Friday, November 27, 2009

Escape into Life: Issue no. 4

Paper Geography by Letha Colleen

We have another fantastic issue of Escape into Life for your entertainment and enlightenment this weekend. You'll find two excellent art essays, a poetry and illustration double feature, and a musical blend.

What is Genius? . . . . Tony Thomas examines the question of genius in the arts and science.

Creativity, Institutions, and Outsider Art . . . David Maclagan, author of Outsider Art: from the margins to the marketplace, discusses defiant creativity and the use of the term "outsider art”.

Poetry by Emari DiGiorgio . . . In this double feature, the poetry of Emari DiGiorgio is presented alongside the illustration art of Raphael Vicenzi.

Jam Tape 2: A Musical Mix . . . Experience a musical blend of blues, electronic, jazz, and Irish music by Jamreilly, the Official Escape into Life DJ.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

On Genius

Rene Margritte, Clairvoyance (Self-Portrait)

Reading the New York Times Book Review, one frequently comes across assertions like:
But looking at her writing from this perspective misses the most interesting part: her sentences. No one writing in English today produces anything quite like them. Take, for example, the following passage, early in the novel, in which the principal narrator, an authorial stand-in named Mimi, looks east from the track around the Central Park (or, properly speaking, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) Reservoir.

“Windows high above Fifth Avenue flashed the bronze setting of the sun. I will never understand how that brilliant display, mostly blocked by the apartment houses on Central Park West, leaps the reservoir’s expanse. And do not care to understand, demanding magic from this forbidden journey, though the simple refraction of light at end of day may be grammar-school science.”(1)
The reviewer has chosen a specimen, if you will, in order to demonstrate the author's genius. This hardly seems offensive to most of us; this is the critic's job, to make statements like that. But this morning, whether it was because I hadn't slept the night before or because something had finally occurred to me, I found myself questioning the way in which we--I do it too--talk about artists and their work.

Specifically, their finest work.

We read, "No one writing in English today produces anything quite like them." And then, a passage that illustrates the reviewer's claim.

The passage is beautiful; I was certainly moved by it. But let me challenge you to another point of view, a point of view which is provisional and openly philosophical . . .

What we think of as a writer's unique and individual gifts, those sparkling sentences that critics extol--in my present understanding--are really the effervescence of language itself.

What I mean to say by that is, art in poetry or prose is language in its purest, most accessible, most fluid form, nearly on a separate wavelength. It's on a wavelength most of us can hear, just not all of the time. When we hear it, our hearts swoon, our minds expand.

This is a language that is common to all, a language that resonates with large numbers of people. My immediate reaction, like the critic of the New York Times Book Review, is to elevate the artist who created these lines, to point to the individual. But there is something behind this reaction that bothers me.

It seems we like to pick out the gifted as if they were our own shiny fruit. We like to exclaim, "Ah, this is genius!" It gratifies us to make these declarations, and it somehow serves us.

A critic will point to a work of art, or a beautiful sentence, as if it were possible to isolate perfection--to sever the part from the whole, the text from the context. I am doubtful of this ability to zero in on transcendence.

I believe the magical passage, the stunning work of art, is not the watermark of individual genius, but instead the reflection of a higher state of mind. The artwork is evidence of some journey. Art criticism flattens the journey, however, by making it into a vacation. Now it's as if the artist went on a vacation and brought us back a souvenir. We grab for the souvenir at our first chance because it really is magnificent to have such a beautiful thing in our hands. Blinded by the act of possession, having stamped our names across the material object, we see no further--

In this mode of appreciating art, the furthest I can see is not far enough. Fixated on the individual and her gifts, I lose sight of the deeper meaning or beauty in the work of art. By reducing art to the individual, and setting a spotlight on the hand that wrought perfection, I mistakenly short-circuit the whole enterprise of art.

The author's passages, or the artist's brushstrokes, should be signaling the opposite reaction. Art is a universal language, not an individual one. What if we approached the appreciation of art from the other side, from the side closest to the collective "we"? Do we even have a universal language to praise art? Or is our criticism and praise decidedly individualistic?

Furthermore, all art is in flux, even after its creation. This makes it hard to pin down exact marks of genius; evidence for genius seems to move around a lot and vacillate. After all, the concept "art" is in our minds.

In sum, there is no permanent, eternal art. Art wavers between a radiant work of genius, an emblem of culture, a historical artifact, and a hundred other possibilities. Art can be or mean almost anything, as recent -isms have shown. Culture will continue to see it differently as it passes through the kaleidoscope of history.

