In February of 1819, the poet John Keats had a good gossip session. Writing to his brother and sister-in-law in Kentucky, he related a romantic imbroglio that his friend Benjamin Bailey, a recently ordained curate, had found himself in: women jilted, friendships lost, the whole works. Then, as was his wont, Keats pivoted from bedroom farce to poetic philosophy:
A Man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory—and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life—a life like the scriptures, figurative—which such people can make out no more than they can the hebrew Bible [sic]. Lord Byron cuts a figure—but he is not figurative—Shakespeare led a life of Allegory; his works are the comments on it—
This passage, casually thrown off at the end of a chit-chatty letter, offers a new way to think about biography, art, and the relation between the two. A life, if lived well, becomes a text to be read; a work of art, if made well, becomes a gloss upon that text. In Keats’s vision, life is an aesthetic, moral, and hermeneutic enterprise. We’re called to make our lives beautiful and instructive—and then, just as crucially, we’re called to interpret the mysteries we’ve lived.
I thought of Keats’s letter when reading Greg Gerke’s brilliant book of essays, See What I See (Zerogram Press, $19.95, 296 pp.). Like Keats, Gerke sees life aesthetically and art existentially. “If some people live vicariously through others,” he writes, “other people live through art.” Gerke has no time for art as sociology or writing as Take Factory. He wants something more, something better: “The overriding ‘aliveness’ of a work of art, how it keeps speaking after time has gone by, is the only thing it owes.” How do we know if a text is alive? To channel one of Gerke’s favorite writers, Wallace Stevens, it must be abstract (that is, it must not simply reflect reality but find a form for it); it must change (of Stevens, Gerke writes, “He goes on, he goes around. A poet, in the guise of a blackbird or river, always moving”); and it must, above all, give pleasure. Gerke loves the late, great William Gass, and his criticism displays a Gass-like attention to language’s sensuousness, its smell and taste and sound. Gerke writes with style, and he demands that others do, too. As he puts it, “If you don’t have music, no-one will listen, or at least they won’t listen very hard.”
Gerke is wary of much writing that goes by the name of criticism. In seeking a quasi-scientific objectivity that is soul-crushing to read and impossible to achieve anyway, such writing forgets why we come to art in the first place: to enable an encounter that might, in some way, change us. In one essay, Gerke describes a post-college friendship with a man ten years older. The pairing was unlikely: “A Catholic Midwesterner and a Jewish New Yorker. Two people who looked like Abbott and Costello together, just with less weight on our bodies.” This friendship emerged from a running conversation about art: the fiction of Paula Fox, the films of Stanley Kubrick, the music of Thelonius Monk. “We’d insert ourselves in the story,” Gerke writes, “even if we didn’t mean to; that is, we did with literature what it can rarely do for young people studying it in school—play life experience both against and within it.” One pleasure to be found in See What I See is this sense of art as something we live against and within. As he writes, “Though it is frozen in time, art makes different appeals to our different ages. Without it, how could I make better sense of what informs my choices?” In a recent essay, the New Yorker’s art critic Peter Schjeldahl described how the privacy of aesthetic encounter leads to the intimacy of conversation: “We look at paintings, which are specific objects in specific places, as individuals, alone. We may then turn, with excitement or anxiety, to others in the hope of having our responses confirmed. Those conversations are the test of any art’s cultural vitality.” Gerke, whether talking about Gertrude Stein or Patrick White, generates interesting critical conversations and so helps keep his beloved texts alive. At one point, he writes, “It is a deep and probably inextinguishable, but elementary, tragedy when you can’t talk about the things you love with the people you love.” But what joy when you can.