Life is a Support System for Art is a Support System for Life Is a Support System For...: A Recursive Argument with Myself At Midnight
There’s a great anecdote in Stephen King’s On Writing, which has always stayed with me. It’s been about fifteen years since I read the book, so my recollection will be a bit rusty. That said, a paraphrase should serve the purposes for my musings on this entry of my ill-trafficked blog tonight. Apologies in advance, though, to King and those fans of his more familiar with the book, if I mangle the story in the telling. Somewhere in the first third of the book King talks about the writing of Carrie. The book is created under suboptimal conditions. King is working as an English teacher at a local high-school while his wife Tabitha is busting ass at a donut shop. They already have one or two kids (Joe and Naomi?) and they are living crowded in a small trailer. King doesn’t even have a functional desk, and so he types out the novel while bracing his typewriter on his lap. One day, King vows, when I’m more successful, I’m going to get a huge desk. He begins to fantasize about this thing, which he calls the T. Rex. I can’t remember exactly how he envisioned it then, but recalling it now I can see my own version of the desk in question. It’s made of solid lacquered walnut, with an ameboid shape, bowing out like an acoustic guitar at the center. It’s edged in rolled brass that gleams like gold, and takes up two-thirds of the room in which it sits. Eventually King sells Carrie—after something like thirty-five rejections—and gets an advance of roughly sixty-five grand. The years pass and he goes from being a pulp scribe who stays afloat selling stories to men’s magazines to being America’s preeminent popular writer. He’s richer than Croesus, and while not especially ostentatious, he does get the big house, and more importantly, he finally gets the T. Rex. Something happens, though, when he settles in behind that large wooden behemoth and starts to type. The words still come, but the thrill is somehow gone, or at least attenuated. Even worse, King, in his isolation, begins to drink heavily and even starts using cocaine. Finally, one day, realizing that this desk is some kind of succubus—malevolent despite its inanimate state—he throws it away. Remembering writing Carrie with a typewriter balanced on his knees and doing no good writing while behind the T. Rex, he has an epiphany. “Life is not a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” It’s a profound statement, one that, while delivered as a fact, is more an encapsulation of King’s personal aesthetic weltanschauung than anything else. It wouldn’t do any good to argue about whether or not the statement is true in some objective sense. It is true for him, which is enough. Rereading the money quote, it occurs to me that The Shining is a cautionary tale about how things can go wrong when one creates under ostensibly ideal conditions. Jack Torrance, after all, being a writer, should have celebrated having the Overlook Hotel all to himself and his family. There was plenty of natural beauty to draw on there as inspiration, and few distractions. And yet the perfection of the environment seemed to curdle into something hideous, demented. Torrance, like Howard Hughes or Michael Jackson, had become a prisoner of the pristine world he’d sought out, made mad by his ability to shape his environment to his will. His abuse of Wendy and Danny also seems to serve as metaphor for the selfish artist, viewing everyone around him as either impediment to his creation or just another tool. His paralysis before the typewriter suddenly takes on new meaning in this context. To create is to take something from the platonic and to make it real, and thus imperfect, or at least different, than what one initially conceived. His constant rewriting of the sentence, “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” becomes a kind of protest against trying to engage Hemingway’s “white bull.” Why even risk it when you’re probably only going to get gored, or at least make at least one mistake with the pica spear? Victory’s all but assured when the entire fight takes place in the toreador’s imagination alone. The Overlook was haunted, of course (at least in the novel version), and Jack is a recovering alcoholic. But the Kubrick film is more open-ended, more amenable to the T. Rex run amok interpretation. Kubrick—more intellectual and a perfectionist—seemed more fascinated by how the search for perfection and creation under ideal conditions could drive one insane. In other words, how making life subordinate to art—to the point of neglecting life—might drive one crazy, and hurt their loved ones. I wonder, too, if the filmmaker would have agreed with King’s assertion about life not being a support system for art? Something in me tells me he would have objected to it, that perfection through pain was kind of the point. It’s not as easy as saying that one man is an ends justify the means artist, while the other isn’t, though perhaps that’s part of it, too. There is not the sense in Kubrick’s work that there’s a therapeutic dimension, a way to soothe workaday wounds and cope with life’s travails, as in King’s books. Kubrick’s films feel atemporal even when set in the future, removed from daily concern and steeped in the philosophical and theoretical. Full Metal Jacket, while brilliant, is somehow bloodless, as clinical as dissecting a chloroformed frog. It forgoes the primally mad edge of Platoon or Apocalypse Now, for a cold rationalism that suggests a different, almost scientific madness. Small wonder also, that 2001 and Clockwork Orange never really seem to date; or that Barry Lyndon holds up as perhaps the best period piece ever committed to celluloid aside from Once Upon a Time in America. It's even less surprising that the film version of The Shining rankled so much against Stephen King’s sensibilities. The conflict between him and Kubrick was not just aesthetic, but deeply philosophical and even spiritual. King believed in an afterlife, and in hell, while Kubrick was more of a materialist-existentialist, who thought any light brought to darkness must be mustered by humanity itself, alone. