Franzen, Freedom and f—cking

One of the most radical notions my production company plays with, is that there is no such thing as good art. Neither is there such a thing as bad art. Not everyone in the White Pines family agrees with this point of view, which is one that I espouse. This position has a simple source: the acknowledgment that all appreciation of art is subjective, and any attempt to separate art into two opposed categories of “good” and “bad” rely equally on subjective distinctions, usually dressed up the borrowed authority of academic degrees or the faux status of position, like “newspaper critic.” An artist, or a work of art, can be lazy, unprepared, inaudible, incoherent – but these are specific observations, not blanket value judgements.

There is an active debate in the cultural community between curators – who seek to separate the wheat from the chaff –  and promoters – who are interested in selling the bread, all kinds of bread. White Pines likes to keep an eye on what these distinctions do to money, and in the case of curators vs. promoters, the curators are usually the guardians of philanthropic money, making sure that it is only spent on good art. Promoters, on the other hand, live more comfortably in the free market, in which the money follows the masses and value judgments are extraneous. So you can see how these two positions are fiercely at odds. The curator’s (or critic’s) very livelihood depends on the culture acknowledging their criteria for distinguishing between good and bad art. Otherwise, they become irrelevant. The promoter wishes for a marketplace unconstrained by acquired aesthetic distinctions, for fear that those distinctions will lead the masses away from the event they are promoting. But look at me – I have written myself on to a tangent about art, judgment and money, when what I wanted to write about was the novel Freedomby Jonathan Franzen, and the powerful effect it had on me.

Jonathan Franzen

It was precisely that powerful effect that got me thinking about good and bad art. In the month since I have finished the novel, I have spoken to many friends about it, and have heard responses from “Me too!”, to “I hated those people, I put the book down at page 136”, to “it was okay, but I’m not fond of his writing style”. In the face of such a variety of responses, one has a choice. One can say, essentially, we’re all different and that’s just fine; or, my friends who disliked that masterpiece are clearly uncultured philistines. There is an extension of that latter position: that my friends who disliked the book just don’t understand it, because they haven’t been taught well, which really isn’t their fault, poor dears. But finally I have come to the point where what other people think about art is less important to me than what the art does to me. And I felt like this book was written just for me.

I can think of several instances in which a work of art shook me to my core, and I came away from the encounter feeling altered (which is different from happy), as if the artist(s) I had just encountered had reached into my life and re-arranged the Very Important Issues, and I had been changed in some private and essential way. One was sitting in the Louvre in 1986 staring at Van Gogh’s paintings. I felt faint, trembly. I got weepy and embarrassed and didn’t know why. I had gone there because when in Paris, you should go to the Louvre. I had no history with Van Gogh. I entered that part of the gallery and was blindsided by the living force of his paintings. Later, I discerned that I had been touched by a dead person. In Vincent’s thick, tactile brushstrokes I had come to understand the immortality of art. Rilke did this to me too, when, at 18, I read Letters To a Young Poet and had to put the slender book down every few pages and take some deep breaths. Van Gogh spoke to me at particular moment in my life and that was that. Rilke has continued to speak to me across the many peaks and valleys of my journey.

And of course there have been the plays. Peter Books’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1969 (I was seven). A production of Buried Child at the Body Politic Theatre in Chicago in 1980. Balm in Gilead at Circle Rep NYC in the mid eighties. The Well Being at The Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh Fringe 1995. Angels in America, pt. 1 the Walter Kerr Theater, Broadway, early nineties. In each case I remember thinking: I didn’t know it could be like this – I always want it to be like this. Then there was the musical Spring Awakening a few years back, when my wife and I began crying in the balcony a few measures into the first song and continued, snotty and sobbing, on and off for the entire show, pausing at intermission to look at each other bewildered and ask, what the fuck just happened to us? This is one the few times that the transformational power of art has had nearly the same effect on another person close to me at the same time (i.e. not just someone else in the audience). This happened to the two of us also at The Well Being.

The lovers asleep in the Brook production

So what did happen? What is it that occurs when a work of art effects us so? Is it the greatness of the art? I think not, as I do not subscribe to the concept of artistic greatness. No, I think it has as much to do with us as it does with the art. In each of the cases I have mentioned there was something happening in my life which was tended to by the artist(s) in a way which was personal, gorgeous and surprising. It was as if Van Gogh had painted those stars just for me at that moment in my young adult life and was saying, here Benjamin, here is what you want to be. Rene Rilke read my mind across time and space and spoke to my deepest concerns and questions in language that was, to me, like music. And Jonathan Franzen has written a book which has spoken to me with an equal force, but this time not about the aspirations of youth, but the messiness and compromise of middle-age.

