delighting, and originality
Upstate New York, in a little state school, a wiry math professor looked over his desk. His desk was covered with books, his walls were covered with papers, pinned by little thumb tacks. “Well, thanks for the office hours, Mr. Ross. Hope you have a nice weekend. Anything fun planned?” He brushed his too long hair to the side, and from the corner of his mouth, he murmured “I’m doing what I’m always trying to do. I’m going to try and have an original thought in math.”
Walking out of his office, I reflected on those heavy words. “I’m going to try and have an original thought.” From the lips of this man, those words were so weighty, so burdensome, so awful. “…An original thought,” as if life had nothing else to offer. As if Einstein actually sat around and tried to think of an original thought. As if Pythagorus was just trying to be original. His words sparked a sense of academic indignation in me, though I couldn’t quite articulate my irritation.
A decade later, I was selected by an arts council to be a judge for a body of works by high school artists from across Suffolk County. The first, second, and third prizes awarded would be sent to the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. To my eyes, much of the work was contrived and calculated, and clearly was the result of a cooperation between a savvy art teacher, and a willing student. And yet, some of the work I found to be engaging, and could see that the emotion was actually felt by the artist. Having made my selection, a congressman stood in front of the group and announced the recipients. He spoke in a rehearsed, dry manner, and made some plug for office. He turned to me and said “And here is the judge, Kevin McEvoy. Is there anything you would like to add?”
I was on the spot. I had no speech prepared, no witticism in my holster. Stripped of all preparations, I began. “I just wanted to speak to all of you today about delighting. Do you know what it is to delight in something?” The room was quiet. It was hard for the audience to make the shift from the left brain congressman, to the right brained artist. “Delighting is something which can never be given to you, something which can ever taken away from you. A child delights in a slug’s slimy trail. A prisoner delights in a bird on the wall of his cell window. A man delights in the curve of the underside of a woman’s jaw. That is the whole of art. If I can offer direction, today, it’s that all of humanity has the capacity to delight. But in modern times, art has become about conquering, specifically in the intellectual sense of originality. The “Original Thought,” is an awful detour that we’ve all been taken on. True art has always been about delighting, even if delighting was somehow, paradoxically, dealing with pain. But now, art is brainspun, and aspires towards the original statement. But this is a fad, by an overly intellectualized society. The brain is an organ, so is the heart- but the greatest art is a synthesis of the whole man. Awards can go out to this and that, as no judge is unbiased, nor am I. But, nobody can ever take away delighting from you. It’s impossible. Continue to delight, whether you are a poor unknown, or a famous somebody. Delight, and true art will come.”
The speech somehow brought out of me the answer to that math professor’s despairing statement. He never would come up with an original thought, in math, if he wasn’t in awe of the universe. Isaac Newton wasn’t trying to be new, he was delighting in the synthesis of disparate notions. Luther wasn’t trying to be original, he was inspired by the uncompromising application of scripture. Robert Frost wasn’t trying to be the first, he was wringing the rag of creation, for every metaphorical application to human existence. Tolstoy wasn’t preoccupied with an unprecedented statement, but with the conflict and resolution of worlds residing within humanity’s nature. Cecilia Beaux wasn’t trying to be the first, she was simply saw beauty in the mundane. The irony is that, by delighting, all of these individuals were original.
“The way a crow
shook down on me,
The dust of snow
from a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
change in mood,
And saved some part
of a day I had rued.”