I once heard a painter say, I think it was in The Shock of the New, that the urge to paint is the urge to match the beauty of flowers. He said it’s clear we’ll never come close. Maybe we just don’t have flowers in us. Or if we do, they’re bursts of artillery fire, or the questionable blossom of an earmouse, or an efflorescence of leveraged buyouts branching through the ramifying layers of Sony or Safeway or MGM.
As for representation, I say the Impressionists were closest to getting it right. They represented a flower by not representing it. The same principle works for writing. So many ideas and experiences don’t survive direct contact with words. A friend once said that I work by surrounding an idea with literary ornament - I make Faberge eggs, he said: the fragile shell is scarcely touched, but it’s there for the reader nevertheless (we’re told show, don’t tell; sometimes, though, it’s best not to show at all).
But is all this what I set out to say? I don’t know. Whatever it is I’m trying to say, maybe I’m trying to surround it, orbit in on the flower inside the egg without ever touching i
I know I want to say that I love art. High art and dirty art. The beautiful and the grotesque, far more closely related to each other than the merely pretty or tasteful.
What else do I love?
The merry hideousness of a rundown circus.
The feeling that the acrobats and clowns, no matter how they try to glitz up their acts, belong to something as old as the tarot deck.
Brittle circus merriment, I love that. A bit alarming, like the manic behaviour of someone teetering on the shivery edge of something terrible…
The sacred and the profane… Profound nonsense… The courageous coward in Huysmans’ Against Nature… Fellini telling Nino Rota to compose a carnival tune that’s sad and happy at once… And Rota getting it right…
Lies that tell truths…
That’s what I’m trying to find, always. That’s art…
What don’t I love? What’s not art?
I’m unmoved by the feats of athletes and businesspeople whose supposed greatness comes from measuring themselves against the achievements of others.
Measure yourself against bigger things, that’s what I say - against the world, the universe - people are afraid that doing it will make them smaller, but it doesn’t, it makes them bigger.
The anxiety that crackles around me whenever I write, I dislike that. That’s not art (not anti-art, which is Dada, which is art). It’s the unvoiced voice of I don’t know who telling me I’ve wasted my life pursuing this thing.
Here I am, struggling for money, in dodgy health, fabulously obscure - and still I keep doing it, hopelessly… Wile E. Coyote, super genius… How many times have I plummeted, whistling, into the canyon this year?
But still I keep going after it, the Roadrunner, the flower inside the egg; because what’s the point of a goal that can easily be achieved?
That’s what I tell the anxiety, that’s how I silence the world that loves athletes and money. And I keep on writing…
The carrot will always be there. The classic target-that-can-never-be-reached, always ahead, drawing me on, mulishly.
I’ll never reach it, and that’s the way it’s meant to be. That’s art…