Sunday, February 08, 2009
Life-changing Art and Books?
Despite the silliness of everyone on Face book listing 25 random things about themselves, I must admit, I'd rather enjoyed quick-tour catch-ups on old friends, or learning more about new friends, and people I'm generally interested in. Now a college friend of mine decided she'd start her own "better-know-a-friend" note: name one book that changed your thinking.
My problem is that I can't. I'm not unaffected by what I read, but I'm hard-pressed to find a book that, when I put it down, leaves me feeling measurably changed. There are books that have spoken to some un-articulated truths I'd carried around inside me. God is a Verb, a book about mystical Judaism, articulated what I'd been growing to feel about our relationship with the divine. In particular, the notion of "creationing" or "raising holy sparks." It's been years since I've read the book, but if I remember, essentially, divinity is mutually nurtured by God and people (or, if you want to get into my micro-understanding: all creation). God communicates holiness to us via love and creation, and whenever we act in creation and mercy, we "raise holy sparks" back into divinity. And it's like an engine from there: God powers creation and creation powers God. A poor description on my part, but the book spoke to me, despite that I was wary because of the faddishness of Kabbalah. But it didn't change my thinking per se. It voiced what I already suspected to be true. Similarly, I ate far less fast food after reading Fast Food Nation, and I eat almost none, now. My response to the book didn't change my perception or action in grandiose ways. I'd worked in fast food before; I had family who had worked in meat-packing plants. The information wasn't new to me - just distilled. My pivot wasn't huge.
I'm always fascinated and confounded by people's claims that a work of art or a book or literature changed their lives. To be able to reflect and identify a piece of music, a poem, a painting, a play or whatever as a critical hinge in one's perceptions or an inspiration for action, suggests that that piece was personally earth-shaking. This leaves me wondering if I'm missing something. If other people can identify the piece of art, or the book that changed the way they viewed the world, then am I just callow? I'm not unaffected by art and literature. I'll reflect for days on something I've seen or read that's particularly good. And that reflection, I'm sure nudges my worldview in one direction or another. But nothing identifiably earthshaking. My earthshakings don't happen - or haven't yet happened - because of print or performance.
As earthshaking epiphanies go, personal experiences are my volcanoes, where art and literature are the geysers. Moving across the state, in the midst of puberty, to a much smaller town changed my life; living there for five and a half years changed my perception of it. Having to drop out of college after one semester due to lack of funds changed my life in that I had to start all over again. I ended up going to a different university where I made friends whose understandings of life shaped my understanding. There, I also met the man I eventually married. Dropping out of college changed my life. Getting married not only changed my life, but changed my perception of life. Moving across the country changed my perception of life. September 11 changed my life and my perception of life. The medical demons I've been wrestling the last couple of years have changed my perception of life, though not yet the way I live my life. If we ever have children, I anticipate that changing both the actions of my life and my perceptions of life. In fact I welcome the change - at least the latter.
Art was important to me during these shifts. Discovering that I enjoyed acting during my teenage years kept me emotionally intact and gave me a creative outlet for my frustrations. A few years later, the Chieftains and classical music lunch-hours serenaded my depression that resulted from dropping out of school. I read poetry during those months, which is something I'd never really done before or since. I also journaled like crazy, took a modern dance class that was a breath of fresh air and discovered, appropriately, Fresh Air. I can say with certainty that, during that time, Tchaikovsky's 4th symphony, especially the 2nd movement, followed by the 3rd, expressed the uncertainty of the those days, chased by the quirkiness and optimism that ultimately drives me. I fell in love with it. But did it change my life? Did it change my thinking? Did any of those activities or discoveries measurably change my perception of life? I'm positive they did, but their effects are very, very small compared to the events that drove me to them.
There probably is a book, or a play, or a film or piece of music that would rock the foundations of my world. But until or unless I come across it, print and art will slowly shift the ground beneath my feet, but the accidents and incidents of life will continue to the be the big shapers of the landscape of my perception. Am I alone in this?