All Art Is a Disappearing Act

Otherwise, you may as well be selling Hitler’s piss

Photo by Peter Schad on Unsplash

“All the stories I would like to write persecute me. When I am in my chamber, it seems as if they are all around me, like little devils, and while one tugs at my ear, another tweaks my nose, and each says to me, ‘Sir, write me, I am beautiful.”

― Umberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before

What are you doing here?

It’s a question we all have to ask ourselves from time to time. Not, ‘why am I here?’ That question is subtly different, and you probably won’t like the answer.

No. What are you doing here?

Looking for distraction, probably. Seeking guidance, maybe. Looking for something, a tool just the right shape to reach past the bulges in your muscular heart and touch the tiny vital spot that seems to shrink by the day. Or else you’re passing time on the toilet.

This isn’t about mystical raptures. It isn’t about 7 Lil Wayne Quotes To Supercharge Your Life, either. It’s not about the money. It’s never been about that.

It’s about art. It’s about the way the stories we tell seem to know more about us than we do. It’s about how the imagination takes on the power of prophecy, not by magic, but by us willing it into existence.

It’s about me, a little bit. But mostly, it’s about you. Everything written or spoken or sung is, from the handprints of half-humans on the cave walls to the bleeding-edge art installation your tax dollars paid for yesterday. It’s all about you. It always was.

Aino believed her husband was psychic

The signs were there. Sometimes, the great Finnish composer she had married, Jean Sibelius, would get restless. Something nagged and gnawed at him, some great metaphysical itch. He could only alleviate it by getting up and turning on the radio. And when he did, time after time, he and his astonished spouse would hear his music playing.

I don’t believe in psychic phenomena. The world is magical enough without inventing more mystery. But it’s a lovely thought. That he could feel his music playing somehow, like a spider sitting in the center of a glittering web, feeling the first faint pull of trapped prey. Like a salmon recognizing in billions of gallons of seawater the tiny but unmistakable scent of home.

I don’t have Sibelius’ powers. I won’t feel you reading this with a pricking of my thumbs or a tingle on the nape of my neck. For me, at best, those tinglings and itchings go the other way. Sitting and reading seems like the most frostily intellectual of acts, but it’s really not. We read with our bodies. The bristling hairs on our arms. The sudden twist in the gut. The right words make our bodies react.

I won’t know you read this unless you tell me. But I’m doing more than flapping a limp hand to attract your attention, vainly panting and puffing as the last bus pulls eternally away. What I’m doing is building a shelter for myself. A lean-to on a wall of rock facing the sun. The gilded halls of a wintry palace. A shell washed up on the beach.

This, dear friends and strangers, is my true home. I’ve lived in a lot of places, and I’ve never once felt homesick. I’ve never once felt at home. I live here, in this frozen liminal space where the trees run out and the words begin.

I take it with me wherever I go.

Call it sympathetic magic

Some mystical transaction between the weapon and the wound. Zoroastrians bury their fingernail clippings to keep demons at bay. The folklore of the Ozarks demands that cut hair be buried, never burned.

It’s an old idea that anything that grows out of you remains in some way connected, still somehow a part of the whole. This is my body, the priest used to say while I dutifully rang a bell. In school, we were told that the white wafer of bread he held up was not a symbol or a memorial, but the real and literal flesh of a God we were commanded to love.

The parts stand in for the whole. We’re supposed to know better now, but the walls are still covered in graffiti. The signatures and cut hair and codpieces of dead celebrities fetch a fortune at auction. Touch the thing a genius touched, we still somehow believe, and we will be drawn into the magic of their personality.

In the old Grail legends, the wounded King could only be healed by the weapon that wounded him.

Sir Kenelm Digby, a prominent intellectual of the 17th century, touted the medicinal properties of the Powder of Sympathy. Treating a weapon could either heal or exacerbate the wound it made, even at a distance. A popular pamphlet proposed that the unsolved problem of longitude could be overcome by an act of animal cruelty.

Put a wounded dog on a ship and give a bandage used on the wound to a timekeeper back on land. At a predetermined time,the timekeeper would dip the bandage in the powder, and wherever the ship was, the dog would yelp in pain, letting the crew know how far they had traveled.

The idea appears again in Umberto Eco’s novel The Island of the Day Before. Roberto can see the island from his wrecked ship. But unable to swim, he might as well be a million miles from the shore he seeks.

