Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Love is an object kept in an empty box

Scattered thoughts, ill-formed perhaps (perhaps?). . . questions I will probably explore further. Or not. Depending.

Is there a way in which the inability to read—the need for useful texts (information) on the one hand, and the ongoing valorization of mediocrity on the other—is a symptom of the decline of symbolic language? That is, if many of us do not have sufficient experience with once commonly known texts, commonly known narratives, once common ways of storytelling, if we have been failed by education (which we have), if we lack . . . a storehouse of both information and varieties of modes of representation . . . how is art possible, in this sense, beyond just being the plaything of a shrinking minority? If the history of Western literature is built on the Bible and the Greek and Roman classics, and I am needing to play extreme catch up in my late-30s, with time necessarily running out, where does that leave me? (Leaving questions of despair aside, for the most part. And especially if, heaven forbid, I should feel the urge to "blog the classics".)

To the extent that a literature is a lived tradition of a people, is such a thing doomed without a common repository of symbolic language? Or a common repository of much of anything. And is such a thing perhaps already dead, with narrative taking place only in that place of solitude, where the reader finds the text? And if we all have our various tastes, so that few of us can draw on the same body of literature, what then?

"Art for Art's sake": what does this phrase really mean? For me, it's meant simply that the artist should not be constrained to producing art that is "on message"--political, religious, etc. But what does that mean? The artist is at his or her best when he or she--does what? For some, it seems, "art" can only happen when "messages" do not intrude. Or, from the other direction, the reader is not attending to aesthetics if he or she discerns an idea in the text. Is this true? How is it that ideas are not wrapped up in aesthetics? Though I admit to being somewhat at sea on the questions of aesthetics. What are they, really? I know this seems like a silly question, but it seems to me that people talk about it all the time without making it clear that they know what they're talking about. How is it that aesthetics is separate from other aspects of a work? (As is so often the case, the dictionary is of no use, and other reference works leave me feeling that I need to read, and have already read, the whole of philosophy before I may even take on these questions. Which is absurd. And yet. A minimum degree of erudition seems a necessary pre-requisite for so much, which too often keeps it at arm's length.)

If we can agree that much of the great art of the past was religiously motivated, why is it now so difficult for us to believe/accept that great art can be politically motivated? Perhaps motivated is the wrong word. Inspired. Is that better? Or, maybe I mean this: why is it so difficult for us to see value in the content (with the understanding that I do not see content as separate from form), so to speak, of religious literary art? Is it simply because we might reject the underlying religion itself? Is that it? Isn't that simplistic?

The idea that art should stand alone, seeming virtually outside of the society from which it arises (for it is not allowed to "comment on" that society and remain art, though I over-simplify, to be sure), is this not a privileged idea? I am being unclear. That is, our extreme antipathy towards anything that might smell like the "political" in art, isn't this a symptom of capitalism? Isn't it a privileged position to take? If one of the features of white privilege--that privilege that comes from being a member of the dominant group in the capitalist system--if one of the features of this is that we are able to so often not notice the lives of others who are not like "us", that we are able to live as if the way we live our lives is both "natural" and the baseline norm, so that everything else appears to us as deviations from this norm, how does this impact our attitudes towards art? If anything that argues against this privilege (or points it out) is "political", whereas anything that emanates from this privileged position is merely "the way things are", where does that leave literature? Also: is it any wonder, given such circumstances, that the bourgeois novel, the novel of smooth surfaces, in which a view of a coherent world is presented, that this should be the dominant literary mode? (I note, incidentally, that the contemporary novels that come to me from, say, Latin America, or Eastern Europe, are generally more interesting. Though there is selection, of course. Including the decisions as to what gets translated and published, as well as my own particular literary interests. But still.)

(In the second sentence of the above paragraph, I say "our"--I instinctively share this antipathy, though somehow I don't see how it can be maintained, if we consider the fullness of politics, if we consider both art and politics as of a society, and if I am to be serious. I have no trouble believing that a writer can be driven to write, to make a piece of literary art, from a site of political, let us say, anger, or indignation, or something. A spark. Though there must be something in that spark, I would think, enabling the writer to attend to the writing. And the writer, above all, must attend to the writing. At the same time, I wonder how one who, say, writes a novel for the purpose of ending the war, or enacting a policy, can expect that goal to be effected through the writing of that novel. If only because so few people are likely to read any one given novel or story. And it strikes me that this is the sort of situation, perhaps fairly, perhaps not, in which we assume that the writer will not have attended to the writing, as writing, to its formal problems. It also strikes me that I may be contradicting myself and writing myself into a corner.)

Isn't it true that, in the experience of art, we often understand things--things in real life--better than if they had simply been stated, say in an essay or political program? Why does this kind of thing bother certain critics? Though such understanding is not necessarily explicit, nor does it necessarily stay in one place, ready for us to articulate in simple, plain language. It flits by.

Lately I’ve been listening obsessively to Smog's great Supper album. "Truth Serum" features question/response portions between our man Bill Callahan and guest singer Sarabeth Tucek. At one point she asks, "What is love?" and he answers, "Love is an object, kept in an empty box". Love is an object kept in an empty box. I think when I first heard this line, I thought it was merely clever, then over time I looked on it as an interesting riddle. Now, I hear it as something deeper. I hear it as speaking to the questions we ask about art as well as about life. What is an experience? How do we describe it? What is our experience and understanding of art? Presumably it helps us in our experience and understanding of life. Does it not? Or is it merely something pleasant or diverting to pass the time? And if the latter, why then does it matter so much? (It will be seen that I do not hold the latter position.)

How do I reconcile some of the above comments/assertions with the bare fact that I approach the literary work--that I create that work, in concert with the absent author--in a place of solitude? Can I? Do I need to?

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