13 November 2016

Moody brooding, with help (harm?) from Sam Johnson

A note about the obligatory images

I was aimlessly clicking and dragging tools on the screen in my laptop’s pre-installed “art program,” while waiting for the bike shop to repair my flat tire yestermorn. Then, when inserting those pictures in this blog post, I accidentally added a scan of the text of a postcard, whose image file was saved in the same location, and, instead of deleting it to fix the mistake, I decided I like how it looks with the group, so I kept it. Lesson learned: Do not work so fast. More truly, lesson learned: None whatsoever.

Dear diary,

Everything I’ve ever tried has failed. Not in my own eyes, but in the eyes of the world. What I mean is that I myself enjoy the stuff that I make, but I can’t find anyone else who’s of the same mind. It doesn’t bother me too much (it bothers me only enough to note the thought here), because I know that the world will keep moving, and maybe some people in the future will like what I made; but my point is that, up to this moment, I have failed at all things. I have failed at recording sounds; I have failed at drawing pictures; I have failed at writing books. I do not mean to whine about this: I just want to state it clearly, for the record. But do not pity me: I’m arrogant enough to consider that luck might come to my creations even posthumously, and then this diary evidence of my presumed failure will be a beacon to other artists who’ve yet to meet luck: it will prove that it is good to trust deeply in your own judgment and to disregard the world – at least the present world – and that a maker should not expect to see a return on investments (one might live to see it, but one should not expect to): since the bliss is in the making, you have your reward.

But how many works can the world undervalue before their author’s self-belief erodes? How much failure can a maker withstand before succumbing to the verdict of reality? (I assume the answer will differ for each individual.) The price of weathering failure, of maintaining integrity in the face of the world’s indifference, is that one becomes closed-off, guarded: increasingly solipsistic: perhaps deemed insane. So, for the sake of social harmony, one accepts society’s judgment. I call myself a failure to avoid being cast as mad. A welder welds… a singer sings… a failure fails. This reminds me of another of William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell: “As the air to a bird or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.”

I secretly hope I have genius. But doesn’t everyone? My sweetheart and I have been daily reading aloud to each other from the writings of Samuel Johnson; and his statement on the perils of authorial pomposity gave me a fright:

Tediousness is the most fatal of all faults… Unhappily this pernicious failure is that which an author is least able to discover. We are seldom tiresome to ourselves; and the act of composition fills and delights the mind with the change of language and succession of images: every couplet when produced is new, and novelty is the great source of pleasure. Perhaps no man ever thought a line superfluous when he first wrote it, or contracted his work till his ebullitions of invention had subsided. And even if he should controul his desire of immediate renown, and keep his work nine years unpublished, he will be still the author, and still in danger of deceiving himself…

Of course I hope with all my heart that these wise words do not apply to me, but how can any artist (especially one who has failed) not doubt that his works are vulnerable to such insight?

The gloom of this thought is too hard to bear, so my sweetheart and I continue reading our book – we’re at a part that contains selections from Johnson’s Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets – and I discover a couple excerpts that appeal to me as much as the above alarmed me. So now, “to interpose a little ease,” as Milton’s “uncouth swain” sings in ‘Lycidas’, “Let our frail thoughts dally with false surmise”: allow me to improve my mood by pretending that souls of the future will NOT judge me with those words from the Life of Prior, but rather after the fashion of these other two passages:

This first is from the Life of Butler (a footnote in the book that I’m holding ascribes to Horace the phrase “irritat, mulcet” and translates this as “now stimulates, now soothes”):

The great source of pleasure is variety. Uniformity must tire at last, though it be uniformity of excellence. We love to expect; and, when expectation is disappointed or gratified, we want to be again expecting. For this impatience of the present, whoever would please must make provision. The skillful writer irritat, mulcet; makes a due distribution of the still and animated parts. It is for want of this artful intertexture and those necessary changes that the whole of a book may be tedious, though all the parts are praised.

And this last—my favorite—is from the Life of Dryden:

He delighted to tread upon the brink of meaning, where light and darkness begin to mingle to approach the precipice of absurdity, and hover over the abyss of unideal vacancy.

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