Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Reading Balzac, taking Prozac

A writer whose work I quite like once wrote something clever about … well, about writing, and creating, and about the pleasures of conception as opposed to the blinding, awful pain of the ‘giving birth’ part. He says that creating your work of art – making a statue, writing your book, or completing your PhD thesis* – requires the same kind of unflappable devotion that a mother gives to her baby; while the conception of it was great fun, afterwards you have to be prepared to go through the painful childbirth, not to mention the bit where you look after it, day after day, night after night, putting it to bed full of milk every evening and taking care of it every single day of your life for a very long time. If you don’t do that, the ‘baby’ (statue, book, PhD thesis) dies.
Read it; it’s great stuff. It made me think, however, that having an actual baby as opposed to a PhD thesis must have at least one big advantage – in that babies are adorable, and people usually want to take them off your hands now and again, for an hour or so. If you are very lucky, you might even have in-laws, who, if they are normal people, will probably be dying to be allowed to have it for a day or so. You might, if you play your cards right, even get them to take it and look after it for you for a weekend. A whole weekend, and someone else does the 'putting it to bed full of milk' for you!... At the very least, you might be able to get someone to hold on to it for an evening – your husband, or boyfriend, or best friend, or Mum – while you go have a shower and go sit in a dark room for a while, or go get your hair done, or whatever. Babies are adorable. People WANT to get them to cuddle for a while. People ask, 'may I please hold him?' If anything, you have to put them off, to stop them putting their grubby hands all over your baby for a while.**
Now, my PhD thesis is quite a different kettle of fish. Does anyone ever want to ‘hold’ it? No. Want to have a look? ... No. Anyone fancy a bit of a cuddle?... DIDN'T THINK SO. If I ever utter the words ‘Do you want to read it?’ – people’s eyes either glaze over, or else start darting around in a panicked way from side to side, scouting out the nearest exit. Forget about getting someone to actually help you rephrase a bit of it, or helping you edit a bit of it; only the most hardcore of friends and lovers (and supervisors) would even go near all that stuff. My PhD is like a really ugly, smelly baby, which throws up on you. I have to clean up its mess alone.
OK, I exaggerate a bit. But read the thing below: it’s good stuff. He goes on to distinguish between two types of ‘artists’: those who are great company and who can talk with great passion about their work (but don’t necessarily have the stamina and work ethic to actually get those things done), and then those who, instead of being all ‘interesting’ and fun to be with, sit down and get down to it, and actually get stuff done. I won’t tell you which one sounds more like me, but you can probably guess, especially if I tell you that, when I read this, I remained pensive for some time… (‘And the Marquise remained pensive’…)
I love it especially when he says that idleness is ‘the normal condition of all artists, since to them idleness is fully occupied.’
Read it. And then go work on your PhD again.

To muse, to dream, to conceive of fine works, is a delightful occupation. It is like smoking a magic cigar or leading the life of a courtesan who follows her own fancy. The work then floats in all the grace of infancy, in the mad joy of conception […].
The man who can sketch his purpose beforehand in words is regarded as a wonder, and every artist and writer possesses that faculty. But gestation, fruition, the laborious rearing of the offspring, putting it to bed every night full fed with milk, embracing it anew every morning with the inexhaustible affection of a mother's heart, licking it clean, dressing it a hundred times in the richest garb only to be instantly destroyed; then never to be cast down at the convulsions of this headlong life till the living masterpiece is perfected […]! This is the task of execution. The hand must be ready at every instant to come forward and obey the brain. But the brain has no more a creative power at command than love has a perennial spring.
The habit of creativeness, the indefatigable love of motherhood which makes a mother […]—the maternity of the brain, in short, which is so difficult to develop, is lost with prodigious ease. Inspiration is the opportunity of genius. She does not indeed dance on the razor's edge, she is in the air and flies away with the suspicious swiftness of a crow; she wears no scarf by which the poet can clutch her; her hair is a flame; she vanishes like the lovely rose and white flamingo, the sportsman's despair. And work, again, is a weariful struggle, alike dreaded and delighted in by these lofty and powerful natures who are often broken by it. A great poet of our day has said in speaking of this overwhelming labor, "I sit down to it in despair, but I leave it with regret." Be it known to all who are ignorant! If the artist does not throw himself into his work as Curtius sprang into the gulf […]; if he contemplates the difficulties before him instead of conquering them one by one, like the lovers in fairy tales, who to win their princesses overcome ever new enchantments, the work remains incomplete; it perishes in the studio where creativeness becomes impossible, and the artist looks on at the suicide of his own talent.
Perpetual work is the law of art, as it is the law of life, for art is idealized creation. Hence great artists and perfect poets wait neither for commission nor for purchasers. They are constantly creating—to-day, to-morrow, always. The result is the habit of work, the unfailing apprehension of the difficulties which keep them in close intercourse with the Muse and her productive forces. […]
While Lisbeth kept Wenceslas Steinbock in thraldom in his garret, he was on the thorny road trodden by all these great men, which leads to the Alpine heights of glory. Then happiness, in the person of Hortense, had reduced the poet to idleness—the normal condition of all artists, since to them idleness is fully occupied. Their joy is such as that of the pasha of a seraglio; they revel with ideas, they get drunk at the founts of intellect. Great artists, […] wrapped in reverie, are rightly spoken of as dreamers. They, like opium-eaters, all sink into poverty, whereas if they had been kept up to the mark by the stern demands of life, they might have been great men.
At the same time, these half-artists are delightful; men like them and cram them with praise; they even seem superior to the true artists, who are taxed with conceit, unsociableness, contempt of the laws of society. This is why: Great men are the slaves of their work. Their indifference to outer things, their devotion to their work, make simpletons regard them as egotists […]. These artists, who are too rarely matched to meet their fellows, fall into habits of solitary exclusiveness; they are inexplicable to the majority, which, as we know, consists mostly of fools—of the envious, the ignorant, and the superficial.

*I added the bit about the PhD thesis. I would definitely file 'writer of a PhD thesis' under 'Artist/ Bard'. 
** about the babies: I don't actually have one, mind, and only time will tell whether or not one day I'll actually eat my words, and realise that having a baby is The Hardest Thing Ever, and my idea that 'people WANT to hold it!' is actually wrong. Until then, please let me believe that I am currently doing The Hardest Thing Ever. I'll worry about the other hard things in life when this one's done.