Monday, October 1, 2012

The Power of Three

Saturday morning I saw The Master at a matinee. I have watched P.T. Anderson's career with great interest since the turn of the century, and I hoped for more from him than was delivered to me with this one. Tempted as I am to turn this blog into a film rant outlet for me from time to time, it's not really why I write here, so I won't go into the movie in much detail. (Although I went into it at probably too much length after my friend kamper issued a perfectly innocent and general "What did you think?" on his blog. Spoilers there.)

One of the things that's still nagging at me about this movie occurred in the very last few moments. I'm definitely going to misquote this, so I'm sorry. The titular master says to his disciple, "If, in your travels, you discover a way to answer to no master, no master of any kind, will you please let us know of it? Because you will be the first man in the history of the species to do so."*

This got me thinking about the masters to which we all answer. This is more literal for some people than for others: most of us are employed by someone, some of us are tethered to manipulative or tyrannical people, some of us are devoted to a higher power. But it also reminded me of two other messages that have given me profound food for thought in the recent past.

The first chronologically is DFW's. His "This Is Water" has hardly once left my mind since I read it this spring. This link takes you to the abridged version at the WSJ, and this link takes you to the published book version, which I wish I was rich enough to buy for everyone I know. Here are part one and part two of the actual speech given by the actual DFW. It's not as polished as the final version, but it is, after all, the man himself.

I wrote about this speech a little bit previously, tying it to purpose both in life and in writing. But the echoes of his ideas - that there is no genuine atheism, that everyone chooses something to worship, and that choosing unwisely "will eat you alive" - have only gotten louder since that time, and have touched untold segments of my life. They are ideas I've mentally breathed, their essence reaching into the lowest and highest little lobes and crannies of my brain. I have decided to think hard and choose wisely, and, just as he says, it's a daily process. Minute-by-minute, even.

The second is Stephen Colbert. He gave a commencement speech to Northwestern last year, and it's pretty damn good. (I've seen better in terms of organization, but his credentials are improv, not stand-up.) He gave the speech as himself, not his character; it's still funny, but it's not high on satire. The heart of the speech is at the end, when he [mostly] sets aside jokes. If you don't have time to watch the whole thing, go to 15:25 and watch the rest; that's only five minutes.

The you-can't-win-at-life thing is so, so cool. I wish someone had properly explained to me when I was young that adults, who seem to have it all put together, are totally just making shit up from day to day and year to year. I would have been a lot less intimidated about growing up.

The point, though, is that Stephen has this to say:
In my experience, you will truly serve only what you love. Because service is love made visible. If you love friends, you will serve your friends. If you love community, you will serve your community. If you love money, you will serve your money. And if you love only yourself, you will serve only yourself, and you will have only yourself. 
I watched this last week and it got me to wondering what I serve. Then, I saw The Master, where nearly the same question was set out. That was the third time this message and question have been presented to me this year. Humans like the number three, is the way Matt put it to me once when I was being highfalutin' about how I style my written sentences, and it did not escape me even as I was sitting there watching the movie that I was hearing this, that this was impacting my personal atmosphere and shaking up the dust, for the third time.

I thought about it for a while and the only proper answers I could come up with to the question of what I serve were "truth", "compassion", and "art". Those are the things I value most deeply, when I really strip away everything else.

"Art" was also the answer I gave to the question of who my master is. This answer has spun off a whole new way of thinking about why I write and what I want to achieve when writing, a way I have barely even approached before. It soothes and calms the impatience and jealousy that have dogged me when I think about what I want to accomplish. Because giving a name to what I worship/my master/what I serve seems far more permanent and less empty than the wish to tot up money and awards, the desire to check those things off the list and to breathe easy about at least I've got that settled. I can't even number the novelists who've said in interviews that publishing a book isn't nearly as satisfying as s/he expected, and that it rid her/him of virtually none of her/his uncertainty. If that's true, is there ever any certainty to be found, even when blessed with financial security and critical praise? (Martha Graham says emphatically no. And I think she'd know.)

If I'm not being too premature, I think this is how you stop writing with the monkey on your back - how you stop worrying about rejection and the whims of the market. You just serve what you love. You step back to the wider, this-is-water view and you think only about the master - in my case, the art. And when you send something out, you hope for the best; you hope that the market serves the work (the art, the master), and also, if possible, the other way around.

Wow. Let's hear it for the power of three, eh?

*(Might as well make a definite misquote artful, right?) 


happyvalleynews said...

"Too much length"?! You were the only person who commented on that particular open thread. I dare say you can go on for as long as you'd like.

Katharine Coldiron said...

See, there was all kinds of stuff I wanted to say in reply to your reply to my comment, but then I figured that anybody who was thinking about commenting would want to do so even less. It's your blog, not mine, and the comments section should belong to everybody.