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Filtering by Tag: Vic Sizemore

The Russian Soul Rises

Vic Sizemore

Pasternak's grave Boris Pasternak had worked on it for half of his life. When Boris Pasternak handed a secret copy of his sweeping epic Doctor Zhivago to an agent for an Italian publisher, he said, “You are invited to my execution.” He was not being melodramatic. The novel had been rejected by the authorities in Soviet Russia — writers who sneaked their work out for foreign publication had a habit of waking up dead — and he was looking elsewhere. When the novel was published in Italian in 1957, and in English in 1958, some 1,500 writers had been executed or died in concentration camps since the 1917 revolution.

The nature of the Soviet Union’s persecution of artists and intellectuals is stuff of legend, as is Pasternak’s role, but what was it about the novel that they found so threatening? A fictional character: Zhivago himself.

Yuri Zhivago is born, as was Pasternak, in 1890. When his parents die, he is sent to live with relatives in Moscow. Concerned with social justice and the plight of the poor, Zhivago, like Pasternak, initially supports the revolution, but quickly becomes disillusioned when it becomes clear that the Bolshevik’s rule is based on blood and brutality. His life is circumscribed by the events of the revolution, but he continues to attempt to live meaningfully. Though he is a flawed man, he manages to do some good and love deeply, which under his circumstances could almost be considered success.

Speaking of his own weak heart to two friends, Zhivago tells them that cardiac hemorrhages are becoming more frequent in Russia. He says, “It’s the disease of our time. I think its causes are of a moral order.” He continues, “Our soul takes up room in space and sits inside us like the teeth in our mouth.” He says, “It cannot be endlessly violated with impunity.” He speaks the truth that the Soviet authorities seek to suppress, to deny.

Dr Zhivago’s failure to be heard in the novel is simply, according to a Masterpiece Theater essay, “a sign that he was destined to become an artistic witness to the tragedy of his age.” He was also the Russian everyperson.

“You can make the Russian soul suffer,” Doctor Zhivago shouted to the Soviet authorities, “but it is indomitable — you cannot keep it down.”

Indeed, the threat Zhivago presents to the Soviets was clear from the first lines of the novel. As Frances Stoner Saunders explains, “‘Zhivago’, in the pre-revolutionary genitive case, means ‘the living one’. On the novel’s first page a hearse is being followed to the grave. ‘Whom are you burying?’ the mourners are asked. ‘Zhivago’ is the reply, punningly suggesting ‘him who is living’.”

In Praise of Boredom

Vic Sizemore

dolce-vita-la-106 My daughter spent the night with a friend, swam at the pool the following day, and came home to play video games—and drums—in the basement with three neighborhood boys. After dinner, she met other friends at May Lynn’s ice cream trailer down the road, in the parking lot across from Starbucks. She came home and, still smelling of chlorine, sat on the daybed in pink and white headphones thumbing away at her cell phone. Not thirty minutes later, she tromped into the sunroom where I was reading and pulled her headphones down around her neck.

“I’m going to take a walk with David,”she said.

“Why don’t you take a little break,”I told her. “You need some down time.”

She made her teenage-girl face at me and said, “But I’m bored.”

I’m bored. It’s not just a teenager’s gripe. Boredom is a bad thing, leads to trouble. Keep the kids busy with sports and band, the conventional wisdom goes, and they will not have time to fall in with the dope smokers out behind the high school. In my own childhood, I heard the phrase “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop”too many times to count. In Either/Or, Kierkegaard writes that, “boredom is the root of all evil,”The Apostle Paul has some things to say about the dangers of being idle.

But what of our current attempt to cure our boredom with frenzied multitasking? Haven’t we conflated the idea of being still and alone with being idle? We have become a culture of unremitting busyness, are proud of it, addicted to it; however, as much as it is an addiction to busyness, it is a flight from boredom. We cannot stand to be alone with ourselves. We do not know how to wait through boredom into creative activity, so we slide into ennui. The problem is that we no longer take our boredom alone. We are connected by multiple devices to an endless stream of stimuli. We are not alone and yet we are still idle. We know this isn’t working so we try yoga —I hear it works wonders, though I’ve never done it myself.

Pascal famously said that all of humanity's problems come from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone. When Kierkegaard writes that boredom is the root of evil, the cure he offers is not keeping busy. As Daniel Boorstin explains it, the only true relief “is to stay home, where the existing individual bores itself into inventiveness.”

When I get a little free time I’m going to try it.

(Photo from Fellini's La Dolce Vita)

Artists Anonymous

Vic Sizemore

drawing-hands A friend recently told me of a ninety-three year old woman she met at an art show in Denver. The woman has painted her entire life and never had an exhibition. She is happy with what she has made and doesn’t care that she hasn’t had a show.

