|Jul/Aug 2019 Salon|
Multimedia artwork by Belinda Subraman
Two of my maternal uncles painted. One, Roderick, had talent. His older brother, Tom, may or may not have. All I remember of Tom's work is a water color of a small boy standing beside a body of water, urinating in a high graceful arc. Tom laughed whenever anyone's attention was attracted to the painting on his living room wall. A small boy myself at the time, I didn't take it seriously. The image seemed to me in bad taste.
Tom was one of my mother's older brothers with whom she had a stormy relationship. They were sometimes banned from our house for reasons I never quite understood. Tom had served in World War II and provided answers to my questions about the war or, more likely, made them up for my benefit. I have a photo of him in uniform looking young and dashing and—notable if only because I always knew him as fat and middle-aged—trim and good-looking. There's another photo of him taken with the popular movie actor Brian Donlevy who must have been on a USO tour at the time. For most of my youth I assumed he and my uncle were personal friends.
Roderick, or Rody as we knew him, was another matter. He could actually paint. At least that was how it seemed to me whenever I saw the water colors on his own walls, but more especially after I watched him spend several hours glued to an easel I had received that year as a Christmas present. Observing him create from memory an image of the George Washington Bridge (we lived in its shadow, so to speak), the river below and the greenery on either side, was a revelation for me. I had never seen anyone so absorbed in something not of a practical nature like installing insulation or mixing cement. I had watched my older brother reproduce panels of Prince Valiant, the royalty of the so-called Sunday comics. My brother had real skill, but he was imitating something created by someone else. Rody was fashioning something out of his head and, palpably, from some even greater depth of his being. He made a living (he had a large family) as a salesman for a company that sold rags for industrial use. It seemed to me an appalling occupation for a man of his talent. But it wasn't until I was well into my adulthood and had spent many years trying to publish fiction that I came to appreciate and recognize the nature of the gift my uncle harbored within himself.
Religion, not art, was the summum bonum of my upbringing. I was groomed to be a priest from my earliest days. My father and both my older brothers had each spent time in seminaries. I was the family's last hope to achieve that great pinnacle of Catholic aspiration, the equivalent of a child becoming a doctor or lawyer for members of other religions or no religion at all. It was art in the form of a literary talent that I saw as my escape hatch from following my father's and brothers' attempts to realize their parents' hopes for them. Art, I rationalized, thanks to the encouragement of a couple high school teachers, could also be a "vocation."
But art is not life. Vocation or no vocation, you still have to live each day and make your way in the world. There are no seminaries for writers, the MFA industry notwithstanding. You can gauge success in different ways, but the standard you recognize must match the one you actually achieve if you are to avoid the nagging suspicion that you don't have the "right stuff." Not having the right stuff, whatever that was, was after all the reason why my father and brothers dropped out of seminary. We can read a writer's work and decide for ourselves whether s/he is the real thing and belongs in the company of genuine artists. But who gets to judge clergy who are ordained but not suited to the job? Apart from instances of gross dereliction they live very private lives shared only with perhaps one or two other clergy. But no one can judge the young man or woman who fails to meet the standards of a religious calling except the author of that calling, and He usually keeps his own counsel on the matter, leaving those who were called but not chosen to feel forever unworthy like soldiers whose courage failed them in the heat of combat.
Commercial success in the arts is, of course, no guarantee of worth. Usually it indicates the opposite. Nor can an artist pin his or her hopes on the future. Books fade into obscurity, get lost or never get published in the first place. There is no fixed arbiter for such matters, no Nobel-prize-like divinity to tell us who deserves to be in the pantheon and who doesn't. Take a look at the winners of those Nobel prizes over the years and you'll find as many mediocrities as enduring talents, most of them chosen with a strong eye toward their political bent as much as their literary talent.
I don't have any reason to believe my uncle Rody was a great or even an especially gifted artist. I was too young at the time to judge. What I do know is that he was passionate about what he was doing that evening in our living room. (My mother called repeatedly for him to come eat the dinner she had prepared.) I too have known that kind of passion, in my case for getting a story told, for giving life to the being that is demanding to be brought forth from inside me. Whether I have occasionally delivered a real child or just some half-formed and better-left-unborn creature is not for me, or probably for anyone, to say except for the individual reader. I may have produced the literary equivalent of Rody's deeply felt water colors (I definitely don't work in the grander subjects of oils like the Balsacs and Tolstoys) or not. My fear sometimes is that I have only replicated Uncle Tom's "Boy Peeing in a Pond."
