One day the wanderer slammed a door behind himself, stopped in his tracks, and wept. Then he said: “This penchant and passion for what is true, real, non-apparent, certain — how it aggravates me! Why does this gloomy and restless fellow keep following and driving me? I want to rest, but he will not allow it. How much there is that seduces me to tarry! Everywhere Armida’s gardens beckon me; everywhere I must keep tearing my heart away and experience new bitternesses. I must raise my feet again and again, weary and wounded though they be; and because I must go on, I often look back in wrath at the most beautiful things that could not hold me — because they could not hold me.”
I divide the writers, artists, philosophers, and critics engaged in this effort into two camps. The first I call the “reasonable” camp. These writers recognize that no actual artistic object can retain its freshness after repeated experiences. Critics from Viktor Shklovsky to Michael Fried see in the continual innovation of musical, literary, and visual forms an attempt to counter the effect of time on experience. Once we become accustomed to Cézanne’s way of arresting our senses, we move on to Picasso. After Joyce’s verbal explosions, we take up Beckett’s minimalism.
Not just any new object will do the work of pleasurably extending intense perception. The object needs to be balanced between familiarity and novelty; the new thing must give the mind some foothold in the known, otherwise we just tune it out as noise. And the history of art—with each new artist taking up and transforming the forms of the old—provides a perfectly reasonable process for delivering time-slowing artifacts poised between old and new.
Very reasonable—but the true heirs of Augustine and Keats adopt the unreasonable approach. The reasonable writers respect the temporal constraints of perception. They transfer the desire to enhance life through art from the individual work to the historical succession of forms. The unreasonable writers, those who want the impossible—writers from Thomas De Quincey through Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabokov, and John Ashbery—seek the creation of a work that will permanently arrest perception at the moment of the first encounter. The simple logic of children and utopians drives them. We want to stop time. Only through the persistence of the intense perception of the same object can we be assured that our ancient ambition has been achieved.
I know the feeling well from listening to music. There’s a certain hypnotic magic that accompanies a favorite song for a little while, inspiring a euphoric sense that surely, this time, the feeling is too perfect to ever fade. I should know; I’ve felt that way thousands of times. And each time, even as rationality and memory are patiently trying to claim otherwise, part of me finds it impossible to resist the desire to believe it. No, no! The melody, the rhythm, the poetry, they’re perfect! This is revealed musical truth here! I’ll never let familiarity breed contempt!
All my beautiful friends have all gone away
Like the waves
They flow and ebb and die
— The Cult, “Revolution”
Like I said: thousands of times. That pattern, itself, is what’s eternal. And to me, there’s a comfort in that. I wouldn’t really want it to be different. As a panta rheist, how could it be otherwise? Ebb and flow are both necessary parts of the same cycle. But each time we outlast or outgrow something we’ve loved, it defines the borders of our separateness all the more sharply, feeling like death and mourning in miniature. I do feel like there’s probably some sort of primal desire in humankind to submerge oneself in something greater, something all-encompassing, where we could shrug free of the burden of our own responsibilities and sense of existential isolation. Clune’s “unreasonables” are those who feel that burden more strongly.
I yearn to belong to something, to be contained
in an all-embracing mind that sees me
as a single thing.
I yearn to be held
in the great hands of your heart —
oh let them take me now.