Friday, August 26, 2011


Authority. Art is a simple but thrilling game played, not against, but with this antagonist: less arm-wrestle than hide-and-seek. There are two ways you can lose. The first is obvious. The eager ephebe falls in love with the works that have given him so much pleasure, and this makes him the worst of all lovers. In thrall, he can do nothing except repeat the last thing you said. The other fail is more subtle, less publicized, maybe more common. Student lights out for territory, looking for his own rules, then discovers to his dismay that rules, like all true things, do not belong to him – or at least not to him alone. Spinning in the wilderness he is like a boxer underwater: resistance nowhere, which means resistance everywhere. No way to figure out what’s good, which may sound trite but then think about it like this: No way to do that thing that art promises, to link your own self up to the larger matrix of humanity, being, whatever else you want to call it.

Pushkin, the newest author in the history of literature, was weirdly enough no innovator. People used to talk about this all the time. He collated, syncretized. He picked up the almost-completed crossword that generations of Russian writers had worked on before him and, through genius (which is to say, through something as close to chance as it was to destiny or “hard won skill”) saw what was missing. Child’s play! Or at least that’s how we imagine it. Experimenters deserve our love, praise, devotion, and study…but the greats do not experiment. (And perhaps this is the key to Mandelstam’s idea that the poem is already there, waiting to be found, like a rock on a beach?)

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