There is a quote from the great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, from a poem called “The Choice,” which I have never really understood. Here it is:
The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work
Why do we have to choose? I was thinking about this quote, because recently Netflix has announced that they will be releasing a new documentary about that most protean and enigmatic of artists, the pseudonymously named and pretty much always astonishing Bob Dylan. What was I thinking about? I was remembering various times in my life when, listening to Dylan in my car, driving somewhere, I would compare various tracks from different Dylan albums, if only to instantiate in myself a kind of marveling cognitive dissonance. In other words, I liked the shock of encountering an artist who didn’t sit still, who was rather scandalously and bravely growing: as an artist, of course, but also, in many ways (to my mind) as a person. Because, when you really thought about it, (and here is where the Yeats quote comes in), how could one compose such variegated and beautiful songs, if they were not emerging from the conditions of a particular life – a life that made room for the songwriting to happen in the first place?
As I thought about Dylan, I reflected on other artists and thinkers who, it seemed to me, had never really settled – who, by some strange alchemical need, urgency, prompting, were constantly producing works that built in tacit or not-so-tacit ways on the previous work – but who also found ways to fearlessly branch out, to break out of the confines of their earlier suppositions, norms, conventions, assumptions, standards, and to therefore transcend (but also include) what came before in their own work.
The American literary critic Harold Bloom is a great example of this form of striving, and he also has a new book out (feel free to click on the image below to put a hold on a copy). I have been a devoted follower of Bloom’s career since I read, in the early 2000s, his rather confidently titled, How to Read and Why. I can’t say exactly what it was about that book that led me to a lifelong addiction to the Bloomian voice, except that I can say with certainty that his passion for literature was so encompassingly large, so supremely infectious, so utterly and undeniably alive with fetching thought and feeling, that I became irreparably hooked. And to reflect on his career is, in many ways, to come across another phenomenon, a la Dylan, whereby a human being, absorbing and breathing out the vast tradition from which they came, (Dylan’s Chronicles is a great place to start to learn about his own influences; Bloom is endlessly alluding to his forebears, which include the 18th century literary critic and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, and the 19th century poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson), create from that tradition something fearlessly “revisionary,” to use a Bloomian term, i.e. they re-vision, they re-see, what came before them, and they then, from this creative interpretation, this vision, this feeling, produce something powerfully compelling. If you merely glance at Bloom’s bibliography on Wikipedia, you can see a rather staggeringly deep arc in his work, from the Romantic poets, to the study of what poetic influence means, to Kabbalah and Sigmund Freud, to religious criticism (his meditations on Mormonism and Joseph Smith are utterly fascinating), to the Western Canon and Shakespeare (!), and onwards and outwards, towards and into meditations on Christianity, the God of the Hebrew Bible, various Shakespearean characters, the King James Bible, and into his now present work, which comes from a man in his late eighties who has refused to stagnate or stop developing spiritually in any way.
What can artists like Dylan and Bloom teach us, artists that can be easily found at most public libraries, including our very own Rocky River Public Library? They show us, I think, that Yeats might have been too eager to assume that the life and the work are easily separable categories, mutually exclusive dimensions of existence where you have to sacrifice one for the other. Bloom has taught at Yale University for more than sixty years, and Dylan has played live shows on what he calls a “Never Ending Tour” since 1988. These two artists are, in a very large sense, role models for the rest of us. The synergy of their lives and works form ballasts on which we can stand and look out and really think about what it means to lead a good and meaningful life. Their superb examples, which cannot exactly be imitated, but can be learned from and incorporated into one’s own life, marshal forth endless opportunities for reflection on how and why we not only imbibe thought and art, but also attempt, in our own idiosyncratic ways, to become artists of life ourselves.