May 2010

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Gordon Waters is an artist, teacher and good friend who now lives in Sydney. I’m a big fan of his work (you can see more of it here) and of the way he thinks about seeing and looking. When he shared this recent essay with me, I thought it would be an inspiring guest post. Thanks Gordon.

WE ARE WHAT WE SEE
By Gordon Waters

It became apparent to me on a recent trip to Europe, more so than ever before, that we are what we see. In this case that we are the art that we see, or more specifically, we are how we see that art. This may sound convoluted but it all comes down to how we, as artists, or laymen, driven largely by the visual stimulus around us, are able to process that stimulus into meaningful, coherent impressions. Having spent roughly a quarter of a century looking at works hanging in museums and galleries, my recent epiphany with one profound little museum makes me think that we are going about things all wrong.

It is well established that when we go to a museum or gallery, on average, we spend roughly 20 seconds looking at a work of art. Of course this varies depending on the viewer, the size of the venue, etc. But in general, even the most erudite art lover would admit that the cursory glance prevails over the contemplative gaze. It cannot be helped. It is the way we are programmed.

Our contemporary society has done nothing to alleviate this problem and everything to exacerbate it. Shorter attention spans, busier schedules, media such as video and installation that often eschew deliberation have all contributed to the malaise. But it is not just our genetic character or contemporary art practice that makes it difficult for us to see what we are looking at. It is the museum itself: vast spaces filled with masterpieces and a maze of second rate works, one after the other, topped off with the clanging of the cash registers from the obligatory gift shop. Not to mention-and this pertains more to the destination museums in the world’s most famous cities and to blockbuster shows in other less famous museums- the crowds. If you are into people watching, a museum is about the best place to go. If you want to look at art, you’re in trouble.

So, when you come upon that place where these concerns are not a factor it is like re-acquainting yourself with your sensibilities, with your ability to perceive what the artist really intended. For me, this is the point of all great art. And I don’t mean the point in the sense of meaning; I am referring to the point as the sharpest end of the experience. I believe the most profound works of art are those where the artist has sublimated himself to such an extent that the work becomes devoid of subjective or objective analysis. The artwork reaches its full potential completely within itself, leaving the viewer naked to interpretation and absolute realisation. But this realisation is only possible if the viewer is provided the opportunity. An exquisite diamond is easily mistaken for glass in the wrong setting.

At the end of the Tuileries Gardens, a short walk from the Louvre Museum is the Musee de L’Orangerie. A modest building that faces onto the Place de la Concorde it would be easy to leave it off your schedule in a city which boasts so many attractions for the art lover. I was in Paris for a short stay 25 years ago on my way to Italy to study art and Italian and, as it turns out, to begin my career as a painter. I made the trek to the Louvre, the Musee D’Orsay, and the Pompidou. But, I did not get to the Musee de L’Orangerie.

The realisation of L’Orangeire as the repository for what is widely regarded as Claude Monet’s greatest works has a fascinating history. Monet, who bought the property at Giverny outside Paris in 1890, had been painting his water lily series almost from the moment he got there. In fact he is credited with inventing the concept of a series; there are 250 paintings in the water lily series alone.

Monet’s close friend Georges Clemenceau received a letter from Monet shortly after the end of World War II in which Monet offered to the French state the largest of the water lily panels, which he suggested should be placed at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs. The subsequent negotiations and the correspondence between the two friends are full of dedication, largesse, disappointment, misunderstanding, and particularly, on the part of Clemenceau, gentle prodding. After considering more than one option, including the grounds of the Musee Rodin, the site of the Musee de L’Orangerie was put forward by Clemenceau and the French administration as the best option for Monet’s work.

The building was a wreck when it was designated for the pictures. An architect, Camille Lefevre, who was the head architect at the Louvre, was hired to make the necessary changes to the building. The space had to fit the panels, and the panels were massive. In the end, the combined works added up to eight panels in two rooms with the same height (198 cm) and a total combined length of over 90 metres.

Monet did not live to see the completion of the project. In 1927 the museum itself opened to universal acclaim. While it seems normal for us to think of Monet as being lauded for whatever he created, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, Monet did not have the stature he maintains today. Despite a lukewarm response to the pictures inside the museum, Monet had reached the height of his powers. It does not happen to all great painters but it should: their best work is not achieved as a young person striving but a wise seer having arrived. Despite his failing eyesight and moments of doubt, even someone who knows nothing about painting can feel how powerful the Nymphae’s are. It is a visceral reaction to an object, pure and simple.

