Monday, August 27, 2007


"[getting old] isn't very romantic, but it's certainly better than the other option."

Christopher Hitchens
Get your boxy emo glasses out and spark up a clove cigarette, its time to look at the goth arts. For some reason, to many people (particularly younger folks, college age mostly), art has to be connected to deep misery and depression or it is not art. These are the folks that side with Salieri in the fantastical depiction of Mozart's life in the movie Amadeus. For them, true art can only be done by those who suffer, who are self-destructive, who spiral ever downward in a grind of alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, and self-loathing.

They write miserable poetry, they see life through black-tinted glasses, there are skulls and tears everywhere. They tear aside the veil of happiness and smiles to see the real world where deep down everyone is secretly miserable and hopeless - or so they think. I've never understood this point of view, life is often hard, but it's sometimes wonderful, and in the end, how is a self-destructive spiral of crushing failure and loss of artistic skill heroic?

Yet some really do think so.
I have read Great Gatsby three times and still can't feel why it slays people. In some funny way I think it is a guy book not a girl book. (I like Tender best.) But Fitz's life--that moves me! He had the guts to face his deterioration and write about it; to the end of his life he remained kind to other writers, and generous even to pricks like Hemingway; his naked admiration for their work and his appreciation for what it took from them to produce it; his never joining an ideological tong to protect his reputation, his never going left; his saying 'life is a cheat and the conditions are those of defeat and the only thing that stands and redeems is work' ; his love for the Murphys, for every excellent character he met; his admission of his failures; his attempt to make it work in hollywood; his note taking on thalberg; his brave open heart. I know he was an ass, but he was a wonderful endearing ass and in the end his life really did have some epic grandeur. I just had to hold high the Stand Up for Scott Fitzgerald banner today.
I've not read The Great Gatsby and if I had to choose a Great American Novel (is there one for each nation, or just this idea that America will produce one singular novel?) I'd pick something like Travels with Charley or The Maltese Falcon, personally. Books about how horrible everything is simply don't interest me, they are a cheap and easy way to accolades, like playing a mentally handicapped person in a movie for an Oscar.

Megan McCardle was tempted toward this, idolizing F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker and others who were so cynical, so sarcastic, so empty and hollow that they collapsed into a black hole of misery that sucked everyone nearby into their pain. Then she grew up:
Back when I wanted to be a fiction writer, I wanted to be the kind of fiction writer who has a dramatic slide into the abyss. It wasn't long after I stopped writing short stories that it occurred to me that dying old, desperate and alone probably wasn't nearly as inspiring for the people it happened to as it was for twenty-year olds looking for an excuse to smoke too much.
Commenters discussed these themes:
I can only imagine that Robert Heinlein's old age felt to him like a lonely and desperate slide into decrepitude as his writing seriously deteriorated... His early books were very good but his later books were largely fantasies about some variation on older men cavorting with young women, all of whom were immortal.

I don't really blame him, though, I don't have a very romantic view of getting old and am not especially looking forward to it.
-by Ernest Iconoclast

Many times have I read that The Great Gatsby is TGAN. I've read it twice, and a few fitful starts that never got past the fourth or fifth chapter. It wasn't hte sort of thing to grip me.

The tragedy in the book isn't just that the old rich spurn the new rich until at least the fourth generation, but really it's the every-person attitudes displayed there, be you rich or poor. Kind of a romance, kind of a hopefulness worn on the sleeve, then trampled on by the ingrates after Gatsby's death, as the sleeve is used to sop up the blood. At the end of the book, it did feel tragic because of the realization of its real commonness.

It surely cured me of ever wanting to be that tragic figure that blows his brains out ala Hemingway, or falls into an ever deepening spiral while the alcohol and/or drugs wreaks havoc on the liver or heart.

I'm glad you gave up those destructive thoughts, Megan, and that your lungs are probably pink and tender now, instead of black and cindery. I, for one, greatly enjoy your forays into the literary world...and this blog, too.
-by Beneficial

I hope you have figured out by now that life is pretty banal. Dying old and alone and bitter is only interesting when viewed through the lens of fiction. That is what fiction does; skims the interesting parts of life away from the banality to make it more interesting than it actually is. I once was watched a documentary on Judy Garland and it had some tapes of Judy Garland raving when she was really old and pilled up. Garland would be an example of an artist, albeit a singer, living the life you are talking about. The tapes were painful and just awful to listen to. It may be "romantic" to think of the tortured artist dying desperate and alone, but judging by the tapes I wouldn't want to spend five minutes with Garland at that stage on a thousand dollar dare let alone actually be her. The point I guess is that alienation is way overrated.
-by John [edited for spelling]

To say that life is banal, is tired. I think even Frances Gumm would agree, in dead retrospection. And to turn creativity into destruction is sad.

