… it is often our mightiest projects that most obviously betray the degree of our insecurity.
– W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz
Paradoxically, it is this willed closure or neatness of finish that the true artist needs to resist, fending off the urge to smooth out the rough surfaces of pain, necessity, and accident.
– Mary Kinzie, Introduction to Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea
A man makes a coat out of an old piece of cloth.
When the coat is in tatters, he makes a vest from the coat.
When the vest is in tatters, he makes a scarf from the vest.
When the scarf is in tatters, he makes a cap from the scarf.
When the cap is in tatters, he makes a button from the cap.
From the button the man makes nothing at all.
And then from the nothing at all he makes this song.
– Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days
I might have known better, nothing is what everybody wants, the world runs on that law. Personally, if I could, I would instigate Meat-Axe Day, and out of the goodness of my heart I would whack your head off with a couple of others. Every man should be allowed one day and a hatchet just to ease his heart.
– Djuna Barnes, Nightwood
Even more important, the work of art is itself a desiring-machine. The artist stores up his treasures so as to create an immediate explosion, and that is why, to his way of thinking, destructions can never take place as rapidly as they ought to.
-Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia
He had once come across one of those cheeky posters about life inside the offices of a humanities nonprofit. It said: “When you are young, you have time and energy, but no money. When you are middle-aged, you have energy and money, but no time. And when you are old, you have time and money, but no energy.” Was that the best you could hope for even if you considered yourself lucky? Having gone through a fair bit of the first two stages, he was frightened by how true this pop wisdom felt.
He had decided to have children a bit later in life, but then he hadn’t met the woman who would become his wife until he was in his early 40s and they didn’t get married for a few years after that. What had he done with the previous twenty-some years of adulthood? I suppose a good bit of his 30s was taken up in caring for his mother. His father traveled a lot for work and had to keep the job solely for the health benefits that covered his mother’s condition.
But all this would have been manageable had he not this urge to write; and thus, spend so much time avoiding the actual doing of it. This morning, he told himself he was going to spend fifteen minutes writing before he ate, showered, and headed off to the office. But the baby Maria had woken up early and his wife Laura had gone to bed late the night before having stayed up to soothe the baby. Teething. It was always some cycle or phase these little critters were going through. It’s really not pleasant growing up.
And so, he fetched her out of the bassinet, fed her a warm bottle, got dressed in the living room while she gummed a binky like a dog with a fresh bone, picked her up to return her to sleep, and was rewarded with that watery, semi-curdled vomit that only the quite young know how to gift wrap. Twenty-minutes late, he left for work, having written nothing, much less even gotten the sleep needed to be semi-productive for the day.
But it was always something like this. If it wasn’t the baby, the dog had loose bowels he couldn’t hold through the night. Or his wife’s weekend away with the girls got canceled at the last minute. Or the second he sat down to write, he noticed an odd discoloration in the ceiling steadily growing which turned out to be a watermark made by a leaking pipe requiring immediate attention. If he turned on the television, nothing happened–all was quiet for hours. If he attempted to write, especially if he scheduled it, all hell broke loose. One day, he even took leave at work without telling his family, drove to a local coffee shop, took out pen and paper, and found himself in the middle of some sort of petty larceny turned hostage situation (the result of which was him hiding under a table for 45 minutes as directed by an incompetent gunman, and spending the rest of the day at the police station giving a statement and being pressured by the locals to justify their officer’s lethal shooting of the gunman).
He used to tell himself that if it was just part of his daily routine, he would write regularly, but he had never been able to manage any sort of routine that lasted more than a few days, if that. Sometimes he wondered whether writing–or any art for that matter–was truly a luxury or a necessity. The urge was there. Like a hunger. Demanding to be served. Still, he only kept it alive by feeding it such scant rations at such infrequent intervals. Maybe the truth was that he had nothing to say and feared facing up to this. On the few occasions he did manage to write, he felt guilty. Guilty for not working on repairs to the house. Guilty for not visiting his parents. Guilty for not staying in touch with friends. Guilty for not paying attention to his own family. Guilty for writing so poorly. And when he didn’t write, he felt guilty for that, too. For squandering the time. For being too tired to write. For having nothing to say.
Tonight was the first night of the new writing class he had signed up for at the local college. He thought it might make him accountable if he was beholden to a teacher or a whole class with assignments and deadlines and such. He was both excited and nervous. He had made several contingency plans–backup transportation if the car failed or broke down, a babysitter on standby if Laura had an emergency or got stuck at work, several animal tranquilizers in his pocket should he need them all to sleep through whatever obstacles they might want to throw in his way. It was just a class, right? That’s what he kept telling himself, but it felt like a moment of truth. The kind of defining point where someone finally commits to a dream or gives up on it. Something definitive. He had written the directions down by hand. He had even driven there once over the weekend. It was only fifteen minutes from his house (possibly twenty-five in the worst traffic). He arrived ten minutes early, circled the campus once, drove around the parking lot looking for the perfect spot, and left himself two minutes to walk to the appropriate classroom on the second floor of Building H. He dropped his keys getting out of the car and used it as an excuse to re-tie one of his shoes. He silenced the ringer on his phone. And slowly walked to the entrance. He put his hand on the door handle but never did bring himself to open it.
When he arrived home a couple hours later, Laura asked: “How was it?” She was always so supportive of his efforts. Of everything, really. He wavered between making up something grand in praise of it or dismissing it as not what he needed or expected. Instead, he simply said: “I learned a lot tonight.”
… the paradigmatic artistic experience is that of failure. The actualization fails to meet, equal, the intuition. There is something ‘out there’ which cannot be brought ‘here.’ This is standard. I don’t mean bad artists. I mean good artists.
– Donald Barthelme, “The Sandman”