The Nymphea’s at L’Orangerie are sublime the way Emmanuel Kant refers to the sublime in his discussions regarding metaphysics. Their size has a lot to do with this. But this is scale not the way the Abstract Expressionists or the great historical romantic painters like Gericault used scale. The size of the pictures is almost inconsequential; they do not make you feel small or of a certain proportion, they just envelop you but in the most comfortable and unassuming way. It is an example of grand scale at its most intimate. I have seen one of the Nymphae series at another location sitting flush to the wall at New York’s MoMA. It is beautiful, but it is not profound like the pictures at L’Orangerie.

By being enveloped, by having the paintings all around us, our eyesight is thrown out of its normal comfort zone. It needs time to adjust, to allow for the brain to process the myriad impulses and to comprehend the sophisticated nature of the peripheral viewing experience. This process slows us down to such an extent that contemplation becomes not just desirable but imperative.

The building greatly assists with this act. Once through the foyer the visitor enters the first of two elongated oval rooms where the massive panels are placed. The lighting, originally natural, has been replaced for technical reasons by artificial lighting that approximates natural light. The gentle glow of that effective illumination enhances the experience as the viewer looks at the paintings. There is also a comfortable single bench in the middle of the room. The design of this piece of furniture is important: it is only just long and wide enough to accommodate one or two people comfortably. The bench is also understated as if Monet himself has just risen from contemplating his work. After standing close to the paintings, then at a distance, I sat for quite a while on the bench and, by rotating my viewpoint ninety degrees I could reflect upon each panel.

The immediate mood of these rooms is welcoming, reverent, but not dour. It says to the viewer, “quiet yourself now so that you can feel how Monet felt.”

Another crucial aesthetic component is the fact the pictures are not behind glass. Everywhere in Paris and in most other locations in Europe paintings are behind glass. This for conservation and security purposes, but being able to get close to these large paintings and not see your reflection or that of the lights, allows an intimacy synonymous with an embrace.

The size of the rooms also benefits the work. The panel at the back of the second room is 17 meters long but the room feels as if it is not lost, nor overwhelming. The Two Willows fits into the space like Cinderella in her slipper: it was always meant to be.

It is illuminating to compare the experience at L’Orangerie with that of the Louvre less than a kilometre away. This may sound like comparing apples and elephants. The Louvre is a massive building and has approximately 35,000 works in its collection. That is 34,992 more objects to look at than on the top floor of L’Orangerie. (This does not take into account a collection of 20th century paintings which was installed in a contemporary gallery downstairs in the Musee de L’Orangerie in 1966. The works were donated by Paul Guillame and his widow, Mrs. Jean Walter.)

Unless you get a particular thrill out of watching the hordes standing six deep with their digital cameras in front of the Mona Lisa, the Louvre is a conundrum for most viewers. There is just too much to see. Willem de Kooning, the famous Dutch-American abstractionist used to have a wonderful way of dealing with this problem. He would go to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, an institution of similar size, but he would pick two or three pictures to look at and concentrate solely on them. This way he could create his very own L’Orangerie. Concentrate on very little to gain a great deal.

On the same European trip I visited Gaudi’s Casa Batlo in Barcelona and felt many of the same emotions about the work and the place itself. Two years ago, after many times visiting Sienna and walking right by it, I finally sat and experienced Duccio’s Maesta in the cathedral museum. Diego Rivera’s fresco cycle in the National Palace in Mexico City is another artistic endeavour married to a perfect setting.

Nevertheless, there is something quite extraordinary about the Nympheas at the Musee de L’Orangerie. Perhaps here more than any other place the equation is just right; perhaps here it is possible to truly experience great painting without really trying; perhaps here is where the artist, his art and the place where that art is displayed coalesce in perfect union.

(Photo credits: Gordon Waters)

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He Lit a Fire with Icicles

For W.G. Sebald, 1944-2001

This was the work
of St. Sebolt, one
of his miracles:
he lit a fire with
icicles. He struck
them like a steel
to flint, did St.
Sebolt. It
makes sense
only at a certain
body heat. How
cold he had
to get to learn
that ice would
burn. How cold
he had to stay.
When he could
feel his feet
he had to
back away.

