On the second day of a trek into the Sawtooth Wilderness, in Idaho, we were all invited to spend twenty-four hours by ourselves…very soon, although the day was bright and unthreatening, I was cowering in my tent. Apparently, all it took for me to become aware of the emptiness of life and the horror of existence was to be deprived of human company for a few hours…What enabled me to stick it out – and to feel, moreover, that I could have stayed alone for longer than a day – was writing.

Jonathan Franzen. “Farther Away”. The New Yorker: 18 April 2011, p. 83.

Franzen, and his friend David Foster Wallace, shared the belief that the novel (writing) is a response and antidote to loneliness. In this essay, he asserts that he was able to enter community more easily after having responded to his loneliness by writing. Franzen ends by going back to a community of sorts, after his retreat into the wilderness, with a gained understanding of his friend’s despair.

Put that next to Wallace’s most recently (post-humously) published story in the New Yorker, in which a young boy begins a years-long quest to kiss every single inch of his own body – where the boy retreats further and further away from the community into this absolute solitude. 

Question: What does this say about art? Tolstoy, an influence on Franzen, maintains that Art is a primary “means of intercourse between man and man” – that the “capacity of a man to receive another man’s expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself” is the basis of art. So for Franzen, to write (make art) is to respond to and overcome loneliness, and to experience community with man. Whereas, for Wallace, art became a way to indulge in loneliness; be utterly alone (which may speak to his intentional inaccessibility; impossible vocabulary, etc. although I’m unqualified to make a real claim there).

Andy Crouch makes the observation, in his contribution to “For the Beauty of the Church”, that God created man and culture for each other, and after the Fall, mankind exploits and perverts culture by covering himself/herself with fig leaves. “[Culture] becomes a defensive measure, an instrumental use of the world to ward off the world’s greatest threat – the threat, suddenly a threat, of being known, of trusting one’s fellow creatures and one’s Creator.” Culture can be used as an attempt to reach back to the community of Eden – pointing toward the Gospel; or culture can be exploited in order to keep from being known – a fig leaf smokescreen.

For further reading, David O. Taylor has an interesting article on the development of artists in community here.

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