Art Versus Life Debate – Is Marriage An Interference?

Recently read Henry James’s short story The Lesson of The Master. Underlying theme being whether an artist can pursue perfection alongside a ‘normal’ family life. Let’s dwell on that after introducing the story.

The Lesson of the MasterThe story revolves around three simple and fictional literary characters – Mr. St. George (an old and celebrated author, being the master here), Paul Overt (a young novelist, admires St. George but can see through his failings, despite the glamour around him), and Ms. Fancourt (an ardent reader of both, both are in awe of her beauty and, she is very young). I would not dwell into the plot as it is irrelevant, both for the purpose of this post and probably, the story itself. There are just three events that defines the author’s purpose – one, when St. George gives Mr. Overt a short speech regarding his own failure as an artist and the spark of that possibility he could see in Overt. Relying on this, Overt travels to Switzerland, stays there for two years to finish his next book. Second, when Mrs. St. George dies, Mr. George writes Overt a letter expressing great remorse and loss, very inconsistent with his last speech. Third, when, on his return, Overt finds out that St. George and Ms. Fancourt are getting married, he starts doubting the validity of master’s lesson as well as the possibility of the whole thing being a plot to dupe him. However, the story ends with St. George sticking to his speech and Overt sticking to his resolve to achieve perfection, at least for the time being.

In that great speech, St. George declares that an artist’s purpose is to draw “from his intellectual instrument the finest music the nature has hidden in it, of having played it as it should be played. He either does that or he doesn’t – and if he doesn’t he isn’t worth speaking of“. Elsewhere he says “The artist has to do only with that (gold) – he knows nothing of any baser metal“. When Overt questions him further, specially as to why he had said that children were a curse, St. George rambles, “On the supposition that a certain perfection’s possible and even desirable – isn’t it so? Well, all I say is that one’s children interfere with perfection. One’s wife interferes. Marriage interferes“.

Overt wanting to leave no doubt as to his perception asks him directly, if he thought artists should not marry; and St. George says they would do so at their own peril. Overt : Not even when his wife is in sympathy with his work? St. George : She never is, she can’t be! Women haven’t a conception of such things. Later during the conversation, Overt: Are there no women who really understand – who can take part in a sacrifice? St. George : How can they take part? They themselves are the sacrifice.

Mostly, one would tend to agree. It’s no new theme in literature. Man’s business is art, creativity and women’s primary business is men. This is no male chauvinist pig speaking. Shaw in his play Man and SupermanMan and Supermanhas dealt with this (and many other themes) in good humour and style. Someone as free and individualistic a women as Ayn Rand believed that women’s primary business was a man. A women’s conception of heroism is always through a man. But then, are not these two contradictory – that man is hindered in his artistic pursuit by marriage and that women need men for fulfilment of their own artistic hunger. I do not have an answer, I can only say that the problem lies in looking for the right pair, and that remains the most difficult pursuit amongst daily chores.

However, I personally believe that a man’s primary business of being an artist can only be fulfilled if a corresponding need for a man-hero exists among women. For, to insist artists to stay away from propagation of race is to want to lower our genetic pool to non-existence.

But even to the possibility of a perfectly understanding, compatible, and artistic lady being a non-interfering wife for the artist is given a jolt by this very valid argument by Henry James :

Overt asks what if she has ‘a passion for the real thing, for good work – for everything you and I care for most‘. St. George laughs and replies, “‘You and I’ is charming, my dear fellow! She has it indeed, but she would have a still greater passion for her children – and very proper too. She would insist on everything’s being made comfortable, advantageous, propitious for them. That isn’t the artist’s business“. To this, I don’t think there is an answer. Moderation, probably seeps in the best of women after marriage and moderation is no virtue for an artist. At one place, James’s fictional master says, “He (artist) must be able to be poor“. I guess, he should be able to moderate selectively too. I don’t know if that is possible, but that seems to be the only possibility. Doesn’t it?

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2 responses to “Art Versus Life Debate – Is Marriage An Interference?

  1. booksandmusings

    I am sorry my friend because when I first read this, I shrugged and said, Men!. But the question kept nagging me – Is marriage an interference?

    The truth is – that it is an interference. But there are certain things about women that are unchangeable – especially her love for her children and her natural instinct to protect them and demand that the man do the same. In this respect, one can only say that the artist is a little more than a monkey and therefore he has needs greater than that of society, of family and children.

    Monkeys especially males become all the more protective of the female once the child is born, probably to protect lineage/parentage. There are some species where the father is the one who protects and the mother’s only job is to breastfeed the monkeys.

    Men are a specie that are capable of thinking and want that to be their ultimate goal.

    Women on the other hand, think only upto the point that life permits them (Exceptions are there in both the scenarios). The very same artist after siring children will wonder why he never gave them any of his time. Will see in hindsight that he should have probably raised them with the woman he condemned as devoid of creativity and the will to create, to think and to write. Thus, the woman is unable to think beyond her children and man beyond his aspiration of creativity.

    There is no question of a perfect match here. The woman will change after she has children. A prudent man should understand that and a prudent woman will understand the man’s need to be by himself in his quest for creativity. She keeps the child for him, till such time he comes back on his own and only wins his respect and love. She has made no sacrifice. She had known of the man’s limitation to handle both lives and she has let him live it the way he wants. Neither the children, nor the man will understand each other.

    Unfortunately, this is the reality and the truth is that the artist immediately becomes an ineffecient human being on knowing or identifying his creative capacity.

    As far as the woman satisfying her creative pursuit through the man – her pursuit does not end in the man. Her pursuit is relinquished with the man. The woman identifies the man’s creative genius and gives way to its expression by being with him and not being with him. Her creativity is utilised in a seemingly lesser end – the upbringing of her children. She accomplishes all these tasks with grace and devotion. She has only two tools – her undying love for the man and the patience with which she waits for him to realize what life is.

  2. Doubtful. As a female director and producer, I have had no fewer than four specific men attempt to interfere with and destroy my creativity as a woman. Two directly threatened the tools I use in my career, one attempted to destroy a film I was directing, and one, my father, literally wrote “the end” across a story I had written as a child and burned it and my other stories in the fireplace after lighting them with gasoline.

    The true destroyers of creativity are men, not women. Men compete with the creativity of other men. When they see it in women, they attempt to destroy it.

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