–Kay Ryan

One of my favorite Far Side cartoons features a back woods, slouchy guy lazying in front of a ramshackle rundown shack. The place of business sign above his head reads: HUBCAPS AND CROISSANTS.

Sometimes pairings are exciting because they are unlikely. But then there are those pairings that, as soon as they appear, make complete sense. It is intuitively obvious. That’s the way I feel about two writers whose works I love—Poet Kay Ryan and German novelist/memoirist/mystic, W. G. Sebald.

In a recent profile of Kay Ryan written by Adam Kirsch in the New Yorker called “Think Small: America’s quiet poet laureate”, Kirsch comments that on the surface these two writers do not have a lot in common. But as Kirsch points out, “Sebald wrote a book called ‘The Rings of Saturn’, and Ryan is another disciple of the god of melancholy; Sebald was obsessed with transience and decay, and Ryan can never stop noticing what she calls, in ‘Slant,’ ‘a bias cut to everything,/a certain cant/it’s better not to name.’” So writing this elegy for Sebald about an incident in the life of St. Sebolt, the writer’s namesake, is memorable and timbre-perfect.

As a further comment on Ryan’s work, Kirsch identifies where she lives on our cultural poetic continuum:

In American poetry, the contest between glut and starvation is inevitably epitomized by Whitman and Dickinson. Between these two tutelary spiritis, Ryan would of course choose Dickinson, and the resemblances between them have been made much of by critics. This is natural enough—after all, Ryan, too, writes brief, compressed lyrics, and has been a kind of outsider to the literary world.

But of course. As always, I am drawn to the quiet ones, the outsiders, the understated. And my interest in Ryan’s work is even more alive after reading Kirsch’s excellent piece.

Note: You can hear Kay Ryan read her poem at Poetry Archive.

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Partially frozen fountain at Ojo Caliente, New Mexico

I am in a bit of a detached and quiet place these days, a state of mind that is drawing me to Zen concepts, Zen words.

One of my daily rituals when I arrive at the studio is to flip open Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching. This one, number 65, showed up for me this morning:

The ancient Masters
didn’t try to educate the people,
but kindly taught them to not-know.

When they think that they know the answers,
people are difficult to guide.
When they know that they don’t know,
people can find their own way.

If you want to learn how to govern,
avoid being clever or rich.
The simplest pattern is the clearest.
Content with an ordinary life,
you can show all people the way
back to their own true nature.

And this passage is from Terrance Keenan’s St. Nadie in Winter (more excerpts from that book here):

The “practice” at the Zen Center of Syracuse is a lay practice. It is founded on the simple understanding that if Buddhist practice cannot help ordinary people live ordinary lives more completely, then it is not much good for anything. One should not have to become a special case or live in extraordinary circumstances in order to grasp the fundamentals. Zen emphasizes ordinary day-to-day things because when we grasp the essential emptiness in the least thing we simultaneously apprehend it in the universe.

So simple but the resonance of these two thoughts feels particularly useful, grounding, a return to the center.

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Monastery in Ladakh, 2008

Terrance Keenan’s book, St. Nadie in Winter: Zen Encounters with Loneliness, has been my companion while traveling for the last few days. An enigmatic mix of Zen wisdom—part personal memoir, poetry and recovery confessional—Keenan has offered me a rich variation on that unique conversation that can happen with a book.

Early on Keenan describes the source of the entity he has named St. Nadie. When he was still quite young, he had the realization that there was “something more behind who I thought I was. I had no words for it. No one I knew had any words for it—this profound sense there was nobody home. Not emptiness exactly, but not individuality either. My experience of it was deep but erratic…I have spent my life trying alone to understand this nobody within.”

Blending the presence of saints from his Irish Catholic upbringing with the Spanish word for nobody, St. Nadie became a private name for his personal search. When he encountered these words on the gate to the Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji monastery in upstate New York, the Zen resonance with that personal “nobody” was clear:

Along the Way
goes no one,
this autumn evening.

In one section of the book he offers a way of viewing ways of knowing. Quoting a scientist friend of his, Keenan shares this point of view:

Science is a method of knowledge by description and that, on the whole, scientists think that the language we use to ask questions and formulate answers, the terms and mathematics of science, mean this or that…”They don’t, he said, “They never did…There is the math. There is the world. And there is the structural correspondence. That’s it.” He recognizes this is a conditional way of knowing and a limited one. He says that it is inadequate to communicate literal experience, or what he calls knowledge by acquaintance (after, I suppose, Bertrand Russell). He suggests that poetry and art are all we have to communicate what we know by experience.

