For some reason, the women in my creative writing classes bring it up first. “Not worth the amputation,” one says. Or, to quote a level-headed baker’s daughter from Brooklyn: “There is already enough pain in the world, without my indulging in more self-pity and self-destruction.” Remarkably, they are discussing nothing more terrible than the life of an artist, circa the 1980’s.
Of course, these are the reactions of young writers not viscerally committed, at least yet, to the creative life. Nonetheless, it is unusual that so many young American poets and playwrights believe that a “sane” or “healthy” emotional life is the worthier goal than achievement in art. . .that the making of themselves is more important than the making of a work. And see the two activities as congenitally, unarguably exclusive.
They feel sure, as do their less obviously creative classmates, that artists characteristically leap to suicide, debauch the innocent, drug themselves into and out of misery, and die in horrible loneliness, or incoherence.
Worse, my students assume, owing to some kind of glib pop psychology now coagulate in the Zeitgeist, that art is, at true bottom, the desperate act of a human being unable to operate in the normal rounds of social and personal life. Art is therefore disguised escape, a schizoid’s defense or, at the suburban level, a frightened sublimation.
As if embarrassed by this private act in a socializing age, they view art as the detritus of an antisocial procedure devised by an artist unable to come to grips with himself. A guardrail at the rim of madness. Failed in the societal flow, the thwarted man retreats into fantasy. The charged vortices of insecurity then, one supposes, become the catalyst for the created work. Or, in campus terms, the homely start writing novels; the myopic, lyric poetry.
Good old fifties thinking—and the ghostly pall of that dreary decade on today’s college generation has been well documented. Nor is this form of anti-intellectualism exotic in the nation’s history.
But my students’ fears that the artistic life, if that is the phrase, will be unhappy as opposed to difficult and neurotic as opposed to singular do seem to reflect more than a conformist’s desire to be acceptable, and more than the essential American belief, urgent in the blood, that unhappiness is a personal failure and singularity an illness.
In fact, it is all too evident in circles educated and ignorant that the creative impulse is generally accepted as the last-ditch attempt of the wearied ego to respond to a formidable set of circumstances that threaten, alternatively, neurosis or worse.
Few question the notion of art as therapy. The message: get it all out. “It” is disease. Esthetics becomes a popular concern since, like fiber diets or the analysis of sleep positions, it may bring relief. Incorrigibly best-selling, Rollo May urges us all to “free” ourselves and wallow in the great awakening of creativity. And the instructor of freshman English is only the first to come near drowning in this society-wide infusion.
In this view, Proust could not have a life, so he had a novel instead. Petrarch really wanted Laura, and Robert Frost really wanted to represent the Vermont electorate in the U.S. Senate, and Tennessee Williams aborts, now, because that is the consequence of gestation, after a certain age.
Such interpretations would be harmless enough if they did not indeed destroy the positive active relationship that must be constantly aboil between society and its artists. For society’s good, not theirs.
Drama, say, began as religious celebration and was a three-dimensioned extended metaphor for man’s speculation into the meaning of all things, as sanctioned by the amassed wisdom of a society. A lesser function now. The form is seen as the isolated work of an individual, often troubled, mind. The single voice is heard as an anomic cry. As society determined that the artistic impulse was one man’s battle with illness, then the function of art was debased and misapprehended. Serious people do not tarry long over the arguments of a theatrical performance. Naturally so, if one bleeds out the traditional role of art, leaving bare and foolish the idea that creation is the sick individual’s zigzag strategy to keep his brains in one piece.
In my view, that strategy is, more often than not, in fact reversed. My one point there is that the artist, kinetically sure that the business of his life is the creation of a thing that has never been before and that is nonetheless inevitable, will arrange his life in service of that goal. Society should learn that art is not the escape of madmen. Rather artists will often choose behavior patterns that are “abnormal” in order to be freed for the insistent claims of their art.