It’s easy to laugh now. Those stupid idiots from the 17th century who, okay, split light and measured its speed and calculated the laws that shape the universe, but also believe in such outrageous nonsense. Until you remember that the market for homeopathy is projected to reach $16 billion by 2024. A population of people who carry the cumulative scientific knowledge of the world in their pockets believe that dilution doesn’t exist, and that water has a memory. If that’s true, we’re all drinking the Aga Khan’s bathwater. We’re all quaffing Hitler’s piss.

In the twelve years that separated his death from hers, Aino had plenty of time to receive messages beyond the grave from Sibelius.

One incident surely stuck in her mind. Returning from his morning walk, Jean excitedly pointed out a flock of cranes to his wife. “There they come,” he said, “the birds of my youth.” As he spoke, one of the birds broke away from the flock to circle around Ainola, the house he had named after his wife. Two days later, the composer died.

And with the strange prophetic power known to all artists who tap now and then into the wellspring of creativity that lies outside themselves, Sibelius wrote his Scene With Cranes for a play called Kuolema (Death in English), in which a single crane breaks away from the flock to bring a baby to a young couple.

There’s magic in this, but not the kind you think. The story shapes the events, and not the other way around. When you create for a living, you soon learn that the things you write are writing you. That wherever art comes from — the collective unconscious or the land of the dead or the hallowed halls where bored gods throw dice made from hero’s bones — it knows more about you than you do.

You write a novel or play or movie or piece of music, and then it starts to come true. Not because you can see the future, but because you will interpret it.

I didn’t find out until after I finished writing this piece that I wrote it on Sibelius’ birthday. The cranes still rise against the sky.

There’s no room anymore for this magical thinking

There’s barely any room for art. These days, we’re all supposed to be brands. Why be a writer when you can be an influencer? Why have readers, those discerning compatriots who graciously meet you halfway in drawing a map of their own heart, when you could have followers?

Nowadays, we’re all becoming a brand. Some grimacing entity as broad as an ocean and as deep as a puddle, all surface, all appearance.

Keep smiling, asshole. Suck in your gut and thrust out your ass and keep telling everyone you’ve got it all figured out. Keep selling those courses. Keep writing those lists. Keep cranking out Hitler piss to sell as purest spring water to people too drunk on narcissism to know the difference.

Keep yourself busy. Otherwise, one day you might have time to look at what you’ve created and realize your energy has been squandered on something absolutely useless.

Vasiliy Shishkov was the last short story Vladimir Nabokov wrote in Russian. He wrote it in Paris in 1939, on the eve of World War II, and emigrated to America shortly after. The story was written in part as a bit of cruel fun at the expense of the editor of a Russian émigré literary journal who criticized Nabokov’s work. But like all stories that live and last, it goes far beyond its specific time and place and reaches steel strings in hearts as yet unborn.

The titular Vasiliy Shishkov is a Russian exile and a poet. Appalled by the cruelty of the world, he disappears — quite literally — into his work. One day, he simply isn’t there anymore. His visa expired. His apartment abandoned. Only his obscure poems like ripples in the water to mark where he passed.

Now it’s 2020, and Nabokov’s been dead longer than I’ve been alive. Except he hasn’t gone anywhere. Read Vasiliy Shishkov, or Spring in Fialta or Pale Fire or Ada or Lolita, and hear the wingbeats of an artist peeling away from the flock to circle around your house. This magic has the advantage of being real. No delusions are required, and they will not be permitted.

I don’t flatter myself that a single word I’ve written here will last. Some dusty server might cling onto it without knowing why for years after I’m gone, until the electrons tunnel out of the hard drive like damp wasps emerging from a winter nest. But no one’s going to be talking about me after I’m dead. No one’s going to be tracking down handwritten letters or early versions of my work. I’m unknown now, even while I’m here tugging at your sleeve. I’m not going to be any more widely read after I’m gone.

Fine by me. I’m not in this for fame, posthumous or otherwise. I’m writing this as though I’m casting another tile for the roof or hammering in another nail to hold together the frame of the house. I’m creating a place where I can live surrounded by what I love, spinning a cocoon from silk and sputum and a language that belongs to everyone.

One day, I’ll disappear completely, and only the words will be left. For a while. Until they, too, disappear. The cranes’ reflection on the surface of the lake like two arrows, following one another into the pale, milky gray, limitless horizon.

© Ryan Frawley 2020.

All proceeds from this article will be donated to Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontiers.

Novelist. Essayist. Former entomologist. Now a full-time writer exploring travel, art, philosophy, psychology, and science.

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