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“Quarantine Diaries,” by David Garyan (Day 26)

Quarantine Diaries – Day 26 April 9th, 2020

Trento, Italy


In a letter to Georges Isambard, the great poet, Arthur Rimbaud, who completely gave up the art at age twenty, wrote the following: “the poet is truly the thief of fire.” While I don’t agree with Rimbaud’s decision to give up writing, it does fascinate me. I, like many others, find the suffering of artists interesting—the creativity which they’re capable of is so astounding that even if we could take away their pain, perhaps we wouldn’t actually do that—the depth from which torment emanates is the very same depth that give rise to the art itself.

In other words, what becomes of the rattlesnake if we take away its poison or does a lion remain one without its aggression? What would the Himalayas be without their propensity to cause avalanches and even death? And do we curse the earthquake when it creates majestic mountains or only when it destroys lives? Truly, nature endows the world with supposedly negative attributes, but the source of these traits is precisely the one from which that beauty emerges.

Art is no different—the well of creativity contains both the beauty and poison. In the Kreutzer Sonata, Tolstoy makes the following observation: “What a strange illusion it is to suppose that beauty is goodness.” Although, in this case, Tolstoy highlights his character’s dissatisfaction with women, we can utilize the statement for our own intents and purposes—the most beautiful things in nature aren’t necessarily good.

Art, too, in a sense is very appealing, which is something that ancients like Plato have admitted; nevertheless, the good philosopher still wanted to banish poets from civilized society. In his dialogue, Ion, he attributes the qualities of good verse to divine inspiration which interprets “the things of the Gods to us.” The poet is almost a conduit between the physical and spiritual world; in Phaedrus, poetry is the product of inspired madness—the madness itself is divine because it’s “superior to a sane mind (sophrosune) for the one is only of human, but the other of divine origin.” Thus, poets who lack such madness (which comes from the Muses), will never be admitted into the “temple” of poetry.

Plato, thus, holds conflicting opinions about the arts. On one hand, for him, Homer “educated Greece,” but on the other hand he states that “there’s no lying poet in a god,” meaning that even good poets are responsible for perverting the world; their work is pure deception at worst and a mere imitation of forms at best; art is merely concerned with appearances and not the real world itself.

I don’t know what to make of Plato, but I do know that Rimbaud is right: Poets are thieves of fire; like Prometheus, they steal it, but unlike Prometheus, they don’t take it from the gods but from a society that punishes them with complete ignorance. Art is dead, but the average person still finds notions of madness in the artist quite fascinating. We’ll put it in tabloids, write about it in newspapers, show it on TV, talk about it in cafes, and maybe even feel sorry for the poor wretches once in a while, but so long as they’re creating and their creations make money, we won’t help them because we don’t really know how—the gods and biology have ordained that they suffer and suffer they must; like Prometheus bound to the rock enduring the eagle plucking at his flesh, the artist must withstand the punishment of his biology—the madness which was given to him by nature or God as penance for his desire to imitate nature better than nature portrays herself.

The artist, like Prometheus, is arrogant and must pay. The thief of fire has resigned himself to the punishment because he’s a god; while immortality makes his particular sentence harder to bear—he can’t die from the wounds inflicted upon him; at the same time, he may suffer forever if that’s what the gods deem to be necessary. Let’s put Plato’s theory to the test: Does the image below make you “feel” the pain, or is this well-executed painting simply a cheap imitation of life?

For the artist, unlike for the god above, there’s certainly an end to suffering in the end; “immortality,” however, isn’t guaranteed unless he undergoes the ridicule, ignorance, and condemnation of society long enough to overcome his own limitations and create something timeless.

The Muses might be an artist’s inspiration, but the God is surely Prometheus and his prayer: “I must endure, / as best I can, the fate I have been given, / for I know well that no one can prevail / against the strength of harsh Necessity.” Despite what anyone else says, art, by its very nature, arises from the well of torment, and the best art springs from the deepest well. Those who can endure will be rewarded. Well, if that’s the case, why do we speak of Rimbaud today?

