On Audienceship

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Of the ways of taking part in the arts and in intellectual life, audienceship deserves far more recognition than it receives. In the classroom I continually emphasize the importance of the audience member, the one who is there to listen and watch, to love, to hate, to adore, to doubt, to remember. As audience, you are not obligated to like what you see and hear, but by taking it in, by bringing yourself to it, you give life to the performance. Yet few people describe audienceship as “creative” or even as worthy of mention.

A curious New York Times article (“Forget a Fast Car. Creativity is the New Midlife Crisis Cure” by Laura M. Holson) discusses creativity as the “cure” for “midlife crisis.” People at midlife restore meaning to their lives by taking up the paintbrush, joining creative groups, and so forth. The article seems to presume that midlife crisis is universal; that midlife marks the beginning of retirement; that a midlife crisis, when it happens, takes the same form for all; and that creativity can be pursued in the first place. I took up these assumptions in a comment–but then, after reading another comment, thought about how the article didn’t once mention or hint at audienceship. Supposedly “being creative” means taking tap dance classes, singing on stage, making collages, doing, doing, doing–but not sitting in an auditorium and taking in a performance.

But if one defines creativity as the act, process, or potential of bringing something into being that did not exist before, then audienceship has everything to do with it. Moreover, audienceship brings honor, respect, and income to existing artists, many of whom have been working at their art for years.

The commenter (“SB”) argued that the industry of dabbling–the industry that encourages people to be “creative”–resembles (or even forms part of) the industry that pushes older artists out. It is ever on the lookout either for the hot new thing or for those willing to pay for a sense that they, too, can create. I would add that this industry (or its corrupt manifestation) thrives on hypocrisy. It sends out a double message: that everyone can be an artist, and that someone removed from us, some invisible force of the market, will decide who is worthy.

Audienceship casts both of those messages into question. Yes, many actors and musicians attend concerts and plays (when they can), but by attending a performance, you acknowledge that you could not have been in it (or at least are not in it). You get to receive it instead. What a treat! And by being there in the audience, you are calling it worthy (whatever you happen to think of it). You have made time for it in your life and room for it in your mind.

Concert-going and play-going can become pretentious, if you go to earn social status. Some people must have attended Hamilton primarily to say that they had seen it. But the great thing about audienceship is that you don’t have to justify it to anyone. Except at TED and other exclusive events, you don’t have to apply to attend; all you have to do is present your ticket, and you can take your seat. You might go out of curiosity, or because you are fond of the piece or play, or because you want to see a particular performer, or because something about the description drew you in. By the time you walk out, your reasons may already have changed.

I love attending performances alone. When alone, I don’t have to talk about the performance right away (or at all), I don’t have to talk during intermission, and I can enjoy the privacy of the work. Music and theater (and dance and other arts) are at once communal and private; they reach many people at once but bring each of us out of our usual thoughts into something else, something unknown to anyone else.

People are sometimes embarrassed to love a performance–or not to love it as much as others do. What a shame! By loving it, by not loving it, you have given something to it, as long as you were there with it, not removed through your own cynicism or prefabricated praise.

I do not see midlife as a time for seeking something new to do. I have plenty to do as it is–responsibilities and commitments that I care about. But I dream of auditoriums, of those few hours face to face with someone’s invisible work, now wrapping into form. If I were to regret something far later on in life–besides various human mistakes–it would be my failure to be there, in one of those numbered seats, when the curtain rose and fell.

 

I took the photo here in Dallas last week. Also, I made a few revisions to this piece after posting it.

The Positivity Pushers

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In her New York Times article “The Power of Positive People,” Tara Parker-Pope tells us that we should surround ourselves with positive people, for the sake of our happiness and health. Her article brought a slew of objections–including a comment from me and one from my friend Jenny Golub.

I would not want to cut my slightly grumpy friends from my life–or to be cut off when going through a difficult time or speaking critically of something. “Positivity” is a vague term, but for some people it means “never complaining” or even “never criticizing.” The Iliad–and most of humanity–would be off limits for someone who sought only positive voices and views. Krasznahorkai and Bellow, Gogol and O’Connor would be off the charts.

Like me, but in different words, many of the commenters reject the premise that people can be classified as “positive” or “negative” and that the “positive” people are more valuable. In addition, they question the business of boosting one’s personal happiness without pause or perspective. “Moreover,” Jenny writes, “there is hard work to be done and genuine suffering to alleviate. Let’s just do the work—together—and stop worrying about that illusory, elusive, untrustworthy concept called ‘happiness.'”