They must avoid connections which distract, be wary of commitments which might tend to reinforce existing (and therefore suspect) social structures, fear the dangerous acquiescence with what has been until they prove that it must be.
Madmen or mad patterns of behavior—why discuss the difference? Fine nutty artists might not need any apologies, but too many readers and teachers are misreading art when they do not recognize the conscious decision to warp a life. They patronize the artist, as Freud did (despite his wily protests) in his study of Leonardo, and deface the art.
Although artists, like other kinds of evangel, should not be respected simply because of the accident of a vocation, their intent should be understood, if only because it is definitely there. In this country, thanks to the Calvinist notion of the elect, it is fashionable for artists at times to claim that inspiration rises, like marsh gas, from an unknown region of the soul. Rarely do they, good democrats all, articulate theories.
While the doggedly verbal conceptual artists of Soho may change that history, it is still not the artist but the critic/ teacher who usually articulates intent. Therefore, we must analyze for ourselves. Let the shy artist dip and fade, it becomes clear that the mind doctors are wrong who say that creation is defense against dissolution and terminal despair, as it is equally clear that the artist chooses neurotic behavior as protection for the single vision.
And he makes that choice some few steps out of the womb. As the individual perceptions dawn in their own particular light, the artist begins to see that the world he has not made, this sudden fact of a world separate from him, is also, provocatively, a world he cannot accept. Not cannot, in the sense of collapse into trauma, but cannot, in the sense of will. He denies and by doing so begins to define.
Early, there is strength enough for the determination of what one will allow and what cannot be allowed. A child learns that the world is not himself per se. Ego rages against the not-him, wanting to continue the connection that had made the world and him seem to be one plastic, poised continuum.
Having faced that perfectly natural perception, the artistic personality begins, it seems to me, to look for the kind of personal and social situation that will allow him to continue what had seemed profitable before: i.e., the uninterrupted concentration upon his private view of things.
Not rejection at four drives the lonely child to work in fingerpaints—the prevailing view . . .it is the need for time and space to discover why his internal sense of colors does not accord, cannot accord, with generally perceived standards of taste that will incite the child to engineer behavior that will afford him that room.
Neurotic behavior becomes the lock on the door, the sign warning: Poet at work inside.
True, the adult artist will later pay his taxes, much like everyone else, and can, in some well-known instances, assume the patina of bourgeois respectability. But the manipulations for moral solitude are central.
For argument’s sake, think of certain artists in the 20’s, a period that has received its share of attention from biographers.
James Joyce, poignantly unable to support himself, penniless, wearing a tweed suit in August because his one pair of pants was out in the seat, had exiled himself from his country, and from his family (except to ask for money), and from his friends (except for the miasmal camaraderie of drink), from human companionship in many forms, except to live, as he did always, with a woman who would not read a thing he wrote. Every choice an isolation. To this great love of his life he sent letters in praise of the brown stain on her underwear, but he could not even, nor do we have reason to imagine that he tried, discuss a thought or fear deep to the bone. Alone, by that choice of marriage.
His contemporary, Proust, more obviously so, perhaps, made the same choice. He slept during the day to avoid Paris and locked himself up, literally, in a dark room, as in the centering of bachelorhood, so that he might play and work until that moment when he might understand, self-engendering, whatever unique reading he meant to bring to memory and loss.
Same years, Wittgenstein hung back in dark alleys, alight in chance encounters with sailors. . .and Faulkner guzzled the booze in an outbuilding. . .and a whole generation of so-called expatriates, adrift to clear themselves of a nation and its ethic, hacked obstinately away at the commitments of kin and tradition. At every bash, these were artists who found alcohol a device; as a matter of fact, those who believe that writers drink to escape themselves, or specific pains, have little understanding of either writing or strong drink. Liquor shuts out the world, indeed, but it can allow a fix upon the egocentric obsession of the artist. . .which is, something like this: I am here again, alone in myself. . .what do I know, unique, in this place?