Artists have in fact done themselves a great disservice by allowing others to praise their works. (I expect you to disagree with me here.) But, suspend disbelief for a moment, what if we attributed an author's sparkling sentences to a state of mind rather than an individual person?

What if we looked upon great works of art, looking beyond the individual creator, and toward something common to all--the underlying language that makes this art so moving in the first place.

Prior to these insights, I trumpeted individualism. I trumpeted individualism because I felt a strong sense of being an individual myself, and I felt a strong sense of being able to identify other individuals. I saw the enterprise of art as essentially individualistic. The artist works alone, the works are understood alone. Art is the conversation between two individuals, one real and one imaginary (the author's ideal reader, or artist's ideal viewer).

But now I'm coming to believe that individualism in art is not what makes it special. Individualism is the coat an artist sheds over time, growing closer to the patterns of her art as she moves further and further away from her individual sense of self. And those moments of greatness, the superb execution, exists outside of the artist. What we point to when we declare, "What genius!" is the second space the artist has created between herself and her work, the plane onto which the universal occurs. Exquisite sentences arise here, but so do many other things, such as wisdom and love and a profound synthesis of mankind and nature.

Could it be that the beauty we perceive in art is not the mark of an individual genius, but instead evidence of a higher consciousness, evidence of a God I don't believe in, or simply the invisible rails between two people who have never met?

More Essays by the author at Escape into Life


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Tale of Genji

3. The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu (transl. Edward G. Seidensticker)

At this point in my series, 25 Profound Works of Literary Genius, which happens to be very early, you may be thinking "Why does he have to pick books that are over 1000 pages long?"

The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil and The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin are both multi-volume works. Now I add to the list The Tale of Genji, which is no less than 1090 pages and 54 chapters. If it is any consolation to readers who dislike long books, most editions of The Tale of Genji have the woodcut illustrations reproduced from a 1650 edition of the novel.

So there are pictures.

But let me get to the real reason why I've made The Tale of Genji number three on a list of 25 Profound Works of Literary Genius . . .

Some stories, from the moment you begin reading them, beckon you into a world--a world that by the first page has already charmed you, has already captured your interest with only a handful of details about that world--and you are ready to settle down into this fictional place and stay there indefinitely.

Such was my early experience of reading this delightful novel, which also happens to be the "first great novel in the literature of the world".(1)

I remember the exact twinge of emotion as I began The Tale of Genji. You may have felt this before, it often comes at the beginning of a great novel. You read the first sentence and your heart strings pull a bit, you read the next sentence, then the first paragraph; and what fills you thereafter is such a tremendous amount of sheer love, a deluge of love--

Whether it is a love for the author, or for her created world, I'm not certain. But I'm pretty sure that it relates to a love of literature. The pleasure of books that happened to me long ago. And so, now you know why I prefer multi-volume works . . . . longer books afford a longer holiday in the imaginary realm.

The Tale of Genji is a romance novel, but nothing like the romances of its time, or the romances of our time for that matter, because of how realistic and believable it all is. The novel describes court life during the Heian dynasty in 10th century Japan--and to a contemporary reader, this is a real treat.

We are treated to details of setting, daily rituals, and gossip of a pre-modern society. A work of fiction that takes place in the 10th century, and was written in the 11th--imagine that!

The seductive power of the novel lies in the charm and charisma of its hero--the idealized prince, "the Shining Genji". Genji's extreme good looks, his poetic sensibility, and the many women he seduces all interest us, but it is the contradiction he seems to have been born with that lends his character even greater mystery.

On the one hand, the narrator paints her hero as if he were a god, possessing gifts beyond human measure; on the other hand, the story of Genji is the story of an emperor's son born out of wedlock. The "prince" therefore has common blood running through him. This other side of Genji, which is human, which is fragile, also makes him an emotional wreck.

The narrator seems to know everything there is to know about Genji, and the story itself is engrossing. It is a preeminent tale of passion from beginning to end. But Murasaki Shikibu, the Japanesse noblewoman and author, gives her readers more than a sensationalistic biography. The richness of psychological observation, the depth of characterization for a novel written at such an early point in history, the loose-flowing narrative strung together with Japanese couplets, suffuses the literary work with a dual sense of modern and ancient.

