My trip to the Village to hear Julia Dollison was the fourth time I’d set foot in a nightclub since getting out of the hospital last December. I can remember when I went to hear live jazz at least twice a month, and usually more.
It’s not just jazz, either. Just the other day I read Jay Nordlinger’s New Criterion chronicle of his favorite classical-music concerts and operatic performances of the 2005-06 season, and was startled to realize that I hadn’t attended any of them. Since December I’ve heard two concerts, seen two dance performances, and gone to the opera once. Nor have I been to a single movie, even though I very much wanted to see Art School Confidential and Nacho Libre (not to mention The Lady in the Water, in which an actress I know has a featured role). And with the exception of my regular Wall Street Journal and Commentary columns and the postings on this blog, I’ve published only one piece.
At first my semi-sabbatical was motivated by an understandable desire to stay out of the hospital. Then I got wrapped up in my Louis Armstrong biography, which failing health had forced me to put aside for several months. After that the theater season started its downhill run to the announcement of the Tony nominations, and all at once I was seeing a minimum of three shows each week, which didn’t leave me much time to do anything else. Now I’m hitting the road once or twice a month to cover regional theater companies.
My plate, in short, is full. I’m no invalid. Yet I feel restless and out of touch, not so much with the world of art–I’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s out there–as with the steady flow of immediate artistic experience on which I’ve been nourishing myself for the past couple of decades. To put it another way, I used to be a boulevardier, and now I’m not.
Might that be a good thing? It’s no secret that I’m a workaholic, and the frequency with which I once spent my nights on the town was a symptom of what finally turned into a life-threatening problem. Two years ago, at the height of my performance-going frenzy, a fellow blogger posted this cautionary item:
Critic Terry Teachout
Consumes Too Much Art,
MANHATTAN–In news that has the arts world reeling, Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout exploded yesterday after consuming too much art.
In New York, art lovers are asking whether the fatal tragedy could have been prevented.
According to one art historian, “Most critics don’t eat art. But it has been known to happen from time to time. What’s surprising in this case is that Teachout actually wrote about his strange proclivities on the Internet.”
Now that I’m well again, I have no intention of returning to my past state of life, not merely for the sake of staying alive but also for the sake of my soul. I used to fill my waking hours with so much aesthetic experience that it left next to no room for the contemplation without which the mere accumulation of experience can have no meaning.
On the other hand, I’m not cut out to be a full-time contemplative. I don’t claim to have any original ideas of my own. I was born to celebrate other people’s ideas, both as a critic and as a biographer. As Kenneth Tynan put it:
I see myself predominantly as a lock. If the key, which is the work of art, fits snugly into my mechanism of bias and preference, I click and rejoice; if not, I am helpless, and can only offer the artist the address of a better locksmith. Sometimes, unforeseen, a masterpiece seizes the knocker, batters down the door, and enters unopposed; and when that happens, I am a willing casualty. I cave in con amore. But mostly I am at a loss.
In order to be unlocked with sufficient regularity, I have to be out and about. What’s more, I want to be, so long as I don’t kill myself in the process. The trouble is that striking balances doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m a head-first guy, an enthusiast who jumps first and looks on the way down. Right now I’m not doing enough. Next month I may be doing too much. Somewhere in between manic activity and paralytic passivity lies the point of equipoise that I seek–in vain, of course. Equipoise is for teeter-totters. Real life is full of earthquakes. The trick, I’ve decided, is not to bounce around too much, or get knocked off too soon, and I think I can manage that without staying home five nights a week.
To this end, I put down my tools Wednesday afternoon, jumped in a cab, and headed over to Salander-O’Reilly Galleries to see a pair of exquisite small paintings by Albert Kresch, then down to the International Center for Photography for a long-deferred look at Unknown Weegee. After a healthy bite to eat at a noodle shop, I walked to Madison Square Park and took in a free outdoor concert by Fred Hersch and Kate McGarry, two jazz musicians whom I admire greatly and hadn’t seen for at least a year. As if to express approval of my venture, a cool breeze blew the cloying humidity out of the park just as Fred struck up “At the Close of the Day,” one of his most beautiful compositions. Not too shabby for a boulevardier emerging from temporary semi-retirement–and I even got home by nine!
I think I can live with that.