Monday, October 29, 2012

The limits of politics

As you might imagine, with just over a week before the presidential election in the United States, politics is everywhere: polls and more polls, reports on the campaigns, yard signs, television ads, accusations from one group leveled at another, pleas from this organization or that for donations to help them fight the good fight.  It's hard to avoid, and to an extent--of course--one shouldn't avoid it.  After the debacle of 2000, no one can reasonably argue that elections don't matter.  Certainly this one matters, when the possible winner and his running mate espouse economic principles of the robber barons and would like to return the U.S. to that age--as if that worked out well the first time.   Of course it bothers me that at least 50% of the public, almost none of whom will ever be robber barons, appear set to vote for a man who will immediately begin to work against their interests.  (I think only in America could this happen.)  And yes, I make my jokes about having to move to France if Mr. Romney wins.  (Jokes?)  And yes, I laugh at or cheer various anti-Republican pictures or messages that come to me via Facebook; and yes I've given money to the Democrats; and yes, of course, I'll vote.  At the same time I find myself caring only so much.  I find myself switching the radio to another station when the reports come in; I find myself not reading the latest from the campaigns in my daily newspaper.  I find--because I've always found this to be true--that when I am most engaged, most animated, and most angry about a political issue, I am engaging only the outermost rind of my mind, not the inner place.  Not the place where I live.

When I first got out of college and was living in the Washington, DC area, I tried, like so many people, to find a job on Capitol Hill.  This was Washington, after all.  Jobs on the Hill were considered sexy.  That's why everyone wanted them.  I went around to a few Senate and House offices, put in some resumes, gave what might have sounded like an honest effort but really wasn't.  Because my heart wasn't in it.  I suppose I would have taken a job if one had been offered, but I knew what a long shot that was.  And those odds didn't actually bother me.  I knew, in the end, that I needed to go to art.  After all, it was the only thing I cared about. There was a reason I majored in English and not journalism in college.  There was a reason I filled out my electives with courses like Art History and Theatre History and Ethnomusicology.  These were the disciplines I cherished, the kinds of learning I respected.  And if you put me on the spot I would have to admit that what I actually think, right now, is this: 99.9% of what gets debated on Captiol Hill and around the country in various statehouses, what fills the pages of newspapers and the chattering air time of television talk shows and the screens of political bloggers, finally in the deepest sense does not matter.  In the deepest sense, art matters a lot more.  It matters more than anything.  In the end, art influences and determines a culture more than anything else.  Art is the culture.  Human history, for me, is one great big wheel that turns on the energy of art.  So for me, if that poem does not get written, or that song is not composed, or that film isn't made, or that sculpture is not completed, the consequences for society are far greater than if this or that bill passes; even if the poem or song or movie or sculpture is created by an unknown person who remains unknown, along with his or her piece of art.  The making of art matters that much.  This all might sound like mystical gibberish, but it's what I really believe.  I think, as an artist, I have no choice but to believe it.  But here's the thing: It's not a choice.  It's not what I choose to believe; it's what I do believe.

One thing I noticed as I researched my Van Gogh novel, and what I've thought about since I finished it, is how little Van Gogh commented on, or seemed to care about, the political climate of his day.  Such concerns almost never come up in his letters.  To learn about the hot political issues of Van Gogh's time one needs to abandon Van Gogh altogether.  I didn't think about such issues when I composed the book and, to my occasional alarm, do not mention them at all in the novel.   But  maybe this isn't so surprising.  After all, over the course of his thirty-seven years, Van Gogh lived in four different countries and was never in his heart a citizen of any of them.  He never felt embedded enough to see their political causes as his own.  He was always passing through and on to a greater mission.  The mission?  Well, his first career out of school was art dealing.  But this was less a personal mission than an aspect of his family's legacy; it was not a career he felt passionate about and against which he quickly soured.  His first real mission in life, few people know, was to become a minister like his father.  Say what you will about Van Gogh's epilepsy (as most now define his condition) or his "craziness" (as others put it more crudely), when you read his biography what comes across is a kind of Asperger Syndrome fixation on One Thing, and an Asperger-like inability to read emotional clues, especially the clues that might get in the way of the One Thing.  And the One Thing was never political in nature; such matters were simply off his radar of concern.  For a time, as I mentioned, the One Thing was to become a minister.  After that dream rather painfully crashed to death in the mining region of Belgium, he decided on a different and--for him--better One Thing: to become an artist.  If not for his ability to fixate ferociously on a goal, to work doggedly at that goal whatever the consequences, Van Gogh would never have become Van Gogh, and we would not have the paintings that we enjoy today.  The man was simply not blessed with an immense amount of natural talent.  What he was blessed with was an unprecedented willingness to work and a fixation on his mission.   It was this and not his "craziness" that made him brilliant.

He had a tendency to Asperger-like fixation when it came to woman too.  What I mean by that is that he apparently would decide a certain woman was The One and would henceforth proceed to ignore every single clue she sent him that said the opposite.  A few times in his life he tried to impose his romantic will upon the women he fell for.  He once even claimed that it didn't matter if a certain woman loved him, because he had more than enough love to make up for what she lacked.  Together, that is, they still added up to a 100% worth of love.  Now this is quite a pathetic argument, and about as unsuccessful in practice as you can imagine.  If he was less dogmatic in temperament, he would have understood that one cannot argue a person who does not love you into love.  It's not a matter of intellectual debate.  (Which is not to say, of course, that love is not a matter of mind.  In fact, I think of love as a profoundest meeting of minds, that certain feeling that you and another person share one mind.)  I don't think Van Gogh ever felt such love for anyone.  What he felt was obsession.  Which is why, despite his genuine talent for friendship, he never enjoyed a successful romantic relationship.  By the time he lived in Arles, he had long since given up on the possibilty of marrying--or enjoying any kind of exclusive relationship with a woman.  He even stopped visiting prostitutes because--so he reported--he had become impotent.  (This might, however, have been partly due to his peculiar fascination with Paul Gauguin.  Around the time of Van Gogh's famous breakdown in December 1888, Gauguin had become the One Thing.  And many commentators, with reason, read homoerotic language into the letters he wrote to and about the man.)

So Van Gogh's Asperger qualities--and I apologize if I seem to be using the term loosely--came with good and bad.  It ruined his chances with women.  But it also made him impervious to, and mostly ignorant of, the poltical debates of his day.  And that, as it turned out, was a blessing.  Freed from the many distractions and disheartening pettiness of civil affairs, he lived not in the rind of his mind but in its core.  And from out of that place came what really mattered.


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