I understand now that the subject of Tom's painting as well as his dismissive laughter, as if he never intended the picture as anything more than a joke, was an indication of the man's general lack of confidence, and not just in his "art." Both he and Rody were the children of working-class immigrants. Their three brothers became cops, the New York police department probably being the extent of what they thought they could aspire to. I don't know that any of the boys or their two sisters finished high school. What's remarkable is not that two of them aspired to art if only as a hobby but that they took it up at all. The closest my own family came to hanging a real painting on the wall was a mass-produced sea scene sold by a department store. Our family bookcase contained a popular encyclopedia along with The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (read by no one in my family, as far as I know), Chad Hannah, and a remarkably good set of books called Journeys Through Bookland, but little else. If I can trace my taste for literature to any source other than Bible stories my mother read me, it is to Journeys Through Bookland, at least to the early volumes from which my mother read me nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and young children's stories like "Tom Thumb."
It was my mother's love for language, her Irish playfulness with words, along with an old-world (though she was born in Manhattan) connection to the deeper recesses of the mind to which I attribute my predilection for art. My mother was the sort of person who would have seen fairies had she grown up in her own mother's homeland. Yeats claimed the average Irish farmer couldn't spend a day in his fields without seeing several fairies. My mother also "saw" things. She saw a man lying dead in the street whom no one else noticed two days before the same man died in bed of natural causes. She "saw" my brother lying wounded in Korea a day before she got the telegram from the Army. She didn't speak much about these "seeings," almost as if she was embarrassed by them. But to me they represent an ability to tap into a part of the human mind that most of us have taken from us at an early age.
It is out of that part of the mind that I write fiction. I do so as it were involuntarily, as my mother saw what she saw without intent or subterfuge. It's a kind of possession. I merely take dictation, though the experience, unlike a stenographer's, leaves me exhausted as a medium after a session of communicating with "the other side." I avoid biographies of artists, especially those I admire, because I know that in my own case the man who writes the stories is no more the man I am in my ordinary conscious world than are two different (though related) individuals. I don't want to know that Chopin could say nasty things about Jews or that Prokofiev once compared his wife to an infected tooth. I don't want to be reminded of those things when I am listening to the former's Nocturne, Op. 62, No. 1 or the latter's first violin concerto. I don't want to know what an author's personal life or politics was like. I find biography annoying at best and grossly misleading at worst, though I realize it puts food on the table for many a critic and professor.
When I say that we live out of and by our imaginations, I don't just mean artists. Reality is after all nothing more than the present moment, and even that moment is so fleeting and undefinable that we have no adequate way of describing it. Is it one second? A minute? A day, a year? What we call present as well as past and future are really imaginative constructs. The reality, the structure we give to experience the same way any slug or sea turtle does consists entirely of what we imagine. There is nothing more solid than that, at least nothing we can truly apprehend, though our microscopes, spectrometers, and atomic accelerators indicate a wealth of reality beyond our unassisted ken. Whatever time may mean to a theoretical physicist, it couldn't exist outside the imagination with which we negotiate the dense soup of experience, our mind's way of making some kind of useful sense out of existence. We do so in the only way we can, with the brains bequeathed us by evolution, strictly confined within the scope and limits of our particular species' gray matter. Other critters, a flounder or an oak tree, apprehend existence in ways we cannot imagine, but they obviously do so just as well as we do, in some cases better.
What is the function of art in such a world? If we are all walking imaginations what need do we have for fiction and song and a child's easel? What do they add to our ability to negotiate the murky business of reality?
What they add is meaning, not just the superficial meaning of conscious thought but Meaning, the perspective, foreground, background, chiaroscuro, and all the rest it takes to make a landscape in which we can live a life beyond the meeting of our simplest needs. Every living creature needs that. Nothing that is not brain-dead, not even a sea anemone, can be called alive without such a landscape (or seascape). We each come up with different such views, but we do so in the same way, out of our imaginations. Art provides alternative landscapes to our own individual ones. And at the core of these views is deep feeling, feeling being at the very essence of who we are. What a creature feels, meaning not just the clinical experience we call emotion but the entirety of someone's felt being, is who they are. Art addresses that better and more directly than does any other activity. We are all artists to the extent we are all walking imaginations.
When Tom was in my mother's good graces, he would come by and help my father with one of his never-ending projects on our house. He remained unmarried until his mid-40s. I didn't attend his wedding, but I was told that before heading down the aisle, he did a Jackie Gleason shuffle and, like the comedian, cried "And away we go!" I don't know what Tom did for a living before he became disabled in his middle years, or even if he worked at all. His wife, a school teacher, worshiped him. Maybe that was all the imaginative reinforcement he needed, whatever the value of his "Boy Peeing in Pond."