Tag Archives: Art

Marginalia, no.319

The power of improvisation, the power of variations on themes, the power of doing what you have already done but with a somewhat different inflection or intonation or intensity – this is happiness within tradition.

~ Jed Perl, Antoine’s Alphabet

Not improvisation itself, or variation or difference, but the power of these, whether exercised or withheld. That’s what Perl’s phrasing implies. He’s talking about art, but I think this is something like the happiness available to us in our daily lives – lives which are traditions that day to day become ourselves. The novel and unexpected may sometimes be a pleasure but rarely more of a pleasure than the miraculously consistent, like the sun that rises every morning.

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Art and Sex and Very Small Birds

When breeding season is over the Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) flies down from the inland mountains to the coast where the best tasting insects buzz all winter long. Kinglets are, in Peterson’s phrase, “tiny mites of birds,” about the size of hummingbirds but stouter, olive-gray with white wing bars and eye-rings. We saw a female Kinglet this past weekend, hovering in the boughs and snapping at invisible gnats. She was so compact and perfect, so happy and quick and undistractable, I could have watched her for hours.

Certain people think they’re being very Darwinian when they boil down the various behaviors of organisms to a bare procreative calculus. They apply their formula not only to wild animals but to humans too. “Why do termites and leopards and people do thus-and-such?” they ask. And the answer is always the same: In order to increase the chance of mating and passing on their genes. The way they describe it, it’s almost as if our genes were parasites with minds of their own, and what we innocently regard as our volitional self was nothing but an obliging host.

In Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson lampoons the way this idea is sometimes applied to creative endeavors: “What is art? It is a means of attracting mates, even though artists may have felt that it was an exploration of experience, of the possibilities of communication, and of the extraordinary collaboration of eye and hand.” She continues: “So, it would seem, the first thing to know about art, whatever the account of its motives and origins, is that its maker is self-deceived. Leonardo and Rembrandt may have thought they were competent inquirers in their own right, but we moderns know better.”

I share Robinson’s frustration, but I don’t like to underestimate our capacity for self-deception either, and I wonder if there isn’t after all a connection – though maybe a different sort of connection – between our mating and our making. It’s fun at least to ask how human history and culture might have differed if we were the sort of species that restricted lovemaking to set seasons. What if, like Regulus calendula, our hormones cooled after a brief fever and we were spared for nine or ten months at a time from the constant distraction of sex?

There’s really no saying what a circumscribed mating season might have meant for us. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if under those circumstances our urge toward artistic activity cooled too and the making of art was reduced to the same two or three month span as the begetting of children. Not because making art only serves to help us attract mates and pass on our genes, but because the energies behind artistic creation and procreation both express, and promise the satisfaction of, a single intellectual longing.

A half hour after our audience with the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, my wife and I went walking in the hills. It was sunset and the deer were stepping into the meadows. Soft pink and orange clouds – afterthoughts of a Pacific storm – floated above us like colored paper lamps. Talking as we went, I felt as sharp a pleasure in handling ideas as I felt in watching the light change and in smelling the wet earth. It was one of those fully integrated moments the blessing of which I can feel for years and which have so far prevented me from thinking too poorly of the universe.

Walking like this, as any walker can tell you, has a way of stirring up new ideas or making old ones feel fresh again. I found that I was suddenly in love with the old idea – the commonsensical notion, really – that all experience is particular experience. I was in love, more precisely, with my own experience – not merely of the present moment, but of my personal experience of experience, the sense of being my own self and being subject to sensory and intellectual impressions in the particular way that I am.

The human mind is a prism (or mirror or lamp) in which light is gathered and split in characteristic ways. The perceptive faculty may be the same from one person to another, but the instruments are calibrated differently. When we see through these eyes, hear through these ears, touch with these hands, and understand by this mind, there is a personal quality of perception that we can’t bear to think might one day be extinguished. The death of an individual, when the individual is our self, is felt as the extinction of a species.

The desire to prevent the total loss of our own native perception is, I think, what unites both procreation and the arts. By each we seek to establish kinships. If not me, then someone like me. If not mine, then an experience like mine. Children inherit not only physical characteristics but, to varying degrees, the texture of our perceptive faculties. They split the light, if not in the same way as we do, at least in a very similar way. Likewise, through art we try to reproduce the quality of our own vision in others. We craft relics of ourselves, images of the light as we saw it, records of the song as we heard it, in the hope that someone else might discover them and be able, at least briefly, to see and hear like we did.


