8/5/14

D. Foy

An excerpt from In Favor of Nearness

"What are you working on now?"The thing I’ve most recently finished is a book-length essay about my thoughts on the state of “art” in the twenty-first century, with an emphasis on writing. It's called In Favor of Nearness. I would describe the piece as a comparative study of art characterized by distance and irony and the ethos thereof and of art characterized by commitment and revelation and by an ethos that prioritizes the immediate over the remote and the actual over the virtual, all of which I’m gathering under the rubric of “nearness.” It looks at the responsibility of the artist today, and how the artist fulfills it. It looks at what I think is our principal cultural flaw today — distance — along with the cause of this flaw — narcissism — and the symptom of this flaw — irony and nostalgia — and then it tries to give examples of how these things manifest in today’s art. But of course it looks at the other side too, at all of the things in today’s art that I think we could call its “virtues.”

[Excerpt:]

ONE 
In all art, I’m in favor of nearness.

TWO
I was reading the latest by James Salter, All That Is, reveling as always in the elegance of Salter’s prose even as I felt that restive, helpless envy that consumes me anytime I’m drawn into the power of such a writer’s aura—since that’s all you can feel before such power, restive, in the best sort of way, helpless, in the best sort of way, envious, in the best sort of way (if anything about envy can be considered the best), that sense of ecstatic pain, a pressure in your heart, relentless, and manifold, too, the wanting to escape or in the least to turn away from this exquisite, terrifying, melancholy thing before you, and, conversely, of wanting never to do anything else or be anywhere else again because where you are now, quite literally, is utopia—when once again I understood, as I’ve understood many times before: “realism” has nothing to do with the real, only a notion of it.

• • • 

Saith Renata Adler: What is the point. That is what must be borne in mind . . . The point changes and goes out. You cannot be forever watching the point, or you lose the simplest thing: being a major character in your own life.[1]

• • • 

Life is nothing if not indulgent, indulge is all life does.
Isn’t it true? We’re all so close, so near, and yet so far? We don’t know what we don’t know. And yet we know. And yet we have it all. Emily Dickinson knew. “To live,” she said, “is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.”[2]

• • • 

And commitment has nothing to do with stasis, or with the loss of freedom or choice: the commitment to one plays no role in the commitment to another. Committed, we’re as free as atoms to commit to anything we please, and then again to anything else, all within the auspices of this commitment or that, or of any other. There is no door. There is no center. To commit is to live. Life without commitment is not life but existence.

• • • 

Saith William H. Gass: I know of nothing more difficult than knowing who you are and then having the courage to share the reason for the catastrophe of your character with the world.

• • • 

Blake Butler, in his weekly slot for Vice, made a keen observation. “You can’t write a story better than the color green,” he said, “but you can wield green.”[3]
Commitment is the golden child. Her mother is knowledge, her father conviction. To hope to wield green without commitment is to strive to quench our thirst with rocks. It is impossible.
Without commitment, it’s impossible even to know green, much less to wield it. Green is not a whore. Green isgreen. And like commitment, like knowledge and conviction, green is a denizen of nearness.

• • •

Saith Wendell Aaron Berry: It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.

• • • 

Green is like obscenity, the way that old judge said: we can’t define it, but we know it when we see it.
And green obtains that we may wield it only in the leaving of the known, only that is, once we’ve taken twosteps into what’s unknown. Green isn’t possessed, but, like grace, bestowed.
Nearness, however, is never bestowed, only entered.
And green is neither canon nor bomb nor rocket nor gun nor arrow nor sling nor rock nor spear nor, conversely, is green so much as a sword, but a knife. The wielding of green can’t be done in any but the closest of quarters, as by the men tied wrist-to-wrist in the Buenos Aires of the fables of Borges.
Nearness is the way of green, the single condition of wielding greengreen can’t be wielded any way else.

            • • • 

Without nearness, green does not exist. Without green, nearness does not exist. Nearness isn’t “realism”—it is the real itself. Green isn’t “realism”—it is the real itself. What remains to art stripped of nearness and green is never the real but a Guise.  
THREE
An art born of spite, once it’s consumed the object of its spite, can’t but turn to consume itself.[4] The aim of such an art isn’t the creation of the space necessary to further free its purpose (it doesn’t believe possible such a space still exists), but the destruction of an art or system whose existence out of fear and hatred that art can’t abide.
            Art of this sort is by definition always an art of the hater, the nihilist, the cynic, never the lover, the believer, the fan. Art of this sort is never near, and doubtless it’s never green. And the inevitable fate of such an art is destruction.
            Many lasting arts have originated in the critique of another art or system, often through the sort of irony that liberates and moves us, but none whose identity remained dependent on that critique have survived. Until an art grows indifferent to the presence or absence of those around it, it will always be essentially sterile, essentially weak, and hence essentially degenerative. And the degenerative art, as Nietzsche showed, is ever the selfish art, driven by greed alone: in its emptiness it can never get enough of what it craves.
            The lasting art, on the other hand, is the generous art. This is the art that does nothing but give, and that knows nothing more. It can’t take because it no longer has a self to do the taking. It’s merely a medium, like a mirror or a cup, for the transference of what it only ever briefly holds. Once it may have depended for its identity on the identity of another, but at some point it learned its own value, and the other fell away. In the wonder of its worth, it forgot that worth, and then it forgot itself.
            Only the art that’s forged a meaning unique unto itself, only an art of the near and green, can give birth to the dancing star that is Zarathustra’s dream. Meaning unique unto itself is limitless and therefore, so to speak, chaos. It has no source beyond the art from which it springs, and therefore no point of reference but that art, which is selfless. Always soaring, always changing, this art transcends itself at every turn. Its meaning, then, is transcendent, too, for it too is sourceless.
            This is the story of Athena’s birth: a dancing star, sprung from the head of Zeus. And the star’s beginning and end, its sole and single purpose, is its gift: a dance, and the radiance of it.

