by Liz Harmer
A. and I were arguing on the patio of a 20s-themed cocktail bar. Live music from a jazz quartet filtered toward us. Couples took photos of each other, small whisky-based drinks in hand. Three women arrived in heavy makeup; eyebrows, lashes, lips dark and exaggerated. I had been trying to live more like Paterson, the poet from Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, and to see, feel, and hear everything with affection and quiet interest. Soon, however, I’d had my own whiskey-based cocktail, and my actual way of being—overly charged engagement in everything—took over.
A. and I often read the same books so that we can discuss them; talk about art and politics, about marriage and children and men, about sexuality, ideas and ambitions. We are both on the cusp of publishing our first books, mine a novel and hers a scholarly book on Hegel, and we’ve also discussed the emotional fallout of having books accepted for publication. But I feared that I had become more disagreeable over the past few months since Trump’s election, that I had become slightly more off-kilter than usual, less in control of my emotions, and (I worried) a little bit insufferable.
A. had been talking about having to deal with people who underestimate women. Misogyny, everywhere, that assumed that a woman as young and glamourous as A. couldn’t also be a serious person. I knew the frustration of this well, but I was feeling briefly and brashly anti-accomplishment and so I said something thoughtless, to be agonized over later:
“But who cares what anybody thinks? If they can’t see it, who cares?” Wasn’t it better to know your own value, your own talent, your own mind?
But how were you meant to become acquainted with your own value, talent, or mind?
“A few people might be able to live without any kind of affirmation,” A. said, “but they would have to be mad to a certain degree.”
A few months earlier we’d had a different discussion on a different patio with different cocktails. This one regarded two films: Paterson and Damien Chazelle’s La La Land.
In the middle of La La Land, Emma Stone’s Mia prepares a one-woman play while Ryan Gosling’s Seb tours with his pop-jazz band whose music doesn’t resemble the kind of jazz Seb had hoped to play. He is a “serious musician,” he has told Mia. Seb is pure; even the idea of combining samba and tapas in the same club affronts his taste. His seriousness is superstitious: he reveres the stool once sat on by a jazz great.
The film wavers. Sometimes it mocks this belief in greatness-auras and elsewhere it endorses it. Seb’s love for Mia nearly tosses him off course forever: he disastrously decides to join the pop-jazz band instead of buying the impossible club he’s been planning to open because he believes it will impress her. When Seb signs his contract with the band it feels Faustian, or at least Little Mermaid-esque, a sense that he has made some horrible mistake. As A.O. Scott writes, La La Land demonstrates “that the drive for professional success is, for young people at the present time, both more realistic and more romantic than the pursuit of boy-meets-girl happily-ever-after. Love is contingent. Art is commitment.” Seb doubles the protagonist in Chazelle’s earlier Whiplash who fully and somewhat repulsively seeks bloody-knuckled greatness over human relationships. Should love come before art, these movies ask us, or art before love? What if you believe in greatness? Don’t artists have to be monsters in order to be great?
Mia pursues her dream with its risks of humiliation, and Seb begins to spend all of his time on the road with the band. Seeing him play, she recoils in campy horror: why is he playing in a band whose music he doesn’t believe in?
What am I supposed to do, he asks, start a club that no one wants to go to?
She insists that his passion will be enough to attract customers, as it has attracted her. “I’m pointing out that you had a dream that you followed, that you were sticking to—“
“This is the dream!” Seb shouts. “This is the dream.”
“This is not your dream!”
“Guys like me work their whole lives to be in something that’s successful, that people like.”
Later, Mia sings her disingenuous “The Fools Who Dream.” It tells the story of her aunt, inspirational actor, and the lyrics admire yet another idea of greatness. Not the uncompromising male artist, but the mentally ill one, the addict: “She captured a feeling,” Mia sings. “She lived in her liquor / and died with a flicker.” Of course this capturing of feelings is what we want from art, but this is hardly a description of the artists in La La Land. They don’t live in their liquor. They don’t even bloody their knuckles. “A little madness is key” is not demonstrated by this film.
