The Road Not Taken?


Detail from Ivana Cajina: Exploring the Cave, 2018 (Unsplash)

by Greg Gerke

In reading bits and bobs of Gilles Deleuze (more his writings on cinema and the arts), I came upon some pages in What is Philosophy? that cooly and accurately describe the artist’s experience. Not an artist, but a thinker (a “becomer” to use his terminology), Deleuze seemed to have an uncanny ability to render what it means to be a creative soul, maybe precisely because he had this skewed relationship (though William Gass wrote, “all philosophy is fiction”) to the arts:

The artist is a seer, a becomer. How would he recount what happened to him, or what he imagines, since he is a shadow? He has seen something in life that is too great, too unbearable also, and the mutual embrace of life with what threatens it, so that the corner of nature or districts of the town that he sees, along with their characters, accede to a vision that, through them, composes the percepts or that life, of that moment, shattering lived perceptions into a sort of cubism, a sort of simultaneism, of harsh or crepuscular light, of purple or blue, which have no other object or subject than themselves. “What we call styles,” said Giacometti, “are those visions fixed in time and space.” It is always a question of freeing life wherever it is imprisoned, or of tempting it into an uncertain combat.

There’s a stealthy, secretive side to art that only those who practice it – and some of those who criticise it – can see through; a discrete two-way mirror casting shade and light on the reversibility of the artist’s life and the artist’s work, a gleaning and shimmering matrix confounding a whole host of people. In creativity, there’s a very serious business occurring, that “mutual embrace of life with what threatens it,” an encounter so difficult to dramatise, no film has ever captured its essence because it is so unconscious and hidden, sometimes even to the artist. Some people sweep the sidewalk or they watch porn; or they work on their car or their collection of shoes; and some people sit in a chair with the blank page or screen before them or stand in front of the white canvas, readying for their “uncertain combat.” I’m not against people clamoring to be called an “artist,” as long as they have done the work, though probably those doing so would be too busy with their creations to care. The Portuguese novelist António Lobo Antunes was once asked where the inspiration came to write a particular novel – his answer offers no solace: “I don’t believe in inspiration…it’s a question of work…” adding that he worked ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week. If anything smites down the legions who parade on TikTok and other social media sites, who won’t risk a live audience for their buffoonery (even after pandemic restrictions are lifted), it might be that millions of morose but mirthful men (and a few women) have been doing similar hijinks in public and, mainly, in bars and other places of drink, for eons. Those persons at least risked immediate censure or embrace for improvisations both flailing and successful, but they really didn’t do it for the money or the chimera of numbers (I can publish something on Twitter that will get twenty-five likes and safely know that only a few of the people even read past the first paragraph, let alone opened it) – they needed to relieve their pain.

I only deign to bring up TikTok because of its easy adaptability to Plato’s cave myth, where the chained people watch the shadows, not the reality, and I have no choice but to be against things that have so little value – that don’t add anything into the world except distraction and the hope of fattening someone’s wallet, or being seen for the millions of mundanities people have silently carried for centuries but with greater compunction. Roberto Calasso wrote “Information, by encircling thought, basically suffocates it.” Dataism is the new demigod. Yuval Noah Harari: “Dataists believe that experiences are valueless if they are not shared, and that we need not – indeed cannot – find meaning within ourselves. We need only record and connect our experience to the great data flow, and the algorithms will discover its meaning and tell us what to do.” In the crepuscular virtual universe, information from a few hours ago is already considered ancient; indeed, about six hours after the announcement of Janet Malcolm’s death, someone commented on Twitter: “I didn’t even know she died.”

To take the Giacometti insert in Deleuze – why, of course, styles are “visions fixed in time and space” – that is why people pay serious attention to the art at all, it’s the quality of the style. Alexander Theroux: “Where there is no style, there is in effect no point of view…Style is opinion, hung washing, the calibre of a bullet, teething beads.” The Internet has simply been a colossal accelerant to that diabolical order, Image is everything. But how can people use time to create if in every living minute the information of the world is there to shoot one’s concentration? Something else Deleuze tosses out glows radioactive in a shallow pool:

Not a “minute of the world passes,” says Cezanne, that we will preserve if we do not “become that minute.” We are not in the world, we become with the world; we become by contemplating it. Everything is vision, becoming. We become universes. Becoming animal, plant, molecular, becoming zero.

This is surely Emersonian and Pateresque—and what will help us contemplate the world more than anything else? Art. I’m not too interested to know what happens when the vision is counterfeited to the algorithm, which is to say: the amount of money. But it is happening and we lose a few more souls every minute to this destitution, this thoroughly deranged sort of becoming.

Being famous and being an artist are two very different things. Most people still respect artists who make a living by their art – yet the amount of respect is equal to hardly any of the latter, so there is about as much respect out there as to fill an hour’s entertainment. The myth that everyone can be an artist is virulently propagated through corporate channels and the same information sources that working artists depend on; yet, covertly, a person who desperately wants the sobriquet will drunkenly or mordantly confess that they have a long way to go and they will never give up certain vices and commonplaces to go to the length they need; or that, yes, James Franco and other pretenders who write books are a joke – but did they really think the publishing industry was ever about anything as honourable as literature? I won’t soon forget talking to a successful novelist – who had first self-published, but made no concessions about his work and was rewarded down the line—at an event for his last book, and who said, of major publishers and the people inside them: “They are all full of shit, not one of them cares about literature.”

In the end, it all comes back to work, which is to say, time.  It took seven years for Joyce to write Ulysses, while Rilke toiled through six for The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and Bach spent twenty-six years constructing his Mass in B-minor. Undoubtedly, lives of quiet desperation are out, and pagan-tinged one-offs rule the day, from outrageous murders to harmless gimmicks aimed to make us forget our sea of troubles (or our humanity?) and to contribute to the fame of an anonymous person (even a Bob Dylan), who, in other hours, will look at his phone rather than hold the door for us. Yes, Gilles, everything is vision – which road will we take?

About the Author

Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, LA Review of Books, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. Especially the Bad Things, stories, was published by Splice in 2019. See What I See is now available from Zerogram Press. Among those praising the book is Christine Schutt, who said, “See What I See is the very brew needed in these parched times. Greg Gerke’s generous, thoughtful reflections on the beguiling experience of art are full of uplift and reverence for the illuming efforts of writers and filmmakers: Louise Glück, William H. Gass, and William Gaddis, Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson, to name but a few.”

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