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Marginalia, no.266

Phocine… pavonine… leporine…

~ Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Before its bath in the cauldron, the newt’s eye served a more mundane function: it was a newt’s eye. Extracted from their customary settings and placed in special combinations, words too are magic. Sentences become spells. In the cauldron are no solids, nature is fluid, shapes shift. The most mundane words find themselves in league moment to moment with the seal, the peacock, the hare.

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The Heavy and the Dead

I once arrived for a great-aunt’s memorial service just as her son was rushing out to, in his words, “fetch mother.” He’d left the urn containing her ashes on the table at home and didn’t want to start things without her. What an odd errand that must have been. After committing himself to the continued personhood of her remains, could he possibly have tucked her into the trunk for the return drive? Wasn’t he emotionally obliged to set the urn on the passenger seat instead? And if so, wouldn’t it have been necessary to buckle her in to prevent the urn from spilling? Circumstances like these tempt us to suspect that the grand machinery of the cosmos and all its patient sifting of chance serve only for the production of Woody Allen moments.

Other animals don’t bother moving deceased friends and relatives from one place to another. I did hear once about a chimpanzee in such denial of the death of her baby that she carried it around for a week. But while they may gather to sniff and grieve, animals are generally content to let the dead lie where they’ve fallen. We humans distinguish ourselves by making sure that everyone gets a final, free ride to the cemetery. Some of us get substantially more than that. According to certain rites and traditions, corpses of saints or princes (or parts thereof) are paraded through the streets on holidays, and I read once about a group of Papua New Guinea tribesmen that tie their dead chiefs to rocking chairs and bring them out now and then for a chat and to touch them up with clay.

Incan emperors, and the kings of the Chimu before them, were honored in similar fashion. Their mummies were carried on litters through the streets for special occasions and they continued to live in the palaces they had built and to receive tribute from the territories they had conquered, forever. Through their numerous descendants, retainers and loyalists, dead rulers could exert real political and cultural influence for generations beyond their death. (This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Think of the cult of Reagan.)

Nicolas Malebranche and the preformationists had it backwards, it seems, when they imagined that Adam carried us all, to innumerable generations, as microscopic homunculi in his semen. Instead, the burden falls the other way and we’re the ones who have to carry our ancestors around with us. And not merely by remembrance, habits or predilections, of course, but in our genes. It’s my father who’s required now to endure his father’s heart disease, and not vice versa. In one of his essays, Montaigne marveled at how his own father had developed kidney stones in his middle sixties, decades after begetting Montaigne himself, but still had somehow passed down the curse:

Where was the propensity to this infirmity hatching all this time? And when he was so far from the ailment, how did this slight bit of his substance, with which he made me, bear so great an impression of it for its share? And moreover, how did it remain so concealed that I began to feel it forty-five years later? If anyone will enlighten me about this process, I will believe him about as many other miracles as he wants.

It’s not our physical descendants only who will have to carry us with them, but also our non-living children, the offspring of our minds. Family likeness is frequently unmistakable in art. We recognize a Rembrandt or an El Greco right away. I would know within a paragraph, I think, whether a certain passage were Emerson’s. I could guess in a sentence or two if it were Melville’s or Wodehouse’s. Within a couple measures, I feel sure I could distinguish Beethoven from Bach from Chopin. In his introduction to the reader, Cervantes says of Don Quixote that “I should have liked this book, which is the child of my brain, to be the fairest, the sprightliest, and the cleverest that could be imagined; but I have not been able to contravene the law of nature which would have it that like begets like.”

Without denying the possibility of original variation, there’s a lineage to every tone and word, a family history in every folly or obsession, an inheritance of glory or glorious failure in every vital attempt. None of us conceives immaculately. Which is just fine, because in the end we’d like to think that someone rather like ourselves – someone accustomed to our weight and sympathetic to our continued, if defunct, personhood – will strap us in gently and deliver us to the memorial.

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Marginalia, no.248

The animals in Winnie-the-Pooh are lacking in genitalia, they seem to have no activity in life other than calling on one another and eating snacks – but the experienced critic need not be fooled.

~ Frederick C. Crews, The Pooh Perplex

The unexamined life may be the one worth living after all, but that conclusion is only available to someone who’s done some examining already and spoiled it for himself. One summer afternoon when I was eleven or twelve I remember feeling a sudden regret that so much of my childhood was over with. That was the moment I ceased to be an artist and became a critic. As every critic knows, there’s no return to the Hundred Acre Wood and the clique of asexual snackers.


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“He said that a leper passing through it with a gold coin in his mouth would be turned into a king.”

The Gateway to Hoosainabad, Lucknow. Photograph by Samuel Bourne, 1866.

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“They had moved, he was sure of it now. He was a prisoner of architecture.”

Paper theater backdrop, 1891.

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