The lovers lose their love but achieve everything else. Nice homes, for one thing, and the ability to work in their field. I was wrecked. I sobbed through the entire final section, from the moment Mia enters Seb’s jazz club some years later until the last wistful look that passes between them. I knew my sobbing to be stupid. Because she was so stupid! And he was stupid! There was no reason at all that they couldn’t have stayed together: lots of couples manage more difficult constraints. Did she even achieve any kind of fulfillment? All we know is that she loves riding around the studio lot in a little golf cart, and that she enjoys the glamour of fame. It’s meant to symbolize her ascent: she now occupies the space she longed to occupy. But in my experience, artists who end up ascending and fulfilling their dreams are often just as mad as ever. They feel like frauds, or they feel unsettled, or they are overcome with anxiety.
I was still trying to get ahold of myself as the lights came on. I was with A. and a French artist friend of hers, and of the three of us I was the only one married with kids. “Why are you crying?” A. asked.
Trying to laugh at myself, still crying a little, I was overcome by desperation to see my husband, a terror I had sometimes that I might never see him again. Morbidly I like to pick at possibilities—a little madness is key—and I considered all the ways I narrowly missed fucking up my marriage. “I don’t know,” I said. “Adam and I used to go to jazz clubs. And all my dreams are dead!”
“Your dreams aren’t dead,” A. said.
My dreams certainly don’t have the force of a plot like La La Land, where the math is easy to do: Mia wants to work on film sets, Seb wants to open a jazz club. At least I got everything I wanted, you can imagine them saying. I have everything I want. The protestations of a person who didn’t really have everything or who realizes (here is the real tragedy) that getting what they wanted did not make them happy but they lost everything for its pursuit. The film doesn’t go there, or doesn’t seem to know if it does. Even so, it was the reason I was crying. Because what is the point of getting what you want? And why didn’t these apparently creative characters have the imagination to ask for a richer life, not just a life oriented around a single goal?
Seb’s pronouncement in that scene—this is the dream!—is spoken verbatim in an earlier film starring Ryan Gosling. Blue Valentine (2010) depicts a very different Gosling. Working-class, alcoholic, despised by his wife, sensitive; this guy is all mess, no glamour. The romantic dreams of his life are crushed, and, maybe, he doesn’t yet know it.
The film opens with a dead dog and ends with a screaming fight. As in La La Land, there is a tap-dancing scene. On his first date with Michelle Williams’ Cindy, Gosling’s Dean plays a ukulele and sings “You Always Hurt the Ones You Love” in an affected croon while Cindy tap-dances adorably. This scene does what Mia’s song tells us art should do: It captures a feeling. They are sweet, happy, enamoured of each other. The scene is followed immediately by a sour dinner years later, with irritated Cindy glaring at balding, defensive Dean. Like Mia, Cindy is disappointed with her man. Why doesn’t he do one of the many things he’s good at, rather than wasting his life drinking all day and painting houses? He tries to explain that this life that looks like a waste to her is really everything he could ask for: “Listen,” he says. “I didn’t want to be somebody’s husband, ‘kay? And I didn’t want to be somebody’s dad. That wasn’t my goal, in life. Some guys it is. It wasn’t mine. But somehow, I’ve—it was what I wanted. I didn’t know that. And it’s all I want to do. I don’t want to do anything else, it’s what I want to do. I work so I can do that...This is the dream.”
She argues that it’s a shame he won’t use his potential.
“Why do you have to fucking make money off your potential?” he says. “What does potential mean? What does even potential mean? What does that mean, ‘potential?’ Potential for what? To turn it into what?” These are valid questions, even if Dean is being a dick.
I think we are meant to see that this life of grim alcoholism and difficulty couldn’t possibly be the dream. But I recalled the phrase while watching La La Land because it had so stuck out to me while I watched Blue Valentine. I was prone in those days to see many things as—not exactly prophecies, but as haunting and directed aphorisms.
This is the dream.
