Thursday, October 8, 2009
THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY
The other day I thought of an old flame. In third grade we were childhood sweethearts. We sat next to each other in class, we walked home from school together, we sat side by side on the bus during our class trip to Turtle Back Zoo. We were the two smartest kids in class, smitten with puppy love, and everyone assumed we'd eventually get married and have a brilliant future. But then in fourth grade she moved away and I never saw her again, and years later I ended up as an artist and ne'er-do-well. Wondering what became of her I Googled her name and was surprised at what I found. She had recently been named by one of the top investment banks in the world as its chief of European mergers and acquisitions, the only woman to head a mergers business at a bulge-bracket investment bank (whatever that is)*1. Obviously quite the muckety-muck, rolling in dough, elbow-rubbing with the rich and super-rich. Which got me to thinking about the paths that people take, the callings that summon us.
I would never recommend being an artist to anyone. First of all, the hours are terrible, being constantly on call to the Muse who oft times wakes you in the middle of the night with an inspiration that must be heeded. On top of that the pay generally sucks, which forces you to have a second job (one that actually pays the bills). You don't get much recognition, and if you diverge from the marketable and refuse to "brand" yourself, then there's a good chance of everlasting anonymity. In addition, this working all the time for little or no pay and recognition is not that great for the morale. For some, depression is as much of a companion as the Muse. For others, it's addictions (and other self-destructive behaviors). For others, suicide (be it fast or slow). And needless to say, relationships are a challenge--the instability of the artist's life an impediment to all but the most steadfast. And a life spent as an artist is at times like being a building on the edge of the ocean, understanding erosion on a daily basis as the tide ebbs and flows, as one's foundation is undermined. So why does one do it? The poet Robert Bly says that someone who spends 20, 30 years in their art "goes down to the countryside of grief"*2 where they become a friend to sadness. And this somehow sustains. I think of what the Brazilians call "the sadness that is beauty"--an intuition of the very nature of things that is all-encompassing, between nothingness and eternity; a glimpse into our humanity and the maddening transience of our existence. For someone who has spent a lifetime in their art this feeling is the drug, the high, the reason--at times almost godlike.
So what of someone whose calling is to make money? Personally, I have as much insight into this as a rock would have into doing the breast-stroke. I am sure there is a passion to it, in amassing great wealth, but I wonder if there is humanity? I think back to the article about my third grade girlfriend's success. The very next paragraph began with an announcement, about her bank laying off 300 people, accounting for 15% of its investment bankers. I wonder where the humanity is in this.
*1. Her latest success is being named recently in Forbes as one of the 100 most powerful women in world finance, routinely brokering billion-dollar deals.
*2. "When anyone seriously pursues an art--painting, poetry, sculpture, composing--over twenty or thirty years, the sustained discipline carries the artist down to the countryside of grief; and that descent, resisted so long, proves invigorating. As I've gotten older I find I am able to be nourished more by sorrow, and to distinguish it from depression."