Sunday, June 13, 2010

Portrait of the Artist

From Helen Vendler's review of the essays of German poet Durs Grunbein, in The New Republic:

Of the titles of these essays, my favorite is "Why Live Without Writing." (It is more compact in German, Warum schriftlos leben: the word schriftlos suggests a desolation that "without writing" does not). When this essay was recently published in the journal Poetry, it attracted the hostility of a reader who took umbrage at Grunbein's respones to the three questions inevitably (says Grunbein) put to poets: "Can you really live off it?"; "How long have you been writing for?"; and ("the trickiest one") "Why do you write?" The reader of Poetry thought that Grunbein was patronizing his audience; but in fact he was exploring why these questions--seemingly so simple--are impossible to answer as the listener might wish. Grunbein wittily turns the question around, offering as a response to "Why write?" the answer "Why not?"

"I don't want to frighten you," he sharply remarks, "but have you thought about what happens to people who aren't artists?" He quotes E. E. Cummings, in The enormous Room, who, when a reader asks, "What do you think people who aren't artists become?" shoots back, "I feel they don't become: I feel nothing happens to them; I feel negation becomes of them." Grunbein points out that the non-artists among us are "always terribly busy but finally disappear...without a trace." The living voice of the artist, in the long run, trumps the transient nvoices of the non-artists of the world.

Grunbein offers three reasons of his own for writing: self-assertion, self-extension, and self-exploration:

In writing, it is one's innermost being that tries to assert itself, paradoxically, by self-exposure...You write...[because without writing], trammeled up in your own limited lifespan, you would always remain incomplete, half a man, so to speak...From which it follows, third and last: you write because the brain is an endless wilderness, whose roughest terrain can be traveled only with a pencil.

(That "endless wilderness" bit is wonderful, to be traveled with a pencil, with a keystroke, with a dialogue).


Anonymous said...

Never heard of Durs Grunbein. He does sound interesting, even though he effectively negated the value of most humans. But yes, the unexpressed life is hardly worth living.

Novalis said...

Artists aren't very nice sometimes--Gauguin abandoning his family for his art (and Tahiti), etc.

Darryl said...

PEOPLE aren't very nice sometimes--I doubt very seriously that there are statistically higher numbers of artists abandoning their families. I'll have to mull Durs Grunbein's answer to "why write" for a while. Certainly his answer is true for many. But I wonder if it is better stated as an attempt to transcend one's self. Maslow's hierarchy of needs is usually mis-presented as ending with "self-actualization". There is actually a higher level: "transcendence" to which (I would hope) many artists aspire.