Recently I came across that irresistibly quotable quote from Henry James’ 1893 short story, The Middle Years:
We work in the dark–we do what we can–we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.
The setting for my being held, once again, by these words was a 2008 speech by Cynthia Ozick about “ghost writers.” For her, the “madness of art” is not, actually, in the art, but in all the things we do to escape it. “Art turns mad in pursuit of the false face of wishful distraction,” Ozick says. Boy, howdy.
Perhaps as a defense of my recent rash decision to deactivate my facebook account, “the false face of wishful distraction” resonates. I got off facebook for three reasons:
- I became personally aware of the passive-aggressive nature of indirect communication through updating one’s status, and decided that if someone wanted me to know what they were feeling or doing, they needed to pick up the phone or send me a note.
- The general time-sink that is facebook. What would that last hour before bedtime be like if I wasn’t zoning out in front of the screen checking up on everybody else’s day? (Answer: Great!)
- All the ego stuff….was I getting enough friends, enough likes, enough positive attention to earn my place in the social media world?
Around the time that I was admitting all this to myself, I came across a generous column on The Attic’s Ask Miss Lit page, responding to a writer’s complaint that social media was taking over her life. (I don’t know why I think the writer is a her, but I just do.) Wise Miss Lit pointed out that there are many great writers out there who have no facebook friends, no personal website, no blog, no nothing. They just write. (Cynthia Ozick doesn’t even have her own website. Imagine!) And neither do most clergy, painters, poets, doctors, or teachers.
What if work – be it making art or teaching or gardening or mothering or writing – is what is sane in the world, and all those things we say will help us work, but are actually things we do to avoid work…what if that way madness lies?