Thursday, May 23, 2013


Ingenium misera quia fortunatius arte / credit et excludit sanos Helicone poetas / Democritus, bona pars non unguis ponere curat, / non barbam, secreta petit loca, balnea vitat.

Poetam bonum neminem (id quod a Democrito et Platone in scriptis relictum esse dicunt) sine inflammatione animorum existere posse et sine quodam adflatu quasi furoris.

Some people in the knowledge business talk about "making a career" in terms of (1) picking out a problem to solve, (2) solving it (immediately), and (3) publishing about it continually.  In my experience, this is not what happens.  I don't pick problems.  They pick me.  Try as I may, I cannot get rid of them.  I write not for publications, but because I must: even if I were to get a job elsewhere, I would still be thinking about all the same questions that currently engage me (and I would come to places like this to write "articles" only a few people would glance at).

I also don't really do deadlines.  When I have to, of course, I am as good as the next guy at penning a rhetorical conclusion and signing off.  But that is not always (or usually) the end.  It is just a convenient pause for the people who like such things (whose interests I don't mind serving, particularly while they pay my bills).  The solving process goes on until it finishes in its own time: usually, this takes longer than it is supposed to (years in many cases--I am only now "solving" in provisionally valid ways ethical dilemmas I started wrestling with as a prepubescent kid).  The best problems in the fields I frequent (ethics, literature, philosophy, history) are in some sense insoluble: they require constant provisional solution that can never become too definitive or universal without losing most of its power.  I did not know how to say this as an undergraduate ("I am interested in insoluble problems, professor, not the kind that I can comment upon definitively in a five-page response paper with a handful of well-placed references").

At some point in the future, it may become incumbent upon me to work outside my obsession with ethical problems.  That is OK.  But I will always be thinking about them, not because I must be a professor, but because I am obsessed with these problems.  They were interesting to me as a kid.  Sometimes they disgust me.  Sometimes they attract me.  Sometimes I love working on them.  Sometimes I hate it.  But I have to do it.  There is no alternative.  No shutting off my brain (or telling it that we are simply not going to worry about the nature of justice). 

I imagine other people experience this with other things (e.g. mathematics or music or some other kind of art).  Being an artist is being possessed by something larger than yourself, something more vast than your power to control or understand.  The artist is not absolute master of his domain.  Unlike most people, he doesn't pretend to be.  He doesn't feel the need to dominate or "express himself" (what does that even mean?).  He sees the marble, the equation, the justice or lack of justice in the world, and he cannot help reaching for it, shaping it, playing with it, seeing how it responds to his inquiries (whose outcome he does not know: all he knows is that it will be beautiful).  To be a really great artist, one must first surrender the self (the career, the fixed desires for this or that outcome, the conscious preening that goes on among poseurs who think criticism is not itself a kind of art--not always a very good one).  One must give that self up to the art and then see what art makes of it.  The result, no matter what it is, will always be more beautiful and more satisfying to the true artist than any accolades or career (which if they happen are merely a sideshow, an accident, an aberration--sometimes pleasant, sometimes not, especially when they get in the way of the art).

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