The artists I know are perfectionists, heartlessly so, because that is required. They will paint right over a failed canvas; they will rip out every stitch and start anew. The artist comes to her material with an mix of control and surrender, and her success seems to rely on her ability to grasp a material’s specific demands, while reconciling those with her own vision. There is something there, in the material, that works against you—which requires rigor, but might bring relief.
A few years ago, a woman in Spain attempted to restore a nineteenth-century church fresco, but in doing so ruined it completely. The result is less Savior than surreal simian, the delicate portrait painted over with a crude, monstrous “face.” Since the election it has been hard to shake the feeling that reality has been made worse, unrecognizable, in precisely this way.
At least when the monster exists in the world, we don’t need all this tiresome self-reflection. In politics, in Stranger Things, we know what we’re protecting, what we love (the townspeople! our way of life!) and we analyze the external enemy simply in order to defeat it.
Adrienne Rich once said that poetry is “liberative language, connecting the fragments within us, connecting us to others like and unlike ourselves,” and whether or not that’s true, I’ve found that her work does have something to tell us about the fragmented individual and the collective whole—not just historically, but in the context of today’s muted urgencies, within the mutual ruin of the Anthropocene.
While working in service I began to feel a bit like Simone Weil, the sheltered, awkward, mystic-intellectual who at twenty-five decided to work in a factory for a year, not out of financial urgency but for political solidarity, as a kind of investigative journalist. It didn’t go well for her. As Czeslaw Milosz wrote, that year “destroyed her youth,” and taught her that such self-sacrificing labor is not noble but in fact degrading, as it required her, just like her less privileged comrades, to wholly give up a sense of self. I told myself I would keep writing no matter what, but after placating the herds, mopping floors, and cleaning toilets, I didn’t always feel inclined.