But what is not generally recognized is that the successful launch of self into the orbit of transcendence is necessarily attended by problems of reentry. What goes up must come down. The best film of the year ends at nine o’clock. What to do at ten? What did Faulkner do after writing the last sentence of Light in August? Get drunk for a week. What did Dostoevsky do after finishing The Idiot? Spend three days and nights at the roulette table. What does the reader do after finishing either book? How long does his exaltation last?
The only exception to this psychic law of gravity seems to be not merely the great physicists at the high tide of modern physics but any scientist absorbed in his science when the exaltation of science sustains one in a more or less permanent orbit of transcendence—or perhaps the rare Schubert who even during meals wrote lieder on the tablecloth or the Picasso in a restaurant who instead of eating bread molded it into statuettes.
But the most spectacular problems of reentry seem to be experienced by artists and writers. They, especially the latter, seem subject more than most people to estrangement from the society around them, to neurosis, psychosis, alcoholism, drug addiction, epilepsy, florid sexual behavior, solitariness, depression, violence, and suicide.
Question: Is this the case because
(a) Genius is close to madness (Plato)?
(b) Modern society, especially American, is crass, materialistic, money-grubbing, and status-seeking, a nation of Yahoos and Babbitts, and the artist who is in pursuit of truth and beauty is entitled to be alienated (Gauguin, Flaubert, Lewis, et al.)?
(c) Art is an expression of sublimated libidinal energies (Freud)? Since the artist is presumably either oversupplied with such energies or overly repressed, it is only to be expected that he or she might also be subject to the various maladies attendant upon repressed sexuality.
(d) Art, unlike science, is a kind of play (Dewey)? Therefore, artists are expected to behave like children.
(e) Both art and science are ways of knowing and as such are the greatest pleasures of which man is capable (Aristotle, Aquinas)? So great, in fact, that the ordinary pursuits of life are spoiled by contrast and so the artist must go to heroic lengths to render life intolerable outside his art. What Einstein said of science might be said of art: I went into science to escape the intolerable dreariness of everyday life.
Art, like science, entails a certain abstraction from its subject matter, albeit a different order of abstraction. And the better the artist, the greater the distance of abstraction. Thus, writers like Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins are as much in the marketplace as any other producer or seller. But writers like Joyce, Faulkner, Proust are able to write about the marketplace and society only in the degree that they distance themselves from it—whether by exile, alcohol, or withdrawal to a cork-lined room.
Like scientists, artists make general statements about the world, not about forms of energy exchange but what it is like to live in the world—statements which reader or viewer confirms by his assent and pleasure (where else does the reader’s pleasure come from but the reader’s recognition of and identification with the artist’s work?), just as the scientist confirms scientific statements by tests and reading pointers.
Although science and art are generally taken to be not merely different but even polar opposites—the one logical, left-brained, unemotional, Apollonian, analytical, discursive, abstract; the other intuitive, playful, concrete, Dionysian, emotional—the fact is that both are practiced at a level of abstraction, both entail transactions with symbols and statements about the world, both are subject to confirmation or disconfirmation. The pleasure of reading Dostoevsky derives from a recognition and a confirmation. The dismay of looking at a bad painting or reading a bad poem is a disconfirmation.
For a writer to reenter the world he has written about is no small feat. At the least, it is a peculiar exercise, even uncanny—like Kierkegaard going out into the street every hour during work and blinking at the shopkeepers. At the worst, it proves impossible, issuing in the familiar catastrophes to which writers fall prey.