The narrator's attitude toward her subject, her awareness of Genji's inherent contradiction as both a person and a character, adds a layer of complexity to the tale. If you are like me, you will find yourself trying to guess what the narrator, and by extension, the author, thinks about Genji. Because her point of view seems to change throughout the novel, along with the good and bad fortune of the protagonist . . .

The story behind Genji's birth tells as much about Genji as it does about the ancient emperor and his low-ranking concubine. There is a strange connection between Genji's birth, the formation of his character, and the subsequent events in his life . . .

We read about the events surrounding his birth in the first paragraph:
In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others. The grand ladies with high ambitions thought her a presumptuous upstart, and lesser ladies were still more resentful. Everything she did offended someone. Probably aware of what was happening, she fell seriously ill and came to spend more time at home than at court. The emperor's pity and affection quite passed bounds. No longer caring what his ladies and courtiers might say, he behaved as if intent upon stirring gossip.
We are immediately drawn into the court intrigue. By the end of the first paragraph, we seem to have all of the information we need to understand the story.
His court looked with very great misgiving upon what seemed a reckless infatuation. In China just such an unreasoning passion had been the undoing of an emperor and had spread turmoil through the land. As the resentment grew, the example of Yang Kuei-fei was the one most frequently cited against the lady.

Sympathy arises for both the emperor's concubine and the emperor himself. The predicament is laid out so plainly that we grasp it without effort and want to know what happens to each of them.
Though the mother of the new son had the emperor's love, her detractors were numerous and alert to the slightest inadvertency. She was in continuous torment, feeling that she had nowhere to turn. She lived in the Paulownia Court. The emperor had to pass the apartments of other ladies to reach hers, and it must be admitted that their resentment at his constant comings and goings was not unreasonable. Her visits to the royal chambers were equally frequent. The robes of her women were in a scandalous state from trash strewn along bridges and galleries. Once some women conspired to have both doors of a gallery she must pass bolted shut, and so she found herself unable to advance or retreat. Her anguish over the mounting list of insults was presently more than the emperor could bear. He moved a lady out of rooms adjacent to his own and assigned them to the lady of the Paulownia Court and so, of course, aroused new resentment.

When the young prince reached the age of three, the resources of the treasury and the stewards' offices were exhausted to make the ceremonial bestowing of trousers as elaborate as that for the eldest son. Once more there was malicious talk; but the prince himself, as he grew up, was so superior of mien and disposition that few could find it in themselves to dislike him. Among the more discriminating, indeed, were some who marveled that such a paragon had been born into this world.
If my discussion of The Tale of Genji has peaked your interest, but 1000 pages sounds too long, there is a shorter edition with fewer chapters (by the same translator).

You may also like to read a few chapters online.

I do recommend the translation by Edward G. Seidensticker over the Waley and Tyler translations. The Seidensticker translation, hailed as a classic, is without embellishment. The Waley translation, while beautiful and poetic, strays from the original too much. The Tyler translation does not quite evoke the same mystery. It is too dry, too scholarly perhaps.

This post is part of a series of posts on 25 Profound Works of Literary Genius

1. Edward G. Seidensticker, Introduction to The Tale of Genji.

Image Credits


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

New Issue of Escape into Life

I've been busy editing the online arts journal, Escape into Life, and so I apologize for the brief hiatus since my last post . . .

The Blog of Innocence is still running, but the time between posts may vary. My next post will follow the series 25 Profound Works of Literary Genius; I'll be writing about the Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu.

In the meantime . . . check out the new issue of Escape into Life. Here are some highlights:

Norman Rockwell: The Outsider . . . draws fascinating parallels between Norman Rockwell, Edward Hopper, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Poetry by Regina Green . . . Regina Green’s poems have appeared in The Human Genre Project, A Little Poetry/Voracious Verses, and Cahoots Magazine.

Bill Viola’s Bodies of Light . . . illuminating art review on a new video exhibition at James Cohan Gallery in New York.

The Cry of the Sloth by Sam Savage . . . a book review on a novel both humorous and sad.

What is Escape into Life?

Escape into Life, Arts and Culture webzine, is a publication based on the concept of citizen journalism. The goal is to create a journal of poetry, essays, and art from writers who are already publishing on the Web and who would like to gain more exposure to their blogs. The artists we feature are the very best we can find, and the writers have a background in writing and a passion for the arts.

Kind Regards,
Lethe Bashar


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

British Illustration: Late 1970, Early 1980

Images from Best British Illustration '80
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