To Perceive Brightly

sunset in csongrad

This question has been on my mind, off and on, since childhood: Is it good to tell writers, musicians, artists, actors, dancers, mathematicians, historians, carpenters, etc., that you admire their work? Or is it better to keep this to yourself? I have done a range of both and have heard arguments both ways.

Those who favor speaking up will say that these things should be said, that artists often do not know how much their work is appreciated, and that there is nothing lost in the gesture. Those on the other side say that you demean yourself by adulating, that praises get cheapened when spoken out loud, and that true fans don’t dare approach their idols.

All of these points are both true and false. There should be no shame in admiring things openly and ardently. Why cast stigma on this? If everyone went silent, art would wither. But if such admiration carries an expectation or demand, that’s a different matter. Fans may seek approval, even love, from those they admire; this leads to all sorts of problems.

Silence is not inherently superior; sometimes people stay silent not out of respect, but out of a desire to be cool. Sometimes they don’t have anything to say. Sometimes they aren’t even sure they like the art. Ideally, though, silence allows one to take something in without reacting to it immediately or putting it into words.

One thing I can say with confidence: to admire someone’s work out loud is not to disrespect it. To the contrary: good art can stir up courage.

But the word “can” suggests the uncertainty of it all. There is no one right answer. There are times for praising, and times for holding back praise. Not only that, but even mistakes have a role.

I do not regret any of the times I loved someone’s work out loud. I do regret times that I tried to forge a bond with the artist on account of the art, but even this was not always wrong and sometimes opened up into friendship. The reverse happened too: some people who admired my work became my friends.  But this is not owed and cannot be forced; it happens on its own if the conditions are right.

Two opposite actions (or non-actions) tend to be valued in popular culture: standing aloof on the one hand, and flinging oneself at celebrities’ feet on the other. Neither of these, in my view, expresses anything. Admiration is not the same as adulation or aloofness. To admire is to perceive brightly, whether in words or not, and such perception, spoken or unspoken, adds to the world.

So my advice would be: say what you wish to say (if anything), if you can do it without clinging to your words, propping yourself up, demanding anything of the other, or worrying too much. Above all, do not worry too much! And to those on the other end: accept the gesture.

I made a few additions to this piece (and changed its title) after posting it.

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  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

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    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

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