“No one really says ‘get a life’ anymore,” @perpetua tweeted earlier this month, “and frankly people need to ~get a life~ far more urgently now than they did back in the late 80s/early 90s.”
I tweeted back, “I think there was more life to get.”
Obviously we were both joking, but the sense of exhaustion can be quite real, the feeling that we’ve depleted our inner and natural resources and we’ve explored what there is to explore.
This feeling is amplified by living in a city like Austin, Texas, where you’re constantly hearing about how much better it was before you got here. In a recent piece on Richard Linklater’s Slacker, Sean O’Neal writes:
Austinites carry a default attitude of “You just missed it”—as in, all the really cool stuff already happened. As Linklater pointed out in his post-show Q&A, that’s something he and his friends heard back in the eighties from all the hippie cowboys who’d seen the city’s “true” heyday in the sixties and seventies. Linklater pointed to the Slacker scene where local noise rockers Ed Hall played their song “Sedrick” to a near-empty Continental Club. Its lyrics, Linklater said, perfectly sum up the Austin point of view: “Things were so much better before you were here / . . . So much better in the past / I had myself a real gas.”
Again, this is a feeling, a feeling that can be alleviated by a single person saying, “You know, I lived here then, and it wasn’t that great.” (I think all the time about Patti Smith pointing out that the New York City of the 70s and 80s that we romanticize was filthy, bankrupt, and dangerous.)
This feeling that “it’s all been done” is amplified and exacerbated by artistic pretensions.
On a recent episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem was talking about reading Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence early on and how unconcerned he is now with being new or original. He recalled a speech he heard by Brian Eno about his early ambient work:
It’s hard to explain, but it was very easy to be new at that time…. He had gone and seen Cluster and the early Krautrock bands. And no one had thought, “I’m going to put all these things together…” At that time, there was still a lot of ground unclaimed. The time we live in now, there’s far less unclaimed ground.
“Which I think is normal, you know?” he throws in at the end, and yes, this feeling is extremely normal, and has been normal for at least 4,000 years. In the new afterword to the 10th anniversary edition of Steal Like an Artist, I point out that in addition to Ecclesiastes’ “there is nothing new under the sun,” two millennia before that, the Egyptian poet Khakheperresenb was already complaining that the good words had been used up.
In 1824, Goethe, who was always forthright about his influences, told his assistant Eckermann that he was glad he didn’t read Shakespeare at a young age because “Shakespeare has already exhausted the whole of human nature in all its tendencies, in all its heights and depths,” and “there remains for him, the aftercomer, nothing more to do.”
And how could one get courage only to put pen to paper, if one were conscious in an earnest, appreciating spirit, that such unfathomable and unattainable excellences were already in existence!
Goethe warns of engaging with work that’s too good in your youth. He says what’s important is to admire someone just a little bit further than you, and maintain a “standard of excellent” that is “not much higher” than whatever step you’re on and able to attain. Had he read too many masterpieces in his youth, he says,
..they would have overpowered me, and I should not have known what to do. I could not have gone on with such fresh light-heartedness, both should have had to bethink myself, and look about for a long time, to find some new outlet.
We celebrate the fact that most artists today have a huge portion of humankind’s output at their fingertips at any given moment, but we rarely think about the fact that exposure and abundance can also become a paralytic. Eno said he wanted to hear a certain kind of music, so he had to invent it for himself. Who feels the need to make new music, when you can almost always call up music that is completely new to your ears?
Sometimes when I watch my 8-year-old making music, I note how unencumbered he is by musical history and how free he is of any need to be original. He is happy, for now, to make music that is a parody of what he’s heard, and in the parodying, he comes up with his own thing. It’s new to him and that’s what’s important.
In fact, this is the great gift of children: everything is new to them, and so it can become new to you, if you let it.
Let’s face it: life these days is depressing. I sometimes find it hard to imagine a future. It feels like the GAME OVER screen could pop up at any time, and what is the point of raising children in an age like this?
And then I come to my senses and remember that it’s probably felt like the end of the world since the beginning of the world.
Here is something Nancy Wallace wrote in 1983 — the year I was born — in her book, Better Than School:
I constantly have to remind myself: now is the envy of the dead.
There’s always more life to get, and more art to be made out of it.