There's no Need to Understand

Art, whether written, visual, musical, or in any other form, is suffering of neglect. We are like parents who, when our child takes its first steps, says, “Whew! *smacks child on back* another milestone, now, time to work on running *cracks whip*!” without ever appreciating those life-affirming first steps. To translate this to an artistic situation: someone journeys to a museum to see a Mark Rothko painting and upon seeing the Rothko and observing it for less than fifteen seconds says, “I saw the Rothko *checks mental mark* now, let’s see, any Pollocks here?”

I would argue we are simply poor viewers, or listeners, and I believe the first, but by no means the only, remedy to our poor viewing skills is patience. Don’t worry: I’m not going to bash smart phones and lament how our generation sucks because we possess no attention span. We are the best generation, our problems are rooted rather in the capitalist obsession with efficiency and speed (more on that some other time).

If one approaches reading a book like a mountain designed to be climbed, they are destined to enjoy that book immensely less than they should. Goal-oriented reading is the bane of many a Goodreads member (of which I am one) and prevents fruitful, patient reading. Perhaps my favorite example of a lack of patience comes from stories of many-a-people’s attempts to read “Moby-Dick.”

“Moby-Dick” (or “The Whale” if you feel so inclined) is the greatest work of English literature since Shakespeare’s “First Folio.” The more I study it, the more I marvel at its existence. It is a literary miracle, full of strangeness and wonder. I am incredibly thankful that I know English when I turn to a page and read something like, “All the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude; on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow.” Read that out loud and tell me it ain’t the best ish you read all week.

So why am I talking about Moby Dick? Because it’s the bees-knees, but it’s so quickly written off as a boring whale novel. Granted, it is probably boring if you just want to enjoy it but someone, perhaps yourself, is constantly beating you over the head with what the “true meaning” of the text is. But this isn’t how you read “Moby-Dick.” Reading Moby-Dick ought to be like riding a calming wave at sea; you ebb and flow with the water, getting acquainted and cozy with the fish beneath you. Heck, maybe you pop-a-squat on a dolphin and go ride that aqua-hinny cross the Atlantic. It might take you a full year to read “Moby-Dick,” but so long as you are going along with the text, and trusting it, you are bound to have a better time than if you view it as a whale to be harpooned.

“Moby-Dick” is just one example in the world of written word art that demands patience not for austerity's sake, but for enjoyment.

Roland Barthes, a post-structuralist philosopher, once compared reading a text to playing an instrument. We can apply this theory to all texts, all art. To Barthes, any time we read a poem, we are engaging with it, creating meaning, and become new authors of the text. Our reading is idiosyncratic and beautiful, and, like practicing piano, the more we do it the better we get. Slowly studying a painting, looking over it in detail, wondering and engaging with it, and playing with it will create an experience that lasts.

But to make these experiences we need patience.

As a not-patient person, I’ve had to challenged myself to not be afraid of works of art that are daunting and challenging. What’s there to fear? Even a text like James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake,” which appears to be nonsense at first, becomes a beautiful celebration of language given enough patience and meditation.

The idea that you need to “get” a literary text, or artwork in order to enjoy it, or get any sort of worthwhile experience out of it is misleading and dangerous. You may not “get” a Van Gogh painting of a field, but you may love the rhythm of the paint and the vivid dream-like colors, and that’s ok.

This is not to suggest that bad interpretations or readings are acceptable, or even good, but it is to say that art is first and foremost art, and should be treated as such.

So next time you see a wacky looking Dali painting and just want to do everything you can to “get” it, sit down for a while and soak that surrealist canvas in, and enjoy it. Meditate on it and elevate yourself to the highest plane of existence possible.