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The Wood That Finds Itself A Violin

Yahia Lababidi contemplates the implacable calling to produce great works.

Throughout the cavernous corridors of literature echoes a distinctive call. A calling is still a calling by any other name. Even when divorced from the strictly religious sense, it embodies the ideal of service and requires renunciations and discipline, obedience and sacrifice.

Individual responses to this sense of the artistic life as a mission, a vocation, a life work, vary. Literature presents us with a dense tapestry of utterances made by artists submitting their lives in service of their artistic development. A calling can seem a blessing, an ennobling contact with a higher purpose, or a devastating unearthly parasite, wreaking havoc on the artists’ lives. Frequently, it is both. Time and again artistic endeavour is pursued out of what can only be described as an indestructible inner imperative, irrespective of the personal cost. Lives are anxiously arranged to create the conditions most conducive to the maturing of artistic talent, with wildly divergent outcomes.

Conversations with Nietzsche, an illuminating selection of reminiscences by the philosopher’s contemporaries, shows that those who had anticipated meeting a megalomaniac striking vain poses had their expectations thwarted. Instead, they encountered a modest, mild-mannered man, who spoke humbly of an early sense of personal destiny and his hopes to honor it: a man who celebrated existence, and often seemed to step outside his own specificity to let the spirit of life speak through him in all its unmitigated contradictions. Here is proud Nietzsche – cerebral pugilist and bard of braggadocio – made meek before his pronounced sense of purpose. As Nietzsche says in an early work, Human All Too Human, “The most fortunate author is one who is able to say as an old man that all he had of life-giving, invigorating , uplifting, enlightening thoughts and feelings still lives on in his writings, and that he himself is only the gray ash, while the fire has been rescued and carried forth everywhere.”

Nietzsche’s life was distinguished by great will-power and an awe-inspiring drive for self-overcoming, including of chronic maladies. Believing as he did that “the gestation of all really great creation lies in loneliness,” he never genuinely sought to assuage his own abysmal solitude. Yet this was all a small price to pay, he felt, in exchange for the eternal currency he longed for. Or as he expresses it in the Gay Science, “One must pay dearly for immortality; one must die several times while one is still alive.” He was not alone in thinking so.

Khalil Gibran, an artist whose entire oeuvre could be subtitled ‘the Art of Longing’, also lived under this other-worldly star. He says in one of his letters, “If I did not covet immortality, I would never have learned the song which has been sung through all of time. Rather I would have been a suicide, nothing remaining of me except my ashes hidden within the tomb.” He shared with Nietzsche the conception of his work as an immortal phoenix rising from his ashes. In his celebrated poetical manifesto The Prophet, Gibran states his purpose unambiguously: “Your daily life is your temple and your religion. Whenever you enter into it, take with you your all.” This sanctifying of life itself is not unlike Nietzsche’s notion of Eternal Recurrence (Nietzsche’s Big Question, to be asked of every act, is: Are you prepared to do this over and over again, for Eternity?)

In Kafka too there is the unmistakable sense of a man entrusted with something greater and dearer to him than his own happiness, and perhaps his own life. Kafka’s singularity of purpose entailed a willingness to die to himself so that the work might live. He jealously guarded his evenings to write himself out, leading a kind of double life, a law clerk by day, and writer of existential horror stories by night. It was not merely a question of being a literary man: he consisted of “nothing but literature,” as Kafka famously wrote to his fiancée Felice Bauer. Everything, from his choice of career to his tortured love life, was a direct result of this constitution. As he puts it to himself, in his diaries: “The tremendous world I have in my head. But how to free myself and free it without being torn to pieces. And a thousand times rather be torn to pieces than retain it in me or bury it. That, indeed, is why I am here, that is quite clear to me now.”

Among a clutch of letters that amount to an astonishingly precocious declaration of intent, sixteen-year-old Rimbaud stated grandiloquently: “The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious and systematic derangement of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessence.” This radical concept of the artist as testing-site could not be more contrary to Kafka’s temperament, yet the consequences are more or less the same. Strangely obsessed as they both are, with ink for blood, both are rendered unfit for ordinary society, sworn as they are to this invisible other, their jealous mistress. Both writers accept their artistic calling with a supreme indifference to their personal welfare. In that same year Rimbaud also memorably writes: “The sufferings are enormous, but one has to be tough, one has to be born a poet, and I’ve come to realize I’m a poet. It’s not all my fault. It’s wrong to say: I think. One has to say: I am thought… Too bad for the wood that finds itself a violin.”

This artist’s ingenious distancing act, separating himself from his pain by splitting himself into two, is seen in another poet with a similar sense of mission, Oscar Wilde. A man of many masks, Wilde also arrives at a position of not identifying with himself. “To become the spectator of one’s own life is to escape the suffering of life” he has Dorian say in his only novel, The Portrait of Dorian Gray: an attitude that Wilde would adopt in his own life-as-literature. Such detachment acts as a needed defense mechanism, shielding the person from the ravages of being an artist. In characteristically melodramatic phrasing, Wilde sums up the entire enterprise in a letter: “sometimes I think that the artistic life is a long and lovely suicide, and I’m not sorry that it is so.”

