In Dubravka Ugrešić ’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, she attributes the following quote to the Russian literary theorist and critic Victor Shklovsky: “I have no desire to construct a plot. I am going to write about things and thoughts. To compile quotations.”
Francesca Woodman, House #3, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976
“I would argue that the compulsion of the narrative derives its interpretive animation from the real threat of loss,” Michael Ann Holly writes in her book The Melancholy Art; whether as an art historian you are acting the detective solving the mystery of a painting, or the philosopher attempting to articulate an affective response to a work of art, the motivation for the work remains the same: the experience of a loss.
The spectacle is the effective dictatorship of illusion in modern society. – Guy Debord Continue reading “on notes on the death of culture”
Are we, in the West, overly consumed with creating validity through language? In other words, by naming something do we legitimize (or at least think we legitimize) something ie., eliminate the possibility of debate?
I’m overly obsessed with language and the question of how it affects the way our mind functions analytically, so I was intrigued by Perry Link’s recent New York Review of Books blog post pondering the possibility that Western languages’ preference for nouns in contrast to Eastern languages’ preference for verbs, might lead Westerners to think something exists simply because a noun (label) for it exists.
Image Caption: The Atlas Group – Walid Raad, Notebook volume 72: Missing Lebanese wars, 1989. Attributed to: Dr. Fadl Fakhouri. ©Photo: Walid Raad. Repro: Haupt & Binder.
Contemporary art is at odds. On the one hand it is interested in temporality and the dissolution of the individual as its practitioners attempt to extricate themselves and their work from the grips of the art industrial complex. On the other hand it is consumed with creating information about art events, thereby preserving it (if you haven’t stopped to look around, much of our art is documentation in one form or another). It seems that, try as we might, despite a million desires and predictions to the contrary, we cannot allow the art object to die.
Why is intellectualism valued so much more highly in European culture? I’m thinking particularly of French culture, in which characters in novels and films are consistently intellectual types, something rare in American movies where we prefer to glamorize the corporate businessman or the working class.
Life is funny. I jotted down that question a couple of months ago, prompted by a reading of Deep Vellum publishing’s new translation (the first English translation in fact) of French author Anna Garreta’s Sphinx. It’s a short novel with a more interesting conceit, it’s a “genderless” love story (if that doesn’t make sense read the book, it will), than anything else. It’s the curious problem of translation, in a way, (a topic which I will leave for another day,) that I will never really be able to compare the version I’m reading with the original (despite in my case a passable knowledge of French), so its impossible for me to say how much of the writing’s plodding nature was the fault of the translator and what the author, but since I wasn’t reviewing the story, it doesn’t really matter, the book was dull.
But that’s not what this is about, back to my initial question. The protagonist of Sphinx is, what else, a student, an intellectual, which, in a French novel, isn’t at all surprising.
It’s a stereotype, certainly, but one that is born out more often than not, in reality, in large part thanks to the characters we discern in novels, films, etc. The characters in European novels, the canonical ones, don’t shirk from referencing philosophy, waxing on about art and, generally, conversing. Seriously conversing. Constantly. Henry James’ characters, for example, seem to do nothing else.
Try American canonical novels, on the other hand. We write about businessmen and working class laborers, in fact, authors, in my reading of the issue, generally go out of their way to reject the intellectualism of their European contemporaries. John Steinbeck, William Faulkner or more recently, Don DeLillo and Phillip Roth (yes, granted, Roth has university types as characters, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any of them engaged in conversation approaching that of their European peers). I am by no means asserting the inferiority of Steinbeck and Faulkner here, just using their characters and characterization to illustrate a point.
Same goes for movies. Most Americans can’t even get through a piece of new-wave cinema, chock full of characters who talk, talk, talk, incessantly talk, but never actually do anything (See Weekend, 81/2, Scenes from a Marriage, et al.)
We actually like to pride ourselves here in the good ol’ USA on that very thing, our anti-intellectualism (excluding the intellectuals of course) and I can’t say I haven’t taken part in that very backslapping at various times (I like to feel superior in my efficiency as much as the next corporate worker bee), but lately I’ve kind of been wondering what the consequences of this might be for Americans (and, in reality, the younger generations of Europeans since America’s overwhelming export of culture doesn’t appear as though it is going to slow,) this overt display of aversion towards intellectualism.
