I was perhaps an accidental artist, growing up alienated with a slightly abusive mother and a dad working long hours and going to night school, themselves the children of dairy farmers, my childhood era the turmoil of senseless violence of the sixties, my environment stuck in fifties philosophy, a tarnished Pleasantville.
Yet the house was filled with books, the library was down the street, and inexpensive books were available from catalogs the teachers gave us in class. I took refuge here, eventually also in mathematics (I liked the logical aspects and the challenge of theoretical math) and increasingly in music. From music, the path I decided to follow, I learned a good deal about what the music addressed, including time periods, cultures, philosophies, literature, dance, opera—anything that might make me a better musician—learning FAR more than in school or college.
Most of all, I learned to identify myself as an artist—one who strove to see the world in terms of ideas, particularly fresh views of that world, challenging entrenched, outdated, unuseful thought patterns. “I was sent into the world to rattle cages,” I sometimes explained—my view of the artist as a young man, my way of dealing with a confusing world in my search for purpose and identity.
Thirty years later, I seem to have circled back. My family is scattered and some members won’t even speak to each other. I feel alienated at work, my classroom successes—new approaches, students winning awards for their writing and so forth—are met with polite praise and official criticism, as I’m viewed more as a threat than an asset, indicated by the degree of nitpicking necessary to respond to my endeavors (which remain otherwise successful). I’m irritated and angry, despondent and discouraged. What a waste of energy.
So, I find myself back to rattling cages, back to letting go of what others think, back to seeing the world as freshly as I can, and back to living in my own mental compartment, perhaps symbolized by my cave of an office, or by my home located far out in the country by myself.
Ironic, I suppose (or maybe this has just been building): I sat down to consider how to approach my Intro to Fiction class in this next unit. We’ve just finished “Dubliners”—essentially the story of Joyce’s journey from artistic/alienated adolescent in ”Araby” to his cosmic self-realization(s) at the end of “The Dead”—and his next work? “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (one of the books I read on my own as a student). Then I started to read the next work, Hesse’s “Magister Ludi,” and I had my own epiphany.
As the “biographer” described the history of the novel’s Glass Bead Game, I remembered why I chose to read this work too as a student, and I know what I’ll teach the class to get them into the novel. As the narrator describes, I’ll show them what’s so special about Bach, Mozart, and Renaissance masters, how Joyce parallels music, how music and mathematics are richly intertwined, how great a role math plays in Renaissance painting and architecture, how Ancient Greece saw music as also geometry and astronomy, how this started the university system, and how Ancient China governed the use of music as essential to the health of the state—and why.
And then the role of contemplation. How everything is a symbol. And just what do we DO with this knowledge after we attain it?
For better or for worse, the artist is back, attitude and all. It’s simply who and what I am, and I refuse to be "a creature driven and derided by vanity."