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Kubrick lived long enough to read On Writing and to offer his opinion on King’s theory of art vs. life. Let’s further suppose that he objected to King’s theory. “Life,” Kubrick might assert, “while painful and full of defeats and ultimately ending in death, requires us to make sacrifices. Those builders who labored to create the monuments which stood the test of time were not doing so to make their lives more livable. Indeed, many slaves who constructed the wonders of the world no doubt suffered injury or even died while laboring. Life is something to be transcended by pouring one’s energy wholeheartedly into the labor of creation, of art, even at the expense of life. Life is temporary. Art, if done right, is much closer to eternal. Why not sacrifice one in the service of the other?” Again, it’s not a matter of who might be right, but a mere contrasting of philosophies for the sake of a post-midnight Gedankenexperiment on a blog. What, though, might account for the difference in philosophies between King and Kubrick? There’s the religious aspect, of course. King was raised in New England, with its strong puritanical streak (that shifted from the metaphysical to the political and secular in the 20th century.) Kubrick, on the other hand, was raised in an at least culturally Jewish household, and was still a young man when the details of the Holocaust finally became public knowledge. It might not have taken such an incident, though, to permanently rock his faith in God (assuming he ever had it.) There’s an interview with his sister in the documentary A Life in Pictures, in which she says that FDR was so beloved that his passing spread nihilism among many in NYC. It could simply be that King’s life was much harder than Kubrick’s. Stanley Kubrick wasn’t quite born into baronial splendor, but he hailed from an upper-middleclass household. His father was a professional and in one of the Kubrick bios I recall his friend saying everyone was awed that Kubrick’s family actually had a house! In Brooklyn! And that Kubrick spent most of his time either playing with his cameras, developing film in his inhouse darkroom, or playing chess in the park. King meanwhile grew up thoroughly working-class, in a single-parent household, with him and his mother having been abandoned by his father. Because his mom was forced to work (still a little unusual then) he was bounced from aunt to aunt, pawned off, left to fend for himself. Even after he’d made something of a name for himself in the slicks, King was still working a laundry mangle or steam press, or otherwise busting ass at menial jobs. He tells one particularly gross story about cleaning linen tablecloths after a banquet, and getting his hands greasy with drawn butter spilled from the lobster plates. There’s no doubt that one creates differently when exhausted, when dispirited and at the end of the day, than when they are able to give all their energy to their work. Raymond Carver not just wrote short sentences—his goal being under ten words each. He wrote short stories because his day job at the sawmill didn’t leave him enough time to write novels. I’m not even sure that Kubrick ever had a conventional job, that as a teenager he did anything besides take photos for Look Magazine. It hardly matters, though. The human condition is universal (unless you accept the cryonics argument or Ben Bova’s theory of telomeric transcendence.) We live, we age, we watch the people we love die, and then we prepare for our own deaths. And that’s if we’re lucky. No amount of money—no castle, no lobster dinners, no divertissement with dope or women—can ultimately distract a sentient being from this truth. Which makes me think my theory’s specious. One’s own experiences might not inform their aesthetic philosophy, but rather be hardwired in their DNA like so many other things. Whether we respond to the encyclopedic, dense, postmodern work of someone like David Foster Wallace or prefer the staccato rhythms of Mickey Spillane might be inborn, like eye color. But still the question won’t quite leave me alone: Is art a support system for life or is life a support system for art? If your life is painful enough, you may throw yourself into your work so totally that you neglect everything else: your family, your other obligations, even your hygiene. But even in giving art primacy over life, you are making your life more livable, by providing this distraction, by the attempt at transcendence. Ignoring your life in the pursuit of your art helps distract you from the pain and problems of your life. Thus making life a support system for art ironically means making art a support system for life. And then there are those for whom it is not just some posture, a bumper sticker for the car or a pose by some manque: art is, in fact, life. Look at David Lynch, not just giving all of his money and time to the creation of Eraserhead, but literally living on the set for some time, sleeping in a warehouse in Philadelphia. Eraserhead ain’t quite the pyramid of Giza, but it was not an easy film to make. But Lynch has been married four times and cites the selfishness required to create his brand of art as a factor in all of his divorces. King and his missus, meanwhile, have been together more than fifty years. There’s a lesson in there. Or maybe not, as Kubrick and his wife, Christiane, remained together until his death, and she continues to remain loyal to his memory.