I’m currently in the middle of reading Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. I gather it’s not a universally liked book, unsurprising considering it’s rather unforgiving examination of university campuses, the kids who get there, and the kids who leave, but I found the connection he makes between American political philosophy and the reality of education in America, fascinating, and, I promise, somehow relevant to French vs. American intellectual culture.
I’m heavily, heavily abbreviating here, but here’s the gist. America’s founding fathers based their democracy on two things and two things only, freedom and equality, never questioning whether freedom and equality are right, or at least always right, simply that they are. It made sense, and still does, in a way, that we, in the 18th century, would want to shake off all the trappings of European culture; the American experiment was unprecedented, and, if you think about it, I mean really think about it, it can still blow your mind, how very, very young America is.
Western and Eastern cultures have centuries of history, and more importantly for this conversation, centuries of thought, imparted by tradition, to their respective country’s inhabitants. Reasons for doing what they do, reasons for submitting to a ruler, or for being free. Reasons for societal and familial structure. For having a job. For paying taxes.
What did we have? The response might as well have been/be what else do we need? We have freedom! And we’re all equal! It never occurred to us that we would or could, ever require anything else, without thinking too much about it (which is exactly the problem, here) why would it? We took the usefulness, or importance of the ideas and arguments that uphold a society for granted, as most nations and traditions do. We were going to build our own tradition and we had no concept of the difficulty inherent in such. Think about it, no-one else had ever attempted such a thing.
For a while, we did just fine. We studied the traditions of others, and we experimented with the ideas of English political philosophers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, whose revolutionary (for the time) ideas concerning individual freedom, would take years to fully infiltrate European culture, but could be implemented, without (seeming) consequence, in America.
But, as Alexis de Toqueville presciently noted, tradition, in a democracy, is nothing more than information. So what happens when the information is assailed? Or when the entire world is subsumed with information? We have to have a reason for why information is important, otherwise it is subject to revision. Could it be, that our headstrong desire to differentiate ourselves from our European forefathers would have unforeseen consequences? Our possibly inadvertent failure to create a historical, philosophical rationale and foundation for our system of beliefs, for our freedom and equality, coupled with a too violent rupture with our past, have launched us down a path of moral relativism which, thanks to our overwhelming exportation of culture, would eventually affect the entire western world?
Well we’ve had almost a century’s worth of historical revisionism, at this point, and most of our ‘tradition’ has been discredited, shade thrown on the perceived motivations behind our political foundation and its founders from all sides.
Now we reach the part that’s harder to accept for those of us raised under the aegis of the 21st century and its mantra of equality above all else. The idea here would be that at least before we shook off our political tradition and, forgive me but it’s true, our religious one, here in America, we at least had something we were connected to, something greater than us, our history as a people, a reason for being here, free; the assurance that what we were doing, going to work, starting a family, attending church, was good and right and had meaning.
Bloom argues not that mythology makes life better, but that you must have a reason, a set of reasons, to believe something is true, or right, and without that reason, all hell is perpetually on the brink of breaking lose, (sorry for the lack of a better illustration.) Our sense of purpose flounders.
It’s honestly rather difficult to even proposition our culture with the notion that we are in dire need of a reason, we’ve gone too far down the road of moral and relational relativism, we’ve been using the goal of equality as a reason for being, ignoring our need for something greater, for too long now. We almost no longer need a connection to our past, we certainly don’t feel as though we do, a connection to a tradition of thought and meaning. We feel content floundering, making decisions with no real basis for why one way is right, and one way is wrong. We no longer think to ask how it is that we got here, or what we’re doing here. We’re preoccupied with the present and for our generation, our culture, that’s all there is.
I happened upon a story in the paper this morning about the rise of non-fiction reading in high school English classes. The goal, by common core standards, is to have kids reading 70% nonfiction, to 30% fiction by the time they are graduating, the idea being our fiction is useless in the professional sphere where we will all one day wind up. (And by non-fiction I don’t mean philosophy or criticism, I mean journalistic essays on teen suicide rates and PTSD amongst military veterans and the like).
So what are the consequences of the increasing push towards an outright elimination of any inkling there may be value in reason, argument and slow, deliberate thought? What do we lose when we don’t value the intellectual, the philosophical? Does it matter that we no longer know why we do or don’t believe anything? Is this just another step in man’s evolution? An inevitable step? Is efficiency the end goal of man’s life?