In one of the many ways aesthetic judgments are impossible, the ideas which made Freedom powerful for me may not be the ones that made it powerful for you, if you found it powerful at all. To me, it is a book about modern marriage, and the hopeless, unfair and unrealistic constraint it puts on those of us who have attempted, like the married protagonists Walter and Patty, to live according to its dimly articulated rules. I found the character of Patty deeply affecting: her goodness, her woundedness, her desire and her shame. After conforming to a cultural norm that feels less like a choice and more like an edict, she finds herself trapped. Here is where the title of the book lives. What does “freedom” mean in the context of a modern marriage? And are the ones we think of as free (single and wandering) really free?

Walter and Patty remind me of many marriages I know, including mine. Smart and progressive, they seem like the last people who should be hung up on old-fashioned notions like sexual fidelity. But Franzen does a great job in describing the visceral, animal powers which have given rise to those notions, and how those notions are an attempt to keep those powers in check. He affirms that those “lower” powers don’t go away in middle age, and our attempts at ignoring or repressing them are self-destructive. He writes about sex with a kind of frankness and lack of sentimentality I find refreshing, and the scene of Patty and Richard at the lake house was simultaneously some of the sexiest writing I have ever read and also the saddest. Sad, not because of the true and life-affirming explosion of passion they share, but because of the destruction they know that explosion will wreak upon their lives, and the lives of those they love. Sad, because almost as soon as it is accomplished, they begin to live in the gnawing shadow of shame. And it is shame that forms the walls of the conventional marriage.

I hated Richard, by the way. Not because he is not true, but because he represents a kind of man I have always fantasized of being: a rock and roll cowboy and cocksman who women find irresistible. There are such men in the world. I know some of them. They are not evil or bad; it’s just how their lives have made them. I am not one of them. I say this with only a trace of regret, because I recognize myself much more in Walter: grandiose, full of big ideas, always trying to be the good guy. It sucks to see yourself so plainly in a novel. But it made it clear to me that in a choice between Richard’s “freedom” and Walter’s “obligation”, I will choose Walter’s path in a heartbeat. Not necessarily because I want to, but rather because, for better or for worse, it is how my life has made me.

And yet, I have been able to make some distinctions. One of the hallmarks of a transformational encounter with art is that it continues to work on you for a while after the encounter. It moves inside you and you carry it around for bit, sometimes (as with me and Rilke) for the rest of your life. In the wake of my encounter with Freedom some things have become clearer to me. I am not exactly Walter, for instance. He and I relate to family a little differently. He is more polemical than I. And in the marriage dynamic, I am more like Patty.

I see Freedom as another part of a larger cultural conversation going about what marriage is. Part of the tragedy in the book is that Walter and Patty have no way to navigate the unforeseen changes human beings go through, without destroying everything they have made together. Conservatives will say, well then what they had built wasn’t very good, was it? Actually, it was very good. It was, in fact, the best it could possibly be, as are most marriages between two essentially noble, and essentially flawed people, in other words – most marriages. What is tragic is the yoke of duality we suffer from. As in the distinction between “good” and “bad” art, there is also a false choice between a “good” and “bad” marriage. A good marriage is between monogamous partners who present a unified and happy partnership to the world over the course of many years. A bad marriage ends in divorce. It seems that those are still the only two choices in the normative-hetero world people like me and Patty live in. The gay community, generally, has a much more evolved and sensible take on sex and commitment, which is that they are separate issues. We live in a hyper-sexualized culture, which has the odd effect of making sexuality both very commonplace, and simultaneously A Big Deal. Sex becomes a sickness (which I write about here) when it is wrenched way from from it’s source – love – and turned into a sport with winners and losers, or a form of compulsive, numbing behavior.

Can you be “married” and be intimate, loving, sexual with other people? That is one of the shame boundaries around the conventional marriage, and one of the “freedoms” Franzen is exploring. Surprisingly, his answer is yes, but at great emotional cost to everyone involved. He does a wonderful job of not passing judgment on anyone, and the “infidelity” in the novel are scenes of great tenderness and deep feeling. They are also occasionally raunchy, sexy, lusty and hot – all the real and affirming things sex can be, but not, perhaps, after 15 years of marriage. The novel left me wondering, why does it have to be this way? Why this dualistic, either/or choice, the choice that brought down my parents’ marriages over and over, and which is bringing down my friends’ marriages now.

Recently, I went to a ball game with a male friend going through a divorce. He recounted his father, an alcoholic, staring him drunkenly in the face when he was young and saying “This is who I will always be”. Later, my friend knew it was as much the need to anesthetize himself from the paralysis of his marriage that led his dad to drink, as it was the nuts and bolts of alcoholism. “I don’t want that to happen to me,” my friend said. Is that the choice? A life of self-medication to escape the agony of entrapment and crushed desire? Because the only other option is the “nuclear option”, of ruining the home and family you and your spouse have created? This is the hell Patty and Walter find themselves in. It is a choice I find suspicious.

