The great frustration many art-makers experience is often simply part of the process of mastery. In order to push a work of art so that it has a shot at being fully realized, you have to endure a lot of frustration as you try over and over to get it right. And the mind doesn’t just produce on demand. You have to sit with yourself and coax it along. And you have to tolerate the uncertainty of investing yourself deeply – and investing time – into something that might never come right.
[It’s] an absorbing errand. Isn’t that a great phrase? It’s from an early Henry James novel. Here’s the quotation: “True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one’s self, but the point is not only to get out – you must stay out and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand”. . . . life is more meaningful for many of us when we pursue an absorbing errand – like writing, painting, playing an instrument, or mastering some complex craft . . . While we think of art making as introspective, and it certainly is, it also pulls us outside ourselves toward the world. It gives us a way to possess the world – thus it becomes an absorbing errand.
Janna Malamud Smith, in an interview talking about her book, An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsman Make Their Way to Mastery
One of my Ten Commandments for biographers in This Long Pursuit is ‘Thou shalt be Humble about it, for it demonstrates that we can never know, or write, the Last Word about the Human Heart’.
Richard Holmes , interview in The Paris Review, Winter 2017
Biography is not systematic. It doesn’t always qualify as art and never qualifies as science. At its centre is something unknowable and inaccessible, the human heart.
Stacy Schiff, interview in The Paris Review, Winter 2017
Henry James’ words “Never say you know the last word about any human heart” . . . is the antidote to any tendency we might have to think we can really know other people, that we can sum them up, define them, be certain about who or what they are. They are always more than we know. Just as we are always more than we know. For we are more than our means to know gives us to know. Howard Cooper (from here)
Following the publication of his first autobiography, “Uncle Tungsten,” [Oliver] Sacks came to understand that his memories were not as reliable as he’d thought: After describing in high detail the memory of a thermite bomb that fell behind the family’s house in the winter of 1940-41, he was informed by his brother that he had not in fact been present for it, having been sent away to the relative safety of boarding school. The “memory” had been lifted whole from a letter their older brother wrote to them both, describing the dramatic event in a way that had deeply impressed Sacks at the time. And yet even after accepting the correction, Sacks found that the recollection lost none of its vivid power, having long been embedded as if it were a genuine primary memory. Neither psychoanalysis nor brain imaging can tell the difference between a true and false memory. And more than that, Sacks writes, “There is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth…. We have no direct access to historical truth … no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way…. Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves — the stories we continually recategorize and refine.”
Nicole Krauss, A Last Glimpse Into the Mind of Oliver Sacks The New York Times, December 4, 2017 (from here)
Hemingway’s girlfriend, the writer Martha Gellhorn, didn’t think the artist needed to be a monster; she thought the monster needed to make himself into an artist. “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being.” (Well, I guess she would know.) She’s saying if you’re a really awful person, you are driven to greatness in order to compensate the world for all the awful shit you are going to do to it. In a way, this is a feminist revision of all of art history; a history she turns with a single acid, brilliant line into a morality tale of compensation.
Either way, the questions remain:
What is to be done about monsters? Can and should we love their work? Are all ambitious artists monsters? Tiny voice: [Am I a monster?]
Claire Dederer ,What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?The Paris Review, November 20, 2017 (from here)
The course of her life so far has been rather like a raindrop wending its way down a pane of glass: unstructured, stop-start and pellucid.
Gemma Sieff, A Poet’s Loving Take on Her Unorthodox Catholic Family, A Review of Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy, The New York Times, June 9 2017
A family never recognizes its own idylls while it’s living them, while it’s all spread out on the red-and-white checked cloth, while the picnic basket is still open and before the ants have found the sugar. … It recognizes them later, when people are gone, or moved away, or colder toward each other. This is about that idyll, and I began it in that grass-green clearing of time, and I am giving it no chance to grow cold. Patricia Lockwood, Priestdaddy (from here)