I realize as I’m ending this I haven’t reached any sort of conclusion. I also realize that I believe strongly that not only is our ignorance of cultural and intellectual tradition frightening and that it will have consequences on our future, I’m at a loss as to how to convey the importance of such. Bloom argues in his book that early exposure to, specifically beauty in the form of art and music, is key to a sense of curiosity and a desire to know, in which case, for many of us, all of us really, it’s too late.
There are certainly many actively arguing for a reevaluation of cultural tradition, as a necessity for cultural stability, but they’ve yet to make an argument strong enough to incite change. And it seems to me as if Europe is slowly adapting to American values rather than vice versa.
And so it, at least in my experience, requires some more digging. We don’t know why we believe or often what we believe anymore, it’s not whether that matters, and it’s not why that might be, it’s how it affects society as a whole.
It seems to me it’s rather easy to say something along the lines of “transformation by reduction” when referring to the wave of minimalism that engulfed the culture in the 1970’s and forever changed our definitions of art, music, and even beauty itself. In fact I summarize minimalism’s power in those simplistic terms often.
It seems to me it’s rather easy to say something along the lines of “transformation by reduction” when referring to the wave of minimalism that engulfed the culture in the 1970’s and forever changed our definitions of art, music, and even beauty itself. In fact I summarize minimalism’s power in those simplistic terms often.
It is, however, singularly more difficult to explain what that really means, and how it is that simplicity and repetition can affect our brains and emotions in such powerful ways.
Lately I’ve been rereading what is one of my favorite treatises on modern art, a sort of modern art apologetics if you will, Pictures of Nothing, an AW Mellon Lectures volume, compiled from talks given by Kirk Varnedoe at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 2003.
It’s a defense, in a way, of modern, abstract art since the time of Pollock, and Varnedoe treads waist-deep into the incredibly difficult terrain of defending modern artists and their “pictures of nothing.” It’s a lucid, wholly unpretentious accounting of the artists and their motivations, which have come to compose our modern art history, and Varnedoe is one of those arts world people who invites people in, instead of locking them out.
But I digress.
Varnedoe’s arguments pushed me back towards the place in my head from which I initially determined I would write about art, in which I would refuse to let the traditional critical dialogues be sufficient and would instead, strive always for an analysis, or an argument, which would make the most sense, to the most people, when writing about a subject. In other words, I would eschew dense art-speak and write for more than the .005 percent of the population who can (or want to) decipher it.
The old, transformation by reduction line, in defense of highly simplistic shapes or repetitive notes in music, is a great example.
The idea, in a very general sense, is that by cutting away all excess, anything that could be construed as a distraction from the essence, an artist can create for his viewers or listeners, an environment in which they can rediscover the beauty inherent in, for example, a square, or, if we’re using the music metaphor, an F-sharp, in a way that is impossible when the note is surrounded by hundreds of others.
In the words of Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe, writing for ArtForum in 1974, artists, sculptors specifically but the same applies across medium, in this new minimal vein, (I want to say he was referring to the work of Carl André but the subject escapes me, regardless its applicable in a broader way) sought a “phenomenological reduction of the experience of sculpture to its essential condition.”
The assertion being that silence in music, or space in art, allows the mind to more easily process a visual or auditory moment.
But that doesn’t explain, really, how it is an art object or piece of music that is seemingly so simple, can affect our brain in such powerful ways.
A couple of ramblings on why I think that might be the case now follow.
Part of it is, for me, the intimate connection we feel to the music or art as the artistic representation of our time. For me, it has always seemed like the music of Phillip Glass or Steve Reich, for example, was my music. Not mine in the sense of me personally, but mine in the sense of my generation’s. Now part of that is certainly indebted to the fact that I grew up with the music. It wasn’t shocking as it may have been to those who knew life before it. The same could be said for Carl Andre’s floor pieces.
But the fact remains that a minimalistic bent in art and music, makes sense to me (us), it seems to be the art of the present. Our present. And as such, we feel a powerful connection to it. Historical forms of art, or music, are exactly that, historical, and despite the fact that many of them incontestably maintain some of the same intensity and inner energy they must have possessed when they were created, the connection we have to our music is necessarily different.