He goes on:

The language of poetry, the act of poetry, is maddening and wonderful—uncertain. There is a plurality of possibility—and impossibility. For me, poetry has become the voice of my inner nobody, of St. Nadie. Recognizing the differences in the ways of knowing is not to give one ascendancy over another but to recognize that understanding the reality of human experience is not satisfied by either or both. There is no one thread, no complex whole, no one answer in the way we want the real to be.

I like the simple elegance of this middle ground. It is one that aligns closely with my view.

More to come…(a phrase that is becoming a mantra for me.)

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Larter 3, a new painting from a series that may be inspired by the astral zone (but you can never be too sure)

Outside History

These are outsiders, always. These stars—
these iron inklings of an Irish January,
whose light happened
thousands of years before
our pain did; they are, they have always been
outside history.
They keep their distance. Under them remains
a place where you found
you were human, and
a landscape in which you know you are mortal.
And a time to choose between them.
I have chosen:
out of myth in history I move to be
part of that ordeal
who darkness is
only now reaching me from those fields,
those rivers, those roads clotted as
firmaments with the dead.
How slowly they die
as we kneel beside them, whisper in their ear.
And we are too late. We are always too late.

–Eavan Boland

Boland’s poem screamed off the page at me today. Whoa. My full immersion in Borges’ magus-like book Seven Nights clearly has a self defensive aspect to it as well as the undeniable appeal of Borges’ brilliance. When our collective experience takes us into a dark phase of feeling outraged as well as impotent (as we now have with the gushing well in the Gulf), a strong defense is needed to counter the toxicity.

Borges has been my refuge for several days as has another book, The Eyes of the Skin, by the architect Juhani Pallasmaa (more, lots more, to come on that extraordinary treatise.) We are also being nurtured by the effectiveness of DVD distraction therapy, that “take me out of my life and tell me a story POWERFULLY” approach to viewing. Our current favorite is Michael Kitchen in Foyle’s War that brings to life compellingly tales of the struggles of the English during World War II. It is so much better than its description.

But Boland’s poem pulled me upright, awakening me out of the protective haze long enough to accept, once again, what a mess this is. It is a mess I don’t know how to approach, resolve or rationalize let alone solve. Maybe you too are dodging in and out of full awareness of this ongoing tragedy.

In the meantime, another distraction opportunity lies ahead: The long-awaited marriage of a friend. Tomorrow I leave for the indescribable magic of Assateague Island on the southern shore of Maryland where I will witness and celebrate a beach wedding for Kristin and David. Wild horses will be in the periphery (or that is the hope!), and the thought of them, still running wild, brings me a small and quiet comfort. And I have learned to never underestimate the power of small things.

I’ll be back on Wednesday.


Assateague Island horses (Photo: National Park Service)

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Image from a recent show in Boston by artist and printmaker (and one of my favorites) Fred H. C. Liang that suggests a particular kind of enchantment of the visual type.

This is a continuation of the post below since I am letting myself fall under the spell of Borges, the Borges of these 7 lectures. (There are, after all, so many versions of him, which is part of the mystique.)

Something in me is having this experience of feeling as if I am encountering my own feelings. But they are so much more eloquently expressed.

***
For example, on the topic of traveling:

In Buenos Aires, one day is much like another…But when I travel, I move from one comfortable armchair to another, a kindly ghost materializes and talks to me, very informedly, about my writings, then vanishes, to be replaced at once with another. It makes for great variety.

Kindly ghosts coming and going, talking informedly. I know about this!

***
From the short but excellent introduction by Alistair Reid:

The lectures in this book all reveal these connected shifts in Borges’ attention, the flow of his mind and memory. In understanding Borges, it is important to remember that, for him, literary experience has been more vivid an affecting than real experience, or better said, that there is no sensible difference between the two; so that when Borges is talking about books and writers, it is like talking of landscapes and journeys, so vivid has his reading been to him…

Criticism, he has reminded us, is simply a branch of imaginative literature…

For him, literature at its highest point generates awe, the disquieting astonishment that arises from a poem, a deep image, a crucial paragraph, what he calls either asombro or sagrada horror, “holy dread.” The writers he reaches for are those who have given him this essential experience; and it is what most distinguishes his own work, when, in a few phrases, the sharp edges of reality quiver in doubt, the awe is tangible.

