George Saunders (Photo: The Guardian)
Is it just my bias or is it truly hard to find an artist who is a gifted creator and also wise? Another personal bias (since we’re divulging these proclivities): It is my experience that wisdom comes from those who have figured out how to get out beyond the distracting lights of egocentricity, careerism, competition, self promotion. They take on a sense of humility as part of their wisdoming. Their way of looking at the world feels slowed down. Stripped to the essentials. Primal.
Case in point, the spectacularly inventive writer George Saunders. His commencement address at Syracuse this year was published in the New York Times this week. Commencement speeches are a form of sermonizing—they typically aim for the concise and the pithy, with a message that is relevant to the young and the old. And like a homily, the best ones leave you with a kernel idea to pull up later. For Saunders’ speech, the word is kindness.
Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well, everything.
One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”
And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE…
So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.
I have thought about this speech for days (and thank you to my alert niece Rebecca Ricks for flagging it for me.) I have also been wisdomed by a gloriously protracted read of the poet Mary Ruefle‘s terrific collection of essays, Madness, Rack, and Honey. In her introduction she self-effacingly says:
I do not think I really have anything to say about poetry other than remarking that it is a wandering little drift of unidentified sounds, and trying to say more reminds me of following the sound of a thrush into the woods on a summer’s eve—if you persist in following the thrush it will only recede deeper and deeper into the woods; you will never actually see the thrush…but I suppose listening is a kind of knowledge, or as close as one can come. “Fret not after knowledge, I have none,” is what the thrush says. Perhaps we can use our knowledge to preserve a bit of space where his lack of knowledge can survive.
Later, in a chapter entitled “On Sentimentality” she waxes wise when addressing a scholar’s disapproval of the use of the “vague you” pronoun in American poetry. She is straightforward in getting past what seems like a pointless discussion:
Mr. Sterling asserts we don’t participate in such poems, but become “a passive observer, an eavesdropper”—as if it were of the utmost importance that we always, always, participate, participate, participate. When was the last time you participated in a poem by Emily Dickinson, no matter what pronoun she was using? Sometimes I feel enormously privileged to be a mere eavesdropper.
Her simple defense of privileged eavesdropping rather than participation parallels tendencies in the visual arts regarding the dominance of installations focused on social practice, politics, conceptual constructs. The mystery in seeing, looking and experiencing a work retinally has been put aside as unimportant. In that tension between content and appearance, the pendulum is swinging heavily into the former. As is often the case, what beleaguers poetry and poetry making is relevant to what beleaguers the visual arts. As Ruefle suggests, there is—and ought to be—room for both/and.
Kindness, and the privilege of being an eavesdropper. There is a welcome in those words, almost a soul’s sigh, that comes up in me when I think about embracing those two states of mind.
Mary Ruefle (Photo: Matt Valentine)
Other Slow Muse posts on:
Lovell’s Quiet Portrait of George Saunders
Safekeeping the Not Knowing
Images, Ideas and Tension