Monday, April 14, 2008

Tolstoy I: Aspiration and Inspiration

Since there is so much that is remarkable in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and since I do not have the luxury of a few years to put together anything like a comprehensive account of either the book itself or its impact on me as a reader, I've decided to attempt something more modest and within the range of what I might able to be accomplish, which is to say, to write a few posts which might consider, one or two at a time, a few passages that have jumped out at me for one reason or another. The passage below, for example, occurs a little more than midway through the book, at a point when Vronsky, formerly in the military and now living more or less in exile with Anna in Italy, has decided to try his hand as a painter. Here is Tolstoy's very precise description of Vronsky's strengths and weaknesses as an artist:

He had an ability to understand art and imitate it faithfully, tastefully, and thought he had precisely what was needed for an artist. After some hesitation about what kind of painting he would choose—religious, historical, genre, or realistic—he started to paint. He understood all kinds and could be inspired by one or another; but he did not imagine that one could be utterly ignorant of all the kinds of painting and be inspired directly by what was in one's soul, unconcerned whether what one painted belonged to any particular kind. Since he did not know that, and was inspired not directly by life but indirectly by life already embodied in art, he became inspired very quickly and easily, and arrived as quickly and easily at making what he painted look very much like the kind of art he wanted to imitate.

I often find myself, when I'm reading Tolstoy, in a mental zone that is somewhere between absorption and delight. A lot of what he writes is pleasing in multiple ways simultaneously. This passage, for example, is a gentle, good-humored (Tolstoy is unfailingly good-humored) satirical portrait, focusing in on one very specific aspect of Vronsky's character: his shallowness. His problem is not just that he's derivative; his problem is that can "not imagine that one could be... inspired directly by what was in one's soul." He's not only derivative, but it's also never occurred to him that he might in fact be so. In short, he doesn't know what he doesn't know.

Then there's pleasure to be taken in the architecture of the sentences themselves. The last sentence is set up as a kind of one-two punch, and the (second) punch line succeeded in making me laugh out loud the first time I read it, and again each time I read it. It's very artfully done: rhythmical and fluid and emphatic and, well, funny.

What gives the passage still more resonance, of course, is that Vronsky's dilemma is the dilemma all of who aspire to even the merest aesthetic accomplishment: anyone who has tried to draw, or paint, or play music, or write, or, God help us, to teach others to do any of these things, will recognize in themselves, to a greater or lesser degree, exactly the limitation that Tolstoy is revealing in Vronsky. As anyone who has tried seriously can testify, it can be just viciously hard to write in a way which is recognizably "inspired directly by what is in one's soul." But that's the Holy Grail for artists, writers, and visionaries of every stripe. Hemingway, for one, made it an article of faith to start by trying to write "one true sentence." It's something I wrestle with as a writer, and something I ask my students to wrestle with as writers. It's hard facing a blank page with an empty mind. How do you find your own true voice? How do you escape the anxiety of influence? How do you find your way to be able to write that which only you could have written? It has to start with what you see, and what you see has, as Tolstoy suggests, a lot to do with how you go about looking, what kinds of constraints you have on your ability to see freshly and clearly.

Today I was meeting with a junior school supervisor who was showing us samples of work done by third graders, and one of the things the teachers are trying to figure out in grade three is how to assess "creativity." If we want grade three students to be knowledge creators and not just knowledge repeaters or knowledge replicators, we have to help them learn first how to see directly, lest they ultimately become, like Vronsky, and like so many of the high school students who show up in my classroom, second-hand thinkers who tend, at least initially, to be quite satisfied with replicating what others have done before them. What makes Tolstoy a genius as a writer is that he is writing what only he could have written in a way that only he could have written it. That's what most of the rest of us can only aspire to.


rothko said...

Nice post! But are you suggesting that art could or should somehow come into existence purely, and without influence? If so I disagree. I think a bit of emulation, both in style and in content, is a healthy (and necessary) thing for an artist to do. It helps build their personal style. Artists, musicians, writers -- they build their voice out of a sort of "conversation," or "play," with other artists. Sometimes the conversation is happening in real time (as it did with Picasso and Braque, for example, or any number of jazz musicians in the 40s and 50s) and sometimes it's happening through time, by studying past works and extracting pieces here and there. But an artist has to absorb other art in order to build a vocabulary to tell his story. Otherwise that artist is sort of out of "context," in a way. At a young age, maybe the voice that springs out of an imitation winds up sounding more like the artist who's being imitated, and not something original. But that doesn't diminish the importance of going through that exercise. And while I'm admittedly not very familiar with Tolstoy, he probably did it, too. I'd wager every artist has done it in one form or another since there were cave drawings. Would John Irving have been John Irving without Dickens? And yet Irving's voice is still his own. We can see obvious elements of Dickens in Irving's work. But we also can see it's something entirely different from Dickens, despite the influence. In college, I tried to write like Tom Robbins. Later, I studied and tried to take stylistic cues from Hemingway and Chuck Palahuniuk. Of course, I could never really write like any of them. But I needed to try on those different hats to arrive at something that was me.

Bruce Schauble said...

Yeah, no, exactly. I would not argue and do not believe that "pure creativity" unmediated by any influence whatsover is possible. All of your examples are apt: we learn from what we see; we imitate what we admire. There's no (complete) escape from that.

On the other hand, probably no one who creates art of any kind will ultimately be satisfied with mere imitation. No one aspires to be a second-rate Picasso or a third-rate Hemingway. (Even Vronsky quickly tired of painting and gave it up.)

We need to take our instruction and then find ways to bend it to our own purposes. The hard part, I think, is learning to sort out where the imitation ends and where the original application begins.

The writing my students do is often derivative in ways they do not themselves even recognize. Part of my job is first of all to introduce them to writers who can broaden their sense of the possibilities by serving as provisional models, and then to help them find their way past those models to the point where they are able to write what only they themselves are capable of writing, or, to use your analogy, to wear their own hats. But even then, they are working within well-defined channels of cultural and linguistic and narrative conventions that they have internalized, and without which what they write would in fact be incomprehensible to any reader.

It's yet another balancing act.