Friday, April 30, 2010
There is a point in the Kate Bush song, “And Dream of Sheep,” where she says with ultimate longing, “I wish I had my radio.” This line is followed by her singing, with equal melancholy, “I’d turn it to some friendly voices/talking about stupid things.” This line has felt poignant to me, not only recently with my newfound focus on podcasts and showcasing the stupid/enlightening things the people I know have to say, but for many years, when I think about the concern I have for ideas and notions that may very well be called “stupid things.” Now, do not take this post to be a “woe is me” piece. Instead, I want to explore some of the meandering thoughts and insecurities I have had over the years about the balance between civic concerns and how, if at all possible, one may balance both.
Last night I attended a round table discussion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was hosted by the PEN/Faulkner organization. The discussion featured some of the best minds of the world (Jostein Gaarder, James Hansen, Frederic Hauge, Bjørn Lomborg, Bill McKibben, Andrew Revkin, and Cynthia Rosenzweig; moderated by Robert Silvers) discussing the issues of climate control and what measures can be taken to prevent future global warming and to decrease carbon emissions. I didn’t know who each of the speakers were, but I did some research when I returned home and found out just how prestigious and highly regarded they each are – especially Bjorn Lomborg. However, at the time of the discussion, it seemed to me, after spending four years working for a humanities quarterly, that they had collected each intellectual character necessary for a round table discussion on any topic: the eccentric foreigner with a thick accent who is impossible to understand but speaks with passion; the brooding foreigner with an easier to understand accent; the young foreigner (not necessary that he be foreign) who is opinionated and who really stirs the pot of the discussion and riles the other participants up; the woman who usually, unfortunately, seems to be too liberal; the old guy (approx. age 65-80) who is not totally involved in the discussion because he is somewhat tired of participating in such events, but towards whom everyone shows deference; the other less older guy (approx. age 50-55) who is sensitive and gets visibly upset by the young upstart and who references his wife and kid in order to make the young upstart see that one day he will have a family too and can’t be so energetic in his pursuits; and finally, my personal favorite, the middle-aged slickster.
Now, I make these stereotypes of course because they are true and I have seen these types of speakers at conferences too many times. But I also make these stereotypes because I, like anyone else who makes a stereotype, feel jealous and insecure by these people? Why am I jealous? Because they have established their names and work hard for a cause they is certainly outside of themselves and is more concerned with the world at large. Why am I insecure? Because my soul is not drawn to the same focus and the same concern over these very civic matters. Civic in my mind means anything concerned outwardly with great causes in the world at large. My soul has always been drawn to matters that concern the immediate emotions and passions of the individual. I am concerned with the everyday, the miniscule (non-scientific, well some are, say the way light looks, but not in the way that global warming is scientific) phenomena that make people question their ambitions or their identities – those moments of doubt and joy that are able to so completely engross us that at the moment of delirium or fatigue, we must think back to remember what the cause of our fervor was; we must remember who exactly we are.
This inclination may be due to my age. However, at 24, I believe and have long felt that it is time to move beyond yourself into that greater realm of the world at large – considering that we do live and work in it. Yet, this blog and the podcasts that I do, which I obviously believe in and devote much of my time to, seem to fall under what you might call “stupid things” rather than the kind of attention and discussion that was paid to a topic like global warming and climate control last night.
The conflict between these two realms and how to properly navigate each, or rather transition from one to the other, has led me to think about some of my favorite artists of all time. When I say artists, I mean writers, because writing has always been my strong suit and my passion, and because above all it is indisputably the highest form of art that exists, when it is properly executed due to its synthesis of the auditory, the visual and the mental facilities of our senses and imaginations. The writers that I think of are Leo Tolstoy and James Joyce. The other day, over GChat, my friend Alex Ramsdell was discussing an Isiah Berlin essay he was reading that referenced Tolstoy and his desire to break the study of history down from a metaphysical procession of time and events – large sweeping motions of nations and movements with ideologies – to the actual interaction between one person and another person. The quote that Alex gave to me was: “only the sum of the concrete events in time and space - the sum of the actual experience of actual men and women in their relation to one another and to an actual, three-dimensional, empirically experienced, physical environment - this alone contained the truth, the material out of which genuine answers might be constructed." This quote was Berlin summing up Tolstoy’s take on history and basically on how to perceive existence. The great merit to Tolstoy’s writing was not only his ability to control many different characters, perspectives and storylines in an epic breadth of human existence, it was his ability to sit above all of this action without an obvious judgment towards those who were acting and interacting. But, as the quote says, what was most important about his work and his approach was that the world was made of human interaction at all levels and in varying degrees of meaning and poignancy and that all of these moments must be rendered with a certain equality, because each action occurred within a three dimensional world, made of empirical objects. What often loses people is that our actions and interactions are not merely two dimensional (one person to one person), they are three dimensional, there is an other, whether an individual observer, a group of friends, a community, or a country that is in relation to the interaction between two people. Our relationships are also objects that must be seen from a distance in order to be seen and fully understood and appreciated.
