I came across the following quote, by Albert Einstein, in John M. Barry's "The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History." I've been mulling it over ever since. According to Einstein:
“One of the strongest motives that lead persons to art or science is a flight from the everyday life….With this negative motive goes a positive one. Man seeks to form for himself, in whatever manner is suitable for him, a simplified and lucid image of the world, and so to overcome the world of experience by striving to replace it to some extent by this image. This is what the painter does, and the poet, the speculative philosopher, the natural scientist, each in his own way. Into this image and its formation, he places the center of gravity of his emotional life, in order to attain the peace and serenity that he cannot find within the narrow confines of swirling personal experience.”
This seems true when I'm working in my office after night has fallen and I know my wife and children are home; when I'm lost in a book while elsewhere the television chatters and the keyboard chatters its way through the landscape of a teenage girl's myspace.
I'm not sure I agree with Einstein's description of "swirling personal experience" as "narrow." There are times where I wish I could disappear completely into my writing or reading. I tried it once many years ago, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer living alone in an isolated West African village. One day, I dove so deeply into my writing that I lost track of the crushing loneliness and homesickness. It was pure bliss until the bubble of creation popped. I was still alone, and never felt more lonely.
I've tried to avoid that pain ever since, which may explain why I haven't written as much as I would have liked.
William Faulkner famously said, "If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is worth any number of old ladies." (I always keep in mind also that Faulkner was a hopeless alcoholic. "The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writer" by Tom Dardis is an unflinching look at the impact of that form of escape.)
But what about those individuals -- spouses, children, friends, colleagues -- who make up the "narrow confines of swirling experience?" Am I willing to replace them with a "simplified and lucid image of the world," one that "places the center of gravity" of my emotional life within in the world of words? How much are they worth? A poem? A book? The theory of relativity?