Gertrude Stein—writing at night and choosing a relationship which took little from her, bathed her in adoration and, in part because of the sexual configuration, was not about to bring down encumbering responsibilities.
The faun, Cocteau—bouncing from one bathhouse to another in search of young boys and fleeing, if they threatened to grow into commitments, wholeheartedly into opium. How aptly, for the artist, he praised that charterhouse of dreams: mistress of all drugs in bringing out upon the table the objectification, and the significant distortions, of private concerns.
Picasso—the strongest of them all, never scathed, it would seem, except by difficult children, and always sure that no woman could mean so much as the next phase of work; best at finding solitude, the room for oneself, in the plunge forward to primitive cultures, trying to evade his own, to chart himself separate from the pack. Indeed, the lure, too, of acknowledged difference, since the artist, no bureaucrat, only finds truth in being unique. That, the aim and secret. And no world tantamount.
All of these people can be seen as “mad” because they must be artists, not artists because they were mad. They canted their personal lives for the very good reason that the conventional demands of adult life, at least in the societies we know, obtrude upon the individual sensibility. No chains because no human being—and this is the obscene truth about artists, talented or not—is finally as important as a masterpiece in the making. Lives will process on their own, and God be praised, but the work begs tending. The first duty.
The children’s braces or the grace of living sociably or the sympathy with physical hurt—dangers all. They cannot be easily fought, and in the battle energy is wasted. Better, then, to set up neurotic systems of living which will do the protecting, so that one can be alone, guiltless, for the mandated search. Masaccio, that unaccountable genius, was in fact given the name (it means, “slovenly”) because “he had his mind fixed on art and could by no means be induced to care for worldly things.”
What changes? To the good people down every block, the artist is, at best, self-centered; at worst, he is immoral in his inattention to others and to the busy-work and spritzing of the shared world. Exploiting mate, he scants children and leaves the roses to black spot and rust.
But artists are, ironically, the moral beings in a world that seems divided now into artists, scientists, bureaucrats, and drones.
The drones have television and other ritualizations of the status quo. They are not odious, perhaps, in their fierce determination to be bored. They may blaspheme life less than we think by sinking back to catch each wave as it comes.
Bureaucrats, however, have chosen to abdicate moral choice. Mind, there are bureaucrats everywhere: disguised sometimes as writers, as in advertising, or as thinkers, in the foggier halls of politics, or in other presentable manifestations of cowardice. Whatever the game, bureaucrats are simply those individuals who accept the premise that the current structure of behavior and value is, to all reasonable men, truth. And zealously surge outward to spread that faith. Relativists without a cause, they are the real neurotics, while orderly in their keying to a system, because they fear that questioning of the given is deviant. Questions can only lead to what the world would term madness . . .i.e., unusual or, in the phrase of the seventies, high-profile behavior. There is a bureaucrat in each of us, and it answers to the best-aimed needles of fear.
Scientists are more nearly moralists, believing that they must find and be responsible to the truth outside, even when the truth is that there is no truth or not an unchanging truth or not a truth determinable by the observer in a single place and time. No matter what the sophistications of these delineations, they all believe in honest service to the unknown thing at bay. Consequently, of course, they do not take responsibility for what is found, what appears. The nature of the universe was designed elsewhere.
Artists cannot share that architectural certainty. They are moralists, differing from the science-minded in a recognition, or a belief, that personal perception must be allowed to construct a workable morality, even at the expense of evidentiary knowledge.
They are stronger egotists than the scientist, who makes himself a device for touching the world and, although he knows that the device cannot reach accurately there, ultimately searches only for the world.
But the artists impose their achieved systems upon what they fear is nothingness. So profoundly as it is possible, they chase out of the brain the knowledge a culture passes down; work comes within the tradition, of course, but against the current. They dare God, fervent to become actors in their own creation myths. It was an artist, abreast a flooding of the Nile, who saw a good story about a single god making the earth rise out of void. The man ascribed to a god a human characteristic, the need to make things in one’s own image. Need, like hunger, a test of the virtue of the object sought.