That last point deserves an entire book. The “pursuit of happiness” has many meanings, but when it becomes a mandate and a fad, when people are told to do X, Y, and Z to become happier, then happiness loses whatever good it might have.

The current positivity movement–at least as described in the article–makes little room for suffering and self-questioning. Parker-Pope approvingly cites the work of the Blue Zone Team, which offers to help people assess and shape their social networks. For instance, the Team offers a tool for rating your current friends:

The Blue Zone team has created a quiz to help people assess the positive impact of their own social network. The quiz asks questions about your friends and the state of their health, how much they drink, eat and exercise, as well as their outlook. The goal of the quiz is not to dump your less healthy friends, but to identify the people in your life who score the highest and to spend more time with them.

Such a quiz promotes at least four ills: rating one’s friends in the first place (not to mention rating them against each other), rating them according to others’ criteria, treating the ratings as truth, and treating friends as subservient to one’s own agenda.

Parker-Pope and others might respond that they are not encouraging people to rate each other numerically–or to dump anyone in particular–but rather to take social inventory and act upon it. Well, if inventory is the point here, isn’t one better off examining how one is treating others? People are not obligated to be friends–some friendships take hold and others do not, for a panoply of reasons–but probably everyone has shied away from someone’s suffering. Probably everyone has, at some point, belittled someone who did not deserve to be belittled, ignored someone’s kind gestures, held grudges without good reason, or just not bothered to find out who someone was.

The point of such “inventory” need not be to heap guilt upon guilt or embark on a big project of forced amends, but to question one’s ways of regarding and treating others and to make a few genuine shifts.

Moreover, there is something to be said for grim jokes and rotund tears. When there is too much pressure to be happy, to speak in ever-cheery terms, you find yourself sneaking to the library to read Chekhov or Chesterton–whose works deserve much more than a peek or two on the sly. Why not begin more richly?

Yes, some people can drag others down with their attitudes and outlooks–but this isn’t a question of “negativity.” Such a drag can come from excessive self-assurance, in which the positivity pushers participate. It can also come from a bad or outworn habit in the friendship itself. The solution (if there is one) is not to surround oneself with “positive” people but to treat others frankly and kindly, acknowledge the unknown in them, and seek a fitting form of association with them. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes not; both ease and difficulty have a place in friendship, even in acquaintanceship, even in strangerhood.

Not for its lessons here, but for its gorgeousness and illumination, I recommend William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, which I can’t wait to read again.

 

I took the photo of Pollux at the Dallas Institute on Monday. Also, I added to this piece (several times) after posting it.

Myth as a Form of Question

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Serving, for the eighth consecutive summer, on the faculty of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers (this summer’s  texts include the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Moby-Dick, Theogony, Popol Vuh, Book of the Hopi, Mwindo, Monkey, and more), I think about our many discussions of myth over the years. Myth is no easy matter. People often define it as “something that isn’t true” or “something that people used to believe but no longer do”–or even “something that people use to explain the world around them”–but myth goes beyond the wearable and worn. It allows for common yet solitary understandings; we come together over myth yet experience it in privacy. To gather the good of myth, one must approach it in a strong and questioning spirit.

“Myth is a term of many turnings,” writes Louise Cowan in her essay “Myth in the Modern World.” The word “myth” is often used in a derogatory, dismissive sense–yet others have found that “myth does indeed represent a mode of truth, that it codifies and preserves moral and spiritual values, that, in fact, a civilization without myth fosters a way of life not fully human.”

She goes on to say that myth does not impose “rigid uniformity” but rather “supports and enhances diversity and endows ordinary acts with purpose and grace.” That is, when people come together over a common belief, form, or expression, they can find their own relation to it, precisely because it calls for contemplation and integrity. I recommend reading the full essay; I have barely touched on it here.

Myth  can go wrong when contorted to serve a specific agenda or when mistaken for literal truth or falsehood. It can be understood only through imagination; even then, it requires skepticism along with trust. Maybe the trust consists, simply, in taking time with the myth and resisting the urge (from within or without) to dismiss it offhand.

In his commentary on Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again,” Roger Cohen shows how Hughes “punctures the myth” of America yet resists tearing it apart. He comments, toward the end, “Hughes, at the last, does not descend into despair. His, as Dan Rather has observed, is ‘a rallying cry for inclusion.’ The poem leads to an oath to an unrealized idea, battered but alive, not to blackness against whiteness, or whiteness against blackness.”

