September 25, 2007

A Theory

proust-on-his-deathbed.jpgProust on his deathbed by Man Ray
I've long held a little theory (unpopular amongst my friends) that great artists have only one story to tell and once they've told the perfect version of that story they are doomed. Nothing they do from that point on will ever be as good, their story has been told. Some artists escape by fashioning alternate versions of their story, never actually telling it perfectly, always leaving a bit of mystery in the center, always working their way around and around the one truth they know, but maybe these artists are doomed too as they will always fall short...

Anyway, tonight I happened upon something by Proust that suggests he had a similar conviction, "The great men of letters have never created more than a single work, or rather have never done more than refract through various mediums an identical beauty which they bring into the world."

Now he could have been saying that the great writers basically create a single universe, and that all his work is a shade of that universe, but given his other writing about the despair that comes from success I stand by my interpretation...

Don't know why I'm thinking about this at 3:14 in the morning. Enough. Goodnight.

posted at 02:34 AM by raul

Filed under: noted

TAGS: artists (2) Proust (1) theories (2)


09/25/07 03:34 AM

I'm with you on this one. Some, such as Beckett, keep finding new aspects of their universe to write about, but they're still writing about the same central vision they've created.

I think, moreover, that what separates the greats out from the JV is that the greats not only create their own universe -- or their own distinctive view of this universe -- but also devise a linguistic style that perfectly suits that vision. Vision and craftsmanship are equally important; a failure of either is a failure of the whole.

09/25/07 03:43 AM

I'm in the same boat too. I've been known to make the claim on several occasions that we're a lot like birds: We have one song in us and all that comes out are variations on the innate melody. It's very literally obvious in a lot of music, where a singer's choice of notes is similar throughout all their work if they've found their, excuse the almost cringe-worthy lingo: "inner song". I suppose it's entirely likely that the same is true for any expression on those various mediums. I guess that's why its easy for me to see the links between my photography, music, performance art, and poetry!

I'm totally down with this at 3:41AM, by the way.

09/25/07 04:33 AM

I find a certain comfort in falling short in this scenario. Though too short would certainly be a failure.

As far as anyone's perfect version of a story...I have yet to see one. Maybe that is the worst failure of all.

Can any perfect creative vision really be honed down to something so small? Like a little gem? As tragic or doomed as falling short is; I would be glad leave this place with work yet to do.

09/25/07 10:07 AM

Surely 99% true. At one extreme, Harper Lee, who didn't even try to repeat herself. At the other, maybe Hitchcock, brilliantly repeating himself for decades.

But what might be interesting is the exception to the rule, the uber-genius who creates great art twice in a lifetime and doesn't repeat.

Not many names come to mind. Miles Davis? He evolved pretty radically over the years, and could be called a great artist at either end. After that...who? Stravinsky's late works were no repeats, but neither were they as great...

09/25/07 10:29 AM

And of course for my theory to hold I'd have to make exceptions for freaks of nature like Shakespeare and Picasso who blew the curve for everyone else...

09/25/07 01:33 PM

tragic, but probably true. thanks for the insight and amazing photo.

09/25/07 03:27 PM

Always 3:14, eh?

"First work, greatest work" is always a dooming fate. As Joe mentioned, Harper Lee comes to mind, but so do Richard Yates, Fitzgerald, Capote, Salinger, loads of musicians, which is essentially how one gets known. I wonder how many artists' greatest work was their final work?

09/25/07 03:37 PM

In Naipaul's latest work, he writes about Derek Walcott (Nobel Prize winner from St. Lucia). Analyzing Walcott's earliest works, he mentions how Walcott subsequently went adrift, latching on to a job with a local newspaper and never capturing with the same totality his earlier works. But then Walcott was courted by America and the university crowd here, leading to a re-emergence and recreation, and ultimately an international award.

So perhaps the first true story (or poems) are the essence of a writer, but it's a mistake in my opinion to think that outside influences can't change the direction and substance of one's writing.

However, Naipaul also mentions his friend Tony Powell, who told him "a writer's first novel had a lyrical quality which the writer would never again recapture."

All this to say that perhaps your theory is more analogous to one's first love -- it's never the same or as true later on, but really, would we want to have married that person?

09/25/07 05:24 PM

I remember a conversation we once had about 17 years ago on Amagansett beach about Marquez. You said he had only two stories to tell one about death and one about love and that all his writing was one story or the other... Because of you I've since read much more Marquez and have to agree. He told his perfect version of the love story in Love in the Time of Cholera and the perfect version of the death story in 100 Years of Solitude. Since producing those two books, everything has been a pale reflection of one or the other...

I'd argue the same could be said about Stephen Shore or Coppola or any number of artists.

I wonder about the Rothkos and Jackson Pollocks of the world who go went through a series of radical and adventurous artistic transformations but hit upon a certain successful style and then got locked in producing endless variations... are they getting closer and closer to some essential truth or having found a successful style are they paralyzed by fear of failure.

09/25/07 09:04 PM

I just read Plimpton's biography of Truman Capote who believed he was his era's Proust and would reveal himself as such in Answered Prayers. Instead, this novel, which never came to be, proved that In Cold Blood would be the only work of any note that he could produce.

09/26/07 03:26 AM

In response to Jo's comment about Stephen Shore:

Do you think the same standards under discussion hold true for photographers? It seems to me that for an art form that is really the essence of time standing still, the same Great Vision, expressed in an unending variety of ways in image after image, would be uniquely impervious to this kind of "vision decay" (that's a highly technical term I just made up).

I'm speaking from a purely hypothetical point of view here; I've never studied photography and I know next to nothing about the philosophical underpinnings of the art (though I do enjoy taking pictures). If I'm wrong, please enlighten me, as I'm admittedly an ignoramus on this topic.

09/26/07 01:40 PM

I don't know if you saw, but I took this post in vein and added this photograph of Proust on his deathbed to a list of possible Doppelgängers for Alec Soth.

I hate to say, it really does look like Alec if fallen on hard times.

09/27/07 04:46 PM

I am of the opinion that there is no repetition in life even though we are inclined to see patterns for the comfort they deliver

05/20/08 05:14 PM

Funnily enough considering the photo illustrating this very true idea, Proust developped it precisely and very deeply. Well it's more or less what's his entire book is about, even if he's talking about so many other things along the text... That's also what differentiates artists form "artmakers" and followers in my mind.

02/25/09 08:44 PM

I agreed
é certo, meu caro.
abs, Laura

02/17/10 04:47 AM

You should watch the movie 'Little Miss Sunshine'. It's also about this subject.

07/10/10 05:57 AM

Hi, I took this image from your blog for my banner. Such a deep sense.

08/08/10 10:17 PM

funny that i read this at exactly 3.14am, spooky and totally unintentional

01/19/13 05:40 PM

Great! But Shakespeare??? ;) Greetings from Berlin.

01/19/13 08:33 PM

Shakespeare is the great exception... Assuming he was just one person!

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