In meditating on the writing life, Scott Esposito explores the power of process in any creative effort.
One morning not too long ago I spent a restful hour of more or less genuine solitude with Rothko’s Seagram murals in a small room in the Tate Modern galleries in London. The room is dimly lit, as per Rothko’s instructions, and it is barely large enough to hold the six immense canvasses. One reaches it at the end of a long corridor, giving the sense of having come a ways away from the world and into a chilly cave. The works consist of large pillars of dour reds, oranges, greens, and purples. They are very rough, simple, shapes that reach back toward Nietzsche’s primordial humanity – the heaps of rock and mud and bark and bones that our ancestors made before figuration became the locus of art. Although I find Rothko’s murals beautiful, I do not experience them as a beauty that vanquishes suffering so much as a beauty that makes my suffering articulable. If I were to put such a remarkable experience into the clumsy stuff of language, I would say that it transports me from the realm of the visceral into the realm of the philosophic, in a way similar to how time can take our very immediate emotion – a frenzied sobbing after a break-up – and slowly build around that pit the fruit of reflection and nostalgia. With Rothko one always senses the outbursts that must have inspired the work, yet they are cocooned by the weeks and months of measured brushstrokes that chill passion into reflection.
I stepped up and walked away from Rothko’s murals with the conviction that, of music, art, and literature, I prefer the third the best of all because it is the one most interested in taming the will by giving a sense of duration. Literature finds its highest expression beyond those primal moments that Nietzsche sought out. I imagine it as the dispassionate and quiet third in a lovers’ triangle, the sullen one who will eventually lose interest in the ecstatic sports played by art and music, heading off on his own, ultimately more interested in the introvert’s task of constructing systems and stories. The literary intelligence must ultimately have that distance from our unalloyed passage through life – this is what language forces upon us. And this is the particular barrier that it seeks to overcome, its own version of being cast out from the garden.
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