Inspiration and Obsession in Life and Literature

Joyce Carol Oates brilliantly opines about our obsession with meaning through a reflection of various artists, writers, and photographers in their pursuit of purpose through inspiration. Though I hate to take Joyce's conclusion out of context, it is solid enough to stand on its own: 

Without the stillness, thoughtfulness, and depths of art, and without the ceaseless moral rigors of art, we would have no shared culture—no collective memory. As if memory were destroyed in the human brain, our identities corrode, and we “were” no one—we become merely a shifting succession of impressions attached to no fixed source. As it is, in contemporary societies, where so much concentration is focused upon social media, insatiable in its fleeting interests, the “stillness and thoughtfulness” of a more permanent art feels threatened. As human beings we crave “meaning”—which only art can provide; but the social media provide no meaning, only this succession of fleeting impressions whose underlying principle may simply be to urge us to consume products.

Last night, while reading George Wallis Field's biography of the German writer Herman Hesse, I stumbled across a similar sentiment in Field's critique of my favorite Hesse book Narcissus and Goldmund

As the years pass Goldmund's adventures suggest suggest two related themes: the awareness of transience, especially in the relationship of love and death, and secondly, his awakening to the power of art to stamp eternity on the ephemeral phenomena of the senses [italics mine]. 

The Unbearable Past, The Unforeseeable Future

marcus aurelius
"Don't panic before the entire picture of your life. Don't dwell on all the troubles you've faced or have yet to face, but instead ask yourself as each trouble comes: What is so unbearable or unmanageable in this? Your reply will embarrass you. Then remind yourself that it's not the future or the past that bears down on you, but only the present, always the present, which becomes an even smaller thing when isolated in this way and when the mind that cannot bear up under so slender an object is chastened."

This from the pen of the man whose empire experienced devastating calamities: 

"Famine and floods struck Italy; there were earthquakes in Asia and the army in Britannia revolted. More threatening than these, the vast Parthenian empire attacked Syria and replaced the friendly kind of Armenia with a man hostile to Rome ... [the army that returned victorious] returned with the plague ... scholars estimate that the plague killed off as many as a third of those living in the emprie at the time, descimating the army ... destroying the tax base and exhausted the treasury, emptying the countryside, causing mass food shortages ... no sooner were the Parthenians subdued and the traditional triumph celebrated in Rome than than Land-hungry German tribes ... began to invade the empire." - from the introduction to The Emperor's Handbook, translation by C. Scot Hicks and David Hicks.

*Photo taken on a recent excursion through the Chicago Art Institute.

The Sovereign Potency of Tiny Tasks

There is no greater force to effect change than the repetition of tiny tasks. The poet Mary Oliver, in her book Long Life, wrote:

In the shapeliness of a life, habit plays its sovereign role ... Most people take action by habit in small things more often than in important things, for it's the simple matters that get done readily, while the more somber and interesting, taking more effort and being more complex, often must wait for another day. Thus, we could improve ourselves quite well by habit, by its judicious assistance, but's more likely that habits rule us. 

The belief that routine is insipid and uninspiring runs counter to the evidence that an overwhelming number of creative people owe the completion of their greatest works to the unimaginative world of monotonous routine. Alice Walker adopted the routine of regular meditation during a time of intense personal crisis. She credits the daily practice to the completion of many of her novels, including The Color Purple

The Color Purple owes much of its humor and playfulness to the equanimity of my mind as I committed myself to a routine, daily practice.

Mary Oliver continues, "The patterns of our lives reveal us" [emphasis added].  Our habits and patterns spotlight who we are, the tedious tiny tasks culminate in our actual life's work while our imagined life's work remains an unrequited passion, relegated to our somedays. "Someday" always exists just out of reach, at the end of our fingertips. We can see it but not touch it. Tiny tasks remain within our sovereign grasp, we exercise complete control over tiny tasks, regardless of our daily obligations and responsibilities.  

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton translated a poem by Chuang Tzu entitled "The Need to Win":

He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting - 
And the need to win
Drains him of power. 

The inference is clear: focus on shooting, not winning. Baudelaire: 

Nothing can be done except little by little.

William Least Heat-Moon, author of one of my favorite books Blue Highways, wrote about failing to meet his objectives while working on the book. His "failures" ultimately culminated into success: “Taped to the door was a sheet with dates on the left and opposite a figure corresponding to a page number indicating where I planned a chapter to be on a specified future day. Over the next many months, I drew up a half dozen more of those sheets, every prognostication failing to match its presumed date of completion, each goal predictably falling short; yet, while the words didn’t flood forth, they did accumulate - about like a 1 percent savings account; pennies and nickels. Or a moonshiner’s still: drippity, drip, drip.”

Confront the difficult 
while it is still easy;
accomplish the great task
by a series of small acts.*

Shot by shot. Drop by Drop. Little by little. "A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules" (Anthony Trollope).