“We work in the dark–we do what we can–we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” ~Henry James
Azar Nafisi cites this James quote in Reading Lolita in Tehran. In her memoir-based ruminations on James, she identifies deeply with James’ ambiguity, a trait in James’ fiction that her Iranian students find complex and difficult. She spends a couple of pages examining the problematic aspects of James’ work that frustrate and puzzle her students even as the same aspects appeal to her. She likes the doubt.
This quote, with its passionate appeal to the task of art, and its uncertainty, likewise resonates for me. My encounters with the ambiguity inherent in art stem from a set of experiences very different from Nafisi’s, and from James’. But our passions are similar in intensity, although I would probably tone down James’ phrase “the madness of art.”
Where did the doubt and the passionate “need to make a task of art” begin? I can probably come up with dozens of possible answers for myself. I’ll mention just one right now, the way I learned to feel about visual art. A framed print of the painting shown here [The Adoration of the Magi, by Fra Angelico and Lippo Lippi] hung on the wall when I was very young. It was the most fascinating object in the house. I spent what seemed like hours gazing at its details, finding the animals among the throngs of people, old men, and young women with their hair in roped braids, children and peasants and half-naked lepers amid the ruins. I knew the story well, but the way it was told in this painting engaged me more completely than any other way I’d absorbed the Christmas narrative. And it was round! It was the only round picture I’d ever seen.
This Adoration moved me, even though I was only six years old. The idealized, pastel paintings of Jesus that hung in the Sunday school rooms were bland and static by comparison; they did not make me want to love the pretty man in the clean robes. But this painting! Even the peacocks adored the Baby Jesus. And yet the picture contained more than adoration and joy. Pain was implicated–the beggars, the cripples–decay was there in the broken-down building. Horses stamped impatiently; some of the people turned away. The whole thing was full of tension and human frailty and doubt as well as gladness.
It strikes me, now, that doubt is one of our tasks; for it is through uncertainty, curiosity, mild skepticism, and a willingness to weather the problems and puzzles of ambiguity that we keep alive our passion for the task of art, to make new, to express, to challenge, and to celebrate. That is what the devoted students in Nafisi’s book manage to cling to as they read “dangerous” books in Tehran. And that’s perhaps what Henry James meant when he stated that we work in the dark.
If the madness of art exerts itself through the tasks, the doubt, and the passionate devotion to doing what we can–well, I can live with that.