On Saturday my horoscope informed me ‘if you mess something up this week, don’t give yourself a hard time. As Taurean Brian Eno advises: honor thy error as a hidden intention.’ For someone who walks around town Carel Laemmle style muttering ‘I’ve got to be successful, I must be successful, I will be successful,’ this was a startling notion. I realized that I had been dreading failure on a daily basis, and that it’s actually kind of tiring.
I’ve recently been reading Peter Bogdanovich’s ‘Who the Hell’s in it.’ In a chapter on Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller describes the ‘culture of contempt’ within the studio system that helped to contribute to Marilyn’s untimely demise. Bogdanovich goes on to liken this phenomenon to Tennessee William’s ‘The Catastrophe of Success.’
In this 1947 essay Williams, plucked from obscurity and suddenly successful beyond belief, struggles to find satisfaction in the opulent surroundings of his fancy hotel suite: ‘Tomorrow morning when I look at the green satin sofa I will fall in love with it. It is only temporarily that the green satin looks like slime on stagnant water.’
It is quite shocking: yes, he is successful, but no, he is not happy. In fact he is anything but, depressed and stupefied by boredom he starts to lose his mind: ‘I was walking around dead in my shoes.’ On the room service he writes: ‘Once I ordered a sirloin steak and a chocolate sundae, but everything was so cunningly disguised on the table that I mistook the chocolate sauce for gravy and poured it over the sirloin steak.’
To change topic (a little venting seems in order), there is an annoying trend at the moment of certain politicians proudly threatening the populace with cutbacks on luxuries such as arts funding. That in itself is fine; by all means please fund healthcare, fund education, fund infrastructure, fund fund fund away… (Seriously, please do). It is the language itself that is offensive – the gleeful insinuation that art is a luxury, an extravagance, rather like a bottle of perfume or an extra pair of shoes.
Tennessee Williams goes on to describe his eureka moment, when he moves to Mexico and starts writing what later becomes A Streetcar Named Desire: ‘It is only in his work that an artist can find reality and satisfaction…The right condition for him is that in which his work is not only convenient but unavoidable.’ The illustrious playwright sees things from an unexpected perspective: to him, the act of making art is not a luxury but rather a means of escaping luxury.
So back to success. Is it everything we hoped and dreamed for? If you go by Williams, the answer is no. Success equals disillusion, and artists spend their time making useless things for an important reason: to stay sane. But as Martin Boyd states in one of Australia’s most beloved novels Lucinda Brayford: ‘Only the useless things have permanent value. What are the useful things? Trams, drains, and motor buses.’ (Broadband networks, school halls and desalination plants?) ‘In a few years they are out of date and forgotten rubbish. What are the useless things? Poems, paintings and buildings…’
You will be pleased to know the shock of reading my horoscope has subsided and my mood has shifted. I am looking forward to messing up, and even lie awake at night wondering what will happen and what the revelation, the unconscious significance, will be. Maybe I’ll walk around in public with green paint on my face; I might engage in small talk that goes horribly awry; or, if I get really lucky, I might come home to find a whole suite of rejection letters – bliss. What exactly is so great about success anyway?