This week we’re joined by Continuum co-founder Jim Allman. I’ve had many mind-bending conversations with the man and I’m excited he agreed to share something on our pokey blog.
Now, pay attention to Jim or I’ll block your IP address so you can’t complain about my low opinion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
…my identity, which I am damned with. – Nick Hornby, sculptor
The Trouble with Identity
“My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read…” So begins the book by Chaim Potok, a book of self-identity, credulity and personal and communal tragedy in the face of family and tradition. Asher is a boy damned by his identity, a Jew from an aristocratic Hasid family, but also an artist. Asher represents two traditions embroiled in conflict—each rejecting the other.
His father often tells him his passion for art is a waste of time, perhaps even a curse from the Sitra Achra (what we might call the devil); conversely, his painting mentor, the irreverent, non-observant Jacob Kahn, eschews religion, community and convention. This is the world of Asher Lev who is caught in constant conflict, both internal and external; so much so, it seems he is perpetually at risk of losing himself, in part or whole, regardless of the outcome.
As foreign as this coming-of-age, Jewish story is to me, it, all the same, resonates deeply. I still recall my father quelling my excitement over, albeit a childhood impulse, of high finance and Wall Street dalliance. I still recall the words: “do something useful.” Again, when my attention turned toward philosophy I was warned once more: “do something useful.”
Perhaps it was just fatherly advice; after all, my parents never disowned me the way Asher’s did, nor did I require therapy as a consequence, but it was clear that there were expectations and I was shamefully not fulfilling them. Looking back these desires may have been fleeting ones, not unlike every little boy’s dreams of being a firefighter or an astronaut.
An Ever Growing Pain
Even so, the words stung and still do; though, now in my thirties I count myself a poet, far removed from Wall Street. This is no whim mind you; I have always loved the arts and have always thrown myself at them—drawing, dreaming, painting, photography & graphic design, gawking at architecture, sculpture & paintings, listening to music, watching films & reading. Eventually, I found a home in wordsmithing.
But I have been inculcated by that phrase: do something useful, something you can make money at (read: support a family) or accomplish a greater good by. This message is reinforced everywhere including the news where we read reports on job trends (artist or poet never make the top ten in fact the contrary is true), and again in schools the arts are electives if at all available; they are pushed to the periphery. So, it is no surprise I have landed in the useful career of Database Administrator, may be to make amends for the utter uselessness of poetry.
I am not a career poet, but to identify as a one or an artist of any kind, regardless of extent, is nevertheless to occupy a liminal space. The story of Asher Lev is ever more tragic because the liminal edge is slimmer still when artist meets faith commitment.
Again I connect. Having grown up in a conservative Christian home, I know that art does not help exposit scripture or Torah or take up ladles in soup kitchens; it does not supervise nurseries of young church children or teach Sunday school. It does not rescue Jews from Stalin’s Gulags or proselytize natives in Papua New Guinea. And time and time again whether implicitly or explicitly, I have been told art isn’t much use, here. I have seen eyes drift & brows raise, heard sighs & whispers and even suffered the castigation of ministers. I still have an email from one that is dissertation length detailing the waste of my time and talent, encouraging me to nobler deeds. I suppose in this way some perceive art is from the Sitra Achra.
But even as one side declares that what I do is not useful, another exists telling me what I believe is not either. In a poignant passage in the book, Asher tucks his side-curls, or payos, behind his ears to hide them from the goy artists with whom he begins to mingle.
I am reminded of a recent interview with the contemporary modern artist Alfonse Borysewicz, who speaks to the liminal reality of being a Catholic artist. He is often muted, erased, ignored and at times the subject of great hostilities. In a real sense, orthodox belief closes doors and minds and not just that of its adherents. In the art world religion is a blight and a devilish impediment, all its own.
In this way my identity has damned me to a periphery filled with the burden of aloneness and a constant temptation to compromise—to tuck my payos, so to speak, behind my ears and to stop writing. I often feel it would be easier that way. After all, it is so taxing to expend so much for so little…
In part II we’ll consider what can be done about it.
In what ways have you experienced a damned identity?