Sunday, August 17, 2008

the meaning of life

There is none – so discovers Philip, our art school drop-out in Of Human Bondage.

A colorful poet tells him that the meaning of life can be found in a richly woven Persian carpet. Someday he will see it, promises the poet, if he’s paying attention. Philip takes the carpet with him to wherever he moves. One day as he looks into the pattern, he sees his own story: one bungled attempt at life after another, often repeated endlessly and without reason – save of course that it is, that it exists. This is all we can hope for, a meaningless pattern. There is no difference between success and failure. You just weave a pattern and then you’re done.

There is nothing to feel extremely bad about, which was an immense revelation to someone who has lived without love as he moved on this earth with his ridiculed club foot. His lack of direction, his obsession for a woman who’d rather hook than love him, his worship of artists who become only dilettantes at best, none of it matters. The realization is a watershed moment and the passage is so well written, you are at least a temporary convert once you’ve read through it.

Could it be true? That none of it matters? Initially this seems to annihilate the laws of karma, which of course tell me that every damn thing matters, that every action has a responsibility. Sometimes it’s overbearing. When every action matters, you can easily feel like shit about them all. When you find something to feel flawlessly good about, in a matter of minutes it can be crushed. So this idea of meaninglessness sounded really comforting.

In our chosen field (and the one which Philip abandons), we lay on the meaning over-time. Empty rooms and black paintings, soaked in meaning. To talk about how something looks, even though it is called visual art, is just perfunctory. If you can make what you think is “beautiful” but which you can also debate, analyze and write ten pages about, you’ve hit the jackpot. But if I personally stopped thinking about it for a day (or much longer), it’s almost like a vacation. “Meaning” has sometimes performed like one sonorous, continuous artist statement.

This embrace of the nonsensical still has a huge measure of optimism: we do it anyway. I shared my dilemma with the person who gave me the book. She told me that she, too, had a weight on her shoulders as she filled out forms and pitched for free money and for exhibitions and all the things a living artist does as they navigate the art world. Truly, all this for work maybe great or maybe not, for a few interesting ideas and not a lot of money and some bitchy people?

“- And then I realized,” she said, “That I needed to remember why I want to do this and why I am an artist. I had to get back to the real thing - not the peers, not the here and now, not the politics.” And for her, what this could mean, handily, was a book on Rothko. That’s what she grabbed first. From there she touched on the catalogue of the Sienese painters that the Met produced. We had seen that exhibition together several times in 1988. While I may find the middle of life, just as Somerset Maugham implied, absolutely meaningless sometimes, I never find that kind of work meaningless at all. It was like food or sustenance. It had that same reality.

I could hardly stand to finish this book, to let go of it. It is also entertaining to read what various online reviewers have to say. The young feel it has a happy ending, but those who read it again later in life said that happiness is not the point.


virginia said...

Hi Eva,

Love reading your stuff. For many decades the meaning of life has been art for me. Wish it were still so.
I created my own world, which now seems self indulging in a way I no longer desire. The meaning of life is life. Life is divine. Life is more important than art. Nature is more important. Love is more important.Wildflowers are better than an oriental carpets. My desire to communicate with those that do not understand this has evaporated. Its a little disorienting and also feels liberating in a way.
Thanks for writing- I've been reading this ever since we last spoke-you really have a gift as a writer.

Anonymous said...

This conclusion of art being self-indulgent is exactly the same conclusion that Philip comes to. The longer he studies medicine and goes on the rounds, delivering babies to poor people who cannot afford them (as an example), the less the pursuit of art means to him.

I thought that "art is life" too. It's an exhausting stance. So nice to hear from you Virginia!


nod said...

Having listened to your thoughts longer than this medium has existed... I'm very thankful that I have had and still get the opportunity to share them with you... life as art... art as life

Anonymous said...

Hey you know what it rather amazing, nod and Virginia? I knew you both over 20 years ago in SF. You didn't know each other (or at least I never knew...). But now in 2008 we are meeting here. And you live in the same state, thousands of miles away and probably still do not know each other.