The Arts

April 17, 2012

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

The arts won’t make you virtuous and they won’t make you smart, but they are nevertheless my faith, firmly installed in the part of me where some people put religion.
What, then, does it guarantee? Those who give it their time and love are offered the chance to live more expansive, more enjoyable and deeper lives. They can learn to care intimately about music, painting and books that have lasted for centuries or millennia. They can reach around the globe for the music, the images and the stories they want to make their own. At its best, art dissolves time; only through art can we catch a glimpse of what life was like in ancient Greece or medieval Spain or pre-modern Japan.

Some months ago I copied down the above, failing to note who wrote it. I came across it today. I agree with what the writer says, but how would I convince the fellow down the street that he’d be better off with the arts than with his golf game with his pals? It seems to me that those who talk about the wonder of the arts are those who involve themselves in the arts. If someone comes to my door–and he or she has–and seeks to proselytize me for some religion, I politely send the person on his or her way. I am not interested in the offer of information this person says will transform my life. “Jesus,” this person at my door will tell me, “is superior to any book.” Although I’d sent this person from my door, I’d never add as the person leaves that art is my religion. Keats put this argument to bed long ago. If, as Kierkegaard or Rank or somebody said, psychology must ultimately be laid at the door of theology, so must art. In short, art cannot provide what the illusion of religion can. Art at its best is a friend, and it will have to do, perhaps, if one cannot sustain the illusion of theology. I don’t know whether God exists or not, but I do know that art is not God. We’ve read our Becker. We know aesthetics cannot answer the fundamental questions of humankind.  I’m not saying religion gives the right answers, but it gives answers.

When I was a young professor of English, I tended to be a little dogmatic about the salutary and restorative and redemptive power of literature. I used, in one form or another, the arguments used above. I don’t think my dogmatism, my insistence, drew many of my students into my camp. It did not take me long to realize the futility of preaching the power of art. It my case the art was, of course, literature. Hectoring students, braying about the beauty of literature, implying books and poems could usher one into regal realms reflected no more than my passion–and, if the truth be told, an attempt to stifle my own doubts about the worth of literature. I sometimes wondered, “To whom are you really talking?”

I had no real facts to support my position. I decided that I could do no more really than let literature speak for itself. It didn’t need me as zealous advocate, a position that, no matter how tactful one wants to be, always smacks of snobbism, a looking-down on. Though I had no idea how to do it, I figured out that all I could do was, somehow, embody literature, not in any grand or exaggerated way. I just quietly stood up for literature. My students, because for the most part they liked me, listened to me, many of them pleased that I thought them worthy of literature–but they never understood what the fuss was about. They understood–and maybe I did too–that even though literature meant much to me, it would never mean much to them. As I grew older I accepted this realization with sanguine resignation.

Saturday afternoon, in the huge ball and dining room of the Hilton Hotel, I sat with approximately two-hundred others at a wedding reception. An orchestra played charming music, a chanteuse, a lovely young woman, sang the old standards (Gershwin, Porter, and others), and people drank wine and champagne. For the most part the people in that room were successful people by any standard. This was a collection of professional people, many of them wealthy, most of them educated.

I’d venture to say, though, that practically all of these people care no more for the joys and splendors of literature than did my students when I taught. For sure, they don’t think they have somehow missed out on one of the lovely things about life. I don’t know for sure but I’d wager than nobody in the room, save yours truly, ever reads poetry for simple enjoyment. Am I supposed to feel superior because I do? I told Dr. Elgee once that in all my years of trying to encourage others to read Becker’s Denial of Death, I cannot count one convert. I decided it was time to quit trying.

I am grateful I have a love for poetry and literature (and for Ernest Becker), but I have it simply because I have it. I have no idea why I have it. When one man who has recently retired, complained to me and a small group of others that he, now that he was retired, was pretty much forgotten, his opinion no longer sought, that he had become a “nobody,” I found myself talking about King Lear, but it took only a moment for me to understand that nobody in the group of men with whom I found myself knew anything about Lear and its relevance to the conversation. For me to persevere in dragging poor old King Lear into the discussion would have been pretentious on my part, a pompous display. It was neither the time nor the place to talk about Shakespeare. I shut up, hoping I done so before I made a complete ass of myself.

I’d be lying, though, did I not confess to the members of the EBF that I felt “luckier” than this small group of men with whom I talked, most of them about my age, most of them retired, most of them possessing more money and financial savvy than I.  Yes, it’s true I feel “luckier” than they because I do have literature, but I doubt whether I could convince them that I am more fortunate than they are. It’s true, too, that I am hardly objective, a disinterested judge in this evaluation of who is lucky. In fact, push these men and they might admit that they think I have wasted my life fooling around with books. They probably say just this to each other when I am not present. These men, some with whom I grew up, might say that my choice of how to live my adult life created a gulf between them and me, subtle, but nonetheless a rift. It’s how it is, but, still, it’s a little sad for both sides in this case. I do understand that neither they nor I think about rifts and gulfs to any large degree, but we all know our choices in life lead to an incongruence of sensibilities.

I have come to believe that those who prate of the joy of art to the general public are tedious. I find it tiresome that the man above can say that art is his religion. It’s annoying for a man to keep telling others how cultured he is, how sensitive. Life is messy for all of us. We see through a glass darkly, whether we spend our time counting our money or counting our books. When Emily Dickinson says that ” There is no frigate like a book / To take us lands away,” I believe her. Most people, however, wouldn’t. Perhaps it’s best that we sail away in our books quietly, without shouting out to the world that we are embarking.



  1. As you hinted at, there are “different strokes for different folks”. Your literature helps you to explore a precious part of life. For me, it is the fascination of how nature works, so complex and amazing. It is a great substitute for religion in that it helps me to contemplate the enormity of this world, in which I transiently find myself, and keep my ego in perspective. Like you, it does seem difficult to find others with a similar frame of mind, although they must be there.

    • Isn’t it all art, if you do it right?

      We can’t all paint, or write, or sing, or any of the other activities considered “art”…. but, shouldn’t we live in a fashion that elevates our human activity above the level of simply doing what we are told, or expected to do? Shouldn’t our lives be at least an attempt to squeeze every last bit of magic out of the unexpected wonder of finding ourselves to be that undefinable thing called “Life in Matter”?

      Shouldn’t life be considered “performance art”… and judged accordingly?

  2. Thanks for your post – it gave me food for thought.
    In my youth I studied English Literature, burning with passion for contemporary writing (this was in the seventies). We had different lecturers (five in all), each with their own specialty, and as the years proceeded I felt a growing distaste for the subject. Finally, the only part I enjoyed was the weekly close reading of anonymous texts we were required to do.
    In the years following the course I found it impossible to read “Literature” of any kind and instead immersed myself in other activities. Then, in my thirties, a curious shift occurred and I started to randomly pick up books from the past, relishing them, rediscovering them! It was the beginning of an adventure that I’ve had the pleasure of following to this day, going where my nose leads me, (or by chance), meandering through the landscape of collective memories, dreams and fears.
    Reflecting on this, I certainly feel privileged that those distant lecturers provided me with tools for reading, despite my resistance at the time. And yet there must be some other mechanism at work as well, since I’ve met too many interesting characters with little or no interest in the arts, and too many empty academics, to be able to rate one type of activity against another.

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