As a college English major, my particular interest was the novels of James Joyce. I read Ulysses multiple times, once in the middle of a transatlantic crossing on a forty foot sailboat. The stream of consciousness technique, the notion that ancient myths represent a constant “theme” in the universal human subconscious, the esoteric intellectualism of actually enjoying the novel, seemed to be what literature, with a capital “L,” should be all about. Joyce unquestionably had the ability to describe things on a written page in such a way that they were almost tactile.
Even as the quintessential “English major,” I felt that an author or artist who led one down an avant-garde path had an obligation to exhibit excellence in a more conventional format. Picasso, for example, was a brilliant draftsman. There was no suspicion that he drifted into abstract art because he couldn’t draw a straight line. Joyce also demonstrated dramatic traditional narrative ability in his short stories and early novels, enough to justify as deliberate and necessary the obscurity of his mature novels.
Speaking of mature. The problem with this obscure stuff is that lesser artists tuck in behind Picasso and Joyce, drafting in the NASCAR sense, i.e. sucked along in the vacuum behind them. Eventually you find yourself at the Brooklyn Academy exposed for five and a half hours to the unendurable, torturously dispensed boredom of something like Einstein on the Beach. After your mind stops tingling (the same mental sensation as having your hand fall asleep) from the vacant pretentiousness it’s been exposed to, you slowly recollect that art is supposed to be, dare I say it, interesting. Even–out on an intellectual limb here–enjoyable.
So sentient adults turn to history. Because history, unlike intellectual stuff, is always interesting, usually fascinating, often inspiring, easily evaluated and seldom dull.
And then, after feeling that you’ve lost your membership in the intelligentsia because you can’t bear cynicism, cacophony, drabness, psychological exhaust fumes or anything from France, you recollect that Shakespeare was enormously popular with the crowd, that Anthony Trollope will be read long after Thomas Pynchon, and the Beatles will eclipse Scriabin.
I’d like to tell you next time what this led to and where this got me.