Welcome to this new venture, a Michael Bryson Substack. The purpose here is to try to consolidate my online “content” since 1999 — and also open up space for something new.
Why “Art / Life”? The explanation is a simple one. I find that those categories contain all that I do. Back in the day, when I was a teenager in the 1980s, I thought I had to privilege one or the other. And if I had to choose, I would have chosen Art.
I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination. — John Keats
Like Keats, I felt certain the imagination led to otherwise unknowable truths. In 1989, I visited my grandparents in England and spent one day touring London alone. I visited Keats’ house, and the above quotation was framed on one of the walls. I was entranced, but I wasn’t convinced.
Life, surely, mattered more. Real things, real people. Changing material conditions. Fighting injustice. The same day I visited Keats’ house, I visited the grave of Karl Marx. But my main destination that day was The Beatles’ Abbey Road studio in St. John’s Wood.
Picture yourself on a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies. — Lennon/McCartney
Art / Life? What to do, what to do?
When I got back to my conservative grandfather’s house in Upminister later that day, he asked me where I’d been, and I told him of my triplet of significant sites. I remember him saying that Marx was an interesting philosopher, but his ideas had led to much tragedy. He asked me why I’d gone there, and I just said because I could. Keats had me most enthralled that day, though, and The Beatles still sit deepest in my heart.
I seem to have no photos of that day, but here is one of me and my grandfather in his back garden (1989).
In her memoir, Dance on the Earth (1989), Margaret Laurence the Art / Life dichotomy, and she is unequivocal. Life is more important. I read this memoir around the time it came out, and I thought, “I guess she’s right.” Later, we learned in James King’s biography (1997) that Laurence died by suicide. Later still, Lee Maracle called Laurence racist in her powerful Writers Union of Canada lecture (2020).
Laurence was no more right than Keats was.
And, boy, did I want Keats to be right. I thought ART could lead to transcendence. Some kind of breakthrough. Insights available no other way. Transformation. I have pages and pages of journal notes from that time, confirming my obsessions, though if there ever was a breakthrough, it was that there is no breakthrough. If there was a breakthrough, it was that the desire for a breakthrough was a kind of addiction.
There is only one here, one now.
Wherever you are, you are here. — John Lennon
Cutting to the bottom line, now, I think a lot of my literary work, both the fiction and the non-fiction, has been an attempt to resolve the Art / Life dichotomy, but my conclusion is that … there is no resolution. At the same time, there is no competition. The boundaries are as distinct as the day my six-year-old step-daughter told me what she had learned at school that day (2010): “There is fiction! and non-fiction!”
Many people, I know, prefer non-fiction. They don’t want to read about made up things. My step-daughter prefers fiction. I’m like Bruce Springsteen. I want it all. But I recognize that they are different.
On this Substack, Art and Life will overlap, but they will also maintain their respectful distance, their dance on the earth mystery. There are only two categories to existence that matter, I guess. Is that what I’m saying? I dunno. It’s just where I’m at right now.
Addendum. January 18, 2022.
“Know thyself.” I’ve been reflecting on reflecting, and I remembered that I once owned a copy of Robert Shelton’s biography of Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, and it seems to me that Shelton placed at the beginning of that book two quotations.
“Know thyself. — Socrates
“Dig yourself.” Bob Dylan
Googling “know thyself” I see that the source isn’t Socrates, but
The Ancient Greek aphorism "know thyself" is one of the Delphic maxims and was the first of three maxims inscribed in the pronaos of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi according to the Greek writer Pausanias. The two maxims that followed "know thyself" were "nothing to excess" and "certainty brings insanity." - Wikipedia
Which is great. Especially that last part. “Certainty brings insanity.”
There’s a saying that needs a revival.