Don’t Curb Your Enthusiasm

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD‘s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at and at the NLA.

One of my favourite television shows in recent times has been Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David, Executive Producer of Seinfeld, plays ‘Larry David’ in a largely-Los Angeles milieu. Life seems to be either a series of excruciating personal humiliations or monumental social faux pas. The humour here is by turns uproarious, occasionally wistful and often very, very rude. I recommend it to anyone who wants to clear away the blues. Larry’s long-suffering ‘wife’ Cheryl has to put up with Larry as he tries to get along in a world that is always at a tangent to where Larry wants it to be. The lesson seems to be: curb your enthusiasm. Venture outside the expected and you will be unmercifully crushed by status quo expectations.

Which is just what you must not do in art if you want your work to have any chance of making it past the present moment. Don’t curb your enthusiasm. That is the main lesson. Your enthusiasm may be somewhat forbidding—Ibsen, unfashionable—Rachmaninov, or a variety of volupté—take your pick. The essential thing is the passion you bring to bear on your work, which naturally has its own tides of compulsion and lassitude.

Speaking of Rachmaninov, there was an outstanding concert given here in Sydney recently when Vladimir Ashkenazy took the Sydney Symphony Orchestra through an all-Rachmaninov program of the Three Russian Songs, the Piano Concerto No 1 (Alexsey Yemtsov) and The Bells (Cantillation, Steve Davislim, Merlyn Quaife, Jonathan Summers). Poor Rachmaninov, who had so much bad press dumped on him in his lifetime and who had to put up with continual sniping by 12-tone monomaniacs. But it has ended up being Rachmaninov who has triumphed. His music is heard and enjoyed across the planet for the reason that it is in touch with the human on a deep level. It does not deny our humanity. Here in Sydney Rachmaninov’s music surged through the Concert Hall with a grandeur and spirit that was electrifying. This effect did not appear out of the blue, but came through rehearsal, the careful harnessing of resources and, no doubt, long hours of practise by choir and soloists. Yemtsov, the pianist, had enthusiasm in spades. He didn’t behave as if he was being crucified at the piano as he performed, in the manner of some virtuosi. The music came first and last.

A few weeks earlier the Wiener Philharmoniker under the direction of Valery Gergiev performed in Australia for the first time. In advance, the programming didn’t look all that interesting. Tchaikowsky 5. Brahms 4. But how wrong could one be. The Brahms was a performance of a kind where you felt you were being forced to look at a terrifying piece of unearthed Greek statuary. What could account for this intensity? Perhaps the Beslan massacre was uppermost in Gergiev’s mind as he conducted, or maybe it was the orchestra’s close association with the composer—the Fourth Symphony played by the Vienna Philharmonic was the last concert music Brahms heard. At any rate, enthusiasm was the key. The players love making music together, and it shows. I guess that follows for Nine Inch Nails or U2 as well.

Enthusiasm that tears a passion to tatters is no use at all. You may feel something strongly, but that won’t get you through in art where you must apply technical skills, and subtlety, to the finished product. One skill which seems in short supply these days is the ability to see, on the whole, Mozart and Picasso notwithstanding, that less is more. Poetry especially seems to be experiencing the equivalent of bulimia as books pour forth. Just who is going to be reading all this stuff in the future? Very few people I should think, though I’d be happy to be proved wrong. For writers, enthusiasm means quiet persistence, letting the praise or blame fly by, going from A to B without getting diverted by the passing parade. And I think it means putting greatness of spirit in your way—it should be sitting on your shoulder.   

Caspar David Friedrich had enthusiasm, even as his work fell from popularity. Need anyone still point out the profound example of Vincent van Gogh. Cole Porter with his crushed legs but indomitable spirit had it. You feel it right through Gershwin, though a brain tumour killed the composer at far too young an age. There is so much creative beauty in the world and it is all filled with a kind of joyfulness at the fact of existence. It is there in philosophical enquiry and mathematical modelling. Surely Nietzsche had it, along with his migraines and bad digestion. And when the clerk in Berne came up with the Special Theory of Relativity, there too was a superabundance of the fröhliche Wissenschaft.

Well, you may end up in art having to do the equivalent of Larry David at the end of the second season of CYE when he is made, after another disastrous imbroglio, by court order, to carry a scarlet letter placard saying I STEAL FORKS FROM RESTAURANTS in front of The W Hotel as his erstwhile employees in the television industry, on their way to a network symposium, frostily avoid him. And Larry is probably thinking, along with Mahler—my time will come. However, whether it comes or not, in culture there can be no trade-offs with those who (don’t) know. That is clear. 

The worms will come out of the woodwork. People will be unkind, to put it mildly. Your work will be ignored or misrepresented. All that is to be expected. At all events, the lesson must go home. In art, in life, don’t curb your enthusiasm.


               ICI REPOSE
        VINCENT van GOGH

Not here the slippage
Of motive, the bull market,
Dressage of cocktail and auction;
Neither the victory lap nor prize.
And yet, pushed out, vertiginous paint,
Cypress and flower spinning,
Nature’s cusp stubbed on canvas,
A bandaged head staring with love,
And that alone, at each malignant defeat.

Ours is a tepid dreaming
With not even the courage of beauty.
We wish our Age of Noise
To be an almanac footnoted,
Its mug celebrities
Caught in silverfish pages,
But still we won’t avoid
An empty room dimming our glamour.

Theories puffed, the boast
Of a thousand critical niceties,
Are shed in the fierce night,
One name cast
Near sulphurous soil,
Whose paintings keep,
For we who believe
Not in greatness, nor the strength of art,
In the space reserved for grace,
The sharktooth eye
Of a winnowing field
And yellow starlight shining.

Written 1989 Published 1997