Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mean to say

The older I get (and I am now 63), the less art works its
its magic on me. Is this typical for a sixtysomething or
is it just me? The poets, the writers, the musicians I
once worshipped now seem more like people with
problematic personal lives, who, unable to cope with
reality, found solace in invented worlds. Gorgeous,
enchanting, brilliantly embroidered worlds, but
artificial nonetheless. Well, that’s what art is, isn’t it?
Artificial. And fair enough too. In the great cosmic
wash-up quadrillions of years from now, it may be that
art will be all that the universe remembers us by—that,
and certain inexplicable acts of kindness. I hope human
beings will go on getting as much out of art as I have in
my life—and still do, but with a growing jadedness.
Why, I find myself wondering as I try to embark on a
new novel, would anyone go to the trouble of creating
this fantastically elaborated fictional world? Have they
failed so soon, I muse out loud as I toss the book aside
halfway through page 10, to cope with reality? Even a
phrase in a non-fiction book can try my churlish
patience, such as this from Country Driving: Three
Journeys Across a Changing China by Peter Hessler.
In Beijing, he writes as early as page two, it was a ‘gray,
muggy morning, the sky draped over the city like a
shroud of wet silk.’ Once, I would probably have thought
this a fine turn of phrase, and, indeed, would have
written one just like it myself. Now, like Bertie Wooster
bewildered by Types of Ethical Theory, a book foisted on
him by a ghastly girl called Florence, I can only respond
helplessly, ‘Well—I mean to say—what?’


maggie@at-the-bay.com said...

Groan, yes, how sad for you and for me who knows what you mean - particularly if you are a writer - which means you lose that joyous madness that what you have written might even matter - but then, on Saturday, I was re-acquainted with the magic - sitting beside my three year old granddaughter as we listened to "We're going on a Bear Hunt" together. For a moment I was horrified as I sensed her terror (imagining I would be in trouble with her Mama for terrifying her so) - and so, we sat beside one another, terrified for different reasons, and with great relief, and joy, at the end, she said "Let's do it again". Oh yes, the magic of the written word for a three year old, the power to terrify while being entirely safe - the thrill, the magic - and not a clever or ponderous metaphor in sight.

Tim Upperton said...

Sven Birkerts, editor of the literary journal Agni, describes a typical experience as he reads the morning's submissions: 'Taking from the top of the fiction pile, for instance, I read: “John Maloney hunched his shoulders against the bitter wind coming off the lake.” I stop and respectfully slide the pages back into their envelope. The piece will be returned to its author.'
A harmless enough sentence to begin a story, you would think, but Birkerts justifies his swift rejection with wonderful clarity: http://www.bu.edu/agni/essays/print/2006/63-birkerts.html