After the Sophomore’s Work

This doesn’t really bother me emotionally, but I think it’s a pretty dangerous fallacy to say that as you get older, things don’t hit you the way they did when you were younger. I hear this so frequently from all angles (lit, music, film, you name it), and to me it seems like nothing other than encouraging complacency. As I’ve aged, I feel the thrill of discovery less frequently for all the obvious reasons: I’ve seen similar things, I’ve seen better things, I have more context, etc. But I don’t suddenly find myself thinking that something or other would have affected me so much more deeply had I encountered it when I was a teenager. It might be associated with more traumatic memories, which has a certain indelible effect on the scribing of memory, but I don’t think the aesthetic experience was any more or less intense.

So I can only figure that people who say that they’re cut off from the intensity of early aesthetic experiences have either had their horizons narrowed sufficiently that they no longer are open to that which is novel to them, or, more likely, they’ve just become lax about finding those new things. And yes, it does get tougher, not just because deeper digging is required but because the criteria for fulfillment evolve, and it takes a fair bit of work to satisfy the absence of what Robert Musil describes in this passage:

Just as in dreams we are able to inject an inexplicable feeling that cuts through the whole personality into some happening or other, we are able to do this while awake–but only at the age of fifteen or sixteen, while still in school. Even at that age, as we all know, we live through great storms of feeling, fierce urgencies, and all kinds of vague experiences; our feelings are powerfully alive but not yet well defined; love and anger, joy and scorn, all the general moral sentiments, in short, go jolting through us like electric impulses, now engulfing the whole world, then again shriveling into nothing; sadness, tenderness, nobility, and generosity of spirit form the vaulting empty skies above us. And then what happens? From outside us, out of the ordered world around us, there appears a ready-made form–a word, a verse, a demonic laugh, a Napoleon, Caesar, Christ, or perhaps only a tear shed at a father’s grave–and the “work” springs into being like a bolt of lightning. This sophomore’s “work” is, as we too easily overlook, line for line the complete expression of what he is feeling, the most precise match of intention and execution, and the perfect blending of a young man’s experience with the life of the great Napoleon. It seems, however, that the movement from the great to the small is somehow not reversible. We experience it in dreams as well as in our youth: we have just given a great speech, with the last words still ringing in our ears as we awaken, when, unfortunately, they do not sound quite as marvelous as we thought they were. At this point we do not see ourself as quite the weightlessly shimmering phenomenon of that dancing prairie cock, but realize instead that we have merely been howling with much emotion at the moon.

And if it wasn’t an article of faith that the movement to the small yields equally visceral and more meaningful results than the easy transcendence of adolescent (and arrested-adolescent) poetic narcissism…I wouldn’t be writing here.

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