Sunday, November 1, 2009

Mann, Flaubert, Kafka -- life vs. art

In Thomas Manns Homage to Franz Kafka (written in 1940 and appearing on pages xxxi through xxxix) of the 1995 Schocken edition of Franz Kafkas The Castle, Mann (on page xxxiii - xxxv) writes,

. . . Brod relates that Kafka had always been deeply impressed by an anecdote from Gustave Flauberts later years. The famous aesthete, who in an ascetic paroxysm sacrificed all life to his nihilistic idol, Litterature, once paid a visit with his niece, Mme Commanville, to a family of her acquaintance, a sturdy and happy wedded pair surrounded by a flock of charming children. On the way home the author of the Tentations de Saint Antoine was very thoughtful. Walking with Mme Commanville along the Seine, he kept coming back to the natural, healthy, jolly, upright life he had just had a glimpse of. Ils sont danse le vrai! he kept repeating. This phrase, this complete abandonment of his whole position, from the life for the sdake of art this phrase had been Kafkas favorite quotation.

Detre dans le vrai to live in the true and the light meant to Kafka to be near to God, to live in God, to live aright and after Gods will and he felt very remote from this security in God and the will of God. That literary work was my one desire, my single calling that he knew very soon, and that might pass, as being itself probably the will of God. But, he writes in 1914, a man of thirty-one, the wish to portray my own inner life has shoved everything else into the background; everything else is stunted, and continues to be stunted. Often, he adds at another time, I am seized by a melancholy though quite tranquil amazement at my own lack of feeling . . . that simply by consequence of my fixation upon letters I am everywhere else uninterested and in consequence heartless. This Calm and melancholy perception is actually, a source of much disquiet, and the disquiet is religious in its nature. This being dehumanized, being stunted by the passion for art, is certainly remote from God; it is the opposite of living in the true and the right.

[Ive left out Manns discussion of what Flaubert meant by art]

“’For a few days, Kafka says, I have been writing. May it go on! My life has some justification. Once more I am able to converse with myself, and not gaze into utter vacancy. Only in this way can I hope to find improvement. He might almost have said salvation instead of improvement. It would have made still clearer the religious nature of the tranquility he felt when he worked. Art is the functioning of faculties bestowed by God, as work faithfully done that is an interpretation not only in an intellectual but in a moral sense: as it heightens the actual into the true, it lends meaning and justification to life, not only subjectively but also humanly; thus the work becomes humanly conservative, as a means of living in the right or at least of coming closer to it and art thus becomes adaptable to life.


Referring again to Tony Hill (of the BBCs TV series Wire in the Blood), in one episode (perhaps Hole in the Heart) he is on the verge of committing suicide because he views his recent (and perhaps all of his) psychological efforts as failures. He is like Flaubert in this. He has devoted his life to his psychological art. He doesnt believe in God and his psychological art is all that gives vindication to his life; so if his work can be invalidate then his life is invalidated as well. Tony Hill is talked out of suicide not by a challenge to his philosophy, but by showing that he was right after all, and that those who had attacked his views were wrong.

We have great numbers of examples of actors and actresses who have devoted their lives to their acting art and then killed themselves when they became disillusioned. Perhaps the disillusionment hinged on acting ability, but it may very well have had more to do with the poor quality of films emanating from Hollywood. Fans, for whom poor quality is fit fare, may adore an actor, but if he gains enough sophistication to understand that what he is participating in is very poor art, and perhaps not art at all, then the adulation of fans is worthless to him if he needs vindication from his art.

Why did Hart Crane, Ernest Hemingway, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton commit suicide? If we assume that Crane did indeed jump from the ship of his own volition, then it may well have been due to his magnum opus, The Bridge being, in his own estimation, a failure. Yes, Hemingway was old and sick, but he had also lost his ability to write. John Berryman was fascinated by his fathers suicide, but there is indication that he never valued his work very much. It was enough if it got him close to willing young ladies. Sylvia Plath had been betrayed by Ted Hughes, but her best work was poured out as anger and hopelessness right before she killed herself. Her earlier work was what she based her worth on (perhaps) and it wasnt enough. Anne Sexton learned to write poetry in a mental institution. How valuable can that be as a measure of worth?

In short, if your art is the necessary validation to your ongoing existence, then it better be damned good.

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