The parallels between the films in these scenes is remarkable. Tap-dancing, singing courtship followed by a wine-soaked argument about a couple’s dreams for each other. Neither Dean (in Blue Valentine) nor Seb (in La La Land) means their own dream. They don’t say: I have all that I want, this is everything I dreamed of. “It’s not your dream!” Mia tells Seb. It’s only what most guys work their whole lives for. “This wasn’t my goal,” Dean admits. “Some guys it is. It wasn’t mine.”
One aspires to be a writer. Also, one writes. To become a professional of any kind there are familiar but unique stages. A scholar is not just anyone who does research; an astronaut is not merely one who practices the skills in engineering or mathematics used by astronauts. A title is bestowed upon a person. Many worthy strivers don’t achieve a titled level of prestige or authority and the institutional support, salary, dental insurance, and pensions that come with it. Life comes to seem lottery-like, divided into winners and losers chosen mainly by luck or by other factors that render achievement unfair, like nepotism, wealth, good looks, identity.
Throughout my own life writer was a life raft, a reason for living: no matter what I did, whatever risks I took there was still writer. It was just always there, the most important thing about me.
Briefly, at 27 and pregnant with my second child, I gave it up. My husband said that the desire to be a writer was making me miserable. My ambition outstripped my ability, and I was hardly writing anything. So many words lay between myself and the title, and it was I who had to write them. I gave it up as an experiment: for a month I would not write and I would not consider myself a writer. It was only a trick, but it worked. I shed myself of writer, of aspirations and expectations. I decided to write because I wanted to. It was my way of capturing feelings. My life was happening: work and children and grief and love. The words I had to write were the point, not the means of getting anywhere.
Success can pollute the work, but failure makes it difficult to continue to do it. How could you enjoy success if you believed it was fraught, or bullshit, or no measure of your ability? Some solve this by focusing on getting paid. Others by meditating, remembering that nothing is in our control. Some go into depressions. Some withdraw entirely, like a boy I grew up with who devoted himself to poetry but avoided publishing, a valedictorian-artist who became an arborist. Others pursue big and bigger accomplishments, happy to have something to strive for. Others become obsessed with the idea of “greatness” or “genius”, continue to believe in that weird idea, talent, and spend a lot of time assessing whether other writers are or are not “the real deal”. Everyone knows that succeeding merely moves the target, but we can’t help aiming for it anyway.
I started to worry that success, however I was defining it, might make me crazy. This was probably a sign it mattered too much to me. I dreamed frequently about being forced to use toilets that were actually upholstered chairs in the middle of rooms, dreamed of incontinence and exposure.
But then I watched Paterson, which felt like an answer to my questions. Paterson is an homage to a working-class New Jersey town and a long poem by William Carlos Williams, the one with his famous line “no ideas but in things.” The film contains no Ryan Gosling and does not insist that it is living the dream. A quiet, slow-moving, gestural and expressive film, it actually shows us the dream.
Paterson depicts an uneventful week in the lives of Paterson, a plain-spoken poet, and his wife Laura, an eccentric and unsung artist. While Paterson spends his days in quiet routine, observing matchboxes and writing poems during his lunch break, Laura paints all of the surfaces of their home, buys a guitar, and bakes dozens of cupcakes for the farmer’s market. He has not tried to publish his poems; for him, seriousness is practice, ambition is to write a poem and then another one, which he does during lunch breaks and on the weekend. He seems reluctant to talk about craft—this in itself makes him an appealing character—and instead immerses himself in a world made fascinating by this devotion. He listens generously to the conversations of his bus riders, each inflected with Jarmusch’s off-kilter humor, and he has no phone and no internet. When a child reads him her poem, we watch him listening to her words seriously. “That’s a beautiful poem,” he says, later thinking over her her first two lines: “Water falls from the bright air / it falls like hair / falling across a young girl’s shoulders.” He hears a man writing rap lyrics in a laundromat, incorporating Williams’ “No ideas but in things.” He is all reverent, affectionate listening, and his poems are a response to the world. A counterpoint to many artists of our era, who are driven to turn themselves to brands and their ideas into platforms.