***
Regarding The Thousand and One Nights:

The Orient is the place where the sun comes from. There is a beautiful German word for the East, Morgenland, the land of morning. For the West it is Abendland, land of afternoon. You will recall Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes, that is, the downward motion of the land of afternoon, or, as it was translated more prosaically, The Decline of the West. I think that we must not renounce the word Orient, a word so beautiful, for within it, by happy chance, is the word oro, gold. In the word Orient we feel the word oro, for when the sun rises we see a sky of gold. I come back to the famous line of Dante: “Dolce color d’oriental zaffiro.” The word oriental here has two meanings: the Oriental sapphire, which comes from the East, and also the gold of morning, the gold of that first morning in Purgatory.

***
While talking about Dante’s Divine Comedy:

Enchantment, as Stevenson has said, is one of the special qualities a writer must have. Without enchantment, the rest is useless.

Is it just me or is this man a conjurer, a magician? I don’t ever want to exit his spirited zone. Please, let me stay in Borgian flotation forever.

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Mandala, a symbol of enduring mystery (Rubin Museum of Art)

A few months ago New Directions came out with a reissue of Jorge Luis Borges’ Seven Nights. Based on a lecture series Borges delivered in Buenos Aires in 1977, the book is full of the themes that will feel familiar to anyone who has read the work of this brilliant writer and towering cultural figure—Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Kabbalah, nightmares, the Thousand and One Nights.

I am still mid-book, so I am sure there will be more to share later on. But for now, here are two passages that struck something in me:

***
We must reach the understanding that the world is an apparition, a dream; that life is a dream. But we must feel this deeply. In the Buddhist monasteries, the neophyte must live every moment of his life experiencing it fully. He must think: “Now it is noon; now I am crossing the patio; now I will meet the superior.” And at the same time he must think that the noon, the patio, and the superior are unreal, that they are as unreal as he and his thoughts.

One of the great delusions is the I. There is no subject; what exists is a series of mental states. If I say “I think,” I am committing an error, because I am assuming a fixed subject and then an act of that subject, which is thought. It is not so. One should say, not “I think,” but rather “it is thought,” as one says “it is raining.” When we say “it is raining,” we do not think that the rain is performing an act but rather that something is happening. In the same way that we say “it’s hot,” “it’s cold,” we should also say “it’s thinking,” “it’s suffering,” and avoid the subject.

***
We may draw two conclusions, at least tonight; later we can change our minds. The first is that dreams are an aesthetic work, perhaps the most ancient aesthetic expression. They take a strangely dramatic form. We are the theater, the spectators, the actors, the story. The second refers to the horror of nightmares. Our waking life abounds in terrible moments: we all know that there are moments in which reality overwhelms us. The nightmare has a particular horror, and that horror may be expressed in any story.

Well, what if nightmares were strictly supernatural? What if nightmares were cries from hell? What if nightmares literally took place in hell? Why not? Everything is so strange that even this is possible.

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Bless Jerry Saltz for keeping the cultural landscape lively. His Facebook page and passionate following are legendary and talked about everywhere (and sometimes with a derision that smells to me like rank envy.) His blend of the personal with a genuine advocacy for art and artists is unique in the high visibility cultural critic realm. I’m delighted by his invention of this unique hybrid position.

I recently wrote a response to a question he posed on Facebook about the real day-to-day life of the artist. My post, called Wisdom from the Art Tribe, included some of my favorite responses to that query. (At last count, Saltz’s question has garnered 445 comments.)

That post is now my go-to site when I am feeling discouraged. The range and abundance of wisdom (and honesty) that appeared in that exchange still amazes me.

Saltz’s latest question asks about the differences between writers on deadline and artists. As always, it is written in his signatory style, overly capitalized and freely punctuated:

What DO YOU artists do when the demons come?! Do you walk; drink; smoke cigarettes; masturbate; phone calls; computer; eat; cry. What? I’ve NO IDEA what yr. team does. WEEKLY CRITICS work on deadline so there’s no time for demonic possession. The ONLY thing we can do is say, “Shut the fuck up you fucks” & get right back to… work. But you artists! What DO you do when the demons speak?

