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.