Art, Despair, and Virginia Woolf

I’ve been reading To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf this summer. It is a wonderful and brilliant piece of art, part of the high modernist literary flowering from the first half of the twentieth century. The style reminds me of Henry James in many places, but with a smoother syntax. The link to James is the focus on internal dialogue, the thoughts that go on inside each of us when we think about our family; Woolf takes that idea and develops it to a fever pitch. Parts of the book are so good it is almost painful to read.

Which brings me to the emotional reaction to a work of art that I want to write about. It is not a pure reaction to the emotion conveyed by the work, instead it is a meta-reaction to the craft and form of the work that makes me feel as though nothing could ever be written to improve upon this masterpiece. I think of it as a form of despair or depression mostly because I’m comparing my own paltry artistic efforts to this greatness that is standing right in front of me. Even if the passage of writing I’m reading is meant to convey a happy emotion I’m still thinking about the style and the pinnacle of achievement that has been reached by Ms. Woolf or any other artist.

I talked about this a bit with my friend Chris on Wednesday and he described a similar experience reading If On a Winter’s Night by Italo Calvino. I’ve never finished that Calvino book but I’m not surprised at the reaction to his work as well as Woolf’s. The two of them are some of the best writers of the past 100 years.

There are times when I’ve felt a similar emotion with other, non-literary works of art. Some of the paintings by Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack, or Claude Monet have had a similar effect upon me. It seems to happen less often with music, perhaps because I don’t play music as much as I write or paint. Part of this despair depends on my knowing just enough about how difficult it is to achieve such a successful work of art. If I don’t know much about making music then it’s harder for me to judge when someone is truly performing or working at the epitome of their field.

Mention of the word field makes me think that this despairing feeling could be applied beyond art to other endeavors where one meets or encounters people working at the very edges of the accomplishable. But one still has to have enough experience and background to be able to recognize success.