There is nothing that is less heroic than a life not properly used. We know coming in that we might have about four score and ten, and the key then is to figure out how to use those years, and to hold on to the joy that we entered this world with, and exit the world with same. Our minds, our spirits, might be all that ultimately travels with us.

I see no romance in being old and alone, or wasted and wrung out. Nothing heroic there.

Decay is the decided way, and things fall apart. What is heroic is to engage in the type of creativity of action, thought, and living that reverses the natural tendency of things. That is the magic. Put nothing in order, and your house (your life) becomes a mess, a dark cage, darkening all who enter.

But to pull beauty out of darkness, or create a trail of memories that you can take with you to the next state of life, now that is heroic.
-by Finn

Post modern deconstruction influence on the arts is an assault on the beauty, grandeur and valor of life that was once expressed in art of all media.

With the 20th Century elimination of much of the drudgery and pain of everyday life in the West, phony angst and whining has dominated art at the behest of "intellectuals" who have instigated a feeding frenzy (or, perhaps a circle-jerk) of narcissism.

This sickness dominates much of left-wing politics is creeping into the sciences starting with psychology and the environment.
-by Horst Graben

Been there, thought about doing that. I got the smoking and drinking parts down pretty well, but they didn't seem to help my writing, and I never did find where the girls who dug the sincere-serious-starving-artist types hung out. Even goth chicks prefer guys who make them laugh.

A couple weeks back I was hanging out with a friend of mine who lives in a condo complex of which half has been set aside for artists*, and we ran into a friend of his who is a moderately successful painter in his late 30s/early 40s. We talked about how he doesn't do shows because he hates gallery openings, and how having a wife and kids has affected the volume and quality of his work.

While he looked the part of the bohemian in his clothes and hairstyle, it was funny to see that aside from what he does for a living, he's not that different from anyone else. There's this notion that becoming a drunk, bitter wretch can make you a better artist. So I always find it interesting to find out about good artists who had something resembling an ordinary life outside their art.

* The reason for this is a mildly amusing bit in itself. Boston has rules that if you build new luxury residential property, a certain portion of the development needs to be set aside for affordable and/or Section 8 housing. Obviously if you're trying to create an upscale residential atmosphere you don't want those sort of people around, so the developers in this case were allowed to fulfill the requirement by setting aside units for (a) cops and firefighters and (b) artists, who were being displaced as all the cheap mill buildings in the area got bought up to be converted into upscale loft condos. Great trick seeing as having the artists there actually increases the cachet of the area, and since the units still aren't exactly cheap, you're only getting ones who have achieved commercial success, usually by making things that work well in lawyers' offices.
-by Colin K.

Without meaning to offend anyone, I always have to chuckle at those who espouse this notion that self-destructive behavior will make one a better artist. It has always seemed to me a case of getting the cart before the horse.

Sure, there are many examples of great artists who were self-destructive, but there are many more examples of self-destruction that leads no where. In fact, considering how many examples of self-destructive behavior there are in the world, and how few examples of great artists there are, to assume some sort of causal relation is silly.

Rather, as the old saw goes, there is a fine line between genius and insanity. It is not that the self-destructive behavior of those artists is what made them great - it is rather that that intangible spark of genius that made them great also gave them a predilection for self-destruction.
-by Jason

Michaelangelo was a great artist who lived to be 90. His last works were not so good. He did some very good work starting in his teenage years and going on for another 60 or 70 years or so.

Rodin was great even in his old age. Bernini was astounding, and a hell-raiser.

Some great sculptors, such as Carpeaux died much too young of serious disease. The world is poorer for his early passing.

In the modern era, Calder lived a long life and was productive the whole time - he produced, on average, one work a day for 50 years.

Ok, these are all sculptors, not writers, but self destruction does not great art make. Living and working will increase your odds of producing something memorable.

And remember this about Papa Hemingway - he was in 3 serious plane crashes and suffered a head injury in at least one of them. For all that has been writen about his last years, I am not certain that the impact of that crash has been taken into account in how he declined in his late 50s.

Heinlein - haven't read any of his stuff in 35 years - life is too short...
-by Jim Bob

That artists must be self-destructive is a myth.. Life itself offers enough insights and tragedies even without wine and smoke... that artists must feel oppressed to reach their peak hold true only when there is another major flay in the overall system and society?

but it is really interesting that the last time a society looked at the best artist as also the "happy healthy" one has long passed? Ancient Greece where the best tragedies where written after the age of 70 (Shakespeare - the 2nd best already had the worldview of a Hollywood child compared)? Leonardo who was well knows for his handsome looks, great singing voice and humorous temper (no wonder we called his movement Renaissance)?

well - Ancient Greece was a psychology and society in balance with material and spiritual issues - much more than we are today.

today - the raw talent must die young in order to achieve... pfui!!! (Jesus compared to Socrates, Mozart and Elvis compared to Aeschylus

No - keep Haydn (77), Mozart (35), Beethoven (57), Schubert (31), Mendelssohn (38), Coleridge (62), Keats (26), Shelly (30) with their linear simple outlooks and driven psychologies..

