One of the more intriguing quotes from Oscar Wilde goes like this
I put all my genius into my life. I put only my talent into my works
The quote appears in a book by Andre Gide on Wilde, where Gide attempts to bring out the genius that he saw. Sadly, the genius that Wilde thought he was living was not a genius that English society would tolerate at that time. Things got very messy and things ended badly. They ended so badly, that some still talk about the tragedy today. It boggled minds back then, and boggles the mind still.
Wilde did not intend things to turn out that way, but he certainly invited this unfortunate finale. I would not call it a death wish, but it was a desire to be “contra mundum” and to try to get away with it. And this conra mundum aesthetic has found fertile ground among artists and thinkers of the 20th century. Sadly, that aesthetic often ends badly, whether through drugs, booze, or hard living or just frustration that the heroics of the rebel are not rewarded by a bewildered society. Kerouac, I think, fits into that last category, living with his mother and third wife as a middle aged, ex-beatnick, and passing on from liver failure before he turned 50.
Less well recognized have been people whose genius is in finding and nurturing peace in the world. Where is that to be found? That is a good question. And the hopeful answer is anywhere — if you know what you are looking for. I think that is what Maugham was trying to say in his book “The Razor’s Edge”. Maugham used the plot device of a man converting to Buddhism to find peace after a nasty war experience. But I daresay one can find peace anywhere and not have to be scarred by war or become a Buddhist.
Perhaps Waugh’s suspicion that peace is desperately needed but not to be found — no matter how earnestly one might search for it — gave Waugh his dark side. And no one would accuse Waugh of putting genius into how he lived. From the other world, where perhaps Waugh longed to be, might have been heard the sigh, “the poor man needs help.”
If you need help, peace is most easily found in places where the people live for enjoying the simple pleasures of life. Like sipping wine under the golden, afternoon sun, playing with laughing children in a field of wild flowers, or strolling along a lazy river, or even just loafing and observing a spear of summer grass. Places where people take the time for these things because they are valuable to experience and share in themselves. Errrr … even if society is not as inspiring as we might like it to be.
It was these types of stories that inspired me, many years ago, to follow certain writers who focused on the pleasures of the table. Fisher, David, and the rest. I still smile when I think of turns of phrases that occasionally appeared in Asher’s writing on wine. And I must admit that I admire people who find ways to live in charming places simply for the pleasure of going further into that sort of world. I admire their genius in finding ways to be there over time, finding meaning in experiences, rather than demanding meaning simply from rejecting unwelcome societal standards.
Here is a fun example — an Australian couple who spends the summers in Italy. He helps make wine. And she? She is having fun learning Italian in innovative ways with friends. As important, they are there because the town of Spello is just one of those fun places to be. You might call it the “spell of Spello”.
BTW, Spello is wonderful, I am sure. But what about Detroit? Does it have people who are creating and enjoying the simple pleasures of life? Hmm … you might think not. But check out Dvita Davison’s TED talk about the urban gardening movement that is transforming Detroit. As you listen, you might get a sense of what I am talking about.