The notion interests me that the ancient Greeks judged their philosophers by their lives, as well as their intellectual contribution. Kierkegaard noted that Socrate’s “whole life was [a] personal preoccupation with himself…” Likewise, Rembrandt made more than ninety self-portraits, far more than any other artist. One art historian, Manuel Gasser, wrote that “Over the years, Rembrandt’s self-portraits increasingly became a means for gaining self-knowledge, and in the end took the form of an interior dialogue: a lonely old man communicating with himself while he painted.” Rembrandt, employing the tools he knew best, made of himself a study.
The Greeks admonished, “Know thyself.” The study of one’s self is a discipline of the highest order. It would be easy to fall into a semantic trap here. Define your terms, I’ve been counseled. What is this self that so interests you? For our purposes, we know what we mean and I am not going down that philosophical rathole. Who am I and what do I make of the answer to that question?–that is the oil being brushed onto this canvas. Academically, this is the ontological branch of philosophy, sprung from the questionable tree of metaphysics. Metaphysics means above the physical and that is territory I find generally disagreeable and prone to dead ends. Yet I am drawn to the ancient charge of the Greeks and cannot leave it alone, as Rembrandt apparently could not turn away from his own image.
Artists did not depict themselves as the main subject of their work until the early fifteenth century, which correlates with the rise of individual wealth and power. A hundred or so years later Montaigne made himself the center of his literary work, creating a new genre in the process. In the early twentieth century Joyce declared that “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” I cannot easily meld Joyce’s artist-God with Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Can the artist be front and center and invisible at the same time?
I am an autodidact and feeling my way along here. At center of it, I don’t care about academic discussions, though a reader at this point must be already tapped out by my seemingly endless runs down dark alleys mapped chiefly in the distant and shrouded structures of rhetoric. If it’s not yet apparent, the nature of this exercise is one of self-portraiture, old fashioned style. Raising a family of three kids and sustaining a marriage has not afford me time to pare my nails in distant observation. I have dirt under my nails. This project reflects a modern pace, whereby one gets a thing done without a lot of fancy dancing around the subject. In this instance the subject being me. Some say the advent of the self-portrait correlates to the improvements of polished silvering in the manufacturing of mirrors. I am trying to polish my mirror and determine exactly what it holds. Interestingly, Van Gogh’s self-portraits are all of the left side of side of his face, the right side sporting the mutilated ear. Can a person look so deeply inside, yet expect to hide the obvious?
I once thought it would make for a successful literary project to write a biography of a fictitious person. Of course, Gertrude Stein pioneered the idea with her Autobiography of Alice B. Tolkas. But this project would be a platform to explore a life composed out of a wishful existence. In doing so, in a fictive biography of a fictive person, two things happen, both of which, I think, can happen in real life. One: a life can be created and molded with intent. And, Two: a determined study of that life can be made. As I stated, both can be done in reality, without the fiction; however, rarely do we think of “creating” our life, and even more rarely do we consider studying it. Here is the premise: create a compelling individual, having lived an interesting life, and write the biography of that person to explain all the things which came together to make the person who he, or she, was. Garnish the story with a bit of dramatic tension and dive in. To wit, page one, paragraph one:
”On the night James Whitmore Norton died, presumably before he discovered that he had been betrayed, he made this entry in his journal: There was smoke, or dust, I don’t know which, spotted in the foothills late this afternoon. The sun went down before we could investigate and tonight we retire to our rooms nurturing a sense of dread and foreboding. According to Phan Chí Düng who was tending the downstairs bar, shortly after Norton went to his room there was a noise heard from upstairs, described “like a small rumble of thunder” by Düng, after which a fire broke out and quickly spread through the upstairs engulfing Norton’s suite. It remains a curiosity that Norton’s journals where found stashed in the mini bar where they survived the conflagration. Norton, however, did not survive. The circumstances surrounding his death have never been suitably explained. It is commonly believed, however, that despite the public adoration and international acclaim in securing the Nobel Prize a half dozen years earlier, Norton’s enemies remained committed to their public vow to finish him off.”
I’ve often thought of my life in terms of fiction. It makes it more plastic, more like the image in the stone awaiting release by the artist. I suspect there is a physiological distinction for this condition. It is probably detrimental to one’s well being to think this way for too long. Like so many interesting things, it should be avoided as a rigorous practice. But it is indeed fun and lends the fictive thinker down a curious and interesting path. I have tried to instill in my kids the notion that life is not shaped entirely by the external; that the internal life is likewise to be developed and shaped. Creativity is necessary for that. Contrary to Henry James’s dictum that all fiction is trivia, fiction as a manner in which to consider the shaping of one’s life is insightful. It has been my observation though that few individuals consider this option at length.
The circumstances surrounding the mysterious death of James Whitmore Norton have yet to be suitably explained.