Radical Responsibility

Jean stood in front of me to block my exit from her dining room.  I had rented a room in her house during my second year of grad school.  She said, “You told me that you’d call once you got to Pennsylvania.  You didn’t.”  I had just moved out after graduating from the University of Delaware to rejoin my wife in State College.  But I had to return one last time to Newark, Delaware to clean up loose ends.  Meeting Jean was one of them.

Jean demanded an apology.  I didn’t remember promising a phone call, but my former landlord and part time art mentor was damn sure I had.  I came up with a few excuses invented on the fly, and gave her a lukewarm apology.

She didn’t buy my routine.  She gave me the following instructions instead:  “When you’re wrong don’t explain and explain and try to weasel your way out.  Just say you’re sorry!”

I took what she said with a grain of salt as she had never once acknowledged any wrong doing on her part in the two years I’d known her.  She’d accused me of misdeeds I hadn’t committed, and had vented her spleen (at my expense) on a several occasions.  She hated men as a matter of principle, and the best compliment she gave me was, “You’re not a man.  You’re a person.”

But she never weaseled, justified, or blamed anybody else for her actions.  She claimed them…

I’ve recently been reading about the Stoics, a group of Greek and Roman philosophers and statesmen, who believed in responsibility.  They stated that there are few things that we can fully control beyond the choices we make minute by minute.  They suggest that a person can become virtuous by owning the results of their thoughts and actions. Good individuals can elect, in the face of uncertainty and malevolence, to do what they consider to be right.  They don’t blame circumstances or the influence of other people for their mistakes.

Psychological research tells us that unconscious impulses, biological drives, and social mores direct our behavior.  In some ways, our personalities are products of heredity and cultural indoctrination.  Our personal history, family traits, and worldly influences can be blamed for our misdeeds.

But we give up a lot of power if we take the escape route of passing blame.  We cede control over our lives when we center responsibility outside ourselves.  How can we grow into our best selves if we are nothing but puppets and victims of fate?

It’s easier to live as if we are puppets, of course, and being weak can be addictive.  A familiar form of melancholy settles in when we accept the lowly and defeated state of our existence. But isn’t this a shadow life?

The only form of fulfillment we can gain is by taking responsibility for ourselves, by striving to see ourselves clearly and to make changes.  Life takes on a new sense of purpose when we look at our circumstances as sources of challenges, challenges that teach us to be better persons.





Come Up and See My Etchings

Rosemary, the printmaking instructor at the University of Delaware, insisted on taking as many students as possible to visit an artist in Philadelphia.   The grad students in her class knew they had no choice, but she even pressured a few undergrads to come along.  One offered the excuse that he had other classes on the day of the trip, but Rosemary dismissed it saying, “This trip is more important for your growth as an artist.”

The bus ride took us through grimy neighborhoods of trash strewn streets and boarded up buildings on the south side and dropped us off in Center City.  Fifteen would be artists dutifully trooped up the steps of a two story brick row house.  A quiet man in his late thirties opened the door slowly and greeted Rosemary in a monotone.  He waved his hand for us to pass inside, but left us milling around in the entryway.  He seemed reluctant to let us into his inner sanctum.  Rosemary said, “Can we see your studio?” He led us up a narrow, dark stairway to a room crowded with work tables, flat files of paper, and storage cabinets with wide, flat drawers.  Recently pulled prints hung by clothes pins on thin wires strung from one wall to another.

“So, am I right in assuming that you’ve all seen my work?” he asked us.  No one answered.  I barely remembered his name, and Rosemary had said nothing about the style and subject matter of his prints.  She simply told us that he was a etcher who showed his work at an important gallery in Philly.  He stared and waited, shoulders slumping lower.  He sighed:  another defeat.  “Then why are you here?” he asked.

Rosemary flattered him until he was sufficiently mollified.  He put on white gloves and laid out prints on a long, white table.  He combined imagery from several photographs to create interiors and landscapes that looked real but subtly wrong.  The perspective wasn’t completely consistent, but the individual details looked so accurate that the eye accepted the spaces as dry depictions of an uncanny world.  They reminded me of dreams I had of my Midwestern home town:  familiar streets and houses recombined with landmarks from other places.

I asked the print maker about his technique.  He told us that he achieved his photorealistic effects by pointillism.  He used a needle to meticulously prick tiny holes in the asphaltum covering his copper plates.  I asked him how long it took him to work on a plate.  I expected him to say months, but he replied, “Oh, about a day.  That’s the easy part.”  I followed up with, “But how many times do you etch the plate?  What about revisions?”  “I do it all in one layer, no revisions.  What takes the most time is designing them.”  He opened a drawer and took out a sheaf of preparatory sketches.  Each one looked like finished works of art.

Rosemary asked him to show us works in progress.  He laid out another pile of exquisitely rendered drawings and said, “These aren’t very good yet.  I hate showing you these things.”  We protested, and Rosemary said, “Really, these are wonderful.”  The man mumbled, “If you say so.”

He showed us a few more prints, an etched plate or two, and then escorted us down the stairs.  He stood on his porch and stared at his shoes as we walked away.  He retreated inside and firmly shut the door after he had said a quick goodbye to Rosemary.

On the ride home students chattered about classes at Delaware and argued about politics (Reagan’s Iran/Contra scandal dominated the news).  Some wore Walkman’s and listened to music.  I thought about the print maker and wondered if the effort he put into his images paid him back in the end.  How could a man with that much ability and accomplishment feel so discouraged? I had a tenth of his talent.  Was there any hope for me?

I was too young to realize that happiness often had little to do with success.