More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.
There are, however, goods of a very different kind – gods who are quick and obliging, waiter-gods, “What can I do for you?” gods. In no time at all they create worlds to order, according to the fantasies in some bureaucratic decree or a resolution from some ministry. Their world is inhabited by paper ghosts, by painted figures of cardboard and wax. In is a world of veneers, of tin and papier-mâché. These soap-bubble worlds are always full of harmony and light; they are worlds that have a clear purpose, where everything seems reasonable. But in whose likeness – we must ask – have they been created?
The worlds that the gods of pen, brush, piano keys, and violin strings create in their own image and likeness – these worlds may be full of imperfections and folly. They may be half-baked, twisted, distorted, confused, dislocated, wretched, and even ridiculous. They may be imbued with the charm of the primitive and naive, with a comic profundity, with the pathos of a child’s toy, with a creator’s vain yet engaging admiration of the subtlety and beauty of his own creations, with the blindness of suffering, with senseless hope. Sometimes we find the tedious monotony of a single color, sometimes an absurd and chaotic motley.
But there is, surprisingly, more true realism in the craziest picture of the most abstract subjectivist, in the silliest concoction of lines, dots, and spots, than in all the harmonious worlds commissioned by bureaucrats. A strange, silly, crazy picture is, after all, a true expression of at least one living human soul. But whose living soul can we sense in this harmonious, officially sanctioned world so full of apparently naturalistic detail, so dense with ripe ears of wheat and fine forests of oak? Nobody’s – there is no soul in a government office. A government office is not alive.
How mighty, how terrible, and how kind is the power of habit! People can get used to anything – the seas, the southern stars, love, a bunk in a prison, the barbed wire of the camps.
What an abyss lies between the first night of passion and a long, grinding argument about how best to bring up the children! How little there is in common between a first wonderful encounter with the sea and trudging along the shore in the stifling midday heat to buy something from the souvenir kiosk! How terrible the despair of a man who has just lost his freedom! And then there he is, lying on his bunk and yawning as he wonders what will be in today’s prison gruel: pearl barley or pickled cabbage? What creates this abyss is the power of habit. Dull as it seems, it is as powerful as dynamite it can destroy anything. Passion, hatred, grief, pain – habit can destroy them all.
Nothing can withstand it.
– from An Armenian Sketchbook
Goethe once said that during eighty years of life he had known eleven happy days. I imagine that everyone, in the course of their life, must have seen many hundreds of sunrises and sunsets; they must have seen rain, rainbows, lakes, seas, and meadows. But of these hundreds of scenes only two or three enter a person’s soul with a miraculous power and become for them what those eleven happy days were for Goethe.
One person may never forget a little cloud lit by a quiet sunset, even though he entirely forgets hundreds of more splendid sunsets. Someone else will never forget a moment of summer rain or a young moon reflected in the pockmarked surface of a forest stream in April.
For a particular scene to enter into a person and become part of their soul, it is evidently not enough that the scene be beautiful. The person also has to have something clear and beautiful present inside them. It is like a moment of shared love, of communion, of true meeting between a human being and the outer world.
– from An Armenian Sketchbook
He attacked everything in life with a mix of extraordinary genius and naive incompetence, and it was often difficult to tell which was which.