My wife and I recently watched Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, a quiet film about the relationship of art to life. Set mostly in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the movie gazes at and muses on paintings from the European masters. The musings are voice-over narration from a security guard at the museum named Johann—at one point, he stands off to the side while a guide lectures guests at length on Bruegel. Later, as we pan across paintings on the wall, he tells us that many of the paintings are the work of artists who went unrecognized and unrewarded while alive, while others were celebrated. “They hang here side by side,” he says. He then asks if we can tell the difference between them.

The ones who remained anonymous and yet labored on are the ones who fascinate me. I think of Joseph Grand, the hapless writer in Camus’The Plague. Grand works hard every day at combatting the disease, but when he goes home in the evening he works on his novel—actually, he obsessively rewrites the first sentence of his novel, trying to perfect it before he moves on to the next. He tells the protagonist Dr. Rieux that he dreams of a day when editors will read his perfect sentence, stand up shaking their heads in appreciation and say, “hats off, gentlemen.” Yet, knowing how unlikely this is, he labors on in obscurity trying to write the perfect sentence. Rieux calls him the story’s true hero because he has a little goodness and an ideal. His ideal is simply that the work itself is important and worth doing well whether or not anyone ever stands in admiration.

Many of my friends are writers, and artists, and musicians—often all three at once—but I have friends who do various other kinds of creative work. One friend designs and sews funky children’s clothes. Many teacher friends are constantly seeking creative ways to reach their students. A couple of chef friends of mine create delicious and fun dishes. Just like me, they want recognition for what they do well; recognition is not their goal however, not the people I have in mind. They labor on at their creative work for the joy of a thing done well.

If you knew you would never receive recognition for your creative work, would you still do it?

(Drawing by M. C. Escher)

Truth: The Deeply Rooted Idea

Vic Sizemore

tree sawed This morning an arborist is cutting down a white oak beside our house. The bark of the tree had started rotting off in chunks the size of dinner plates, and it was full of ants underneath as far up as I could see. Surprisingly, the inside of the trunk looked like healthy blond wood. This was also the case with our neighbor’s tree, the one that came crashing down two years ago in what the TV news called a “severe wind event” until some meteorologist introduced them to the cool new term derecho—wind like a tornado, but straight at you instead of swirling. The roots of his tree, it turned out, were weak and had given way.

As the arborist dismembers our tree, his chainsaw growling and roaring outside, I sit at my desk with interweb chatter buzzing in my head—gun violence, same-sex marriage, healthcare reform, wealth inequality, government, religion, science. I have gotten in the habit of following a number of news feeds, and now I get a daily diet of this stuff. Not that the issues aren’t important. They are. However, more and more I fear is that, if I don’t stem the flow, it will, if not ruin, cheapen my creative work.

In his book, On Moral Fiction John Gardner instructs writers—and all artists—to go after truth instead of focusing on “important but passing concerns,” which change as cultures change. Gardner admits that many artists “who disparage the pursuit of truth” do it because they “have merely grown wary of the word’s potential for pretentiousness and moralistic tyranny…” but he maintains nevertheless that only art concerned with truth can be called moral art. How does an artist do that? Gardner writes, “… before we can get to the great idea True, an emotionally charged symbolic construct for which innumerable men and women have died, we must first stare thoughtfully and long at a tree, Old English treow, which gave us the word true (treow), the “deeply rooted” idea.” An artist who neglects the deeply rooted idea “goes not for the profound but for the clever.”

Artists have the job of unearthing the human truth that cannot be found in any other way. For example, Gardner writes, “A brilliantly imagined novel about a rapist or murderer can be more enlightening than a thousand psycho-sociological studies…” This truth is in the deep-rooted place, which requires long and thoughtful staring. How can we go deep if we are spending our days surfing the web, digging yes, but here for a bit and then there for a bit, as if flitting around the yard with a gardener’s trowel?

Contemporary issues are important, but they are not lasting—what’s more, they are not resolved at the surface, where all the heat of argument occurs. Are you obsessing over issues, or are you staring thoughtfully and long at the tree, the deeply rooted idea?

Trusting Dante

Vic Sizemore

Lakeland Terrier x Border Collie Bess scratching herself I grew up in a poor town along the Elk River in West Virginia. Elkview had no leash laws, and flea-infested mongrels ran free. We lived beside a garbage truck garage and a busy stretch of US Route 119. Dogs found the hot reek of trash irresistible, and I saw many of them ripped open by cars and strewn down the road. Hunting was also big in Elkview. It was also a town of hunters. The sight of a boy hiking toward the woods with a gun slung over his shoulder was common—also the sight of gutted deer. Memories of these things come to me every time I return to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

I think if those mongrel dogs when I read Dante’s description of souls writhing in the seventh circle of hell, plagued by fire from above and burning sand from beneath: “They were in fact, like a dog in summertime / busy, now with his paw, now with his snout, / tormented by the fleas and flies that bite him.” In reading this passage, I can imagine Dante as a boy watching, just as I did, a dog continually scratching and biting at its relentless parasites.

