Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Strange Choices Made by Artists

I've gotten some tender sympathy about the state of our shoe closet after posting


While each of the lines in that post are true, it also obscures the larger issue that my husband and I "chose" to pursue this current life, even with all of its hardships. We started out with a pretty stable life as a non-profit lawyer and an art professor. After having Hannah, however, we elected to drop out of our planned future to pursue a vague vision of an integral life tied to Catholicism, art, and parenthood. At first we tried to do this as entrepreneurs. Then we thought the answer was a move to New York City. When both those dreams failed- we didn't move back to Southern Ohio where comfortable jobs awaited. Instead, we came to start living a new slate of dreams founded in the nation's capital.

It's hard to explain that even with bill collectors calling and a newborn with infant reflux who constantly squirts up on my shoulder, I still wouldn't trade places with any of my law school friends who started out making $100,000+ at age 25. I wish my family's financial troubles would end. I wish the baby could find a better drug for her stomach acid. But I don't wish that I was sitting in a more conventional life spending my day shopping for window treatments.

This divide has lead to some odd conversations with my former classmates. Friends tell me of their office troubles and then wonder why I'm not there too. Meanwhile, I stand there, conscious of the purple circles of sleeplessness under my eyes, faking my active listening skills and thanking my lucky stars that I'm now a stay-at-home mom.

This passage I found today in Maugham's "The Moon and The Sixpence" seemed to speak about this gulf and the futility of using words to breach it.(The Moon and The Sixpence is a fictional account of artist Paul Gauguin. The title comes from a critique of the protagonist "Of Human Bondage" who it was said "like so many young men he was so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet.")

"I told Tiare the story of a man I had known at St. Thomas's Hospital. He was a Jew named Abraham, a blond, rather stout young man, shy and very unassuming;but he had remarkable gifts. He entered the hospital with a scholarship, and during the five years of the curriculum gained every prize that was open to him. He was made house-physician and house-surgeon. His brilliance was allowed by all. Finally he was elected to a position on the staff, and his career was assured. so far as human things can be predicted, it was certain that he would rise to the greatest heights of his profession. Honors and wealth awaited him. Before he entered upon his new duties he wished to take a holiday, and, having no private means, he went as surgeon on a tramp steamer to the Levant. It did not generally carry a doctor, but one of the senior surgeons at the hospital knew a director of the line, and Abraham was taken as a favor.

In a few weeks the authorities received his resignation of the coveted position on the staff. It created profound astonishment, and wild rumors were current. Whenever a man does anything unexpected, his fellows ascribe it to the most discreditable motives. But there was a man ready to step into Abraham's shoes, and Abraham was forgotten. Nothing more was heard of him. He vanished.

It was perhaps ten years later that one morning on board ship, about to land at Alexandria, I was bidden to line up with the other passengers for the doctor's examination. The doctor was a stout man in shabby clothes, and when he took off his hat I noticed that he was very bald. I had an idea that I had seen him before. Suddenly, I remembered:
"Abraham," I said.
He turned to me with a puzzled look, and then, recognizing me, seized my hand. After expressions of surprise on either side, hearing that I meant to spend the night in Alexandria, he asked me to dine with him at the English Club. When we met again I declared my astonishment at finding him there.It was a very modest position that he occupied, and there was about him an air of staitened circumstance. Then he told me his story. when he set out on his holiday in the Mediterranean he had every intention of returning to London and his appointment at St. Thomas's. One morning the tramp docked at Alexandria, and from the deck he looked at the city, white in the sunlight, and the crowd on the wharf; he saw the natives in their shabby gabardines, the blacks from the Sudan the noisy throng of Greeks and Italians, the grave Turks in tarbooshes, the sunshine and the blue sky and something happened to him. He could not describe it. It was like a thunder-clap he said, and then, dissatisfied with this, he said it was like a revelation. Something seemed to twist his heart, and suddenly he felt an exultation, a sense of wonderful freedom. He felt himself at home, and he made up his mind there and then, in a minute, that he would life the rest of his life in Alexandria. He had no great difficulty in leaving the ship, and in twenty-four hours, with all his belongings, he was on shore. . .
"Have you never regretted it?"
"Never, not for a minute. I earn just enough to live upon, and I'm satisfied. I ask nothing more than to remain as I am till I die. I've had a wonderful life."

I left Alexandria next day, and I forgot about Abraham till a little while ago, when I was dining with another old friend in the profession, Alec Carmichael, who was in English on short leave. I ran across him in the street and congratulated him on the kinghthood with which his eminent serves during the war had been rewarded. We arranged to spend an evening together for old time's sake, and when I agreed to dine with him, he proposed that he should ask nobody else, so that we could chat without interruption. He had a beautiful old house in Queen Anne Street, and being a man of taste he had furnished it admirably. on the walls of the ding-room I saw a charming Bellotto, and there was a pair of Zoffanys that I envied. When his wife, a tall, lovely creature in cloth of gold, had left us, I remarked laughingly on the change in his present circumstances from those when we had both been medical students. We had looked upon it then as an extravagance to dine in a shabby Italian restaurant in the Westminster Bridge Road. Now Alec Carmichael was on the staff of half a dozen hospitals. I should think that he earned ten thousand a year, and his knighthood was but the first of the hors which must inevitably fall to his lot.
"I've done pretty well," he said, "but the strange thing is that I owe it all to one piece of luck."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Well, do you remember Abraham? He was the man who had the future. When we were students he beat me all along the line. He got prizes and scholarships that I went in for. I always played second fiddle to him. If he'd kept on he'd be in the position I'm in now. That man had a genius for surgery. No one had a look in with him. When he was appointed Registrar at St. Thomas's I hadn't the chance of getting on the staff. I should have had to become a G.P., and you know what likelihood there is for a G.P. ever to get out of the common rut. But Abraham fell out, and I got the job. That gave me my opportunity."

"I dare say that is true."

"It was just luck. I suppose there was some kink in Abraham. Poor devil, he's gone to the dogs altogether. He's got some twopenny-halfpenny job in medical at Alexandria-sanitary officer of something like that. . . The fact is, I supposed, that it's not enough to have brains. The thing that counts is character. Abraham hadn't got character."

Character? I should have thought it needed a good deal of character to throw up a career after half an hour's meditation, because you saw in another way of living a more intense significance. And it required still more character never to regret the sudden step.

But I said nothing, and Alex Carmichael proceeded reflectively:
"Of course, it would be hypocritical for me to pretend that I regret what Abraham did. After all, I've scored by it." He puffed luxuriously at the long Corona he was smoking. "But if I weren't personally concerned I should be sorry at the waste. It seems a rotten thing that a man should make such a hash of life."

I wondered if Abraham really had made a hash of life. Is to do what you most want, to live under the conditions that please you, in peace with yourself, to make a hash of life; and is it success to be an eminent surgeon with ten thousand a year and a beautiful wife? I suppose it depends on what meaning you attach to life, the claim which you acknowledge to society, and the claim of the individual. But again, I held my tongue, for who am I to argue with a knight?"pg. 165-168

Interesting food for thought. Has anyone ever accused you of making "a hash of your life?"