• • • 

The artist creates not of choice but of being itself.
            Art isn’t stepped into or entered like a building or a ring. Art is lived in the same way that blood is pumped and air breathed. The life of the artist is in fact her greatest art.
It’s impossible, then, that the artist do anything but create art—what, as Rilke says, is “more unsayable than all other things . . . whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life”—and this because her art is the result of endlessly plumbing her own existence and, by extension, life: the ceaseless effort not to “look outside [in] wait for outside answers to questions that only [her] innermost feeling, in [her] quietest hour, can perhaps answer,” but instead to “see how deep the place is from which [her] life flows.” The life of the artist is a perpetual journey into the unknown, absent any ground, absent, often, any light but what she herself makes. It is, therefore, the life of the artist, a life of terror she somehow distills into the things she makes and which, in turn, makes them sacred.
Terror is always an element of the sacred.
The sacred always, though unsayably, manifests the unknown, from which we come, each of us and all, and to which we return, each of us and all, ourselves unknown.
Steward of our cultural ethos, a priori—responsible, that is, for ensuring the wellness of the best we as a people have to make and offer—the artist, creator and destroyer both, is in nearness the keeper of green.
And the artist always, always leads and never, never follows.

• • • 

The artist wielding green in nearness never needs the Guise. In fact, for the artist wielding green in nearness, such a thing as the Guise or even the notion of the Guise doesn’t exist.

            • • • 

When we look at art made in nearness with green, we may at first see only a sliver of its meaning. The sliver is what we “get,” the sliver is what we “have,” ignorant though we still are in that “having” to the enormity of what remains, which we can’t get excepting to see more in the art, the seeing, doubtless, a function of looking. We can’t see, that is, unless welook. But just because we look doesn’t guarantee our seeing, in the same way that just because we can’t see a thing doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Truly, what you see is what you get. We can’t get, unless we see.
Yet before we can commit to looking, we must commit to committing.
The “artist” without nearness and green is reduced either to simulation or dissimulation, via the Guise. While he may want us to look—and we can rest assured he very much wants us to look—he doesn’t want us to see anything but what he wants us to see or, conversely, and as imperatively, not see. That is the function of the Guise.
But there are those, many, hidden more than not right in plain view, who fiercely wield green.

• • • 

Saith the Great Artist: I am but one of God’s many, tiny mirrors: to you I show “you,” in all your fractured ways.
FOUR

It’s been a sad thing for me for a very long while that, in general, the art of today seems rich not with commitment and revelation, and with an ethos that ranks the immediate over the remote and the actual over the virtual, but corrupt instead with distance and the ethos thereof.
In general, sadly also, I think, we as a culture have so distanced ourselves from ourselves that nearness for many exists now only as a concept, as useless as a popped balloon. The artists of today, in writing, music, painting, film, and the rest, have for the most part lost their capacity for commitment (and knowledge and work besides) and can therefore not wield green.
Adler alludes to this concern when lamenting the loss of modern art’s ability to achieve the “entire range of thought and feeling” that it once naturally achieved and which, crazy as it sounds, among its many aims, was chief. Instead, Adler says, our art now “tends to dismiss most appeals to emotion, sentiment, [to] caring about characters and what happens to them, as cheap, as kitsch, and stays in a chilly range.” In place of these appeals, she says, we’re taunted by the gremlins of “irony, humor, [and] frissons of shock,” none of which can “make us cry,” much less care about the people depicted in our art, much less “want things for them.” And though with luck, Adler says, it might be possible for today’s artist to create works with such appeal, that work would just the same “not be true to our time.”[5]The rise of these gremlins is, no doubt, all but accidental. We are, as Robert Glück says, paraphrasing Kathy Acker, not just a society that “hates feelings,” but a society whose individuals at large fear that expressing themselves—who fear, in other words, that committing publicly to this or that word or act based on knowledge of and conviction in ourselves—will get us “expelled from the human club for being the wrong kind of person.”[6] Whence the Guise, made by us, against our will, from fear and angst.
It is, this Guise, make no mistake, always and only an illusion intended to conceal or distract, irrelevant absent the motive that gives it reason.
Always, always, the Guise has a motive. And always, always, the Guise is made and donned as a means and never as an end.
The Guise is not the end.

The Guise is the beginning: this is all the Guise can ever be.


________________________________________
[1] Speedboat.
[2] My emphasis.
[3] “I Don’t Want to Read Any More Books About Straight White People Having Sex,” VICE, October 9, 2012,http://www.vice.com/read/dont-want-to-read-any-more-books-about-straight-white-people-having-sex.
[4] This is the same art that, as Jedediah Purdy says, “shrugs off doubts and reassembles significance to drain [the world] of vocation, beauty, and moral weight.”
[5] Renata Adler to Guy Trebay, Afterword to Speedboat.
[6] Blurb for Marie Calloway’s what purpose did i serve in your life.


D. FOY has had work published or forthcoming in Bomb, Frequencies: Volume 3, Post Road, The Literary Review, and The Georgia Review. His story, "Barnacles of the Fuzz," appeared in Forty New Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, edited by Cal Morgan. An essay on the American laundromat will appear in Snorri Bros.'s Laundromat, an homage in photographs to laundromats throughout New York City, available from powerHouse Books.

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