On Monday I was thinking out loud about how an art-loving New Yorker might seek to profit from the knowledge that terrorists were planning to attack his home town in the near future:
It happens that my life was turned inside out in all sorts of ways in the immediate wake of 9/11, but no matter what fears I found myself facing, I almost always managed sooner or later to slip out of the fearful present and immerse myself in the blessed world of art, responding all the more passionately because of my renewed consciousness of life’s brevity. Strange that it so often takes a catastrophe, whether personal or public, to make you face a fact that was no less true on 9/10, or 9/12.
So what did I do when I heard the news on Sunday afternoon? I threw myself into correcting the page proofs of All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, which had arrived in the mail shortly before I left town for a long weekend of playgoing in Massachusetts and Washington. In a sense, I didn’t have much choice–the corrections were due on Monday—but it still struck me as odd that I should have been pouring so much mental energy into so mundane a task in the midst of an orange alert. Granted, it wasn’t as if I’d just been told that I’d be hanged the next day, but even so, correcting my proofs somehow seemed an unsuitable response to the news I’d just received.
On the other hand, what should I have been doing? Listening prayerfully to Das Lied von der Erde or the Schubert Cello Quintet? Reading a never-before-read classic—or, alternatively, rereading an especially beloved one? Looking at and meditating on the contents of the Teachout Museum? What would you do if you knew you had only a day to live? A week? A year? If a piece of unfinished work rested reproachfully on your desk, would you feel obliged to finish it? If you knew you couldn’t get it done in the time remaining, would you try to do as much as you could? Or would you put it aside, smiling wryly at the vanity of human wishes, and spend your last hours communing with better minds than your own?
I wish I could say I stopped to ask myself one or more of these questions, but I didn’t. When duty calls, philosophy must wait. I rolled up my sleeves and went to work, and at some point in the middle of the night I corrected the last page of All in the Dances, e-mailed my changes to the San Diego office of Harcourt, Inc., put the proofs aside, and fell into bed, there to sleep fitfully for what remained of Sunday night and Monday morning.
Needless to say, no truck bombs exploded in Manhattan on Monday, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time since then reflecting on first and last things. It occurred to me somewhere along the way that I’d just learned a valuable lesson about my personal priorities, one neither good nor bad but simply revealing. After all, I don’t have any illusions about All in the Dances. It’s a short critical biography of a great choreographer, not a philosophical treatise, and while I do think it’s a damned good book, I can’t imagine that it’ll be read a hundred years hence, nor would I dream of suggesting that its publication will help make the world a significantly better place. So why did I work so hard on it at what might reasonably have been thought to be an inappropriate time? Because I believe deeply in the ennobling sanctity of craft. Because I agree with Ecclesiastes’ preacher: Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might. Because it’s mine.
I was watching Howard Hawks’ Red River yesterday afternoon, a film in which John Wayne has occasion to “read from the Book” over the grave of a man he has just shot to death. He says what movie cowboys usually say on such grim occasions: “We brought nothing into this world, and it’s certain we can carry nothing out.” As the Duke spoke those words, I looked up from the TV screen at the prints hanging on the wall of my living room. I can’t take them with me, either, and though I’ve arranged to leave them to friends in the event of my death, those well-laid plans would very likely go awry if terrorists struck anywhere near my Upper West Side apartment. Were I to flee for my life, I might possibly think to cram my smallest work of art, a painted tile by Nell Blaine, into my shoulder bag—but probably not. More likely I’d lock the door, run like hell, and never see any of the Teachout Museum again.
Is it, then, a foolish vanity for me to be correcting proofs and collecting art at a time like this? Or is it a pledge of allegiance to the dual republic of beauty and craft? “Art, which resists decay, and the summer lightning of happy love, are all that we can cling to in our lives.” So said Alexander Herzen, and I think he was pretty close to the mark. Perhaps nobody will care to read All in the Dances a hundred years hence, but now that I’ve finished correcting the proofs, Harcourt can and will bring it out even if I get blown up by a truck bomb or choke on a piece of steak, thereby making it possible for somebody, somewhere, to read my posthumously published words and be inspired to go see his first Balanchine ballet. That’s a good thing, don’t you think? And as for the Teachout Museum, it may indeed be destroyed by fire or picked over by looters, but until that dread day it will continue to give pleasure to me and to my guests—and, should it survive me, to my heirs and assigns.
At any rate, I’m finished with All in the Dances. Or, to be exact, almost finished. I still have to write the dust-jacket copy and sign off on the photo insert. Just two more things to do, both of which could be omitted in a pinch, and my next book can go to press. Ecclesiastes’ preacher had something to say about that, too: And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh. He sure got that right.