

  10. Re: biology> I always figured virtues were virtues because they were hard to do. So it'd be kind of interesting to formulate a religion/philosophy/code of ethics based on things that are actually easy for humans to do... but then you run into the kid-in-a-candyshop problem, where giving in to one's whims and desires all the time is the road to type II diabetes and such.

    I guess it's less a religion with commandments (or even an ethical manual) and more a philosophy. Descriptive, not prescriptive.

    Re: mad genius> I suppose the idea of a mad genius is appealing, but the reality and details aren't necessarily engaging. Kid in a candyshop with infinite candy attains infinite stomachache.
    Also, it might depend on where people place themselves on the fallacy of "mad genius = creativity". I am a mad genius, therefore I am creative! I am creative, therefore I am a mad genius! Or, I am not a mad genius, therefore I can slack off because I'm not expected to be creative. Or, I am creative, therefore I ought to be able to mouth off at my boss because I am a mad genius and the company simply cannot survive without me.

    (I speak of this cavalierly, having not read the books that this entry is based upon XD)

  11. @Gilrandir
    I dunno. Sometimes I feel like virtues are actually easier to do, the problem is we don't necessarily realize that they're easier in the long run. I suspect virtues exist so we can all live with each other. If we ended up stabbing each other in the back every time we got pissed off, humanity wouldn't go very far. OH! OH! So maybe all religions do tie back to the biology part--they make it possible for the maximum amount of people to eat, sleep and reproduce. (minus the religions which demand humans should not do anything of these things.)

    Mill has a quote...that I've completely forgotten. Something about how it's not that we badly want chocolate cake, it's that we don't quite have the ability to say no to chocolate cake. (figures I remember the example used to illustrate the quote since it involved cake.)

    I've always found mad genius appealing and wanted to be one very very badly, probably more so because I'm pretty run-of-the-mill conventional. Are there people who don't want to be mad geniuses?

    But yeah, you pinpointed the fallacies very neatly.

    (...I'm torn about the book. I enjoyed thinking it through. I loved the first page. I'm curious about the other books Bolano has written. But I'm not sure I'd recommend him and I know I'll never reread him.)

  12. First, Czeslaw Milosz again:


    That poet lived all his life in a quiet provincial town, at a time when there were no wars or revolutionary upheavals. It is possible to reconstruct from his poems his circle of people. It included his father and mother, the enigmatic aunt, Adele, her husband, Victor, a young person by the name of Helene, and his close friend, the owner of a local printing shop and a philosopher, Cornelius. And those few characters were enough to bring to life a poetry of descent into the abyss and of soaring ecstasy, a testimony of dark passions, sins, and terrors.

    This should lead us to conclude that the importance of an oeuvre is not measured by the importance of the events which led, one way or another, to its creation. No doubt, the facts we try to guess had no significance for the history of mankind. Whether Adele was the mistress of the poet's father, whether and why her husband tolerated that arrangement, whether the poet was jealous or simply took his mother's side, what his relationship with Helene was like, and whether it was a triangle with Cornelius at one of its sides -- those components of the human cosmos are too common to have much meaning ascribed to them. And yet what depth in those stanzas where, encoded, the most ordinary human dramas glow with a glare of ultimate things, what force in the transformation of the very stuff of people's everyday life into that marvelously muscular body of verse!

    That oeuvre is a warning to all those who envy poets with rich biographies, possessing at their disposal images of burning cities, of the wanderings of crazed humanity, and of murderous cohorts marching.

    Second, William Carlos Williams again:

    I am often diverted with a recital which I have made for myself concerning Shakespeare: he was a comparatively uniformed man, quite according to the orthodox tradition, who lived from first to last a life of amusing regularity and simplicity, a house and wife in the suburbs, delightful children, a girl at court (whom he never really confused with his writing) and a café life which gave him with the freshness of discovery, the information upon which his imagination fed. London was full of the concentrates of science and adventure. He saw at "The Mermaid" everything he knew. He was not conspicuous there except for his spirits.


    For S. to pretend to knowledge would have been ridiculous -- no escape there -- but that he possessed knowledge, and extraordinary knowledge, of the affairs which concerned him, as they concerned the others about him, was self-apparent to him. It was not apparent to the others.

    His actual power was PURELY of the imagination. Not permitted to speak as W.S., in fact peculiarly barred from speaking so because of his lack of information, learning, not being able to rivals his fellows in scientific training or adventure and at the same time being keen enough, imaginative enough, to know that there is no escape except in perfection, in excellence, in technical excellence -- his buoyancy of imagination raised him NOT TO COPY them, not to holding the mirror up to them but to equal, to surpass them as a creator of knowledge, as a vigorous, living force above their heads.

