“There are some people downstairs who drive everywhere and admire nothing.”
To be an artist, in the most expansive sense, is to live with uncommon wakefulness to the world, both interior and exterior, unafraid to be moved by a universe observed with benevolent and unrelenting curiosity, then to give shape to those observations in a way that helps other people live. “Go into yourself,” Rilke counseled in his advice on being an artist, “and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create.”
One of the simplest, most profound meditations on awareness as the pulse-beat of art comes from a person who lived generation before Rilke and was not exactly an artist of tangibles but was very much an artist of life: Alice James (August 7, 1848–March 6, 1892) — the brilliant bed-bound sister of psychologist William James and novelist Henry James, a woman who considered herself “simply born a few years too soon” and who spent her life as an astute observer of the human experience, with its full spectrum of tragedy and triumphant joy, from the confines of her infelicitous vantage point as a lifelong invalid bedeviled by a mysterious and debilitating illness.
James recorded what she observed in The Diary of Alice James (public library), in which she wrote with uncommon elegance of insight and splendor of sentiment about life, art, and the art of living fully while dying. A hundred years before Annie Dillard contemplated the two ways of looking and the secret to truly seeing, James writes in a journal entry from mid-June of 1889:
I went out today, and behaved like a lunatic, “sobbed” … over a farmhouse, a meadow, some trees and cawing rooks. Nurse says that there are some people downstairs who drive everywhere and admire nothing. How grateful I am that I actually do see, to my own consciousness, the quarter of an inch that my eyes fall upon; truly, the subject is all that counts!
More than a century before Jeanette Winterson wrote of art as a function of “active surrender,” James adds:
Nurse asked me whether I should like to be an artist — imagine the joy and despair of it! the joy of seeing with the trained eye and the despair of doing it. Among the beings who are made up of chords which vibrate at every zephyr, of the two orders, which know the least misery, those who are always dumb and never loose the stifled sense, or the others who ever find expression impotent to express!
Complement this particular fragment of the altogether magnificent Diary of Alice James with E.E. Cummings on what it really means to be an artist, Pablo Neruda on why we make art, and James Baldwin on the artist’s task.
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