The anthology “Short Takes: Brief Encounters with Contemporary Nonfiction”, edited by Judith Kitchen, includes a short essay titled “Experiencing.” The essay, written by Stephen Corey, examines the way human beings experience art. By observing the way his 17-month-old granddaughter interacts with the world, the narrator attempts to work out why certain things (a plastic cap from a soft drink bottle, ants, his own foot) fascinate her. He is especially interested in her reaction when she sees some dancers performing on a stage in an outdoor amphitheater — she is struck, by the sight of them, “into immobility.” He writes:
“I want to say that my granddaughter, scarcely able to speak and still liable to suddenly tip backwards onto her bottom when she walked, experienced art and beauty as she sat in my arms and was immobilized by orchestral sounds and by lithe, colorful young women dancing.” A few lines later he adds: “…perhaps art, which creates beauty willy-nilly — no matter what else it might also create — can likewise come to us from the very beginning at this physical level.”
We discussed this essay in my class, “Writing Personal Essays” in Lexington this fall. And I thought of it again this weekend, when I was on a plane to North Carolina. Two things happened in quick succession on the plane: 1, I spent some time reading “Anna Karenina;” and 2, I stopped reading for a while, put on some headphones, and watched an old video of the band Journey on the small television screen built into the back of the seat in front of me.
A literature professor I had during my junior year in London once declared that “Anna Karenina” was the greatest novel ever written. I am not a PhD in Literature, so I will not attempt to critique the novel here. But I knew, as I read from the book on that small plane, that I was experiencing something brilliant. I actually read “Anna Karenina” for the first time years ago, and loved it then. Still, I am probably a more astute reader now, with an MFA behind me and a lot of attention paid to close reading. But “Anna Karenina” transcends all of that. Everything about the text gave me a thrill — the characters, landscapes, plot, scenes, philosophy, details (what details!). I was completely absorbed by the story, and by the language (how I wish I could read it in the original Russian!). And I was not just appreciative of the book’s many “literary” achievements…I was purely and simply enjoying it.
When I switched gears and decided to watch the tiny TV for a while, I flipped through the stations until I found a music channel that was playing classics. An old concert appearance by Journey, the mega-hit band from the 70s and early 80s (think “Don’t Start Believin;”), was on screen. The band was performing their famous ballad, “Open Arms.” I’ve always known that Steve Perry, the lead singer, had an amazing voice. But I was stunned to watch him sing “Open Arms” live; he hit every note (and that song has some high notes in it). My father has perfect pitch; I do not. But I have a pretty good ear, and usually when a note is right on key, I can tell, and it can even send shivers down my spine. This performance was mesmerizing. It blew me away purely because of Perry’s voice.
It was an interesting juxtaposition; “Anna Karenina,” written by Leo Tolstoy, one of the great writers of all time, and a pop/rock song sung by a singer that frankly could have been performing opera (in my opinion). It made me think about Corey’s essay, and the conclusion he comes to at the end:
“If so, then whenever we may come to art (and thereby to beauty) in later times at different levels — emotional, rational, rhetorical, and so on — we will be coming not just to something outside us, but also to something already embedded within our bodies’ most basic, natural, and necessary responses to living.”
Is art something not just created by us but something outside us — that all, or a majority, of human beings recognize on some primal level? What do you think?