“It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper meaning.”
Vincent Van Gogh
As COVID-19 unfurled, people turned to literature to bring order to the disorder that has been going on, to find stillness amidst all the panic and anxiety. Sales have been booming for one title in particular, and that is Albert Camus’s The Plague.
People find an odd comfort in that their lives are eerily mirrored in Camus’s 1947 story — Cities in lockdowns, the surging death rates, being in quarantine, time being heavily distorted and feeling that the crisis is never-ending, and of course, the social distancing measures. Camus writes about “the long queues…in front of food shops”, how “the whole town seemed like a waiting room”, and that on public transport, “all the passengers, as far as possible, turn their backs on one another, to avoid infection”.
And most of all, people find hope in the story to ease their going through of this seemingly hopeless experience. They are reminded that the virus does not discriminate — It could very well infect just about anyone, regardless of their age, or gender, or race. It’s a universal adversity and we are all in this together, the story teaches us, and it’s our responsibility upon one another to be kind and empathetic. “Now, at least, the position was clear, this calamity was everybody’s business,” writes Camus.
If it weren’t for the present pandemic, however, not many people would have been as interested in the story’s subject. Sometimes it does take a gargantuan event like this for us to have a better appreciation for an artist’s work.
Being in the audience’s seat often requires us to meet the artist halfway in her work. She imparts her message, and in turn, we attempt to relate to that message by drawing on our own knowledge and past experiences.
Sometimes we’re able to do that immediately. And sometimes, it’s a long and slow boil. In the present moment, you might find that that art doesn’t resonate well with you, because you just couldn’t find common ground with it.
But as years pass, and we’ve accumulated a good share of experiences, we might be able to find ourselves in that art. We might have at least an inkling of what the artist is trying to impart to us.
And this is the joy of re-reading, or rediscovering — That there’s a chance that you would find a trove of gold in giving an art a second chance. Maybe it’s that book that you stopped halfway through, or a movie that you walked out from. Sometimes time makes all the difference, because you could now see clearer. As Marcel Proust wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” It’s not the art that has changed, but ourselves.
Writer Stefan Zweig had a similar experience with Montaigne’s Essays. When he first encountered the book, he was unimpressed. He felt that it was too dispassionate, that it lacked “the leap of electricity from soul to soul”. All in all, he found that it was irrelevant to his own life.
When World War II erupted, Zweig left his home in Austria and spent years vagabonding as a refugee. When he reached Brazil, he found a volume of the Essays in a house where he was staying, and decided to re-read it. What used to be an irrelevant piece of writing, now completely turned his life around. Like Zweig, Montaigne lived through years that were ravaged by war — In Montaigne’s case, it was the French War of Religions, a bloody, decades-long tussle between the Catholics and the Protestants.
Now having gone through the rise of Hitler in his time, Zweig found a strong sense intimacy in Montaigne’s writing, as though the Essays were specially written for him alone. In those dark times, it guided him with questions such as, “How do I avoid losing my soul?”, “How do I remain fully human?”, and “How do I remain free?”
But other than that, we could also see how time makes art better by comparing an artist’s work at different points of her life. Given some contexts of her history, we could discern just how her works have taken a deeper and wiser turn, and embodied a much richer meaning.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions are always exhilarating to watch. It’s especially endearing to see performances that feature the band members’ reunion, and perhaps one of the very best ones would be the Eagles’ back in 1998. They played two of their greatest hits, Take it Easy and Hotel California. All seven members of the band, past and present, graced the stage, buried the hatchet, and delivered a beautiful performance that portrayed a truthful story about their odyssey as musicians.
If you hadn’t noticed, Take it Easy and Hotel California are in stark contrasts to one another. The former is an easygoing, good-vibes country-rock tune, while the latter is a haunting blend of Spanish and reggae music, filled with an air of macabre and doom.
Take it Easy, which is the track that started it all for the Eagles, represented much simpler times when it was first written in Jackson Browne’s basement — Everyone was young, everyone was simply having fun. There were no pressures, no back-to-back touring, no drama. It was just the pleasant dream of writing songs and playing in a band.
Hotel California, on the other hand, represented the hollow life of fame and fortune that they could never escape from. It depicted their disillusionment with the music industry where they were treated as cash cows, where everybody wanted something out of them. The very symbolism of a hotel says it all — Grand architectures, extravagant food, faux friendly faces — Everything designed to make you feel at home, only that it never can. In this life of excess that the Eagles were plunged into, they truly mean it when they sing, “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”
And now, as they performed and harmonized together through these two songs, it was as if they were telling a story to their audience — That this was the journey that all seven of them had to go through. They couldn’t hope to get out of this life that they’d risked themselves into, but they could at least tell us that they survived, that they’re still here, in spite of everything.
So to close this article, I invite you to rediscover. Re-read a book, listen to a song that you haven’t listened to for a while, watch a movie that you didn’t use to like. Pay attention to any new opinions, any new insights that you might find in yourself.
Because in rediscovering an art, we’re discovering ourselves.