Why not stand up straight for art? Rainer Maria Rilke’s older lover, Lou Andreas-Salomé, cared greatly about his relation to words and made him improve his handwriting, urging the poet to take control of everything in his life before communing more with the muse. Soon Rilke purchased a stand up desk to improve his circulation while he wrote poems—by changing his methods, he changed what the methods produced. This might speak to a few things about influence and who we are willing to listen to (Andreas-Salomé, also a former lover of Nietzsche, was a distinguished psychoanalyst and writer), but undoubtedly, art is at least as much physical as emotional.
At the heart of recent concerns about my art (writing) and art in general is the fiction writer and essayist William H. Gass. He may be more completely defined as a philologist and a philosopher of language, one who works poetic designs into his prose no matter the format. Slowly, I have been digesting Gass’s books for close to the last two years, reading twelve of the fourteen. His creations have spelled me as I’ve sought to refine my art through close examinations of the masters. Some months ago, I read his essay on Auguste Rodin in A Temple of Texts, which also served as an introduction to Rilke’s monograph of the Frenchman—a piece as much about Rilke and how he shadowed the grand sculptor, asking him how to live while indeed he did live with him, all the while taking up the elder man’s devotion to art by giving himself to poetry. Inside, Gass says:
All of us have emotions urgently seeking release . . . opinions we think would do the world some good; however, the poet must also be a maker . . . and . . . like every other artist, should aim at adding real beings to the world, beings fully realized, not just things like tools and haberdashery that nature has neglected to provide, or memos and laws that society produces in abundance, but Ding an sich . . . things in themselves. (306)
Why do we pick up the pen, dance the keyboard, fashion clay, and mix green with blue only to ruin it with yellow? How hard does one have to work to get it right, and why create ephemera when we have a chance to construct something that sticks? Was I easing up on myself concerning my own work? I want to make fiction that will last. I want to be the maker Gass urges.
A day after reading the essay, I wandered in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan and found a Picasso show at the Gagosian Gallery. Witnessing this fecund ten-year period of the Spaniard’s when he painted, drew, and sculpted the image of his lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, over and over again—I was party to those physical objects Gass (and Rilke and Rodin before him) spoke of. The essay and the show were two of three seminal events among many makings. In addition to his essays from various books, but most notably Fiction and the Figures of Life, I had also been in the middle of reading Gass’s 652-page tome, The Tunnel. Because I saturate myself with art—seeing, sensing, and feeling films, books, music, and visual art to hold my head in a climate enriched and enlivened by my forebears and spiritual family—because, however unholy the word; homecoming it is, and another reason for re-reading and re-reading Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man” or watching, reviewing, and then returning to Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar is to spark the sense that I am not alone, that these artists’ visions have communicated to me, and everything is a little more beautiful and possibly, a little more tolerable.
From the age when I was ready, art began to color me. Certain films, poems, and books ready one for the masterpieces that might need to be entered from a door not so readily visible. For instance, Woody Allen’s comedies and dramas of rumination, specifically the autumnal Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Husbands and Wives prepared me for the more forceful feelings of his favorite master, Ingmar Bergman. People under siege from religion and artists under siege from society typified Bergman’s mise-en-scéne—as often beautiful, pale Scandinavian women and stilted, tight-jawed men were photographed in close-up as they retched or destroyed themselves in the face of demons inside and out—Bergman’s main demon being death. Later, a rash of Rilke reading in youth was augmented by Gass’s great Reading Rilke, read at thirty-five, ten years after the book itself came out and ten after I sat on a cement enclosure above the Neckar River in Mannheim, Germany, huffing through The Duino Elegies, cracking into my German pronunciation of those grandiose lines at times, but riveted by those cries of angels according to Stephen Mitchell. Reading Rilke Gass-style was re-reading Rilke and was what I needed to do to find my own voice and drop the imitation act—craning my consciousness to see above and under a work of art, see it in different weather, see and understand the clarity in which the object or subject is rendered, see to be able to fashion sentences and trains of sentences that are Ding an Sich, as each word is the work and the whole becomes more complex, more dense; encouraging multiple readings.
I still need to re-read Rilke and most everything I love to read because the authors themselves re-read their works countless times as they honed it and made it alive, made it as Stevens named one of his stark, late poems, “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself.” Art to my life (and many others) is not some simple flash of inspiration—it is a life’s work. It took seven years for Joyce to write Ulysses, while Rilke took six for The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and in the eighteenth century Bach took twenty-six years to construct his Mass in B-minor. This kind of time demonstrates a streak of perfection, but surely the hours of toil that wax into days and weeks become more than just clock time and the first forays into these classics only tap the topsoil in the excavations that must happen to get at the singular strains of mind which formed the vivid, heartily hewn prose and song, demonstrated by this treasure from The Tunnel (a work twenty-seven years in the making), where the narrator is in mid-recall of what happened during a childhood car accident:
As I rebounded from the floor of the car my ears received, like the rapid rasp of a saw, a series of terrible sounds: of rending metals, shattering glass, pissing vapors, unstaged screams. (232)
Being an apprentice writer is a challenge. What comes easily can’t always be trusted. Only masterpieces like Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Vermeer’s The Milkmaid, and Woolf’s To the Lighthouse carry any sort of unconditional sentence—they are fully realized, full-flowered works to compel, disturb, and urge others to create similar objects of such clear, beatific, unbridled consciousness. I cannot strive for anything less and I know the masters would demand the same of me, given their incredible travails.