Where there is nothing, the artist makes something . . . and he is crazy enough to hope that, impossibly, it will be something that has never been before . . .because he has never been before. True, good—in his gaze, and so, moral. The morality is twofold: attention to truth as it can be perceived, frank eyes to the building of a framework consistent with the implications of the perceptions. No dead words in idle mumbling.
In the psychological solitude that can reflect and contain his moral singularity, he discovers his blueprint. The family may suffer, but his vision cannot. Ostensibly neurotic behavior jams out the interference of the world. Sadly or not, the solitude works only too well. The artist bangs about willfully and angrily and sometimes masochistically upon the Sinai he has shaped, finally comes to the tablets, hews them out and brings them, bumping, down to the tribe. . . which would rather not be bothered.
“Miserable Poe, Rimbaud, Dostoevsky, Kafka; penurious Berlioz and unacknowledged Schoenberg; humiliated Cezanne and starving Mondrian,” to quote an article by Arthur Cohen.
EST, a kind of ad-man’s look at what the Greeks said all along, tells us now that we choose our own fates. But do artists really choose this rejection—laid back to be reviled, exploited, ignored? They say not. While it is true that they must go away, retreat, the cycle of that need is revealed in the return with the completed work of art. The solitude is pain— and therefore the more insistent gift to the society and its people left behind.
Nijinsky, who may have been the first artist to realize what hell and chaos the 20th century would be, was already in an asylum in the mid-twenties, partly because he had locked himself in his room, in his head, to scribble out such diary entries as this:
“If everyone will listen to me, there will be no more war. . . . I wanted to shout, “I love everyone! I want happiness! I love everyone! I want everyone!” I want to love everyone and be understood, and therefore want to speak all languages but cannot, therefore I write, and my writings will be translated.”
He has constructed, in a poor way, this morality . . . and he is to be institutionalized, but there is that conviction, mad in the event, that the morality will be accepted, and the vision recognized, because they make truth. The rules of art prevent lies, as Gasals must have meant when he spoke of “the indivisible affinity between art and human values.”
The artist is the prophet returned from the wilderness. He goes where others do not have time to go. When he comes back home, it is a strange place, and neither he nor his former companions can see the drawing of the divide between his language and theirs.
The mind doctors and my students may see in the choice of a new moral view or a new language an urge to self-annihilation . . .or an unprofitable, for the artist himself, continuation of the solitary vice to its inevitable conclusion: solitary art.
I see the urge to teach, to change. For the suspicious, this impulse may seem a kind of benevolently dictatorial thrust, but there is some of that, and no malice necessary, in every thinker’s need to see his thought made fact.
I see the fear of failure as essentially religious, because failure suggests that the moral act of art is flawed and that one has sinned against the spirit. Artists hate each other so violently for the same reason that Moslems hated Christians.
I see the need to find, because of a sympathy with the community of men which has been too long starved, reward for the time of self-imprisonment . . .and that reward is agreement from the many to the singular view. The artist’s pattern of denial comes round, in the cycle, for acceptance and recognition and no small share of love.
I see also the need to choose life.
Every conscious man chooses whether or not to live. Other living creatures are not bothered; they do not question why they spend their days searching out food. As a French biologist said, “The ambition of one cell is to become two cells.” I do not think anyone has discovered mitosis retrograde in consequence of identity crisis and anomie.
But most of us ask every moment, and must choose, not just at a crisis of life, but with every morning, choose to live. Or not.
To live, but not necessarily to accept the conditions of life. Working out that equation is the business of the artist, as of everyone. The mathematics, subconsciously, is probably practiced during periods of great depression—a time of regrouping forces, when the internal structure must be razed and rebuilt to fit the new perceptions which have filtered in since the last personal structure was established.
For someone who cannot separate his personal make-up from his creative passion, the depression allows inarticulate forces to build to an explosive pitch; when he swings back out into the sunlight, it is with a great roar of work. Once again, he can honestly key a picture of the world outside to the themes within. And, egocentric by trade, he knows that the world must listen, for he has truth.