There are two ways you can take this, first of all, it could be a chicken vs. egg thing. Do we feel a connection to the music simply because it is our contemporary and it is inherent to human nature to feel connected to something you associate with certain aspects of your life, or do we feel a connection to the music for a deeper reason? For the latter, in other words, do we feel a connection to this new kind of art because the language it is speaking, is directly related to our language, our internal language or philosophy, specifically?
Of course, really, you could postulate even further, concerning whether the art’s language defined our cultural language as a whole, or whether it was influenced by cultural history. Everything is a factor of everything else and I’m not a philosopher so won’t make an attempt at answering the question. Not quite ready for that.
Suffice to say, I posit modern music/art’s appeal is directly related to its contemporaneity with us as its audience.
Varnedoe, in another possible defense, writes of the art of the minimalists, take Robert Ryman for an example, and makes the not immediately obvious observation that “you can’t hang them next to anything else.” Like I said, not immediately obvious, but allow me to explain.
Picture yourself in a room with six paintings by Picasso, or Francisco Goya and hanging in the midst of the exquisite paintings of either master, is a Robert Ryman. A white canvas which reveals nothing more than white until it is examined closer. Upon which painting does your eye rest?
Everything else is destroyed in the wake of the work of Judd, or Ryman, or the music of Glass, or Adams.
It almost seems like, for a beginner, it would be so much easier to understand the power of minimal art, if that very thing happened. If instead of walking into a room, like I recently did for Carl André’s retrospective at Dia:Beacon, and encountering work after work on the floor, one were to walk into a room full of figurative paintings and one André floor piece. The powerful statement of the work would make more sense wouldn’t it?
Of course art exhibitions aren’t designed for entry-level arts enthusiasts, but that’s a conversation for another day.
The work, in the rather uncommon context I described above, would make you stop and think. You’d ask yourself why, and, unless you’re an incurably, uncurious person, you’d wonder why it’s there, how it got to be there and what it means.
It’s involvement with you as the spectator would be “immediate” in the words of Varnedoe. In other words, you wouldn’t have to get up close and personal with the work to see what it included. It’s right there, all laid out for you. In this case, your gut reaction, of surprise, or immediacy, would be correct. In all honesty, you don’t really have to engage with it any further. You’ve already grasped its meaning.
And there-in lies its power.
I believe one of the stumbling blocks for audiences listening to a Cage piece, or examining a Judd sculpture, is the ignorance many have of the “artist’s” intention. The artists and musicians of minimalism weren’t really interested in art in the traditional sense, which makes it hard (impossible for some) to relate to their work in an artistic way. In the traditional way. They didn’t really want you to. Many artists of the period, Judd and André for example, were pretty vocal about not wanting to be a part of art. André’s “idea of art was related to some kind of abstraction, from something outside of art.”
André, Judd, Cage, Reich, they all wanted their viewers or listeners to examine the idea of experience. They saw their work as an experimental departure, which is why context, in art, is often key, much of the work on view at spaces and museums of canonical artists like Judd and André, was never intended to be seen. We value it now from an art historical standpoint as we tell the story of how an important artist becomes an important artist. But even apart from that, much of André’s work, even the completed work, was still simply an experiment.
I could go on forever. Part of the appeal for me, specifically as it concerns visual art, is the minimalist’s penchant for creating useful art, entailing a strong belief in the power of design and simplicity, to better our lives. Something I believe in wholeheartedly, and another aspect of this movement that is worth exploring in more detail. It’s easy to say good design betters lives, much harder to actually explain how/why in an empirical sense.
I’ve got to stop there though. In summation? Art of one’s time is powerful. The most powerful. And minimalism’s power lies in its simplicity, especially when confronted in the context of traditional, historical art. You can’t look at anything else. And that’s all that needs to be said.
When an artist uses a certain color, is he using the color for the color’s sake, motivated purely by the aesthetic pleasure, or displeasure, the particular color has on the brain? Or is he using a color to represent what it is that that color has come to represent, thanks to a collective definition forged over centuries? A context which, like it or not, is seemingly impossible to eliminate.
As an example.
Is the color blue in a painting, chosen for its beauty, its “blueness,” if you will, or is it chosen as a signifier; intended to evoke, in the mind of the viewer, feelings of depression, or sorrow.