Elizabeth Bishop rewrote the poem, “One Art” at least fifteen times over a course of months. It ended up as a villanelle, nineteen lines in length. What began as maudlin:
You may find it hard to believe, but I have actually lost
I mean lost, and forever, two whole houses,
one a very big one,
she finally begat as masterly,
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
For Bishop, who only published 101 poems in her lifetime, the compostion of this poem was quick—she couldn’t believe it and her experience of creating it “was like writing a letter.” “One Art” was one of Bishop’s last poems, but that it was easy in her terms does not take away from the fact that she let barely one and half get published every year of her sixty-eight on earth. It shows what was relatively quick took months and many drafts before she agreed to have the poem displayed publicly. It tells me I have to spend more time with my writing and the more I read the masters, the more I find laziness and mistakes in my own efforts. Yet, after I continually edit, I feel proportionately edified that what I hold is something closer to an ornate object—a fine clock, not an empty milk carton.
As we ride the rough-road of writing fiction, our equipage must be full, heavy in splendor. If one hasn’t read a lot of Shakespeare, why hasn’t one read a lot of Shakespeare? If one doesn’t “get” Henry James, one must ask, why doesn’t one “get” Henry James? While licks of love are sweet, little can compare with full immersion. Not excerpts, not one painting in Philadelphia and three in Paris, but the whole book, an entire room of an artist’s work over a time—example after example of form fronting for feeling. A slab of years, not one season’s trellis.
Inspiration is a wonderful, delicate thing, but it can be a misleading wind. It may be mandatory to create by such means but only mandatory in the way that physical attraction is between lovers. For lovers to get over themselves and get into love requires another higher caliber of emotional sensation and if they have summited the chalky pinnacle called love, they would be well advised to be fully equipped with the reach and reaction times needed to nestle one another and think of themselves second to stay there. What artists do (probably unconsciously) is destroy their notions of what is good enough again and again. Good enough can never be good enough. Let a story sit for four seasons, rewrite the poem until it is another poem. Artists think of themselves second in order for the art to be fully conscious, fully conceived.
The connection between art and love is not some tenuous, new-age conceit; rather, it is as real as rain. Love takes time because we don’t know what we love until the bloom retires and we are left with a presence not endowed with a glow, but a cast-iron reality. Because a consciousness created The Portrait of a Lady, the book itself holds its own being as well. As Gass says in Fiction and the Figures of Life,
The aim of the artist ought to be to bring into the world objects which . . . are especially worthy of love . . . Works of art are meant to be lived with and loved, and if we try to understand them, we should try to understand them as we try to understand anyone—in order to know them better, not in order to know something else. (284)
We love certain types of art because they challenge us and make us happy or maybe angry; they frustrate and disturb, they move us to move out of the path of our preconceived harmony. Their beauty tugs us to step outside the familiar aura of the smiley-faced quotidian we often engage each other and the world with.
Love and love in the art. John Hawkes, in the opening paragraph of his 1971 novel The Blood Oranges, is writer enough to attempt a definition, surely incomplete, of that most elastic and misunderstood emotion:
Love weaves its own tapestry, spins its own golden thread, with its own sweet breath breathes into being its mysteries—bucolic, lusty, gentle as the eyes of daisies or thick with pain. And out of its own music creates the flesh of our lives. If the birds sing, the nudes are not far off. Even the dialogue of frogs is rapturous. (1)
The passage presses its sweet side to the reader as the narrator introduces his powerful, eidetic voice while rinsing the ruminations with the words of love: tapestry, gold, sweet, breath, breathe, bucolic, lusty, gentle, daisies, thick, music, flesh, birds, nudes, rapture. Yet, studded in this field of genteel hopes is “thick with pain,” a stunning aside. In only four sentences Hawkes has created an accomplished, authoritative, seductive voice.
Splendid conjunctions and influence are often at work between masters and sharing a similar opening ode to love is Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a precursor to The Blood Oranges, which begins with Duke Orsino‘s words: “If music be the food of love, play on; / give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken, and so die.” (I.I.1-3) For both artists, love and music (and by extension, natural sound) are lovingly linked in an effort to examine the mysteries of the former, and in each the phrasing of lines settle onto the reader’s radar as its own quality harmony. These lines are stately, conspicuously wrought pieces of art—as beautiful as a Carravaggio or a Bernini. They transmit through language the sensation and the emotion of love with the best words positioned in the best order.