Yan Yoors, famous gypsy, told me this story, which may be written down somewhere:
Like many gypsies, he was working in the underground during World War II; at one point, he was detained on suspicion in an SS station in Vienna. At a desk nearby, the captain was on the telephone, politely cadging tickets to some performance at the Staatsoper, while a couple of his agents held down an old Viennese Jew and pounded a nail into his head. The opera, I think, was Der Rosenkavalier.
Yoors was let out into the street at last, a wide boulevard with the trees of spring coming into leaf, and saw there the thousand smiles that season brings, and knew, “No one will believe. They must know. But they will not believe.”
We can believe, of course, because it happened more than three decades ago, and across a border.
The artist has the audacity to say, “Into myself I have long journeyed and found a country you have never heard of . . . and there are horrors there . . .but I have wrestled them down to the ground, and have escaped alone to tell you.”
And he wants, he needs, he cannot make moral sense out of the world unless people do believe, and indeed see. Back and forth, isolation and then return, loneliness and then the chase after glory. He has hunkered down alone with his demons, won a round or two, and come back to us, expecting praise and ices. He shouts at us: That is what is, and This is what must be.
For a creature who wants to make a permanent thing, the artist exhibits a curious inability to see that resistance to change, the enemy of stability, is the factor strongest in helping his society reject him, seeing him as (and so does he, of course) his work.
He cannot change ideas without changing the world. That he soon learns or he is no artist. Back-ended, to the scientist, but necessary to the solitary who has returned to vindicate his explorations. Sometimes, he will find that these probes have taken him far ahead of his host organism; his language will supersede the vocabulary and syntax of the moment.
It is therefore not at all strange that the artist and politician are so closely related. Aside from the lugubrious spectacle of novels by Ehrlichman, Agnew, and Lindsay and the political forays of academic Kissinger and novelist Mailer, there is the example of art itself.
Picasso knew that he could legislate the senses of the Western world for a time, and did so. In a more literal fashion, J.D. Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. may have ended the Vietnam War by helping to form the generation that would know how to say no . . .and Chairman Brezhnev’s esthetic preoccupations, as expressed through the agency of a bulldozer, are well-known.
But the connection between the determination of private morality and the need to remake the world in one’s own image strikes me most sharply in an odd passage from The Seven Pillars of Wisdom—itself a mysterious brew of political document and adolescent imagination, of existential pain and blatant John Bull propagandizing.
Lawrence, in an impulse, shows himself more artist than military leader:
“The dead men looked wonderfully beautiful. The night was shining gently down, softening them into new ivory. Turks were white-skinned on their clothed parts, much whiter than the Arabs; and these soldiers had been very young. Close round them lapped the dark wormwood, now heavy with dew, in which the ends of the moonbeams sparkled like sea-spray. The corpses seemed flung so pitifully on the ground, huddled anyhow in low heaps. . . .”
“Surely, if straightened, they would be comfortable at last. So I put them all in order, one by one, very wearied myself, and longing to be one of these quiet ones, not of the restless, noisy, aching mob up the valley, quarreling over plunder, boasting of their speed and strength to endure God knew how many toils and pains of this sort; with death, whether we won or lost, waiting to end the history.”
Aside from the apparent homoerotic suffusion here, the postpartum depression after battle, and the wish for personal extinction which is the logical extension for a man who wiped out of his life everything we would think of as personal history . . .aside from these things, the writer crosses the line between study and political arena: he, manically perhaps, rear-ranges the shells that were life into a simple, orderly pattern that is a consolation to him in appearing to be an act of respect that simple men, wanting to walk directly into Paradise, might understand.
Out of the dead things he makes an iconographic representation, not at all untrue to the moral sensibilities of the men whom he has, because of an action that is a compromise between his own political morality and the demands of European powers in World War I, killed.
