Today’s poet ought to be a child, but a cunning, sober, and careful child. Let him write poetry, yet let him be capable of realizing its limitations at all times. Let him be a poet, but a poet prepared at all times to revise the relationship of poetry to life and reality. Let him, while being a poet, not stop being a man even for an instant. Let the man refuse to subordinate himself to the “poet.” …. O that awful, that constricting “I am a poet,” said with the solemnity of a holy initiation…. The artist who realizes himself inside art will never be creative. He must remain on its peripheries where art meets life….
—Witold Gombrowicz, p 54, Diary Volume One
What good’s a disease that won’t hurt you?
Since I first read these words in Gombrowicz’s Diary I have held them very close, so close that over the years they have become part of me, of how I think of myself as a person who writes poems. Life comes first. But poetry is not secondary, it is parallel, connected to life but separate. Poetry helps me see the world, helps me live my life. But life is not somehow funneled into poetry; poetry goes out to meet life.
I came across a video recently, the Elvis Costello Spectacle featuring Lou Reed and Julian Schnabel on which the two told the story of the death of Schnabel’s father. The body lay in Schnabel’s home when he called Reed over, asked him to sit by it and take hold of the hand. Meanwhile Schnabel put Reed’s Magic and Loss on the turntable. Reed said, “This is exactly what the music was made for.” His meaning seems clear: the purpose of the music is to be lucid and sober about death. I recalled this story in preparing this statement about Gombrowicz’s attitude toward poetry because for me it provides an example of the “periphery” that Gombrowicz alludes to.
It’s the periphery where art meets life, not the periphery where life meets art. It’s the moment, before the act of creation, when the artist meets life, not art, after the fact, being dragged into the moment of life. It’s what Lou Reed says the music of Magic and Loss is for. Not the story about that handholding request, that weird watching of the artist by another artist—that is something else.
Is this distinction too obscure, too elusive? But Gombrowicz’s words aren’t as simple as they sound. Isn’t this the same man, the writer of novels who said, “If it were to turn out that that which I write is inconsequential, then I am defeated not only as a writer but as a man”? Art not simply as a vocation but as a way of life is as serious as death. “For me, literature is…. the excavating from myself of the maximum value of which I am capable.” [p102]
Gombrowicz isn’t talking about downgrading the value or importance of art. He’s talking about a healthy balance, a healthy relationship to art so that it can do what it does most effectively and so that it can most effectively help one to live. But make no mistake: one is going to live and die regardless. Life and death are the issue; art is a parallel world. Whether they intended to or not, with their story Reed and Schnabel showed this most powerfully: art is irrevocably parallel to life and death and yet profoundly connected.
But we want to be very careful with stories like this. This kind of psychic alchemy is not to be treated lightly. One must maintain the right balance (think about Harry). We have Lou Reed on the one hand, the creator of Magic and Loss. And on the other hand we have another artist who wanted to see the artist Lou Reed in a certain light. I think we have both sides of the looking glass here, and that helps us understand Gombrowicz’s meaning.
Remember, Gombrowicz struggled with this. Just take a look at what he writes on page 120 about his constricting compulsion to be original. Where does this come from? Is he imposing this “form” onto himself: the writer of original novels cannot have a common thought? Or does this pressure come from outside? Gombrowicz does not specify. But he feels in this instance as though he were being watched. And even though the passage is not without humor it is this very lack of specification that gives it away as a genuine struggle within him. I would say it’s nothing less than his version of that awful constricting “I am a poet!”
Even though I find a lot of beauty in Schnabel’s films, there’s something in them that repels me, that points to the kind of inside-your-head art that Gombrowicz is talking about. I’m thinking for example of the scene in his film on Basquiat when the artist leaves his apartment (that’s Schnabel’s apartment; he is played by Gary Oldman in the film) fucked up in many ways and pisses in the stairwell. Schnabel—as he portrays himself in the film—shrugs it off almost with amusement. You know, artists are special people, we can indulge their weird behavior, they don’t play by everybody else’s rules. But in fact, if this is supposed to be based on actual events, couldn’t it be seen as a tragically missed opportunity? Rather than mere indulgence, shouldn’t Basquiat have been taken firmly in hand, scolded, given a reality check? But if Schnabel is the kind of artist who lives in his own head as an artist then Art comes first and life is secondary. The image of the artist peeing in the hallway because as an artist he’s special blocks out the reality of the man peeing in the hallway because he needs help. This is particularly interesting to me because Schnabel and Reed were best friends and in my view Reed was someone who got the balance right.