Reconciling Living with Strangers

I’ve been re-reading David Foster Wallace, both as a way of grieving him and as an escape from other, more pressing, grief. Wallace was the complicated inhabitant of his own writing, the uncertain outsider unable to accept the loving embrace of his community. He was an odd jester, exposing shibboleths but also using the mundane to uncover things much deeper.

In footnote 38 to the title essay of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, he says

This is the reason why even a really beautiful, ingenious ad (of which there are a lot) can never be any kind of real art: an ad has no status as gift, i.e. it’s never really for the person it’s directed at.

In The Gift–a book that deeply influenced Wallace–Lewis Hyde says “unless the work is the realization of the artist’s gift and unless we, the audience, can feel the gift it carries, there is no art.” It is a difficult truth, I suppose, having spent a career in the industry. But it is a wonderful thing to realize that the art that surrounds us is more than words and images. It’s more than ideas and meaning. In his introduction to Art of Colonial Latin America, Gauvin Alexander Bailey warns not to use art as anthropology: attempting to see art as a product of a time, a culture or even an idea obscures the fact that art is the product of an individual and that as individuals we all transcend our times, our culture and even our ideas.

The Mario Cravo Neto at the top of this post hangs in my living room. My brother told me a couple of weeks ago that he thought the image was “not me.” Perhaps. But it is also, in a way, not Cravo Neto: I look at it and wonder what of him is in it, different than what he has given to his other work. Re-reading Wallace, I am sensitive to what he has left of himself in the work, of the gifts he has left, unique to him as an individual and far apart from the story that he sold and the book that I bought.

And then I look around at the other books, at the poems, at the pictures, and especially at the drawings my children have made me and I think about how I am surrounded by gifts, freely and lovingly given, not just in this season and not just in this too-trying year, but always.

Happy new year.

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