I think we talk about him because his suffering only increased after he quit poetry. In other words, he continued living his life like an artist—isolated from the world in the jungles of Indonesia and the deserts of Ethiopia. He went on writing letters the way a poet would craft them; he sold guns and coffee with the emblematic inefficiency and bad luck we would expect from an artist engaged in such endeavors; his poetic nature is the reason why he was still loved in the city of Harar—not his expertise in guns or coffee.

After his leg was amputated, it’s not difficult to imagine that the last thing Rimbaud experienced in his 37 years short years of life was pain. What’s more artistic than that? Tell me—who else but a poet could’ve waited eleven months in solitude for a gun deal to go through?

Is isolation and suffering really the ingredient, then? The old joke that artists have been self-quarantining for ages seems to be true, I guess.

Artists do have wounds, and if they don’t have any, society feels it necessary to cause them—as a sort of initiation ritual to test the real desire of someone wanting to become a great painter, writer, or musician. How badly do you really want it? Can you manage to walk through the fire? Are you willing to enjoy only posthumous recognition? Are you willing to enjoy dying early for even greater fame?

As I’ve said, the belief that to achieve something great in art requires torment and madness can be traced back to Plato, but the idea of greatness being connected to pain appears in Greek myth as well. Philoctetes was a hero of the Trojan War, renowned for his skills as an archer. Since he was the one who had agreed to light Heracles’s funeral pyre, he received the great warrior’s bow and arrows in exchange. On the way to Troy, however, he was bitten by a snake and, thus, left behind on an island, where he wandered in isolation for ten years—not only recovering from his wound but also perfecting his craft as an archer. When it’s revealed by a soothsayer that Troy can’t be taken without the help of Philoctetes, Odysseus comes to the island and with the help of Asclepius finally heals the ailing man. Troy falls. Philoctetes becomes a hero; besides that title, the good warrior has also been called a few other things by more perceptive people: outcast and pariah; these words are naturally no strangers to artists.

That good archer is a prime example of how our society is quick to dispose of the so-called “disabled” or “unwanted” people—to leave them behind on their “islands” until we really need them. What’s more pertinent than the example of the Chinese, who suffered some of the worst discrimination in the history of the US; however, when not enough white men signed up to build The First Transcontinental Railroad, Leland Stanford, the railroad president who initially wanted to keep Asians out of California, now began hiring them. The Chinese were paid much less and worked quicker—they’re the ones who connected the US continent and the thanks they received for this was the Chinese Exclusion Act, which not only banned Chinese immigration but also naturalization.

In that sense, artists today symbolize those Chinese workers who bridged a continent; indeed, it’s art that “connects” people; it’s art that’s willing to do the work no one else wants to do. Art, likewise, has the special distinction of not being wanted while at the same time being utterly indispensable; this is especially true for poetry—an craft that’s today relegated to poets and the dustbin. Nevertheless, I think what Percy Shelley said in his 1821 essay, “A Defence of Poetry,” still holds true right now: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Indeed, like Philoctetes bitten by a snake, artists seem “weak” and the “wounds” they have don’t make them effective warriors for the causes of capitalism; thus, society relegates them into obscurity until their work becomes “powerful” enough to serve the economic purposes of those in power.

I don’t know how we ever got to this point. We began with fire, beauty, and madness, but ended up with disillusionment, weakness, and pain. I no longer know what my purpose is as an artist, or whether I’ve ever been one all this time; is it the best or worst of creators who feel this way? In his poem, “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats wrote: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Maybe that’s how Rimbaud felt when he quit poetry at the height of his powers.

It’s difficult to keep going, day after day—chained to this goddamned rock of society—with the knowledge that the punishment of progress has a definite end.

All the way from quarantined Italy: I may seem crazy now, but in a month everyone here will be no different.

Until next time.


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