Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Artistic Expression & Age, Plus A Little Self-Help

The first time I saw a display of Monet paintings I was surprised by my emotional response. The early-to-mid-career paintings provoked in me a peevish distaste that bordered on disgust: those hazy water lillies, the primly dressed aristocratic ladies with their sprats in tow, all glazed-over with Monet's forgiving soft-focus approach . . . feh. I stopped short, however, when I reached the haystacks. The vibrancy, the urgency of expression caught me and kept me rooted to the spot.



The haystacks were later Monet, of course, painted in moments of high fever when he seemed convinced he hadn't any time to spare on his usual finishing gimmicks in the studio.

Robert Cohen takes note of a similar shift in perspective in aging writers. In this essay for The Believer Cohen begins with Thomas McGuane, “a recovering 'word drunk' by his own admission — [speaking of] how the experience of his middle years, which among other things consisted of attending a great many funerals, affected not just the substance of his work but its tones and its rhythms too.

'As you get older,' he advises, 'you should get impatient with showing off in literature. It is easier to settle for blazing light than to find a language for the real. Whether you are a writer or a bird-dog trainer, life should winnow the superfluous language. The real thing should become plain. You should go straight to what you know best . . . . you want something that is drawn like a bow, and a bow is a simple instrument. A good writer should get a little bit cleaner and probably a little bit plainer as life and the oeuvre go on.'

For all its plain good sense, this seems a fairly radical sentiment. Generally we secular types resist the imperative-prescriptive mode: we don’t like being told what’s real and what’s true and what we should or shouldn’t do. But McGuane’s shoulds here are instructive. He doesn’t concede for argument’s sake that such notions as truth and 'the real' may not exist, may be only quaint premodern artifacts, tarnished if not shattered after decades of rough handling by lawyers, humanities professors, and people with French surnames. No, a Westerner’s impatience with that sort of dithering and equivocal epistemological bullshit — with all bullshit — makes its own point: namely, that if experience (and for experience we might go ahead and substitute the word death) teaches us what’s real and what isn’t, then to pretend otherwise, either in substance or in aesthetic form, is an evasion, a shirking of the writer’s responsibility to truth. The rest is commentary.”

There are other directions aging writers take. Cohen's survey is fairly catholic in its content, and surprisingly moving by conclusion. You can read it here.

In fact, I found last month's issue of The Believer made for particularly satisfying reading: Andrea Richards' evocative exploration of her late, eccentric uncle's library of esoterica; Casey Walker's personal re-examination of one of William T. Vollmann's obsessive existential howls; the interview with Trent Reznor — all delivered in The Believer's signature gentle enthusiasm, and highly recommended.

Tangentially related: Chuck Pahlaniuk
offers up a pertinent self-help regime here.

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