Do you remember your first inspiration? Not a fascination, but a true intoxication that leads to a direction, regardless of logic or absurdity; the beginnings of regret and sorrow or elation and spiritual awakening. These moments or fractured experiences that accumulate on the soul rarely become evident in full consciousness, but instead cruize the inward vision like the hungry raptor on warm updrafts from a desert floor, manifesting into clarity at a mysterious time in the future and diving toward a bounteous feast. At last unsated, unfortunately, because fulfillment is always out of reach. Like poor Tantalus the water always recedes before great thirst and the fruit is unobtainable. Yet we strive and continue.
When I was young, my Aurora arrived with the reading of Typee by Herman Melville. At that time, I began consuming all that this marvelous author wrote, Moby Dick, Omoo, Billy Budd, the Sailor and so forth. All this was fine enough, nonetheless, my inspiration came from the singular work, Bartleby the Scrivener. The pitiful, deranged soul touched by some unknown harm that lead to his self-destruction struck me as a bizarre illumination of the darkest recesses of the mind; that everyone directs his internal vision to avoid injury or confusion, even at the expense of lucidity or personal advancement. For me this understanding was deeply affecting and began the slow process of turning the bright to something more shadowy, to more inward exposure, and a deepening, sallow perception of humankind.
Melville lead to Irving and Tales of the Alhambra, then to Hawthorne and The Turn of the Screw. Along the way, I fell upon The Golden Bug by Edgar Allen Poe and On English Manners by Ralph Waldo Emerson, then turning the pages to Thoreau’s Walden and Resistance to Civil Government. After consuming vast tracks of American, English, French and Russian literature, my focus always settled on the solitary sufferer who understood greatly, yet had not the facility or opportunities to convey anguish to the oblivious shadows around him. I reflect on the dark dream of the figure of Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and the taciturnity of human figures who appear and pass by, leading to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solschenizyn. Maupassant examining in excruciating detail the banality and pettiness of human nature as well as the exhausting malfeasance of the written paintings of Thackery, lead me to the transept and the great dome of visual art with its procession of solitary souls.
Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, the violent Caravaggio, through Degas, who wandered the streets in old age and blindness, much like a creature summoned up by Poe or Dostoyevsky, contained a deep toxic element that separated their vision from the rest of mankind, and left us looking in rather than looking out sympathetically.
Unlike Degas, I do not advocate solitude and solemnity for anyone on this planet. To drive so hard toward an aspiration as to lose the external, mellifluous gifts of human correspondence, penalizes the innocent with a blanketing, smothering punishment fit only for the guilty, the sinful and the indifferent. Still, Degas and his wonderful self-portraits which express the toil and blankness of his existence, like a full glass slowly tipped and drained of spirit over a lifetime. His portraits show us someone who does not look at the viewer, but looks at himself, gathering his representation into his own consciousness. Here he shares the bane of the enlightened, the realization that the bulk of the world happily proceeds from here to there, wherever here or there is, without self knowledge or intricacy. What a lovely day this is to believe, to live, to love and never to deeply question.
So what of the lesson? A lesson affirms as much as it demonstrates. Take Degas. Try him on for size. Examine him through his work. See him beyond his mere biography and put down a visual result.
Or even a mocking copy, as if telling a joke…
Or a pastiche in a different medium…only changing a bit to suit oneself…
A lesson learned from inspiration tightly holds imagination and spurs motive and visual music. It doesn’t matter where, who or what form it comes from, all life is the scribbled notes of a continuum of recitations where some absorb more than others. Only with difficulty do we distinguish ourselves. Some succumb (in various ways) like poor Bartleby the scrivener. I prefer not to.