I’m fascinated by language, how words came to be and how they develop meaning far in excess of their dictionary definitions, and have written about the subject before in the context of David Lynch. Lynch is many things, foremost among them, Lynch is a filmmaker. As such, he uses the vocabulary of film to force his viewers to reconsider, visually, the innumerable associations we have with words. Why can’t a scab be beautiful, for instance? And is there any way to shed the vast network of associations we bring with us to language?
William Gass is another intellectual fascinated by language; how it fails us even as it proves our dependence. After all, as I’m sure Gass is well aware, there is a harsh irony implicit in the necessity of words in examining the unreliability of language, as he was forced to do in On Being Blue.
The argument of Gass’ casually philosophical treatment of the subject, hinges, in my summation, on whether writers want to express what their words represent, or the words themselves, and whether or not the two can be disentangled. Spoiler alert, he believes it’s the former, that words are used for their particular properties rather than themselves. But he spends 90, give or take, fascinating (and humorous) pages expanding on that dilemma.
“Words are properties of thoughts and thoughts cannot be thought without them,” he writes at one point, expressing the futility of the entire endeavor.
Its mind-blowingly complex, this issue. Like, make your head hurt complex. A recursive, ontological meditation on the paradox of words indelible and ever-shifting meanings and the staggering fact, that without these unreliable signifiers, we can’t think at all.
It helps to think about the idea in the context of sex, as Gass does.
If we’re going to discuss, or even think, about sex, we have no choice but to use words. It’s a given. But try doing so and you’ll quickly see it become obvious that “anyone who attempts to render sexual experience directly must face the fact that the writings which comprise it are ludicrous.”
Words are everything, it could be argued that we wouldn’t exist without them, and yet they are insufficient, even as they are essential. Unstoppable. Pervasive.
The struggle, for anyone perturbed by the idea, lies in how that fact, the centrality of words, can coexist peacefully in the intellect with the reality that “a random set of meaning has gathered around the word[s] the way lint collects.”
The mind just does that.
The debate concerning language and its “true” meaning easily elicits an association with Plato and his theory of Forms as the true representations of reality, e.g., the Form (capital F) of any thing, is more real than reality’s various manifestations of that thing; the Dog is the only true dog, therefore every particular dog is merely a shadow of the true Dog.
A rather conclusive take on ontology’s search to explain what the features of things are. For Plato, there can be no features.
Gass grapples with that idea in the context of language, challenging the dogmatism inherent in Plato’s line of argument in the context of language, the signifier, as opposed to the sign itself.
Approaching the idea in a different way, Gass instead allows for the particulars, or the features, although he reaches a conclusion of his own.
I read Plato’s arguments as attempts to definitively eliminate those “random sets of meanings” which inevitably cloud a word’s definition; to conclusively state that the ontology of a thing, exists only its universal, or essential.
But, in the words of Gass, if “signs are not the same as the things they designate, they are at least an essential segment.”
In the context of color, which Gass uses frequently as illustration throughout his essay (the book’s title is On Being Blue, after all), he somewhat boldly asserts as “fact” the idea that color is only somewhat subjective. “No one is going to call the sounds of the triangle brown or accuse the timpanist of playing pink.”
Gass will give into the futile consideration of subjectivity, metaphysics, and ontology only to a point, what thinking person can do otherwise, but Gass fights throughout his writing for concession, in a sense, begging for mercy from the obliterating force of the philosophical argument.
As Virginia Woolf’s ever-conflicted Orlando observed:
So then he tried saying the grass is green and the sky is blue and so to propitiate the austere spirit of poetry whom still, though at a great distance, he could not help reverencing. ‘The sky is blue,’ he said, ‘the grass is green.’ Looking up, he saw that, on the contrary, the sky is like the veils which a thousand Madonnas have let fall from their hair; and the grass fleets and darkens like a flight of girls fleeing the embraces of hairy satyrs from enchanted woods. ‘Upon my word,’ he said (for he had fallen into the bad habit of speaking aloud), ‘I don’t see that one’s more true than another. Both are utterly false.’ And he despaired of being able to solve the problem of what poetry is and what truth is and fell into a deep dejection.
Haven’t we all had those out of body experiences? Who the hell decided what would describe what anyways?
But, as Orlando discovered, one can’t live like that. Not all of the time anyways.
