A few months ago, as part of an on-going attempt to make up some more of the cultural deficit left by my sheltered childhood, my husband suggested we watch Orson Welles’ F for Fake. It’s a strange and lyrical film about the meaning of art, and it captivated me utterly from the first frame. I was immediately taken with Welles’ charm and presence, and enchanted with the foundational works he referenced.
I had never heard the Kipling stanzas that form a major poetic stream in the film, but was so taken with Conundrum of the Workshops that I scrawled a line from it on the whiteboard above my desk. Shelley’s Ozymandias, on the other hand, was something very familiar to me. It had first captured my attention in high school English class, as an Egypt-obsessed teen, wide-eyed and desperate for culture. I’ve thought of it often, over the years; the image of those trunkless legs in the sand haunts my imagination.
I started thinking about these and other major literary and poetic obsessions of my life and how they relate to and sometimes reference each other. Michael Ondaatje, Herodotus, Neil Gaiman, Joshua Homme. How were these people connected? What did the post-modern popular novelist and the ancient historian; the artsy rock singer and the writer of romantic anthropological fiction have in common?
They pull the same threads; some more earnestly than others. Or perhaps just more convincingly or compellingly? Elegantly? With more skill? In any case, it doesn’t matter. They circle the same eternal theme, and I circle it along with them.
That theme is the place of the individual in human history, and in finding the eternal meaning of a human life in the face of the certainty of final oblivion. It is the struggle of every artist, sure. But they’re just struggling more publicly than everyone else, with what is a universal human worry: what can one puny little human life possibly mean when weighed against the huge, anonymous vastness of space and time?
It seems we have it worse, now, in this post-post-modern age of science and reason; with our Hubble pictures and our constant streams of information and “content” making us feel at once insignificant and redundant. It certainly feels like we’ve reached a new level of cultural self-consciousness. No longer does the devil mutter behind the leaves; he shouts at us in crowds and rubs our faces in the pointlessness of our endeavors. We extinguish our own creations before they begin to take shape, for fear of doing something that’s been done, or looking foolish; for believing we have something new to say, something important; for daring to grasp at the threads of immortality.
That grasping, though, as much as it’s a lie we tell ourselves, is the key to our success, as a species. Our names may not matter to history, after all is said and done, but for most of us, ensuring that they outlive us, whether by being carried by some great work into the public imagination, or being borne into the ordinary (or perhaps extraordinary) lives of offspring, is the highest purpose we serve.
In this way, a name becomes a sort of burden. It carries with it the expectation of memory; of making something memorable of oneself. I wonder if anyone has ever studied the relative happiness of people with common and rare names. According to this line of thinking, the John Smiths of the world should feel a great deal less pressure than, say, Dweezil Zappa.
Some of us burden ourselves by choice, taking on more challenging names. Is this noble, or is it hubris? Or, worse yet, masochism? Self-importance? But art requires a measure of self-importance, as does any life well-lived. We must feel ourselves worthy of celebration, and our work worthy of attention. If not, then why do anything?
Near the end of F for Fake, Orson Welles waxes poetic (in his grand, hypnotic way) about Chartres Cathedral, seemingly praising the by-gone purity of a bunch of nameless masons and sculptors coming together to create a monument to the greatness of God. This is not quite how I see it. Those masons and sculptors, as much as they may have taken pride in contributing to a work of such magnitude, plied their trades for paychecks. And the financiers and architects who designed it undoubtedly did so to glorify themselves as much as God.
But like Shelley’s mocking sculptor, those nameless tradesmen have the last laugh, and their work, in its anonymity, glorifies all humanity and each of their individual hands, all at once. That is, undoubtedly, art. The rest remains necessarily unclear.