I think of shot and gutted deer when I read his description of one who sowed schism in life, ripped bodily in half, “from his chin to where we fart…. Between his legs his guts spilled out, with the heart / and other vital parts, and the dirty sack / that turns to shit whatever the mouth gulps down.” I know what a physical body looks like when split open and the innards dumped out; I believe our poet knows as well.

Dante intended for his writing to work on four levels: literal, allegorical, moral or didactic, and anagogical. While he saw his art this way, what makes me trust him is the fact that he has so carefully observed the literal. His descriptions are so concrete and physical that, though his characters are in this fantastical hell, they have real flesh.

In On Moral Fiction, John Gardner goes as far as to claim that a writer’s failure to pay close attention to the literal amounts to a moral shortcoming because the writer “is not deeply involved in the characters’ lives.” He maintains that, “what truth the writer might have discovered if he’d carefully followed how things really do happen we will never know.”

In my experience, though you cannot tell immediately what a fiction writer’s worldview is from her fiction, if she has cared enough to pay close attention to concrete reality, you can be sure that, whatever she tells you will contain truth and have value. The same goes for any artist—any human being—who wants to communicate with other human beings. Are you concerned with truth? Look at what is in front of you and describe what you see.

Bearing Witness

Vic Sizemore


I was not familiar with David Bazan when two friends, Joe and Marcelo, stopped by for a beer and introduced me to his album Curse Your Branches. Joe told me Bazan’s music showed him, “it was okay to not only have doubts and explore them but also to talk about them publically.” Marcelo said, “I want my ‘entertainment’ to continually wake me up.”

The songs did wake me up. It was like no Christian—or former Christian?—music I had ever heard. I was not sure what to do with it.

Bazan’s former publicist Jessica Hopper talked to some kids after he had played a set at Cornerstone, and they didn’t know what to make of him either. She writes, “many of them [seemed] to be trying to spin the new songs, straining to categorize them as Christian so they [could] justify continuing to listen to them.” One kid told her Bazan was “singing about the perils of sin, ‘particularly sexual sin.’” Another reported that the songs were “a witness of addiction, the testimony of the stumbling man.”

Witness is an apt representation, but not the kind I grew up hearing about in my small Baptist church.

At the 2009 Festival of Faith and Music, Bazan said in an interview that he always felt a tug toward something authentic, the longing to get out of “that [Christian artist] ghetto.” Plenty has been written about the need for Christians to make higher quality art, but it is about much more than quality.

In his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera discusses the aesthetics of kitsch. Kundera’s short definition of kitsch is that it is an aesthetic ideal "in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist."

Kitsch is an ethical term as much as it is an aesthetic one. In an article in Salon Curtis White calls a book “intellectually shameful.” He explains: “To be intellectually shameful is to be dishonest, to tell less than you know, or ought to know, and to shape what you present in a way that misrepresents the real state of affairs.” Dishonest art is not just aesthetically bad; it is unethical, even shameful.

Curse Your Branches is not a breezy listen—it is emotionally demanding; there is real anguish. It is deeply ethical though. Bazan looks at the world without blinking and honestly relates what he sees there—even when it is ugly.

In his words, “that's what bearing witness is.”

Passion Is Not Enough

Vic Sizemore


“I see you’re a writer,” a friend messaged me. We had just reconnected via Facebook, after being out of touch for almost twenty years. She asked if I would be willing to critique a story. “Be honest,” she told me. “Don’t pull any punches.” I was honest. Her story was full of passion and longing. It dealt with family and belonging, hurting the ones we love most, forgiveness, redemption.  It was not a very good story.

I never heard from her again, and the other day I noticed that somewhere along the way, we had stopped being Facebook friends as well.

I’ve had a number of similar experiences with amateur writers, and two things are inevitably true: the writer is wrestling with real and important subject matter, and she does not want to put in the long, hard hours required to make it something great—she wants to take a short cut.

In an interview recently, Ira Glass, talking about an artist’s apprenticeship, said, “there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good.” He went on to say most people quit before they’ve gotten through this stage of making bad art.

In the novel My Name is Asher Lev, the naturally talented Asher goes to study craft under a master painter. The gruff old man warns Asher that it is not going to be an easy apprenticeship. It will be rigorous and often not much fun—but it is the only way. He tells Asher, “Only one who has mastered a tradition has a right to attempt to add to it or to rebel against it.” You can break any rules you can get away with breaking, to paraphrase Flannery O’Conner; but you have to be doing it for a good and apparent reason, not because you don’t know any better.

Short of being born a genius, there are no shortcuts. You have things burning to be expressed? Important things to say? Be serious about your apprenticeship—learn your craft. If your passion is true, this will not extinguish your fire. It will refine it, focus it until it burns white hot and pure.