Walter Mitty, c’est moi

George Steiner, by Alecos Papadatos

George Steiner, by Alecos Papadatos

I’m feeling a little Vichy lately, as I surrender to the forces that occupy my time and space. I’m openly collaborating with things that constrain me. My painting for now has become something I remember fondly. (I’m working a bit, but not nearly enough.) Mostly painting has become one of Walter Mitty’s heroic daydreams, something I can only crave to do, while my actual daily life has been overtaken by helping others. (Those who teach art must feel this way constantly.) And I’ve literally pushed myself into a corner. I’ve voluntarily moved my studio from the largest room on our first floor to an upper room, in a southern corner of the house, half the size of my studio for the past decade, but with much better light. I need that direct sun on a few days it appears; I can’t tolerate another gray Rochester winter with nothing but a northern exposure. I’ve fled to that room the way Van Gogh lit out for the Midi.

But all along, I feel as if I’m shoving myself aside, making room for everyone else to live in the space where I ought to be working. (My former studio, our new living room, has become our formal “parlor,” our living room. Which is what the space was designed to be. One of my wife’s friends asked her, “How did you get him to do that?” She said, “He did it all by himself.” She refrained from adding with a smile, “Lucky me.”) As with everything in life, while I do what I know is the most meaningful of all my efforts–caring for my parents and brother (who broke his arm over the holiday and can’t drive), spending time with my children and grand-daughter for a week, reuniting with my little band of brothers from college earlier last year–I feel I’m neglecting my real work. Helping others is easier, because my social life actually requires so much less effort than making a picture. It feels as if I’m on a vacation, being irresponsible. It’s frustrating only because it’s time consuming. While the actual meaning in my life is hidden there in those tedious hours of helping out, whenever I sacrifice work time for the people who matter to me, I’m discouraged because I can’t make meaning by creating a picture. Why worry about making meaning? It’s already there in everything I’m doing–but mostly what I feel in those activities is how imperfect life is, how incapable I am of having a real impact on the people I’m assisting. I can’t heal my father’s sores or clear a stent in his leg, or reverse his aging. I’m little more than an Uber driver, delivering him to people who can attempt those things, but that doesn’t mean I’m adding much more to the process. I’m pretty sure nearly anyone else could pick him up and drop him off. What matters most, helping my family, feels like defeat, even though it’s just the opposite. That’s the Buddhist dilemma isn’t it? Life is dukkha, even when it can’t get any better. When my daughter broke the growth plate in her hip as a child, being an inadvertent asshole, I told her, a little girl in grade school, “Life is suffering.” Wrong thing to say, of course, but also the wrong word. Life feels unsatisfying and defeating. What means the most in life often seems to mean nothing at the time; that’s what hurts, that’s the paradox, the disease of being human, not being able to see the worth of what you’re doing while you do it. Poverty, obscurity, neglect, alienation, scorn, all the major food groups a painter is supposed to rely on for his daily bread aren’t really what hurts: the real suffering is the same as the one in just being human. It’s the inability to make one’s actual life and imagined life come together. I could always live in my art, but not in my life, says Andre Gregory. He was living a ridiculously interesting life, but somehow he felt it wasn’t real enough. It’s like the rich: they never have enough money.

I’m continuing to read Knausgaard and the second book in My Struggle feels much different than the first. It’s in a higher gear. Brighter, funnier, more contemporary, and direct. So far, anyway. It’s a genuine consolation right now to read him. This second volume also includes a passage that is probably the axis of the entire seven books, and it perfectly describes where I live right now (except that I do care about the others who seem to have taken over my life). I wouldn’t sacrifice my own time if I didn’t love them, yet the way Karl Ove feels when he’s alone and working is perfectly put; emotionally, it’s only you and the work, and no one else exists, nothing else exists but the work, the attempt to make something meaningful. That state of mind feels like a distant place where I once lived and worked, but in reality it’s only a few feet away from where I sit right now typing. Yesterday a couple sofas and a coffee table invaded and now control that region. I myself led those forces to their new staging area. I hope I’ll do some good work in my new space upstairs, but the only way to find out is to actually do something up there.

You can really hear Proust in this passage from Book 2 of My Struggle:

There was nothing left of my feelings for those I had just spent several hours with . . . When I was with other people I was bound to them, the nearness I felt was immense, the empathy great. Indeed, so great that their well-being was always more important than my own. I subordinated myself, almost to the verge of self-effacement; some uncontrollable internal mechanism caused me to put their thoughts and opinions before mine. But the moment I was alone, others meant nothing to me. It wasn’t that I disliked them, or nurtured feelings of loathing for them, on the contrary, I liked most of them, and the ones I didn’t actually like I could always see some worth in, some attribute I could identify with, or at least find interesting, something that could occupy my mind for the moment. But liking them was not the same as caring about them. It was the social situation that bound me, the people within it did not. Between these two perspectives there was no halfway point. There was just the small, self-effacing one and the large, distance-creating one. And in between them was where my daily life lay. Perhaps that was why I had such a hard time living it. Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.

I think this apparent lack of meaning, the inability to see the inexhaustible meaning and mystery of ordinary life, is dukkha. There’s something of original sin in it, too. The inability to recognize the value of what you’re doing as you do it: the veil that keeps you from seeing what’s there. It’s at the heart of Knausgaard’s struggle. It’s what art tries to heal, and sometimes it does, but in the attempt to cure it, art brings it all to a halt. Does that mean, figuratively, that your life has to wither so your imagination can live? And yet what does Knausgaard cling to as his subject? The life he is so eager to escape, until he finally has time to read and write. He writes mostly about the tedium he finds so confining and meaningless. The irony of art is that you have to pull away from life in order to pay enough attention to it. Perpetually late to the party, you’re teasing out the meaning you ought to have felt in the experience you’re now trying to represent in words or pictures.

I also started reading George Steiner yesterday–my time away from painting has beaucoup longueurs: hours and hours of waiting for something to happen, while often the only thing I look forward to on some recent days is crawling into bed at night. So I’m getting a lot of reading done on my LG tablet. I’d always found Steiner rewarding in The New Yorker, but never bought one of his books. I’m making my way through Real Presences. You have to squint, the page gives off so much light. (His thinking, I mean, not the tablet’s screen.) What he says about art will make its way here pretty soon at least as a quote or two.

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