Monday, April 03, 2006

Complacency, Adversity, and Art

I had a prof in grad school who said he realized he’d never be able to write fiction because his life was too normal—it was people with screwed up lives who find great material for fiction.

Another prof once suggested that the reason there are so many great writers from Ireland and the American South is tied directly to poverty. The idea is that poor individuals are closer to the hard realities of human existence, and are able to make great human insights that those in a more prosperous, sheltered life cannot.

My greatest intellectual flourishing was in grad school, when I pretty much lived on a stipend and often spent less than $30 a week on groceries. My most complacent intellectual period has been the last two years, when I’ve had a comfortable job, lots of free time, and disposable income. In a few months, I expect things to get tight again—and then, perhaps, the complacency will be gone and the intellectual flourishing can return.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but if they hadn’t been exiled from their hometowns, Dante would have never written The Divine Comedy, and Machiavelli would have never written The Prince. Milton didn’t write Paradise Lost until he was an old blind man who had seen the Puritan rule of England fall to the hated Restoration. Didn’t Cervantes spend time as a prisoner of war before writing Don Quixote? John Keats tragic early death probably cost the world volumes of beautiful poetry—but did his illness contribute to the beautiful poetry he did leave us? Dostoevsky, if I’m not mistaken, spent time in work prisons and was nearly executed (my knowledge of author biographies is shaky at best—I’ve been much more concerned with understanding the texts they left us than knowing the details of their lives).

Education matters; there aren’t that many brilliant working class writers in western history, and no peasants became literary geniuses (that I’m aware of). But do the tribulations of life contribute to artistic creation? Can prosperity, complacency, and comfort lead to brilliant art?

Or, as Tony Harrison suggests in his brilliant poem "v.", does poetry grow from shit? Harrison writes in "v." that dead, rotting corpses turn to coal, that victory is to the "vast, slow, coal-creating forces/ that hew the body's seams to get the soul." Does brilliant art grow from human suffering?

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