Joyce too followed this model. Ulysses is celebrated for its focus on the mundane, daily occurrences that people go through in order to leave their home in the morning and return to it at night, hopefully alive, hopefully in one piece, and perhaps maybe happy. In “The Oxen of the Sun” Episode of Ulysses there is a point where the narrative (for the narrative has taken over at this point, as it shifts styles throughout the ages of the English language) says, “any object when intensely regarded may serve as a passage of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods.” This quote exemplifies one of the main precepts of modernism, which I have always been drawn to as a “style.” This main precept is the fact that through any one object (an object being an interaction as well, if you have been following this out of the blue rant) a person may have access to that which is eternal, that is to say, elements of life and existence that have existed forever on some universal level. It is only through keen observation and the consideration of an object in repose that we can truly understand it, its significance and also our own significance. This is the idea or rather the phenomenon that my soul has always been inextricably drawn to. I can’t help myself from thinking about this concept and what it means to each individual and as you might imagine, that certainly leads one away from actively participating and reaching out to the concerns of a civic life and existence.
However, Joyce and Tolstoy also exceeded in reaching out to that civic world and to the concerns of their respective countries at the times in which they wrote. War and Peace is obviously focused on the Napoleonic Wars and the effect they had on the individual characters within Russia. Anna Karenina, meanwhile, explores the relations between landowners and the serfs that worked the land. Levin is equally concerned with his own faith and notions of the divine as well as with the most efficient way to organize the peasants into a work force in order to create a well-organized farming infrastructure within Russia. At other ends of the novel, Oblonsky and Karenin navigate the bureaucratic world of the Russian government and find the different levels of its deceit and disappointment. Ulysses not only follows Mr. Bloom and Stephen Dedalus on their respective paths through Dublin on June 16, 1904, but also touches on the hoof and mouth issue sweeping the country, the fallout from Parnell’s death, the fledgling Dublin literary movement, and other news stories that preoccupied Dubliners at the time. There is a straddling of both the civic world and the intensely personal world of the individual that both Joyce and Tolstoy are able to accomplish, which is not only an important lesson for any artist, but for any person trying to be a human being in this world.
What do we do then? No one likes a singer who only sings about the corruption of the government. When Pearl Jam put on poses of protest during the G.W. Bush years, it seemed phony and forced – no one truly cared. One can’t force themselves, whether as an artist or a regular person, to be part of the civic world. You can only gradually transition yourself. Because even as I was listening to the lectures yesterday evening, I thought that someone put as much thought into the ergonomic, reclining theatre seat I was sitting in as one might put into solving the problem of global warming. Underneath our civic duties and world missions, there lie the mundane problems that also must be solved as well. It is moving past the mundane problems that allows us to embrace those greater problems of the world, for if we live only in the civic world, then we return to a personal world that is left in shambles. However, in the end, we all want to eventually become bored with our own egos in order to move forward to a world where most of our concerns are located outside of ourselves and our immediate spheres of influence. That is when we all become the President of the United States (follow that joke? No? OK, good.)
**This leads me to a quick note on how one becomes better as an artist. In writing, when you start to achieve a level of competency in your craft, you begin to recognize the ability to form a cogent thought or feeling about an interaction or about any given object and instead of filtering it through your own consciousness, history and opinions, you decide to throw that idea or inclination outward to an other who then thinks the thought through to another conclusion that is completely foreign to you. That idea, is then given light outside of you, so you can then observe it and try to glean what type of truth lies within it. When this idea is observed, you are able to record it, to render it as it might appear in life. This how the artist who has begun to understand his or her craft will begin to operate and create. Your ideas should never come from without you – they are always borne within based upon your experiences, your research and your observations. However, the art comes in expelling those urges, those kernels of an idea outward where it can then form on its own, through the guise of a character. You say, “That is an interesting idea, but I don’t care how I feel about it. How would he or she feel about it? How would they think it through?” Then, once that has become an object, it is concrete and renderable in your work. So, again, there is a three dimensionality as Tolstoy had suggested. There is not just the one dimension of your own thought or the two-dimensions of you and then your experience with an object – there is the third dimension of expulsion, which allows return, which finally allows creation of an art; a successful art**
So, what does a good artist do? A good artist renders the mundane and deeply personal issues in the same light as those pressing civic issues and puts no value judgment on either, like Tolstoy would have done. It is up to the viewer to create their own idea of what is more important than the other. The best the artist can do is to render the object, the interaction as it would be in life and allow the inner light of that object to show itself.
What does a good person do? A good person learns how to grow up and make more time to read the New York Times and try to volunteer their time to do good in that civic world. That person hones in on their interests, what they are good at and makes sure they can do that the best, while always making time for something outside themselves.
What does a 24 year old do? Keeping tuning that radio and talking about stupid things. Get bored with yourself as fast as you can so you can move on to more important matters. Forget accumlating choices in your life and make a decision.
And that, ladies and gentleman, concludes Matt Domino’s “How to Be a Pompous Ass Without Really Trying” seminar for the month of April. Admittance Fee: five years from your life, and slight loss of soul. Profit Gain: $0.39 from advertising revenue in the month of April.
Puddles of Myself couldn’t do it without you!