Philip Larkin and the artistic guilt-trip
This post was originally published on my other blog, The Art of Work.
When you give up one thing, for example a day of paid work or bothering to keep your house clean, in favour of spending more time and energy on your creative work, apart from the logistical issues involved it’s quite common to find you have another problem to solve – guilt.
Some of it comes from within – feeling guilty about letting the dishes pile up, or because you’ve been painting watercolours instead of doing something that will top up your retirement fund, or more insidious, guilt that you get to do more of what you love than those around you who are still slaving away doing things they hate. Sometimes, though, it gets laid on by other people, and laid on thick – like when they ask when you’re going to get stop messing around and get a real job.
Aussie wordsmith Kate Holden talked about the former, in a tongue in cheek sort of way, in this article for The Age a while back.
The Germans, bless them, have a word for it. Kunstlerschuld means “artist’s guilt”; that is, the gritty niggling of remorse for getting to have fun whacking paint and words around when honest citizens are banging away at retail counters, sticking their arms down toilets and putting up with boring Nathan in accounts. It is a perfectly reasonable feeling. After all, getting to do what you like is a privilege in this world and the chap out there who heroically devotes his time to designing a product to gently heat Baby Wipes to perfect bum temperature is no doubt doing a fantastically useful duty, whereas some plonker like me, sitting pretty pondering adjectives while sipping a caffe latte, is the very picture of degeneracy.
Philip Larkin talks about the latter, the guilt-trips you get from others, in his poem ‘A Life With a Hole In It’. (If you click on that link, you’ll have to scroll down a bit to get to the full text of the poem.) It seems the women in Larkin’s life were a bunch of banshees:
When I throw back my head and howl
People (women mostly) say
But you’ve always done what you want,
You always get your own way
– A perfectly vile and foul
Inversion of all that’s been.
What the old ratbags mean
Is I’ve never done what I don’t.
Those bitches! Granted, he may well be talking about women who worked their arses off to get his dinner on the table and his socks darned, so it’s possible that their complaints were legitimate to a degree.
Then we have the famous lines in the second stanza, where he talks about
…the shit in the shuttered chateau
Who does his five hundred words
Then parts out the rest of the day
Between bathing and booze and birds
I’m undecided on what’s happening here. On the one hand, this could be more on the way others perceive his life and his choices. If that’s the case, though, it’s not really fair. Larkin worked as a university librarian his whole life; he was an artist with a day job. He was also a prolific writer. What I reckon might be going on is that Larkin is dishing out a bit of the guilt-trip to someone else, maybe even someone in particular – a dilettante living off a nice little stipend and not doing much work is what I picture in my mind.
If you choose a creative career there will be many people who will ask you to justify it, politely or not. So why should you paint watercolours instead of work the extra day at your ‘normal’ job? Go and read Larkin’s third and final stanza for the answer. I tell you what, I fear the ‘havings-to’ and ‘the unbeatable slow machine/That brings what you’ll get’.
I don’t know enough about Larkin to know if my interpretations are correct, but I’ve become obsessed with this poem.