All successful artists have disturbing stories in their lives and careers. They survive by coping consistently and creatively. Those difficulties keep us very creatively active, keep us aware with a deepening insight. -Harley Brown
In Prague, if you stand and listen on a quiet morning, you can hear the whisper of wings — many wings — in unison. It’s startling to see, really, these swooping and diving and sharp-turning flocks of doves as they fly in tight formation along their aerial roller coaster. It’s one of the things I love most about Prague, and where I live. On any given day, these flocks of doves, peppered with dark, gray, and snowy white birds, will swoop and play in and along the rooflines around my house for hours. It’s mesmerizing. And in many ways, I think it’s art.
Recently, I’ve been reading many books (as one of my favorite parts of summer!) in a chair outside below those often-swooping doves. One of those books instantly became one of my all-time favorite books: Ann Patchett’s STATE OF WONDER. In a story that pulls the reader along through a literary mystery so ripe with atmosphere in the Amazon, the main character Marina struggles to the point of death. And one paragraph struck me as being so absolutely true I knew I had to share it here.
Marina has just come through a horrific battle with fever and a local sludge-like drink to cure it. An hour after her scrape with the lowest of lows, Marina must go with two others to the opera in Manaus. I don’t have to tell you she didn’t want to go. But this is key, what she observes after she is there in the opera house in Brazil is what follows:
From page 123 in the hardcover of STATE OF WONDER:
“The inside of the house was a wedding cake, every intricately decorated layer balanced delicately on the shoulders of the one beneath it, rising up and up to a ceiling where frescoed angels parted the wndering clouds with their hands… Marina turned her attention down to the orchestra. With a face of pure serenity, Barbara leaned towards Marina and whispered, “I love this part.” Marina didn’t know what part she meant, and didn’t ask, but when the house was dark and the overture rose up to their third-tier balcony she understood completely. Suddenly every insect in Manaus was forgotten. The chicken heads that cluttered the tables in the market place and the starving dogs that waited in the hopes that one might fall were forgotten. The children with fans that waved the flies away from the baskets of fish were forgotten even as she knew she was not supposed to forget the children. She longed to forget them. She managed to forget the smells, the traffic, the sticky pools of blood. The doors sealed them in with the music and sealed the world out and suddenly it was clear that building an opera house was a basic act of human survival… In these past few days of fever Marina had forgotten herself. The city was breaking her down along with the Lariam, her sense of failure, her nearly mad desire to be home in time to see the lilacs. But then the orchestra struck a note that brought her back to herself. Every pass of the cellists’ bosws across the cellos’ strings scraped away a bit of her confusion, and the woodwinds returned her to strength. While she sat in the dark, Marina started to think that this opera house, and indeed this opera, were meant to save her.”
This paragraph in so many ways and words describes so deeply what I have felt many times in the past few years in Prague, and many other times in my life. If I’m completely honest, art in the form of books, paintings, music, and dance has helped save me from tough times. Though art (especially in school curriculum cutbacks) may seem an expendable part of life, non-essential in many people’s minds and hearts, art is perhaps the most vital part of life. It is essential. Art is for survival.
I’d love to hear what you think (below, in the comments). How has art impacted you? Do you believe it is essential? How has art helped you? I’m looking forward to hearing what you think … thanks!
Announcement: In my continued love for the arts, and my passion for reading books, I am thrilled to pass on the news about Great New Books book club and reading group. What started as a site only at Goodreads.com, and added a Facebook page, now has a centralized website and a brand-new team. Our website is GreatNewBooks.org. Our team is made up of: me, Hallie Sawyer, Nina Badzin, Julia Munroe Martin, and Melissa Crytzer Fry.
If you love to read, please venture over to greatnewbooks.org, click around and see what we’re about, click to join, and begin reading with us on our monthly reading selection! Today (Wednesday, August 8, by noon) is the last day to vote on our August book selection. See Nina Badzin’s excellent post about the book review debate and the reasoning behind our new group, Great New Reads. Thanks for joining us and thanks for your support!