The Circular Ruins

Let’s just get this out in the open:

Part of the reason that I write is that I want to live forever.

I am not alone in that feeling. Surveying the members of any creative field will turn up an awful lot of similar sentiment. A brief (and highly unscientific) survey of some of the creative types that I know turned up the same results. People create at least in part to attain immortality, to ensure that a part of them is able to endure so far past their biological lifespan that we can functionally call it forever (without invoking the entropic heat-death of the universe).

This desire to live forever is something of a natural craving. In a way, it’s hardwired into our feeble human subconscious. Its more reasonable manifestation is at the center of nearly everything in our society: procreation. Cloning possibilities aside, procreating is as close as our biological nature allows us to come to living forever – through it we at least get to pass on our biological material in the hopes that, as a part of someone else, we’ll continue to live. Alternatively, through art we hope to pass on our intangible – rather than biological – selves. Art and babies: the means are different but the goals are, in a very real sense, the same. There’s a reason that a lot of artists use (mildly obnoxious) parenting and child-rearing metaphors when talking about their work.

This immortality-chasing is part of the reason why I love circular works. Ring composition, that crazy ouroboros of narrative, is an attempt to make art that lives forever in itself, never really ending. It’s our quest for eternal life through art manifested directly in the form of the art. It’s kind of a meta-mindfuck, actually. We make art because we want to live forever and, in order to make art that will allow us to live forever, we try to make art that, in and of itself, never ends.

Books like Finnegan’s Wake with its ending tied irrevocably to its beginning, songs like ‘What Time Taught Us’ with its melody whose final note reintroduces the first and albums like Since Before Our Time whose conclusion bleeds out with a drone that feeds back into the album’s introduction all contain seamless and, potentially, infinite loops. The implication is clear. If the art can go on forever, circling back from the end to the beginning ad infinitum, then the art never need stop. It never need die. We never need die.

There is, of course, a problem with all of this: despite our best efforts, eventually an end comes. At some point, the consumers of art will decide that they are done. They will put the book down. They will turn the song off. They’ll move onto something else until, one day, there is no one left listening/reading/watching/etc.

And, at this point, for all the artist’s scheming and planning, their art will close and stop. It will die. Because, with no one consuming it, who would claim that art is still alive? Long after your biological body has been laid into the grave and the bodies of your children and your children’s children have grown still and cold, your art will have died too, short of forever. Your quest for immortality will have failed. You will be gone, your art washed away, your biological remnant diluted beyond recognition over the generations.

It is a cold thought and a necessary one. This is the truth of the artist’s quest for everlasting life: we are, no matter how great our work, temporary. That truth, at least, is permanent. It is also cold and lonely, the stuff of despair. And it is all the more reason why we need art in the first place.

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