Various qualities, or the “lint” as Gass calls it, words pick up over time, may not be part of the essential word, but, as Aristotle would argue, since our experience of a word, or a color, is by necessity, an experience of the whole; composed of each of our innumerable and unpredictable associations with it, we cannot help but associate the qualities we observe in reality, with its use.
It is the balance, in the opinion of Gass, between all aspects of a thing, that makes it what it is.
Perceptions are always profound, associations deceiving.
But they’re real, and we have no choice but to accept them.
I’m no philosopher but I would describe the two sides of the language debate as the essentialists vs. the pragmatists. In other words, those who believe in the existence, or the possibility of existence, of an essential nature to a word, just as there is for Plato with Forms, are on one side, and on the other are those who, like Gass, acknowledge and refuse to deny the cultural context words have.
Because life is just plain easier that way.
It’s a rare occurrence to come across something genuinely transformative. Rarer still to be paying enough attention to fully realize something’s transformative potential when you find it.
As someone with a myriad number of interests, unceasingly ready to move on to the next thing simply because for me, there are so many things, I struggle with what I hear referred to often as “mindfulness.” In other words, living one’s life fully invested in each and every moment.
On a favorite radio show I recently listened to a doctor discuss the subject and what he described as our human propensity to “mind-wander.” Apparently it’s totally normal for your mind to want to wander during various, especially mundane, activities. Driving to work, for example. But that “mind-wandering” is also the source of many thinking people’s, let’s say, lack of satisfaction, because unhappiness seems too strong a word. It’s a source of stress, I’ll put it that way. Makes sense, when you’re thinking about how late you’re going to be for work or all the things you need to do when you get there for example, you’re dissatisfied, you feel a need to hurry.
Or, as perhaps a better example, think of all the times when you’re at work and thinking about all of the things you’d rather be doing, or need to be doing, that aren’t work. You probably find, as I do, it’s quite easy to wish your entire day away that way. Your entire day, every day.
If your mind, like mine, by nature tends toward a slightly morbid train of thought it’s not hard to see how that can easily turn in to the wishing away of your entire life.
Just because it’s normal to mind-wander doesn’t mean we all do it, or that we all do it to the same degree, or that we would all admit this mind-wandering causes us unhappiness. For me, however, it is the source of a great deal of unhappiness, not least because I’m hyper-aware of its easy to ignore consequences, imagining myself always as the 80-year old woman who tells a friend how she wished she would have been enjoying life all those years instead of wishing them away, waiting for what’s next instead of realizing it was already there.
So the desire to live a more mindful life has been taking the form lately of me trying very hard to focus on enjoying what I’m doing right now, whatever it is, instead of wishing for 5 o’ clock, or Friday night.
It’s also been manifesting itself in more concrete resolutions.
As a voraciously competitive reader, I’m often really guilty of only halfway reading a book, something I attribute in large part to the hurry up and finish attitude that is totally understandable considering how many books are on my reading list at all times (and ever growing I might add).
Again, totally understandable not only thanks to an obsessive personality, but also because of the nature of life in our ADD-addled 21st century.
Point of all of this is to say that my goal, one of many really, for 2015, was to live mindfully, all the time. So far, if you were wondering, it’s greatly improved my work ethic because it’s greatly improved my attitude about being at work in the first place. It’s amazing how much a sense of accomplishment contributes to continued ability to accomplish.
I’ll also give this whole mindfulness stuff credit for what I hope is only the first of many transformative reading experiences to come in 2015.
The book was The Man Within My Head, by, wouldn’t you know it, mindfulness expert himself Pico Iyer.
It’s almost stupid this book. Stupid in how closely Iyer’s interpretation of Greene’s psyche mirrors my own, and, I’m grasping for words here, but for lack of something better, how freakishly astute Iyer’s ability to explain, in the perfect language, in a way I never could, why I have consistently gone back to Graham Greene’s novels over the course of my lifetime (and in the process explain me, better than me.)
Of course the whole premise of the book is how Iyer felt that Greene was ‘in his head’ as it were as he has traversed the world in his own lifetime. It’s a memoir, utterly creative in its telling, as it uses Iyer’s interpretation and second-hand knowledge through biographies, friends etc., of Greene’s life, perhaps the most formative author in his (Iyer’s) life, to shed light on the impulses that drove him, and decisions that he made.
It sounds weird, and boring, and maybe a tad cliché, but I was profoundly moved.