Sometimes divorce is the right thing to do, no question about it. Sometimes you find yourself in a situation which is unsafe, or which is making things worse than the relief of separation. I know some kids who have said they are glad mom and dad got divorced, and I believe them. But what of the vast grey area in between the pink cloud of early marriage and the bleak and angry territory before divorce? On a hot night several summers ago, my wife and I met in the backyard after the kids were asleep, to decide whether or not to stay married. It was an awful night. We both knew we didn’t want to get divorced, and we both know we were miserable, and we didn’t know what to do about any of it. It was during that encounter that I first learned the phrase “co-parenting”, which denotes a family unit based on the raising of children and not on a romantic attachment between partners. It does not denote a lack of love, but rather an change of love. It does not imply an equal assessment of the union either, and at the time I rejected the notion outright. So in we went to counseling, the first of two year-long bouts refereed by one or another middle-aged woman, who stared at us in sympathy as we unpacked our betrayal, disappointment and rage, and offered no solutions.

Years later, I took off my wedding in front of my wife and said, calmly, it feels more truthful this way. Are you okay with that? She said yes, and said she would keep hers on, was I okay with that? I said yes. We told each other we loved each other, and we wanted to stay married, but I at least needed a way to acknowledge the sea-change we had passed through. That ring is a powerful symbol, and I wasn’t comfortable any longer with what I knew others felt that ring implied. One of our wedding vows was to help the other “become what they are becoming”, and what we have become is more like brother and sister. But we rejected the notion that this meant we had to divorce and ruin the home we and our children love so much. We went in search of a middle way which granted each the kinds of freedoms Franzen explores in his book, but we remained committed to raising kids together. We are searching still.

Freedom demonstrates the awful set-up modern marriage is. The fact is we have outgrown the marriages of our parents and grandparents. In my case, my parents were not terribly good at being married so I was determined to “get it right”. But whether you are marrying in reaction to a perception that your parents failed somehow, or in imitation of their union, you have still inherited an outdated template. I am not the first to recognize this – far from it. Many married people in the country are trying to invent a new paradigm – a loving union based on making a home, not an orgasm. The cynical term is “divorced and living together”. Another term I abhor is “open marriage”. Both seem to me to belittle and reduce an immensely brave and loving commitment to sound-bite slogans.

Around the time I first read Rilke, I went to a marriage of two theater friends, accompanied by some other theater friends. In the group I went with was a terribly attractive and worldly young woman, who simultaneously scared the shit out of me and aroused me endlessly. “Don’t you love weddings?” I said to her, in the throes of some stupidly romantic spasm. “Oh God no,” she said, “I hate the whole thing.” She then proceeded to deconstruct the patriarchal history of marriage, in which women were property exchanged by men, and ended by saying she would never, ever be married. I was dumbfounded, and wanted to bed her immediately. That never happened. But perhaps she had a lasting impact, since years later in the marriage vows my wife and I labored over during the course of a week in the month leading up to our wedding, we decided not to put in any vows about sexual fidelity. It was a careful and reasoned choice, believing as we did, in the midst of our mad, mad love for each other, that our union would not be broken apart by a choice we made with our genitals. How naive we were. Or were we? Maybe it was a prescient act of foresight.

And yet, Franzen’s book is much too complete and detailed to be simply a treatise about marriage. The main characters are complex and have a deeply interwoven history which informs the heartbreak of the story. There are numerous sub-plots, some involving addiction, some involving Patty and Walter’s children, some involving politics and environmentalism which have value all their own, and little to say about marriage. The sum of it all to me was a window into a world which I recognized, not as my own, but one related to me. And the force of the book’s impact had as much to do with where I am now, as it did with anything “good” about Franzen’s writing. So to was Spring Awakening some kind of farewell my wife and I were bidding to our wild and passionate youth, or maybe to an era in our love which was over, as we cried our way through that matinee. This is the dirty little secret all creative people know and only a few will admit: that the success of what they make has as much to do with the witness as with the creator.

It is dualism – either/or, win/lose, good/bad, married/divorced – which is making us unhappy. So let us look for openness and acceptance in all our relationships, and not be bound by the conventions we don’t even realize are guiding us. This will take faith. But one of the many things Rilke taught me about faith is to care less about the answers and to live in the questions: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Rainier Maria Rilke, 1875 – 1926

At our wedding, we read a different quote from the same little book of Rilke’s that changed my life. Rilke had an unconventional relationship to marriage. He took a lover – Lou Andreas Salome – while married, and she unlocked him. But he and his wife Clara remained married and in touch, and some of his greatest letters he wrote to her, even after he had left her on his quest to become what he was becoming:

“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”