J.M. at the Essay Café:
Thoughts on Art, Gesamtkunstwerk and How to Live
The following was written over the span of a couple of hours and is the longest written piece I've produced since school age.
As I sit in the umpteenth cafe for the umpteenth time, the environment surrounding me feels familiar; the self-imposed task at hand does not. On top of that, the skill to be essayed is, shall we say, somewhat ossified: I am trying to write something; well, I am writing something, but whether it will be imbued with a quality of utility (in the Benthamite sense), remains to be seen.
Eric Clapton and Cream’s playing overhead, on the stereo. Their grandiose essays at prog heavy blues mysticism are known to me quite well; sometimes they’re successful, sometimes not; and sometimes they come off as just a little too full of themselves (perhaps this missive will play out in a similar fashion). I know music. By no means do I know anything more than a sliver of what there is to know, I’ll quickly add. Perhaps I could liken my knowhow and experience to that of an astronaut’s: how vast is space; how many stars, how many galaxies (don’t actually answer that question if you know the answer)? How many ways can you blow over four bars, or flip a Clyde Stubblefield sample? Perhaps the analogy is a little presumptuous-a quality frowned upon by self effacing artist types-but the point being, music is the area I understand to whatever degree we can profess to understand something, and one that I want to supplement with other facets of art. Hence this writing.
What’s interesting to me is the degree to which I find this process, as I’m experiencing it, draws on aspects of my experience of songwriting. Namely, writing lyrics, especially hip hop lyrics (though I don’t engage in that practice much anymore): the associative patterns which govern recall and make novelty possible; jumping from subject to subject based on the last vowel used, combined with the last thought conjured in your head; alliteration invoking deep, inherited instincts and traumas. Being open to all options while at the same time being profoundly limited by 16-measure verse conventions (Hannibal Buress has a great bit on this, but I can't find the clip).
In a sense it’s silly, trying to describe a creative process in words. It’s using something concrete to describe something else that is formless; the one is quite unsuited to the other. It’s like bringing spaghetti to a gun fight. But I’ll be damned; as I write this, I certainly am having fun trying. Writing is supposed to be an art itself, isn’t it? Am I being too presumptuous if I begin to draw connections between the different forms of that art which I love, the manifestations some believe to be the only embodiments of Truth and Beauty (both only words, admittedly)? Ever since a distant friend, dreadlocked, disheveled and probably more than a bit drunk, told me about it, Gesamtkunstwerk has been a word simmering just below the surface of this version of the Good Life which I’m attempting to live. That he inexplicably wrote it on a torn bit of paper and silently gave it to me as he was leaving only made it more impactful. Admittedly, I have not read Wagner’s essay on the subject. In fact, there’s a lot of important source material I’ve never read, or watched or listened to. I haven’t read much Bukowski, Ginsberg, or Salinger, and I don’t even know enough to know whether those are authors to be embarrassed for not knowing. And that sentiment applies to My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, Wes Anderson, Power Trip, and Top Gun. There’s no art in this statement, but I think I spend a lot of my time just thinking. Or, if I’m lucky and my on-again, off-again meditation practice has had any effect, just experiencing.
For those who don’t know (though who has reason not to know in the age of almost mind-reading search engines?), Gesamtkunstwerk is translated to mean "total work of art". An immersive experience. Originally intended, I think, to reference operatic works. I’m unclear if it was also intended to possess a transcendental significance, but whether from my own conviction or from the memory of the intense, burning eyes of my hippie teacher, it’s long since held that meaning for me. The idea of presenting my own work in such a fashion feels very alluring. But equally fascinating, as I mellow with the inevitability-accepting, uniquely helpful slowing impediment of age, is the idea that my entire life, my aforementioned stab at the Aristotelean ideal, might be construed, or purposed, to live more fully within its light. Less attached to a career, less attached to an identity. More living within the fuzzy, reaching, cloudy but infinitely promising observer status in which I find myself engulfed as I come toward completion of this mini-Montaignist endeavour. A frame of experience in which nothing is sacred, nor overwrought, overthought, or even much thought of at all. "The zone", the "flow state", are facets of this experience, which ecstatically, I feel I’m in the midst of now.
The cafe’s going to close in a few minutes. At risk of making a major jump, I’m going to link die kunst to der unbekannt, art with the unknown. To whatever imperfect extent my words can be interpreted (signifier over sign), I hope that whichever brave souls (if any) make it this far are able to apply this sproutling of an idea into their own interpretation of the Good Life. Therein, I hope, lies the utility. Possible applications? Try not writing anything seriously from high school graduation until well into adult life; then try writing 1,000 words, and try to make them all purposeful. See what comes of it. I hope you find a robust connection between the act and any other creative endeavours you typically engage in, and are heartened to feel a sense of unity between modalities of existence that otherwise, in your less inquisitive, less curious, and more "satiated" moments, might seem to be separated by the deepest chasms.
-JM, Aug. 2 2021.
Currently reading: John Maynard Keynes, Economic Consequences of the Peace and General Theory. The former thoroughly enjoyed; the latter currently being read and at best peripherally understood.