brooklyn academy of music

En Garde!: Neil Gaiman and Daniel Handler

Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere, The Graveyard Book, Sandman Comics) and Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket), long friends of each other, had a conversation at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) last night. I haven’t a lot to say about the actual discussion between these two. I was glad to be there, but that’s mainly because being around other artists makes me want to create art, and start scheming about ways I can.

What I will comment on, instead, is what art means for me. I have my reasons, and I won’t mention them here, but I will just say that I think there are far too many attacks on artists these days – all of which are always unwarranted and petty. So here’s how I often experience art – a film or a novel, or a talk that’s in that space:

brooklyn academy of music
image @ bam.org

For me, it’s non-didactic. In the moments that comprise the performance and for a time after, I can’t judge it, but remain in a place of openness and vulnerability to it. I do that with some meals or other experiences that, likewise, have transcendent qualities.

When I used to write reviews, people would often say that I talked very clearly about the art itself, but it wasn’t clear whether or not I liked it. I think they’re right about that. I can’t assign The Castle by Kafka, for instance, a positive or negative quality (e.g. “I like it” or “I don’t like” or “good” / “bad”). It moves me. It speaks to me. It may move me and I still might not think necessarily “I like this”. To have an authentic experience of art requires me to be so fundamentally open, that I’m not hearing any possible internal judgment of it, any external criteria at all by which it can be evaluated. I’m so immersed that nothing is external. Maybe there’s another way to experience it authentically, but there isn’t for me.

Being actively in the presence of art to me can be a quasi-religious experience “Thou art an all-consuming fire. Thou hast consumed me, and I was consumed.” I feel that way about the romantic poets sometimes. How can one really judge something transcendent by Tennyson – can a NY Times critic write a review? Can someone write an op-ed saying it’s good or bad, has strong or weak points? How can something that is a seamless whole have strong and weak points. It is what it is and cannot be otherwise than what it is. In effect, it is irreducible, indivisible, and by nature whole.

In that sense, I recognize some art as though it were a person. We try to pick apart people and sort the things we like and don’t like about them, but it’s all an illusion. We can’t do it with a great painting or sculpture, either. There is a mode of comprehension that immediately arranges things into platonic categories. In contrast to that is a discipline of remaining in silence and awe in the place where one is given art, refusing to speak in its presence – refusing to put a caption under the Mona Lisa. We refuse to write a treatise on the Sistine Chapel, where one could at best, and only after long reflection that inspires devotion, write an ode. There’s a disciplined choice of remaining prostrate in the heart before art, lest anything said become flippant.

The Mona Lisa doesn’t do it for me. But when I feel something with art, I try to stay in that attitude with it, that spiritual space with it, for as long as possible. I will often have no comments, coming out of movies, or after a book. For me, art is scripture – even if it’s not always exalted. In this way, life is full of scripture. Sacredness is written everywhere, and despite our best attempts to trammel it and claim nothing is holy, in the egotistical insistence that nothing can escape our judgment, things still manage (as some wonderful people manage) to adhere, unimpressed by criticism.

It’s my attitude that even meatloaf cannot be judged. There are a million kinds of meatloaf. I prefer gravy over catsup, but ultimately I don’t say “they shouldn’t have put celery in it” or “it’s too soft”. I don’t judge meatloaf, because the whole point of meatloaf, traditionally, is that it was the one dish every household makes differently that is its signature. It’s *supposed* to be different than the other meatloaves you’ve had. It’s not supposed to be anything other than what it is. I don’t say it should be more this way or that. Instead, I say “Oh, this is this family’s meatloaf.” It’s them. How can a “them” be either right or wrong?

Not every area of life is of the same order as ever other. There are whole areas of life that I think some people will try to place on the order of things that can be judged like one judges the manufacture of an automobile. The gap between the door and the frame might be precise or not. A poem, however, cannot be judged that way. Or Tolkien’s 3 book epic. Or some Jazz performances. Or a film or book like Hearts in Atlantis. You either let go of the shore of evaluation, untie the knot, and cast off entirely into it, with no safety, no recourse, no touchstone of being sure you know what’s up/down right or wrong with the world, or else you just don’t fully experience all that it is possible to experience with it. It goes that deep. It’s a world.

For me there are many such worlds within worlds, and I want to experience them each for what they are, not what they are in reference to something else by which I evaluate them. I am convinced, as I have ever been, that it’s not possible to have both. I’m convinced that one doesn’t get to fully experience Kafka if one compares it to something, or evaluates it by any criteria. One has to let go into it, where there is nothing outside of it by which it can be judged, in order to experience it as world. That’s the definition of a world – a thing beyond which nothing comparable exists. In the Greek – kosmos. Which is why in my religious tradition, we refer to each person as a mikrokosmos – micro-cosmos (microcosm). A world unto themselves, unto which nothing may be compared, and which cannot exist in reference to anything else. There are other implications, but they might seem too esoteric for the moment.

I frequently do judge art, in one way or another, but not at least for a while. And sometimes never. I don’t think I could write a truly honest review of Atlas Shrugged, for instance. I love it too much. I don’t mean that I give it a thumbs up, or that it’s good. I mean, in saying I love it, that I am able to let go into it and be with it in a way that surpasses judgment. I’ve no desire to substitute for that a merely didactic comment. Why would I prefer to remain with something merely derivative, when I can have the thing itself?