The Siren Call Of All That Is Not Me

Turkish Farmer Abuses Hashish

Many people in AA speak of alcoholism as a disease, as if to say, our bodies are “allergic” to alcohol, our reactions are different from those of “normal” people.

I think this is a facile, inaccurate rationalization that makes it easier for people to admit they have a problem with booze and need help.

In fact, we are like other people except that our “alcoholic personalities” – driven by a hunger for escape – catapult us into excesses of all kinds.

I recently ran across this passage from my bipolar memoir, INVISIBLE DRIVING, which sums it up succinctly.

“One of the highlights of my career as a jazz listener was a concert in Carnegie Hall. It featured McCoy Tyner and his big band, the outrageous Pharaoh Sanders, and the immortal one himself, Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The hall was hushed as McCoy Tyner, pianist for John Coltrane during the legendary quartet years, took the stage with his large and heavily armed band. Nothing sounds prettier than a room holding hundreds of people with their mouths shut. It reminded me of the Quaker meetings I used to go to every week at school. So many people, alone with their thoughts, together in a room, silent. Great moment.

“The wooden floors of the old hall creaked like a ship at sea as people settled in their seats. This silence was not the silence of a bus station at 3:00 AM in the morning. This was warm and rich, the audience filled with respect, even awe, and anticipation. You could have heard a lemon drop drop.

“And then, we heard a bomb drop. Tyner’s band burst into an all-stops-out barrage of sound intensity that blew off every hairpiece in the room. From silence to a hurricane of sound, cracking and crashing like madness, so loud that it couldn’t be denied, it didn’t come in through your ears, it came in through your bones. I felt like I was having an orgasm. I was so relieved, so joyful, so happy, I wanted to jump to my feet, thrust my fists into the air and scream ‘Yes! Thank you!’

“Later, when I was replaying the concert in my mind, I wondered about that moment. Why was it that I craved that level of intensity so much? The longer I thought about it, the harder it became to avoid my best theory. The music was so strong, it obliterated my personality. It was so complete, so overwhelming, that it freed me from myself. I was immersed in only the intoxication of the music. I forgot about me.”

Great Art Is Made By Great People

The Art Itself Is Not An End, Only A Beginning, Portal Leading

As a young person I was impressed by virtuoso artists, individuals with Faustian technique. I imagined how it felt to take the stage, whether literal or metaphorical, and simply blow the audience away – dazzle them with something they had never seen, heard, experienced before. I felt then that it was the duty of art to smash through barriers, and open up new worlds. Only technical mastery, I believed, made this possible.

Much, much later I discovered that this mythology was just so much elephant dung, a young man’s obsession with ego, self-aggrandizement, and hostility – because that desire to blow the audience away was closely related to “killing” and “destroying” as stand-up comedians use these terms…it was all about demonstrating superiority, establishing dominance. More war than art.

I came to understand that technique is merely a starting point – of course one must master the technical aspects of one’s trade – but more technique won’t compensate for deficits in other key areas. Indeed, many mediocre artists hide behind technique, lots of glitz and razzle-dazzle, but very little content. In short, the missing ingredient is them. They do magic tricks for the audience, they don’t share what’s real.

Over-emphasis on technique is what magicians call “léger de main” – the artist distracts you from the lack of substance by drawing your eye to something “bright and sparkly” – and you leave the theatre thinking you’ve had an experience. But this is to art as cotton candy is to food. The true role of technique, and the reason why it must be practiced until it is second nature, is to reveal, not call attention to itself. The best writing is transparent, one sees through it to the meaning that dwells inside.

Many artists achieve technical mastery, but few are brave enough to use it as a tool for self-revelation, openly sharing their personal truth in a way that allows audiences to feel it and benefit from it. For these special, wonderful people, the audience is more important than the performer and the technique is simply a tool for doing important work. I do not for a moment want to deny the sheer beauty of a fugue executed exquisitely, a painting that captures light the way a child captures fireflies in a jar, or a poem crafted with such love that the words chime like bells – these achievements have value in their own right.

But technique itself is never the point. The works of art that last, the ones that lift us off our feet, are the ones where craft was used to create a portal through which we gazed another world, and having done so were inexorably enriched.

FOR A GOOD TIME CLICK HERE