Nor untrue, at the end, to his own anal-compulsive need for order in chaos . . .a neurotic reaction, under the full moon, not at all stranger to the compulsion to lock himself in attics, chopping out word by word his own firmly rooted account of a series of brush-fire skirmishes in which no reasonable observer would have seen either grand action or spiritual purpose. Lawrence made them wed.
He makes the artist’s connection of words with objects, seeing that both are “out there” and that both can be manipulated in service of the vision “in here.” (Freud, of course, thought a sense of the “omnipotence of words” is peculiar to primitives, children, and adult neurotics.) As with Lawrence, so with every artist: art is moral in nature, and all creation is, when one remembers why social contracts were drawn up in the first place, a political activity.
Such conclusions might seem to be in conflict with the sometimes apparently self-conscious and, to some, trying estheticism an artist might exhibit. Limited people, for example, view with disdain a poet’s raptures about a “particular orangey-red, which can only be seen in certain window-pots in Florence.” Can sound damned prissy. And yet every writer eventually yields up his secret fascination with one or a few of these apparently meaningless appreciations.
Think of Proust and his smells, or James and his moments upon the lawn, Shakespeare and his noises from underground, and Lowry and his sudden frank surprises of floral color. One way of looking at all of Beethoven’s work, Ernest Newman suggested, is to see it as the record of an obsession with one three-note figure.
In my own indulgence, there is a certain purple color in the western sky above the Nile at sunset that, despite the evidence of spectrographic analyses elsewhere, does not exist, and cannot be recreated, in any other region of the world as I know it. Elsewhere, I have not been, and were I going there tomorrow, could never arrive at anything near the same time, with the same man inside who saw a chain of lights at Cairo, some years ago.
Such moments, or sensual memories, are like cracks in the sidewalk or year’s end, those borders of the physical or temporal world which so frightened primitive peoples that their scars have been ritualized into superstitions we retain today. This world is insubstantial, and one must look sharp to avoid the unknown: a jump over the crack in the sidewalk, since one might otherwise slip through to the void beneath, and drinks for the New Year, and noise, so that nothing can vent through that unguarded gap where change occurs.
My violet dusk, your train moaning its horn at midnight in the country, the smell of Lysol in a grammar school hall. . .or whatever, must consecrate, memorialize for us a sense of that dangerous moment of conjunction. The nostalgia we feel, I think, is the relief from terror of the now-forgotten perception, the joyous sense of restoration of things as we see them and hope them ever to be.
What has been called the quest for permanence is, in part, based upon the furniture around that moment or moments when we were led to reflect upon, or forced to recognize, the truth that nothing holds. The truth of change.
Like children picking over a healing sore, we pry at the scab in memory. The way a woman smiles, so familiar, although one cannot remember when or in what face that smile first appeared . . .the curve of an initial in script . . .the tensile blush of watercolor in an otherwise academic painting— these are not esthetic accidents.
They form the individual’s Rosetta Stone for the languages of the physical outer and spiritual inner worlds, and the key makes those two, in the individual consciousness, whole and sane. As the artist sits, staring at the wall, trying to piece it all together, the esthetic motif returns, and is its own answer— no metaphor—and becomes the cause for which the most apparently frivolous artist does hunger.
Answers of such clarity, by the way, may come in part from the simplest aspect of solitary work: the long hours of sitting still. So far as I know, the physical connection between the act of writing and the work produced has not been profitably explored. Sondheim writes his musicals in bed, dozing off every ten minutes or so; the late Alec Wilder said he wrote only on trains; Lautreamont, the first surrealist, wrote all night at the piano bench, shouting out lines of poetry and wildly banging appropriate chords when a stanza jelled.
These and other practices must have effect, as in the other arts. Sing the first phrases of the Bach B Minor Mass and hyperventilation will soar you up into the spiritual ecstasy recommended. A Casals recording loses much when one cannot imagine that enormously powerful, iron-fibered upper arm of his pulling back and forth across the strings. As does the passive experience of watching dance, unless one does, at least once, sit up close enough to hear the breathing and see the sweat pop out and watch the muscles quiver under pressure.
