Thursday, October 16, 2008

Late Bloomer

I have just finished reading a Malcolm Gladwell article in The New Yorker about late-blooming artists - painters, writers, etc. who take years and years to come into their own artistically. This, of course, is in contrast with the precocious genius, an archetype beloved by all and sundry and celebrated in such objectionable creations as Amadeus. (Egregious though that film is, it's really important to note that Elizabeth Berridge is adorable in it, and why was she never in any movies again?) Generally speaking, people tend to LOVE precocious geniuses - "And he was only sixteen!!!" they say in exaggeratedly awed tones, or "And all of that happened before she turned twenty-one!!!". I think there are two basic reasons for this adoration of artistic precocity:
  1. It makes people feel better about themselves in that it reduces the value of the artistic accomplishment in question. If people like Mozart and Jonathan Safran Foer (EASY, TIGER! I am not equating their accomplishments! Those are just two examples from the article, OKAY? GOD!) can just pull complex artistic creations out of their asses every fifteen minutes or so, then those creations are clearly the result of magic, rather than intense application of willpower, energy, intellect, craft, and vision. I mean, if writing an opera comes as naturally to Mozart as burping comes to me, then really, the opera is of no more value than a burp, even though it sounds rather nicer, so I don't have to feel bad about the fact that I spend more time burping than writing operas.
  2. (And this is related, but also sort of separate, which is why I am giving it its own number, which is 2.) It releases people from having to make any sort of judgement about the artistic creations in question. The guy is a GENIUS!!! The creation (novel, painting, whatever) is a BOLT FROM THE BLUE!!! It only took him TWO DAYS to create!!! And he's not even THIRTY YET!!! OH MY GOD!!! (Sound of heads exploding in appreciation.) Amid such hoopla, the actual thing itself disappears, as does any sober examination of its merits, its meanings, its causes, its effects. So we can just wallow in what are essentially factoids about the artist and the art without troubling ourselves to actually examine either, which effort would take a bit of application, knowledge, and, well, effort.

In contrast, the late-blooming artist, as described by Gladwell, is a somewhat more uncomfortable figure, because it is more recognizable - it hits closer to home. Late-blooming artists are often not noticeably extraordinary in their fields when they are six or sixteen or twenty-six or maybe even thirty-six. They simply work and work and work and work and rework and rework and rework and rework until things begin to come together in the right way. In this story, the strain that attends the creative process is visible. A "precocious genius" narrative allows us to see art and artist as entities foreign to our existence; a "late-blooming artist" narrative forces us to come to terms with the fact that the artist is a person and the art a human production. As Gladwell puts it, "sometimes [genius] is just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table."

Personally, I find consolation in the late-blooming artist concept for obvious reasons. I am not comparing myself to Cezanne, Gladwell's prime example of late blooming, but I do find myself, at the age of thirty, only just approaching what I want to be when I grow up, and only just discovering where my true talents may or may not lie. It is a great comfort to think, then, that historical precedence shows that my time is still not past, that there is still ample opportunity to reach for greatness - or rather, for my heart's content.

Towards the end of his article, Gladwell points out that all late-blooming artists have one thing in common - patrons, who make the long gestation of their art possible. In Cezanne's case, it was two great artists, one art dealer, and a rich father. In writer Ben Fountain's case, it was his wife, willing to work full-time while he stayed home - for the eighteen years it took him to publish his first book. "Late bloomers' stories," Gladwell writes, "are invariably love stories." Reading this, I felt my heart swell for a moment and my eyes well with tears. My husband and I have no money right now, literally, and it is unlikely that we will be meaningfully out of the red any time soon. Despite this, my husband has not once asked that I return to work full time, either now or in the future. He has taken it on faith that what I am doing is what I need to be doing, and he has never questioned the choices I have made - to be with the baby, to write, to pursue work as a doula, to train as a childbirth educator. If I find success, it will be in a large part because of his willingness to believe in and value my personal goals above everything - above even the financial interest of the family. I can't really think why he would do this, why he would show me such generosity, such patience, and such devotion. The only possible explanation is that this is, as Gladwell writes, a love story.