Give me Aeschylus (71), Sophocles (91), Euripides (78), Aristophanes (60+), etc...

We need more Clint Eastwoods - although his worldview is ("good individual vs bad individual" and not the Greek "good vs bad in every individual").. what to do?
-by Hugo Potisch
This school of thought is the same kind of immaturity that leads people to be different - just like everyone else, to defy the norm, so they can be like their heroes, to break the mold so they can fit into a different, goth-shaped mold. It's a way of being a follower and finding a comfortable womb of like-minded people that feels daring, adventurous, and rebellious. The problem is, people who grow up and have normal lives know what they're doing and why, and aren't deluding themselves that they've escaped anything by conforming to a different model. They might be boring, but at least they aren't self-deceptive.

Ultimately, this view of life as pain is selfish and self centered like suicide. It cares nothing for others, is uninterested in what they are or say or think, it attempts to avoid all responsibility or duty, and spends its entire existence focused inward and fixated on the wrong and hurt that is perceived. To emphasize this, the participants act deliberately in ways that will get them treated poorly, to get them strange looks, to get them refused and turned down so they can race home to their diary or blog and write about how unfair and awful life is. It's a self-feeding spiral of misery and egotism that Megan McCardle was wise enough to escape.

Here's a hint kids: there's no necessary connection between art and depression. In fact, being an artist should liberate you and cheer you as you bring beauty, power, and transcendency into an often dull and miserable world. Depressive, miserable art is easy and cheap, and often not very worthy at all. Comedy is hard.

The sad part is that almost none of the work these selfish, miserable folks put out can even be qualified as art. Most of it is just self indulgent trash. When you read Scott Thomas Beauchamp's blog you get a double handful of this sort of miserable tripe, a perfect example of the kind of deliberate manipulation of the world in his writing to make it seem worse and more horrid. For some reason this appeals incredibly to some - and in Private Beauchamp's case it is quite useful for the political ends of others.

Life can be very hard, and it is easy to become self-pitying and miserable as you wallow in the hardships and horrors you sometimes have to face. The answer is not to embrace this as a life and worldview, but to fight free of it and face life once more; to look to others and help them in their need. The attraction of staying depressed and miserable can be a very perverse compulsion, but the way out is by working and focusing on someone else.

In the end though, if you think this life is all there is, if you believe there's nothing but that which you can sense and test, the collection of hardships and misery will eventually grind even the most heroic down. Because, as the preacher says, it's all emptiness, all vanity, all chasing after the wind. If nothing matters beyond the immediate, if everything is simply what you see and feel... what's the point? There's more to life than what we sense, and that's the final answer to this sort of misery. For if there is not, to quote a wise man, then let us eat, drink and be merry. We all know how that ends.
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Anonymous President Friedman said...

I think some degree of existential despair is unavoidable, regardless of your religious outlook. As evidenced recently, even Mother Theresa was wracked with a type of spiritual angst, in spite of her faith.

Because of the nature of faith, I beleive people of faith have an advantage over non-believers when it comes to overcoming/outlasting those dark times. But I don't think by any means that non-believers are destined to misery. There is a flip side to the idea of "life is all there is, so despair", it is this: Life is all there is, and this is your chance to do something with it. If your best answer to that challenge is 'eat, drink, and be merry' then your problem is lack of imagination. Herman Hesse spelled this out very well in many of his writings.

Now, I happen to believe that there is more to life than what we can see. I've had experiences that make it impossible to believe anything else. But I was one of the "what you see is what you get" people for many years, and I wasn't a generally more or generally less miserable person than I am today. I just wasn't as comfortable with the unknown.

You're right about the poetry and art though... anybody who is in entering an existential crisis should never try to paint, draw or write poetry or music! The best stuff always comes from the other side of those types of crises. Don't tell me how miserable you were unless you're going to tell me what you did about it.

1:26 PM, August 27, 2007  
Anonymous Christopher Taylor said...

Yeah I wouldn't say that you must be nihilistic and miserable if you are a strict naturalist, but I would say that it is the logical and philosophically consistent conclusion one ought to reach.

4:02 PM, August 27, 2007  
Anonymous Erica said...

Well, I had a comment, but it turned into a bit of an essay, so I posted here to spare you.

6:31 PM, August 27, 2007  
Anonymous S. Weasel said...

I went to art school; I've subsequently worked for an engineering company for 25 years. So I've looked at clouds from both sides now. Right brain people really are, on the whole, dysfunctional, unhappy, self-centered and melodramatic. They also tend to be funny and interesting. Left brain people tend to be stable and happy and...well, not so funny and interesting.

Having inclinations in both directions, and seeing the result of each, I have steered myself as much as possible toward the happy and boring pole of my personal compass.

7:10 AM, August 28, 2007  

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