In less deft hands the book and its premise could easily have trailed off into narcissism, but I think the book succeeds here almost exclusively thanks to Iyer’s ridiculously unequivocal sincerity (and I will offer the caveat, some of it is a little bit too sincere).
If you’re familiar at all with Greene’s stories you probably are aware most of all of his character’s complex and deep-seated ability to, for the most part, live their lives constantly acknowledging their flaws and only occasionally be consumed by them.
His characters are beautifully tragic; the lovers in The End of the Affair, Scobie in The Heart of the Matter and Thomas Fowler in The Quiet American being just a few.
I was always aware of what I would describe as Greene’s ability to create a very human empathy in and for his characters for the reader; building characters who were magically so real and yet too good to be real at the same time, I just never would have been able to tell you exactly what it was about Greene, or about his characters that could inspire this in his readers.
I came away from Iyer with a lot of thoughts, but perhaps most importantly I came away with the notion that Greene’s prescience lies in Greene’s lifelong struggle with Greene.
He saw things in himself that he hated, hypocrisy being perhaps tantamount to the worst, and therein lay his ability to create profoundly relatable characters; his writing serving more or less as a way of exorcising his own flaws, although Greene more than anyone would have known he could never truly be rid of them.
Iyer noted Greene’s opinion that “the things we do are more telling than merely the things we claim to believe” and his own very human struggle to be honest, really and truly honest (which is stupid hard if you’ve never tried), with himself, inspired in him a profound sympathy for sinners of all kinds. Side note: It’s probably not a coincidence that so many of Greene’s sinners are adulterers, having struggled his entire life with fidelity.
Iyer also noted Greene’s astute acknowledgement, of “all the ways we can fail to understand one another.”
I have to stop using the word profound but it’s the best word to describe what seems like Greene’s innate and otherworldly ability to acknowledge his failings, as well as those of others, yet retain a love for, and faith in, humanity, as well as the ability to celebrate our small triumphs over sin.
According to Iyer Greene wasn’t a religious man, per se, something it’s easy to see in his characters, but it’s also easy to see he kind of wanted to be. He never rejects religion, that’s certain, he lives in the in-between place so many of us live in; recognizing the ideas of sin and salvation playing out around us all the time, yet never reaching a true “faith;” another way of saying it is that he had the “emotional” but not the “rational” basis for religion.
Iyer’s assertion that Greene maintained the intensity of faith yet “refused to stake out the easy ground of a nonbeliever” is paramount in his work, perhaps no more –so than with Scobie who struggles viscerally with sin and faith.
Greene like so many of us, lived his life hyper-aware of the frustration inherent in never really knowing anything for sure. Always feeling “much of the anguish of religion but little of its joy.”
Iyer also elucidated for me Greene’s role as “the caretaker of that part of us that feels we are larger and much harder to contain than even we can get our heads around.”
His struggle with faith is mirrored in myriad additional philosophical struggles Greene would deal with throughout his life, the “craving of knowledge,” as it were, that only some of us have. Something which is occasionally an asset, but is most of the time better described as a burden, refusing its bearer happiness. The curse of knowledge, in a manner of speaking.
But for me, the most profound element of Greene’s novels, the aspect that moves me the most, is the overwhelming empathy he feels for humankind.
His ability to acknowledge each of us has only a provisional point of view, in tandem with a deep understanding of, if not satisfaction with, the self, and a life-long struggle with knowledge, and a lack thereof, refused Greene the gratification of answers, and thereby, the absolution which goes hand in hand with the knowledge of good and evil.
“In our fallenness lies our salvation.”
I’ve felt acutely for many years all of these things; a struggle with the rationality of faith, the surprising difficulty of being honest with yourself, painful communion with the struggles and pains of others and the irresolution inherent to an overwhelming craving of knowledge.
Reading Iyer’s take on Greene’s novel was like reading a diary of my own, albeit far more beautifully written. I was once removed from Greene here, as if Iyer was the person within my head.
I’m so very grateful for having found the book, although I am now no more at peace than before, perhaps even less so, feeling more than anything else as I finished the book, an acute sense of what I earlier called irresolution. It was a reminder that these things I (and I’m sure many others) struggle with, will never be settled. I’ll never be at peace, which is a hard thing to come to terms with.
But hey, if Greene can do it.