Celebrating the painter Elstir, the narrator of In Search of Lost Timesuggests that for the great artist, the work of painting and the act of being alive are indistinguishable. For each of us, says Proust, there may be “certain bodies, certain callings, certain rhythms that are specially privileged, realizing so naturally our ideal that even without genius, merely by copying the movement of a shoulder, the tension of a neck, we can achieve a masterpiece.” The implication here is that art is not the product of the will. More than lack of ambition, it is the inability to surrender to our characteristic callings and rhythms that keeps us from fulfilling our promise.
The word surrender makes this achievement sound easy, as if the victory of each day were to wake up looking exactly like yourself. But even if we all possess certain rhythms, certain callings, not everyone is able to exist in the simple act of recognizing them. The surrender of the will is itself impossible merely to will, and we may struggle with the act of surrender more deeply than we struggle with the act of rebellion. W. B. Yeats called the moment of recognizing oneself a “withering into the truth,” and the word “wither” seems just right, for the discovery does not feel like a blossoming. Nor does it happen only once, like an inoculation. Proust’s Elstir does not inhabit himself truly until he has achieved great age.
Writers have withered into variety, excess, and vulgarity; writers have withered into purity, stillness, and restraint. Why do the latter values so often get bad press, even from artists who embrace those values themselves? In my own experience, stillness can be difficult to separate from dullness, restraint from lack of vision or adequate technique; a young writer may embrace the glamour of risk in order to avoid parsing these discriminations. What’s more, the association of artistic achievement with heroic willfulness is endemic, and it is clung to in the United States with a fierceness that belies its fragility. Lacking a thousand years of artistic craftsmanship to fall back on, the American artist is called great when he is at the frontier, taking the risk, disdaining the status quo, but also landing the movie deal. What happens to the American poet who is destined to wither into stillness and restraint, the poet whose deepest inclination is to associate risk with submis