131: “The Arrogance of the Artist” (James Michener)

                “When I start one of these [writing] projects, I am pain-fully aware of my inadequacy. But the arrogance of the artist is a very profound thing, and it fortifies you.”
                -James Michener, who in his “arrogance” tried to tell pieces of history as a story; “The Michener Phenomenon,” The New York Times, September 8th, 1985

                My mother was driving. We were on our way home, and I was twelve or thirteen. Some kind of protest had closed a street. That meant traffic. Our trip probably took an extra five minutes. As we sat there I thought, frustrated, about all the people slowed down by whatever was causing the commotion. I thought about the few people who were gathered in the closed street. How many minutes, all together, was the city losing to this traffic?
                “It’s not fair for a few people to take time from everyone’s day,” I said.
                My mother gave me a sharp smile.
                “What are you doing that’s so important that you can’t spend five minutes?” she asked. “Do you know what the protest is about?”

                A few weeks ago, students, faculty, and families sat down to hear ten different students talk about their ISPs–year-long independent studies projects, which, with the support of  a faculty mentor, take an idea and explore it. This year, one of those students wanted to talk about religions: what’s shared between them, and how people with different beliefs can come together to make a better world. Depending on who you ask, students were supposed to present for somewhere between 10 and 25 minutes. This young man talked for 43.
                A lot of people were angry. A lot of people saw arrogance in the way he held them all there, sitting, while really they wanted to finish things up, congratulate the speaker, and go home. I wasn’t there, but I get that. My friend, a teacher, was there: he gives the students around here most of his life, but he also has a family. I get angry when I think about someone demanding even more time from him.
                I also know the student. I admire him. I respect him. For him, those 43 minutes were about making peace with his parents, about seeing a way for American society to heal. They were 43 minutes to acknowledge the horrors we lead ourselves into, and look for a way out.  They were a transcendent experience. My friend, the student, felt only the opportunity to teach and learn. My friend, the teacher, wanted to go home.
                Eventually I talked to the student about all this. I thought he should know the word I kept hearing: “arrogance.” And it was arrogant. My student understood that. It would have been different (he said) if people had specifically come to hear him, but they hadn’t; it was a school event. When I talked to him about arrogance, he was also, as I expected, hurt: he looked back on that night as a source of inspiration, of possibility, and I handed it back in a different light. We got mad at each other. When he insisted he would do the same thing again, I got really mad at him–how could he demand even more time from the people who gave him so much? He got mad back–we spend so much time on this award or that award, on this self-aggrandizement or that empty tradition; don’t we need time to look at an issue that’s tearing us (his family, his country) apart?
                And I’m stuck. I don’t know how to balance those. Those who presume to understand, who trust themselves to touch the world, and change it–they are arrogant, aren’t they? They risk hurting things. They should remember that. And we need them. They hope to heal.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s