Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime, by Patricia Hampl

The last few books I’ve read have made me think about what constitutes a good life. Last week I blogged about Stoner, a quiet and unassuming story which mesmerised me with its honest depiction of a man’s life, an ordinary man, a man of his time and place. Looking back at the book now, I see William Stoner’s similarity to his father, a farmer who toiled year after year with little reward. The worth of his father’s life was in the labor itself. Hard and wearing as it was, the work was the meaning and vision of his father’s life, the doing of it, not the result.

The I read Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, having just seen the man’s photo at the National Portrait Gallery. By comparison, Cather’s story seemed almost a fairy tale. Like Stoner, Father Latour faced hard and unrelenting labor in his New Mexico parishes, strengthened by friendship and his own integrity, but in the end he had measurable results: more and better-run parishes, even a cathedral. Still, what he seemed to value most was a moment in his youth when he helped his friend stay the course. What Stoner and Father Latour have that Stoner’s father does not is a faith in something larger than themselves: religion for Father Latour and art—literature—for Stoner. Making their labor an offering gives them a sense of purpose.

It is this sense of the sublime—something greater than us, perhaps inspiring awe or terror, but filling our spirits and lifting us out of ourselves—that Hampl goes in search of here. In deft, poetic essays she examines what has influenced her as a writer and as a woman, what has inspired her: a painting by Matisse of a woman alone contemplating a bowl of goldfish, his series of Odalisque paintings, the fascination with cloistered life left over from a Catholic childhood, Katharine Mansfield’s journals and letters, the St. Paul of her childhood. She writes about the Côte d’Azur where she is currently staying, visiting the towns where Matisse lived, and Mansfield, and early experimental filmmaker Jerome Hill whose glass bowl of a sunroom she could see from her father’s greenhouse.

Hampl writes as a poet would, talking around the subject, layering images and sensations until they begin to coalesce. She talks about the beginnings of modernism in painting, when a "painting must depict the act of seeing, not the object seen . . . We have wanted to look not at the thing but at the mind beholding and rendering itself in the act of attention." She says of both Hill and Matisse that their real subject "was individual perception: not simply what was seen, but how seeing was experienced." The layering of Hampl’s fragments lets us take this journey of discovery with her.

In these marvelous essays, Hampl examines the creative process itself. The woman alone with her thoughts, Mansfield with her "ardent confusion of art and life": they model for her not what to write or how to write, but who to be. Her inspirations all represent some form of confinement—a goldfish bowl, harems, corset’s, a nun’s cell, illness, early death—yet at the same time they represent freedom, freedom to be yourself, freedom to sit and think. What is the point of a contemplative life? For an artist, it is everything. You must dig deep into yourself, past the point of comfort and self-delusion, in order to do your best work. You must give all of yourself. Hampl says that what spirit, in the sense of a having a spiritual life, does for us is "to breathe its mystery into our fiber so that we might breathe out the bit of meaning it entrusts to us."

I’ve been thinking about this idea of what makes a good life off and on for a few years. We live; we die and are forgotten. The things we collected and treasured are scattered, their significance lost. Our little accomplishments, the things we are proud of, mean nothing to anyone but us. When those who knew us die or forget us, what is left to show that we lived at all? Does it matter if there’s nothing?

What I keep coming back to is the belief that you choose something—anything, as long as it’s not hurting others—and devote yourself to it. It doesn’t matter what you accomplish or who is aware of it. What matters is that you stay the course. What you choose doesn’t even have to be sublime; it can be the red clay farmland that Stoner’s father spent his life working, the students who pass through your classroom, or the elusive women in Matisse’s paintings who will live forever.

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