One who doesn't read has no advantage over the one who can't
A long-time friend, AR-F, confided the other day that a series of articles he wrote for our church bi-monthly elicited very little reader response. I admitted that this blog doesn’t produce a landslide of reaction either, although enough to make of it a gratifying avocation, if not a reasonable vocation.
I’m reminded of a passage in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary:
. . . since no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sorrows; and since human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars.
That, probably, sums up the core reality for anyone who picks up a pen to write anything for public consumption: it includes a longing to move the stars along with the disappointment that all one has really accomplished is setting in motion the feet of a few dancing bears, and that briefly. How many preachers have delivered sermon after sermon without experiencing reaction or response, let alone genuine dialogue? How many newspaper columnists have ground their teeth in frustration, realizing that only their missteps will be noted—responded to?
In a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville—author of Moby Dick—lamented the writer’s frustration by blaming it all on the ignorance of the public:
. . . for not one man in five cycles, who is wise, will expect appreciative recognition from his fellows, or any one of them. Appreciation! Recognition! Is Jove appreciated? Why, ever since Adam, who has got to the meaning of his great allegory—the world? Then we pigmies must be content to have our paper allegories but ill comprehended. I say your appreciation is my glorious gratuity.[i]
Has anyone ever understood “the meaning of [Jove’s] great allegory—the world?” I wonder. The quote alerts us to Melville’s intention that his writing be recognized as illuminating allegory, and that’s been how Moby Dick has typically been reviewed and analyzed. His self-deprecation may be typical of artists of every stripe (“we pygmies;” “our paper allegories”): part low self-esteem; part, a fishing-for-compliments.
That’s one side of the coin.
On the other side lies the observation that great writing and great speeches have shaped history from time to time. Once in a while, writers hit some sweet spot that resonates, and what they have written or said, painted or sung ‘goes viral’, as they say in this digital age. Will Shakespeare, Rembrandt van Rijn, Caruso, Martin Luther King, Mark Twain, Karl Marx, St. John, The Beatles, Pete Seeger, all artists who managed to hit the sweet spot; you could name a hundred others, no doubt.
The pen may well be mightier than the sword, but knowing where to point it—and when, and how—remains the elusive goal. There will most certainly always be a thousand misses for every hit.
Not long ago, we staged a great concert at the Station Arts Centre . . . and drew all of thirty people. We planned another concert of Mozart’s life and music and cancelled after only fourteen tickets had sold. More misses than hits. A musician in the former group said that there are now so many bands clambering for stage time that it’s hard to draw an audience and I think he’s right; we constantly get phone calls from artists and performers looking for a venue, longing to be heard, and writers wanting us to sell their books.
So what does it all mean?
The argument that it’s all been said a thousand times before in a thousand different ways may be relevant here. But as a final explanation, that would deny that every age, every generation needs fresh poets and artists to illuminate its world, if simply in response to cultural and material evolution. In the 21st Century, unfortunately, the shifts are so sweeping and broad that anyone aspiring to be an artist is scrambling to find the relevant voice. This scramble is not pretty; there’s enough bad art, bad music and bad writing out there to discourage even the most liberal tastes. Maybe the 22nd Century will have to pick from our plethora what actually qualifies as art.
It doesn’t help that most of the artists, writers, musicians currently at work were trained in the middle to late 19th Century and are scratching their heads over life outside their windows. I’m told we’re witnessing the birth of a “post-modern” age; an age that sees the universe more subjectively following a long period of clinging to the virtues of objectivity. Included in this change of perspective is the rejection of many modernist and pre-modernist categories: male vs. female, hetero vs. homo, black vs. white, planning vs. spontaneity, etc., etc. Can our aging artists convert, or does one have to be born into an age to be a genuine part of it? That’s the burning question. I favour the former but suspect the latter.
The futility in trying to save the silverware when the ship is sinking.
So what if writers, artists and musicians can’t move the stars? At least they can take some satisfaction in the fact that their efforts have set a few dancing bears’ toes a-tapping.
30 at a concert may not be many, but it’s not zero either.
And AR-F, I read your columns and appreciated them; I’m sorry I didn’t say so at the time.