Dylan’s words keep rolling around in my head, as I prepare to become a rolling stone again. It’s a feeling that both of us know, because both of us are artists. So many of his songs end up being about the journey of the artist, forever disassociated from any kind of community, any kind of culture. The only way to critique a culture is from the outside. The artist, of necessity, must disassociate herself from a community in order to have the distance to create.
In college my favorite professor gave a lecture about Alfred, Lord Tennyson, that most maligned of Victorian poets. Maligned by me, perhaps only because Anne of Green Gables was such a big fan. But Tennyson did coin the phrase “nature, red in tooth and claw,” a much more accurate response to the world than the gooey romanticism of Wordsworth and Coleridge. The lecture centered around “The Lady of Shalott,” the cursed weaver, doomed forever to create an imitation of the world without ever participating in it. She watches the river and road that pass by her window, only able to observe through the screen of a mirror, weaving her web.
Eventually, seduced by a knight's beauty, she looks out her window, directly engaging with the world. Immediately:
“Out flew the web and floated wide--
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
'The curse is come upon me,' cried
The Lady of Shalott.”
Her art, and her life, destroyed.
The first time I heard the argument, I warred against it. No, I said. An artist’s job is to experience life fully, and then channel that life into her work.
As I’ve aged, my doubt has grown. The more I directly engage with the world, the less time I have to devote to craft. Writers from the past, even those acclaimed as great adventurers, spent far more time hiding away from the world, hermits alone with their desks. As I step away from my life here, I think to myself that perhaps that’s what I'm doing now. Retreating to my snow tower and observing the world through a mirror. As life without internet access can only be understood in this day and age.