The relation between physical effort and the spiritual achievements of the finished performance seems clear. There is a reflection of strain in aspiration, and the stretching that is necessary to develop control of the human instrument occurs as the performer stretches toward something like “the infinite.” In league, then, the breath and the soul.
So what does all that unhealthy sedentary freeze do to one’s writing? As in TM, one sits, hour upon hour, centering down upon the soul. The body cools, and the mind begins to tell over and over the same patterns, Concentration upon a single point brings the physical resources into play against the outside world, and the body, at the bone of still point, denies other perceptions, other realities. Four, five hours at a desk— the single observer physically reinforces the singular view.
Genius is the ability to concentrate, but anyone working on a piece partakes of genius in the excision of other senses, of thoughts which lose their weight in the sedentary position. Like a prisoner in solitary confinement, the writer (and later, in the same fashion and from the same position, his reader) is dazzled by the cold shock of a single stimulus. The experience of a novel is subterranean, private, and intense in part owing to the immobility of the act of writing and reading. The body does not turn off; it concentrates, leaving the soul at rest while tightening down the system.
Be that as it may, it remains true that those who practice the solitary vice do so because they have a vision of the world that they must find in isolation, where personal truth lies, but that they must, somehow, bring back alive and frank to us.
Merleau-Ponty, the great or looney philosopher, is right in saying that the artist, “strong or frail in life, is incontestably sovereign in his own rumination of the world” and that he “must affirm that (his) vision is a mirror or concentration of the universe or that. . .the same thing is both out there in the world and here in the heart of vision.”
Meaning again, to me, that the artist is the most moral and most political of creatures. And the most fundamentally religious.
When Ulysses finally came out, an Irish cousin said to Joyce, “Well, Jim, Mother said it was not fit to read.” He answered: “If Ulysses isn’t fit to read, life isn’t fit to live.”
Even the least talented artist bends, manipulates, perhaps destroys a life in the belief that perfecting his vision is the only thing that makes life fit to live. Were he simply in the toils of neurosis, the work resulting would be repetitive, fixed, obsessive. Such work does not live.
In every one of us there is a slice or two of artist, as of liar and fool, child and sadist. . .nothing human being foreign to any one of us. We all practice the solitary vice, perhaps only know who we are through the contemplation, however idle, of a private vision. The minute another person enters the room or our consciousness, the vision blurs, because we have become social animals again. Not one of us can live honestly with another.
What can be isolated in the extreme case of someone who lives for his art and for nothing else has some truth, in the private degree, for each soul alive.
“What may this be?” the hermitess Julia of Norwich asks, gazing at a hazelnut. She gets some kind of Zen answer, poor dear, but the question is a good one: “may.” Her verb shows the knowledge that, whatever the thing is, the possibilities of what it might be are well within grasp, for she can make them up.
So, too, the artist goes apart to create, even when he suspects that there is no one in his time to hear and give assent. So, too, every artist, and every particle in you that is creative, is mad Nijinsky, looking for truth and hoping for love, sure that his truth will bring sanity into the world at last:
“I want to cry but God orders me to go on writing. . . . Everyone will feel and understand. I am a man, not a beast. I love everyone, I have faults, I am a man—not God. I want to be God and therefore I try to improve myself. I want to dance, to draw, to play the piano, to write verses, I want to love everybody. That is the object of my life. . . .
“I am a seeker, for I can feel God. God seeks me and therefore we will find each other. . . .”
That is the cry of anyone who seeks out a hidey-hole to write. Strong intentions upon the face of perceived reality. Arrogance of an unregarded point, precisely set at the center of the artist’s being and determined to become corporeal. Mission, even in a godless age.
These things our students must be told (and lightly enough, since in part they already know) so that they, too, will pursue and find and focus a vision that, by even so much as a hair, will for all time change the moral consciousness of the race.