On Tuesday night I went with a friend to Eugene, Oregon. We went there to see the Nike Clash of Champions tennis tournament in Matthew Knight stadium on the U of O campus. The event was amazing. Definitely three of the best hours I’ve spent all year.
The scheduled players for the event were Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka. Azarenka was filling in for Serena Williams who was injured/sick and couldn’t play. One of the highlights of the night, though, was the surprise appearance of tennis legend and longtime Nike athlete John McEnroe.
Although he had a sprained ankle, McEnroe got out on court for a few points during the mixed doubles and showed off his legendary touch at the net. Federer, Nadal, McEnroe … these men are geniuses at what they do. They possess a preternatural ability to play the sport that so transcends the average club player’s abilities that it’s like comparing the writing of Shakespeare to that of the guy who comes up with the bee puns for the back of Cheerios boxes.
Again, several weeks ago, we had our church book club discussion of Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. The eponymous main character of the book is a talented painter who is forced to walk the line and ultimately choose between, his devotion to his Hasidic family and community and his artistic talent and vision. In the course of talking about the book we talked about the stereotypical tortured artist. That is, the person whose insight into the human condition and gift for portraying it movingly in whatever medium, is paired, fatefully, with a fundamental incompatibility with society at large and, often, a sad and lonely inner life whose rich array of painful emotions and experiences provides the materiel out of which his art is shaped. Men like Steinbeck, Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Van Gogh, William Blake, David Foster Wallace, Salinger, Dickens and many many more.
The contribution of these artists is such they they are idolized, studied and emulated by generation after generation of fans who feel a connection to the work and to the artist. I would be John, either Steinbeck or McEnroe if I could (or Lennon or Keats, for that matter) . Wouldn’t you? Doesn’t that possibility of such mastery, insight, talent and brilliance seem tantalizing? Doesn’t it seem like, by scaling such heights of prowess, you could hold in your hand the key to “art” and “beauty” and these other elusive building blocks of the transcendent human experience?
And yet …
I stayed for a month on a conservative Christian commune belonging to the Bruderhof in New York state in July 2008. While I was there the community of about 250 people was preparing for the performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Various members of the community played instruments and one had even taken classes in conducting prior to joining the community. They had chosen 2 men and 2 women to sing the solos. My host mother there explained to me, one night, that they had chosen those people they thought would best cope with the spotlight of having a solo, along with people for whom singing in front of the group would be a special treat or honor. There were no auditions. The best singer was not chosen. Their rationale for this choice was simple: life together is not about aggrandizement of the individual or even the exhibition of God-given talents. Bruderhof children do not join Select soccer teams if they show talent early on. They do not apply to Harvard or Stanford if their excel academically. The expression of individual talent & vision is simply not a priority in this community. This ideal I have in my mind, that of an artist who brings his creation from conception to completion as an expression of his understanding of the deep truths of the man (and therefore God) is simply non-existent there.
My question is this: will geniuses in the style we see them here on Earth exist in Heaven? In Heaven there will be no night, every tear will be wiped from our eyes. The alienation, marginalization, dysfunction and pain that seem to give root to so much art here will not exist there. If Miguel de Unamuno is in Heaven, is he still an artistic genius? What about Nabokov? And Chagall? His hyper-sensitivity and traumatic childhood washed away in the flood of the Father’s embrace, does his genius remain? Will there be exceptional artists there as we know them here? Or will we, somehow, be poets and dreamers, all?