The concept of a vocation is perhaps closest to the religious sense in Kierkegaard, the enigmatic godfather of existentialism, than for any of the writers mentioned above. It was the passionate assurance of being chosen that led him to conceive of his life as “A little pinch of spice! That is to say: Here a man must be sacrificed, he is needed to impart a particular taste to the rest.” In Fear and Trembling, a disquieting essay where the personal is made universal, Kierkegaard pseudonymously justifies having to give up his most dearly beloved fiancée Regina Olsen for religious reasons as being similar to Abraham being called upon by God to sacrifice Isaac.

The sense of sacrificing one’s happiness for a higher purpose is finely illustrated in the fiction (if not the person) of Henry James. In his Beast in the Jungle, a short story that may be read as an allegory for the solitary artistic life, the protagonist confesses “[from the] earliest time, as the deepest thing within [me], the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible…” As a result of this foreboding and apprehension, he never engages deeply with life or surrenders to love, out of the conviction that a “man of feeling didn’t cause himself to be accompanied by a lady on a tiger-hunt.”

Following a dream contributing to his conviction of having been called at the age of 31, Wittgenstein wrote in a letter, “I had a task… to become a star in the sky.” The spiritual, artistic and metaphysical aspects of a calling are nearly fused in Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy as a means of authentic existence, equally concerned with logic as ethics.

Throughout the protracted convulsion that was his life, we see Wittgenstein frequently forsaking everything for the sake of his muse. In a sense, he is the most glaring example of the thinker as test-site. We see ascetic Wittgenstein flirting with poverty – giving away his share in an immense family fortune to pursue his ideal of living and working with rural poor; trying out solitude – spending years alone in Norway and Ireland, to meditate and write; and dicing with death in the trenches of World War I, in the belief that he did not deserve to live unless he created great work. Disenchanted with academic philosophy and suspicious of the temptation to ‘fake thinking’ it engendered, Wittgenstein resigned his professorship at Cambridge to pursue odd jobs as a gardener and porter, with a brief spell at a monastery. Upon learning of his decision to teach elementary school, his sister likens his eccentric undertaking to “using a precision instrument to open crates.” Wittgenstein’s response is withering: “You remind me of someone who is looking through a closed window and cannot explain to himself the strange movements of a passerby. He doesn’t know what kind of a storm is raging outside, and that this person is perhaps only with great effort keeping himself on his feet.”

The list of suffering literate thinkers is long. I could marshal legions to support the thesis. For further example, Baudelaire, a self-professed neurasthenic [ie, with chronic mental fatigue], longed to be harnessed into action. He eulogized work throughout his intimate journal, Heart Laid Bare, which was inspired by Poe’s suggestion that any man who dared write a book with complete frankness would produce a masterpiece. A true friend, Baudelaire concludes, would be one who mercilessly flogged him to ensure that he worked round the clock. Or consider Pascal, whose unremitting poor health occasioned the pathetic entreaty “Teach us the proper use of sickness.” He felt that on account of his imperiled existence he could brook no companionship. He wrote on a piece of paper which he kept always about him to fix his resolve: “It is unjust that anyone should attach himself to me… for I am not an end and aim of anyone.” Or there is T.S. Eliot seeking to escape emotions and sidestep personality. In Tradition and the Individual Talent Eliot propounds the doctrine that poetry should sacrifice the personal: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”

The artistic landscape is littered with such human sacrifices, disfigured and transfigured. The power and aura of these fiery, intense spirits derives as much from what they have had to sacrifice or renounce in order to achieve it, as what they have achieved. Their authority is born of the tension between what is accomplished and what is suffered. Or, in the shamanistic thinking of Carl Jung: “Only the wounded physician heals.”

Virtuosos of suffering, all the characters discussed are somehow branded apart from life and yet burn for life. They’re men of bulging inner lives, marked by possessions and exorcisms, all inhabitants of a remote terrain, uncommonly committed to bearing better witness, and to being more fully. It is in this sense that Rilke, a remarkable poet of the inner world and the numinous, refers to poems as ‘experiences.’ To acquire such experiences, thrumming with existence, artists find they must experiment with themselves, with their lives, cultivating the necessary psychological conditions for the production of their work. Whether through excess or abstemiousness, in tones histrionic or accepting, in turns spiritual and aesthetic, the impulse for great thought stems from the same supra-personal ambition and extravagant yearning. In this sense, every artistic life is an experiment, an extraordinary pact made with destiny, an uneasy truce between the person and the artist.

© Yahia Lababidi 2008

Yahia Lababidi was an editor at UNESCO’s Cairo office for nearly a decade. His book of aphorisms, Signposts to Elsewhere, is published by Jane Street Press: janestreet.org/press.

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