Art should be taken as seriously as marriage. From the making of it to the meaning of it—a question one hopes the artist won’t be answering. No other practice suspends human beings and all animate life in such beauty. With reverence does one open the munificent pages of Ulysses, or pass through the massive front doors of Notre Dame, or come into view of the audacious Florence Pieta of Michelangelo, or sit in the dark while the obtuse, sensuous, and maddening prologue of Bergman’s Persona runs on the silver screen.
Great art knows how to unmask. It can force one to encounter what we dare not unfurl to others. It can absorb our horror show of melancholy, swamped in thoughts, ill-fit opinions, and webbed anxieties with its silent grandeur, its elite status, its exquisite anchor of being timeless and fully alive. The work of art is never changing but the receiver is. We experience time and its spoils and wretchedness amidst the seesaw of being, whereas the Cello Suites of Bach retain their higher consciousness forever with no note ever unplayed. Similarily, Othello never grows another line—we can always only find the Turk speaking the same words from the same bed after killing his wife he falsely thought false:
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; (V.II.347-353)
Inside of this soliloquy, the high school student, focused on forming a new-found sexual relation, will find something very different from the twice-married, twice-divorced man of letters down on his luck. When I first read Gass’s novella “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” in college, I didn’t have a clue about love or compromise and what that word’s kernel “promise” meant when it stood up to the hurricane winds of despair, deceit, and disunion. The sentences were gorgeous, the delights many dappled, but the driving force underneath—a man “in retirement from love”—was something suspect. It was a nice idea but it was as much a bunch of bunk to my pea-size mind as people retiring from life to birdwatch, or embarking to Florida or Arizona to spend their last years being restive—satisfied enough to balance grandchildren on their knee. I could be silly and stupid then because I did not know the color of pain, had no inkling of responsibility or the battered escutcheon of tidings I would later brandish after a dozen years of fits and starts, fiddles with feelings, and falling for tits and talk of Dali before scouting the terrain of the beloved’s soul—sensing how trusty the one I had chosen to love might be, and asking myself why I lied when questioned if all was alright with unfit love. The narrator in the story is hampered and hassled—he harangues and henpecks out of longing and knows he has nowhere to go except into more longing:
There’s little hand-in-hand here . . . not in B. No one touches except in rage. Occasionally girls will twine their arms about each other and lurch along, school out, toward home and play. I dreamed my lips would drift down your back like a skiff on a river. I’d follow a vein with the point of my finger, hold your bare feet in my naked hands. (179)
As Gass himself said, one does not read a masterwork the first time in order to read it, but to ready oneself to read it. On subsequent rereadings I could smell the stain life had made in my psyche more freely, could set my stare on those trees outside my reading window which had once meant something very different and find them still the same trees—it was my stare that had succumbed and now saw with skills that once had no public course to prove themselves, but were now myriad inside the brain and body of one (myself) who tripped while trying to circle a star with a square. The sentences (“A . . . haze turns the summer sky milky, and the air muffles your head and shoulders like a sweater you’ve got caught in”) themselves clung to me like burrs—Gass being the trusted Medicine Man who knew I should not remove them but glory their steely beauty into clusters, as I would have to cluster my own sentences before a discerning eye to realize my own fullness of vision sorely lacking in the lackluster, minimalista prose that had been my primary practice.
Now, after having readied myself to read The Tunnel by reading it once, I see more and feel more not only in Gass’s text but also in James, Stein, Rilke, Stevens, Woolf, Joyce, Beckett, Gaddis, Hawkes, and Elkin. In life as well. As they have pushed him to push further, Gass has reflectively painted their glories in poetic essays, and I can clearly see by stringing myself out on the works of these masters how my writing is taking its shape beyond the easy hand it used to be. Now it has an intricate palm, creased skin on knuckles— sundowns on all fingernails, not just the thumb. I’ve discovered the nerve endings always there, though I’d treated them like they weren’t alive. Influence can stop a crack as well as start one.
Three Lives, Molloy, The Recognitions, and The Tunnel are works drowning in images and tropes. There is no recipe for vivid prose—the kind that gets into the body, the kind that makes you forget you have to pee—except hard work. A piece of magisterial art—this is ultimately what we are after. If the reader thinks his or her time will be served better and puts the book down, then what is there is not enough to suck them away from the work-a-day world. If, as Gass and Rilke counsel, art is for the creation of Ding an sich, things in themselves, then that thing created will be understood to be living, and the reader will have to think twice at abandoning such a presence for life elsewhere.
Bishop Elizabeth. Edgar Allen Poe and the Jukebox. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.
—. Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
Gass, William H. In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.
—. Fiction and the Figures of Life. New York: Knopf, 1970.
—. The Tunnel. New York: Knopf, 1995.
—. A Temple of Texts. New York: Knopf, 2006.
Hawkes, John. The Blood Oranges. New York: New Directions, 1970.
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, 1974.