I felt, watching Paterson, a path re-opening to me of a time I had lost. I had lived this way very briefly, before marriage and kids, before university, before I had an internet connection or enough money to pay my rent. I had often imagined myself living my life out as either Laura or as Paterson. They seem to suit these twin natures in me, because I often imagined my gender away too and thought I might go about the world as a man does, an observer. Or I thought I would just dabble in things. Why couldn’t one make art and also not live up to any potential the world recognized? Why couldn’t one just make art?
After I watched it I kept recalling it to myself as one does a strong bit of scripture or a mantra—a scrap of poetry, I guess—putting my phone away and trying to live in my moments observantly and affectionately, dialing down the speed and noise. Often it felt like waking up suddenly in a moment I’d been asleep for, something I’d experience before, during a brief manic episode. Perhaps A.’s right: to do it, you have to be at least a little mad.
As A. and I argued, the patio of the bar became transformed. The jazz quartet finished singing “Summertime” and put their instruments away. Now dance music blasted through speakers. A pair of men sat near us and stared unrelentingly in our direction. Every time I finished saying some absurd thing I looked up to see a man leering at me, only to increase my shame.
I told A. about my father. Poor immigrant child of fruit farm laborers, he dropped out of a graduate program in political science because he was so turned off by the competition. My mother, who grew up in Paterson, N.J., incidentally, had dropped out of a graduate program in English for similar reasons. My father became an elementary school teacher, and only much later did he return to graduate work to become a professor, finally getting his PhD in his 50s. He loved the idea of Plato’s just man who remains so even if everyone else despises him and believes him to be unjust. A person like that, as A. pointed out, is so rare as to be nearly impossible. Whether or not we are sane or insane, beautiful or ugly, cool or pathetic, successful or failures has everything to do with consensus.
A. talked about gaslighting, and finally I began to concede her point. I wanted to clutch at my own, that there is something objectively that we can call truth or beauty, and you can find it out by going after it doggedly. That the work itself is all that matters. She’s right: We need others to affirm our perception of reality. We want to do good work and without the judgments of others, how will we know if it is?
One of the worst insults I ever received was a close family member who said “you do anything you want and you don’t care that no one likes you.” The person who said it meant it as a compliment and meant to say you’re free because you don’t care whether anyone approves of you. The truth of it was perhaps worse than this: I care deeply whether people like me, but I often fail to make them do so. However painful this was, there is a freedom in sloughing off the need for affirmation from those whose approval—because of their position of authority—counts.
I myself rely on the perceptions and affirmations of my smart and extremely sane husband, without whom I’m certain I would still be insane. Or more insane. But I had backed myself into a corner where I seemed to be arguing that we didn’t need peers or mentors. Maybe the crucial difference between Paterson and the other two films was that Paterson had figured out love, and neither of the Goslings had. Paterson’s life is rich with others. Both Blue Valentine and La La Land offer visions of extremes: wasting one’s talent utterly vs. focusing on using one’s talents above everything else. Paterson imagines an artist’s life that renders the question of success unnecessary, that shows a life in which publication is beside the point. Instead of aiming for success, trying to use our potential to receive extrinsic rewards, we could pursue a life abundant with art, ideas, projects, and, importantly, friendship.
A blue light started to flash like a police alarm. Women in very short rompers and heavy gold jewelry, women in tight dresses began to filter in. We were isled there, the two of us, light on makeup and underdressed.
I was upset that we had argued, and I apologized.
“I think it’s good we disagree about things,” she said.
Our disagreement succeeded in tempering me. Because I am so prone to extreme opinions and reckless decisions, I need the evaluations of others, not merely for affirmation’s sake but so that I can be better as a thinker and a person.
So I was relieved. “I do, too,” I said, and we walked out of the club together and into the night.
Liz Harmer is the author of The Amateurs, a novel to be published by Knopf Canada. Her essays have been published widely, in such places as Literary Hub, Hazlitt, The New Quarterly, and The Malahat Review. She received a notable mention in the 2016 Best American Essays, and has been nominated for three National Magazine Awards in Canada, one of which she won.