    Hope this has been helpful!

  13. It helps enormously. But doesn't experience also feed the imagination?

    I cannot shake Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own.

    "One could not but play for a moment with the thought of what might have happened if Charlotte Brontë had… somehow possessed more knowledge of the busy world, and towns and regions full of life; more practical experience, and intercourse with her kind and acquaintance with a variety of character. In those words she puts her finger exactly not only upon her own defects as a novelist but upon those of her sex. at that time. She knew, no one better, how enormously her genius would have profited if it had not spent itself in solitary visions over distant fields; if experience and intercourse and travel had been granted her. But they were not granted; they were withheld; and we must accept the fact that all those good novels, VILLETTE, EMMA, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, MIDDLEMARCH, were written by women without more experience of life than could enter the house of a respectable clergyman; written too in the common sitting-room of that respectable house and by women so poor that they could not afford to, buy more than a few quires of paper at a time upon which to write WUTHERING HEIGHTS or JANE EYRE.

    At the same time on the other side of Europe there was a young man living freely with this gipsy or with that great lady; going to the wars; picking up unhindered and uncensored all that varied experience of human life which served him so splendidly later when he came to write his books. Had Tolstoi lived at the Priory in seclusion with a married lady ‘cut off from what is called the world,’ however edifying the moral lesson, he could scarcely, I thought, have written War and Peace."

    Can imagination substitute for experience or vice versa? Are there different levels of imaginations...? Shakespeare was Shakespeare, and this poet was this poet, but what are such imaginations easily found? And even if they are, what would they be like if they were exposed to the wide world?

  14. I must respectfully disagree with Ms. Woolfe.

    If Tolstoy hadn't gotten out as much as he had and was incapable of writing War and Peace, we can guess that he would have directed his genius toward writing something else. It wouldn't be War and Peace, but it would have come to life through the same powers of the same mind.

    If Herman Melville had stayed on land, his imagination would have found something other than the spectre of the White Whale to haunt it. Something very much like Moby Dick might still exist, albeit in a different guise.

    Thousands of other people have gone to sea or lived actively as nobles in 19th century Russia. None of them wrote War and Peace or Moby Dick.

    Think now: what if Shakespeare had traveled Europe, fought in the wars, participated in orgies with the royalty? Reread King Lear, Measure for Measure, and Henry V with this in mind, and tell me if you think they would have been improved.

  15. It’s good to hear someone standing up to Woolf and it is comforting to hear that you can not take the art out of an artist even if you lock them in an empty room.

    Still though, I think even so, as wonderful as the artist’s art may be, it will not live up to its full potential. What we are capable of imagining is rooted heavily in our experience. There are things we’d never think to imagine. I do not believe you can write convincingly about isolation or heartbreak until you have experienced these for yourself. Living in a society completely different from the one you grew up in that will teach how your culture shapes your perspective.

    So certainly a novel would have come to mind, but would it have resonated with as many people? Would War and Peace be as rich or as deep if Tolstoy had spent his days taking tea with an elderly aunt? Perhaps Melville, also taking tea with the aunt, would have written about chasing the neighborhood dog around the block, but what of the rich biting social commentary that accompanies Moby Dick? Would Melville be capable of commenting on religious hypocrisy and racism if he’d stayed on land?

    There’s an empathy for and understanding of Chinese culture in Pearl Buck’s books that you don’t find from someone who hasn’t grown up in two different cultures. She understands what it means to be American, and what it means to be Chinese, and what it means to be a foreigner in both societies. I doubt she could have written her books if this had not been her life.

    I can not speak to Shakespeare because…I do not like him. I think there is no one like him for marrying up words into harmonious couples that have ruled English for centuries, but I find his tragedies comical because so many people die, I am not convinced by the emotions of his characters—the development strikes me as thin gruel—there is more emphasis on the plot than on the nuances of character. Very well, Orsino and Olivia love Viola, but what special qualities does Viola have that make her so loveable? Do you love Viola? I do not, nor do I love Orsino or Sebastian (who is just a name). I love the story of Twelfth Night. (I haven’t read Lear, or Henry V, or Measure for Measure).

    Anna Karenina on the other hand? Ivan Ilych? Their pain is my pain.

    Granted though, these experiences have more to do with emotional development and meeting different types of people than orgying it up.