In my own reading, the poem gives the myth its full life. By casting the myth in doubt, by declaring, in parentheses, “(America never was America to me),” by pounding out the despair–

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

–and then, after all that, reaffirming America, Hughes exalts the myth, not as illusion but as dimension, as time layered on time, resolution on heartbreak.

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

The future collapses into the present, through the word “oath,” which implies freedom to act. If he, the speaker of the poem, can declare, “America will be!” then America already exists, through his act of promising. (If he can promise America, then the promise has in some way been fulfilled.) The myth comes to life through the protest and questions, through the patience with possible meanings.

In that sense, myth demands more than full mind; it “asks a little of us here” (Frost), as we wrestle with what is and what is not.

Recharging

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When you are “on the road” (for me a figurative expression right now, since on this trip I have not travelled more than a few blocks at a time down any particular road, except on the train, perhaps, or in the cab from the airport), you have to find times and places to recharge–not yourself, though that too, but your devices. Having your phone run out can lead to problems, since now, more than at other times, people may need to reach you and vice versa. So I am in the lobby of the Central Park West Hostel (slightly grungy but quiet, safe, and convenient), charging both the phone and the laptop and thinking about the past few days.

I will tell the sequence backward: yesterday evening, a walk through Fort Tryon Park (above), after going downtown to pick up glasses I had left in Queens the day before. Before that, I had an eye exam for new glasses (which should arrive in the mail in Dallas in 7-10 days); before that, a lovely meeting with a friend. Before that, one of several trips to the storage space in Inwood, and before that, a night of reasonable sleep.

Monday was just as packed (and even muggier): dinner and a long conversation with a friend in Washington Heights/Inwood; before that, a sweet afternoon with friends in Jackson Heights, Queens; before that, a visit to Columbia Secondary School, my former and beloved school; before that, Morning Minyan at B’nai Jeshurun, where I had the joy of reading Torah, davening with BJ, and seeing people. Before that, my first night at the hostel, and before that, arrival in NYC after a long flight (with a frantic stopover, or rather, dash-with-every-bone-and-muscle-in-you-over, in Rome, since I had to sprint from one terminal to another to make my connection on time. (I didn’t really have to, as it turned out; after I arrived and took my seat, the airplane waited about twenty minutes for a few others with tight connections.)

“Humid” is not the word for the past few days. It was like being wrapped from head to toe in a scarf of perpetual steam. At least it was a scarf–porous, that is–and not plate armor. I was grateful for every shower, every air conditioner and fan, every glass of water–and glad that, within the weather, I was able to go to Morning Minyan; go to various parts of the city; see people; talk with them, without rush, over omelettes, cherries, Bangladeshi Chinese food, salmon, wine, etc.;  and get ready for the trip to Dallas. Now that the recharging is complete (or close enough), I will head on my way.

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I took the first photo in Fort Tryon Park and the second outside Inwood Hill Park.

I made a few additions to this piece after posting it.

“But this poor microscopic item now!”

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I recommend to everyone–not just to a recent commenter–Robert Frost’s poem “A Considerable Speck,” which begins:

A speck that would have been beneath my sight
On any but a paper sheet so white
Set off across what I had written there.
And I had idly poised my pen in air
To stop it with a period of ink
When something strange about it made me think,
This was no dust speck by my breathing blown,
But unmistakably a living mite
With inclinations it could call its own.

The poem continues onward–I would quote it but for copyright worries–and then ends (I’m pushing my luck even with this):

I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind where I meet with it in any guise.
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.

Oh, but read it in full. The middle is fantastic. “But this poor microscopic item now!” He could have said “creature,” but “item” makes you think; who ever says “poor item”? Isn’t “item” beyond the usual line of empathy, and isn’t that part of the point?

Also, in observing the mite’s “mind,” Frost rejects the silly proposition that the “item” might be recoiling at the content of the words on the page. No such thing:

It seemed too tiny to have room for feet
Yet must have had a set of them complete
To express how much it didn’t want to die.

The mite is concerned with life and death–what else?–and runs, and pauses, and falters, and surrenders. Observing it, Frost thinks, too, in pauses and asides, which, though not fueled by terror, perhaps also have something to do with life and death (and wit).

But enough! I must be off.