Wednesday, April 5, 2017
What is the good life?
I suspect that any artist will tell you that creativity has its rhythms. The first is that of creativity itself: the spark of an idea, question, query, insight. Then the playful fleshing out until you feel sure enough to begin drafting, drafting, drafting. Then revising, revising, revising. And the process isn't linear: as you draft, you accidentally-on-purpose or unconsciously put in something unexpected and find that it resonates beautifully. So you have to re-think, re-draft, re-revise. You have to be willing to go around in circles if you are going to be a creative person.
But the projects themselves have their rhythms. I'm circling around in a little whirlpool right now. Not an unpleasant whirlpool, mind you. It's simply that most of my energy must go to revising my book on Virginia Woolf's aesthetics. And I've found that undertaking to revise and cut a book that would be 500 pages if typeset today means diving in and staying underwater as long as you can. You develop momentum, your principles remain at least partly coherent, more of your complex argument stays stuck in your brain so that (let's see if I can stay with the water imagery) you aren't swimming upstream all the time. But that doesn't mean that other creative projects, like my work on another collection of poetry I'm calling Aides Memoire for the moment, and Soul Weather aren't on my mind. It's that two things happen.
First, you can't stop thinking about them, so you are constantly scanning inward and outward horizons for ideas, little touches of the human you can use, for new perspectives, new details, things you had never noticed before. I suppose it's like living on high alert. Second, you realize that this hiatus from your creative projects can actually be good for them. When you are drafting, it's easy to get caught up in an entertaining scene and not realize that while interesting it has nothing to do with the core questions you are asking. So trying to see the landscape you are studying from a mental hilltop is quite useful. And of course, almost everything you read is put to this purpose in one way or another. You learn a bit more about characterization. You consider how effectively this writer has exploited a plot with extreme highs and lows, twists and turns, and consider whether it's something you want to do--which of course will mean completely rethinking your project. Hiking a little higher, you wonder what it is you are doing and why. Why are you driven to create? Why has this project stuck to you like a burr through half a dozen years already (although those years were very full of almost everything but work on this project)?
For me, the most successful art asks questions, explores questions, provides themes and variations on questions, opens up a whole world of questions. I don't need art to tell me one thing about the world--no matter how wise or powerful it is. I want the artist to be my co-conspirator, someone who is willing to guide me through the labyrinth of a particular question by marking some of the intersections, some of the surprising turnings. In turn, each culture at any given historic moment has questions that are so extraordinarily pressing that many artists find themselves immersed in them. How do we construct and view a post-9/11 world? How do we rediscover freedom and ethics after Nazism and the Holocaust? What does a world look like when young people suddenly have a disposable income and a voice--the question of the sixties and seventies? What is freedom--also the question of the sixties and seventies? What does the working world look like after the 2008 market meltdown? How can I be safe?--the question asked by women everywhere, by civilians and soldiers during any war, and by Muslims and Jews in far too many parts of the world.
But there's one question that writers keep coming back to. George Eliot asked it, as did Jane Austen. Virginia Woolf pondered it for much of her life, as did Henry James and Ernest Hemingway. It is at the centre of a handful of extremely varied novels that I've read in the last little while: Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, Lawrence Hill's The Illegal, Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Jonathan Safran Foer's Here I Am, Julian Barnes' The Noise of Time. Two American novels, one Canadian novel, one French novel, one British novel. One novel by an American Jew and one by a African-Canadian.
What is the good life? And how many meanings of "good" are there? Perhaps I have been drawn to see this question everywhere because, at bottom, this is the question my four young twenty-somethings and one newly-separated forty-something are asking themselves. And its corollaries: how do I get there? In the context of racism, sexism, capitalism, in the context of poverty and wealth, in the context of a world that is heating up all too rapidly because perhaps we were sold a concept of the good life that's not very good--for the planet, anyway, how do we achieve the good life? What...?
Here I came to grief. There were just too many questions, while at the same time I thought my question was simply too big, too general to have any meaning. Because I keep the house cool when I work, I crawled under a quilt; Twig piled on, made a nest, and began to have a bath. As I watched him wash behind his ears, I thought. How hard it is to be human! A bundle of contradictory inner needs at the crossroads of innumerable social forces. And let's not think about genes and physics.
I need to work this out, so I think I'll let it be my puzzle while I'm revising Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement. Next time, I'll think about those novels and see what they have to say about this question of questions. Until next Tuesday....
at 4:07 PM