With 440 (and counting) responses, the range of therapies offered is extensive. Some respondents took issue with the very use of the word demon since its connotations are tainted with religiosity. But we all know what he means, be it named or nameless.

For me it is not about demons but more about drying out. The absence of moisture, that’s the state I fear most. Like sex, an unlubricated studio session just can’t take you where you want to go! Being vigilant about staying in the oleaginous, that’s my best drought defense.

That, and patience.

Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles, and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself?”

–Lao-tzu

***

From Still Water (The River Thames, for Example), by Roni Horn

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Green glass in my studio window

Continuing on a theme of Fitzgerald…

To have something to say is a question of sleepless nights and worry and endless ratiocination of subject – of endless trying to dig out the essential truth, the essential justice. As a first premise you have to develop a conscience and if on top of that you have talent so much the better. But if you have talent without the conscience, you are just one of many thousands of journalists.

–F. Scott Fitzgerald

And one more companionable thought:

The writing itself is no big deal. The editing, and even more than that, the self-doubt, is excruciatingly impossible. Profound, bottomless self-doubt: it has no value, what’s the point? In a way, that takes up as much time as anything else.

–Jonathan Safran Foer

All of this of course maps over into the other métiers. “Profound, bottomless self-doubt” takes up space in painting, poetry and music just as easily as it does prose.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have never been keen on the idea of a creativity elite. Since 1959 when C. P. Snow wrote his legendary essay “Two Cultures” about the breakdown in communication between the sciences (“the white coats”) and the humanities, other us/them dichotomies have emerged. Creativity is one of those, highlighted in recent books like Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class and the Rays’ The Cultural Creatives. And my ongoing dialogue with my friend Bose about what constitutes creativity has kept this topic particularly active over the last few weeks.

An earlier post about the difficulty of measuring creativity has also been rattling around in my head. I have a personal life full of amazingly talented artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers, but I have always considered my highly analytical, business-oriented partner Dave to be one of the most creative people I know. When I first read the well publicized creativity exercise used to promote open source innovation, 40 uses for a brick, I realized that’s the way Dave has always approached everything, from business problems to planning a family vacation. He sees connections that others often overlook and has an ability to keep propagating new ways of seeing.

This is different than what happens for me in the studio. And yet there is some common elemental source at work here—a shared language, a common fragrance. Parsing it any more than that seems like an unnecessary excursion. But it is my nature to leave plenty of life’s unnamed experiences only partially exposed, respectful of what is inchoate and just a little mysterious.

What set me off this morning was a back issue of the New Yorker with an article about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s painfully unsuccessful attempts to make it in Hollywood as a screenwriter. Having just recently been enamored and awestruck by experiencing The Great Gatsby performed verbatim in a production of “Gatz” at the A. R. T. (and written about here), I was a bit unnerved by this unsettling account. It is about the harsh reality that creativity doesn’t always spill over. It has its limits, it has those domains where it cannot scale. In other words, it is a story about human longing and human limitations, of how the gap between the two can be a terrain of extraordinary misery and suffering.

Billy Wilder described Fitzgerald’s foray into Holllywood as “a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job,” with no clue how to connect the pipes and get the water to flow. How could the author of one of American literature’s greatest novels be so off in another form? In Slow Fade, Arthur Krystal does a decent job of putting it into perspective:

Fitzgerald drew his faith not from camera angles or even plotlines but from sentences; and what draws us powerfully to his work is the sensitive handling of emotional yearning and regret. When he was revising “Gatsby,” he characterized the burden of the novel as “the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.” As Arthur Mizener….pointed out, “it is precisely this loss which allows Gatsby to discover ‘what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.’” Perhaps Fitzgerald could have captured this heightened state of awareness in a script, but was this what the studios were looking for? Fitzgerald’s vision of becoming a great screenwriter was no more realistic than the likelihood of his returning a kickoff or writing a hit Broadway show. But, then, Fitzgerald was not one to give up on dreams; if he had, he could not have written so beautifully, so penetratingly, about their loss.

Reading this left me with a willingness to surrender to the “chop wood, carry water” that so characterizes a lifetime of work, be it in an overtly creative field or not. This isn’t a negative view; rather it is accepting where we might be brilliant and where our own personal river runs thin. Fitzgerald’s life happens to exemplify two extraordinary extremes. But that is often the nature of genius.

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