Updated: Jan 6, 2021
I’ve been busy as of late and so I haven’t organized my thoughts in long sittings. The results have been sporadic outbursts. Nevertheless, I still want to put some developing ideas out there. The following is a mid-voyage check-in.
I wonder if it’s an historically repetitive act for one to be concerned over a lack of spirituality, earnestness, and/or grandeur in one’s own time. Is it the same in its repetitive nature, in other words, as the, “Kids these days!” outbursts? My surface understanding of philosophical inquiry suggests the 19th century as the birthplace of the aforementioned concern. This was the era that produced the “God is dead” hypothesis and the call to maintain and find new sources of spiritual transcendence in untenable—for a chunk of the populous—faith-based opportunities. For a time, it seems art did a very nice job of helping to fill the void. And the art produced could be abstract (impressionism), viscerally real (verismo), mythological (Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” comes to mind), for example. I hope it isn’t too broad of a generalization or false to say that the Act 1 scene between Rodolfo and Mimì was better understood as true to a wider audience in past decades. Or to kind of frame it in an Eric Weinstein-ian sort of way: I don’t know if as high a percentage of people in a given audience today are capable of absorbing the earnest nature of Rodolfo as was once possible.
E come vivo? Vivo!
One yearns for the audience to recognize his sincerity because it lays a foundation for the rest of the aria, scene, and opera. Of course, “I love you” on a first date likely always has and always will be met with appropriate suspicion. But the recognition and acceptance that such a feeling could come about on a first meeting and an acceptance of its internal reality (as well as external expression) seems to have waned. It may be a justifiably skeptical perspective borne from a series of centuries that began with the Enlightenment and has dealt with tragedy and the price of knowledge ever since.
Put another way: things look funny now! For the educated, the subconscious colorings of the Third Reich, the atom bomb, Jim Crowe, AIDS, authoritarian communism in the East—to name a few of the most horrific and threatening—make the domesticity of a Traviata, a Karenina, a Bohème seem small. And there’s justification for this because maybe the sense that earth and the human race are without a divine protector and subject to destruction is overwhelming. But with that justified sensibility, I suggest a shade has been thrown over the divinity of the individual.
Unfortunately for the sentimental among us, the individual is the center. Humanity in its singular form is the most immediate and important thing to which we can connect. And, so, if my understanding and my framing are within the parameters of being objectively true, I have two questions: “How are we going to make and consume art?” and the scarier question, “How are we going to live?”
Indeed, how do we live with the knowledge and memory of a past that has provided us with a vivid picture for the potential of self-made apocalypse? Is the doom-approaching-in-rearview-mirror path of evaluation the one we should be foraying? I think the answer is no. Which is not to say that, for example, protecting the earth and expanding the potential places for human beings to exist isn’t a worthwhile project. But it seems projects grounded in hope and love for the individual, which seek to create an opportunity for ascendence, are fundamentally better than social engineering campaigns.
"It's just the same story a doctor once told me," observed the elder. "He was a man getting on in years, and undoubtedly clever. He spoke as frankly as you, though in jest, in bitter jest. 'I love humanity,' he said, 'but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular, that is, separately, as single individuals. In my dreams,' he said, 'I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs my self-esteem and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate even the best of men: one because he's too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.'" -Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brother Karamazov
I’m including this insight because it’s a phenomenon I myself witness among those who claim a charitable disposition towards humanity: oftentimes their disposition towards singular people is wanting. Wilde mentions something similar in Dorian Gray (I think). If we are going to take on climate change, for example, there’s something murky about doing it with the presupposition that we should all be lashing ourselves with whips of guilt every time we drive to the grocery store and that mankind is earth’s great parasite. I find this burdensome, drab, and not leaving much room for hope or purpose. I know the climate change issue is mired in numbers and prophecy beyond laymen understanding (certainly I’m not sure how to make sense of it), but supposing we can take steps to preserve our planet, I do not see why those efforts have to be accompanied by headlines that read like something out of an end-of-the-world movie: SCIENTISTS PREDICT NO MORE DEER BY 2042 AND MASS FAMINE IN EURASIA BY 2048! I know it’s simplistic but happy hearts and fervent minds, I predict, would lead better in this territory than cynics, drips, and neurotic teenagers (yes, I went for the low-hanging fruit).
At the risk of straw-manning, I observe three general interpretations of the 1969 moon landing: the first, awe and veneration; the second, critique and skepticism at every level of analysis; the third, dismissing it as a conspiracy theory. I won’t discuss the third. In defense of the cynic, it is the case that a cold war arms race with the Soviet Union likely spurred on the the facilitation of all things needed to actually land on the moon. But this lens misses such an immense point: we did it! We landed on the freaking moon! One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. Is that not true? And putting a man on the moon was so much more than an arms race: it was the culmination and collision of mankind’s sense of wonder with mankind’s desire to explore that which provided the wonderment. Surely this had to be true for at least some of the people on that mission. And it is definitely true for those who tuned into the mission. I wasn’t even there and I can’t get over the moon landing! Consider how many millennia went by, generation after generation of human beings, staring up at the heavens in awe! Think of how many cultures—some maybe we don’t even know existed—who understood the moon as connected with some sort of deity, if not a deity in and of itself. And we built a rocket and landed on it. I mean, wow! Wonder and desire to expand the possibilities of physical and conscious experience has to be encouraged and supported.
How did a project to Mars never materialize? How did the fervor for this stunning expansion of mankind not go forth? I am bereft of answers here but I am so certain it is that same craving for exploration and discovery that fuels the best kind of living, the best kind of art. That Elon Musk’s dream of this kind of exploration is not met with a kind of enthusiasm that breeds cultural and individual participation strikes me as a symptom of whatever the thing is that puts a cap on the fires within us! Where is the fervor, the drive, the excitement to grow and develop as a species through the daring and genius of gifted individuals and the support of their communities?
One does not have to be an artist or consume art but, perhaps, it is a duty of the artist to maintain the breeze of exploration. I paraphrase the claims of my betters: I’ve heard Jordan Peterson refer to Carl Jung’s description of artists as those who go out into the unknown and bring back what they’ve found (metaphorically speaking) through the prism of their artistic mediums. I’m not saying artists should be working at NASA. I’m saying that artists might have a cultural role to play in fostering such a feeling in the hearts of those who should be at NASA. And maybe the ugly side of duty is the artists’ parallel responsibility to battle the crowds who demand conformity and this grey cynicism, which has the potential to come from all political starting points.
It’s possible this blog is me discovering for myself what I think a duty of an artist is in a broader cultural context. Genius artists with the right mindset produce works of genius in all eras (Birdman proves this is still the case). It requires that ole childlike vision of the world to be able to do that. But! Consumers and critics require a similar capacity for wonder if towering work is to manifest itself in the heart.
I remember watching Saving Mr. Banks and being in almost a puddle by the end of the movie. And then I remember reading film criticism that accused Disney of a variety of attempts to manipulate the audience and that the whole project was vainglorious, self-aggrandizing, self-conscious, etc. etc. Let’s pretend that was the case for ten seconds (I don’t think it was). Does one imagine this was going through the mind of Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Ruth Wilson, or Rachel Griffiths as they performed in their respective parts? It would take an amazing cynic, indeed, to think that before Emma Thompson delivered the scene in the movie theater, she was contemplating the perfect way to cry so that the audience would buy more Disney products.
Yes, I’m guilty of hyperbole here and yet another accusation of straw-man can be leveled against me. But! I think we would all be better served to lean forward and cry than to recline and sneer.
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