I was listening to the rather excellent Book Shambles podcast the other day. It is a rambling discussion about books and literature, usually with a guest to guide the discussion. One of the hosts, Robin Ince, mentioned The Great Gatsby, saying that every time he reads it he finds new insight in its pages. It’s my experience that despite being a relatively slim novella, the complex characters and removed perspective provides a wealth of wisdom and observations. It got me thinking about art that endures throughout your life, that helps to shape you at different moments. I think this is one of the qualities of the best art, that each time you go back to it it is richer and more in-depth than before. Re-readings and re-watchings allow for greater emotional impact, instead of diminishing returns. The art endures throughout your life.
It’s the reason I re-read Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut every couple of years of so. The first time I read it, I enjoyed it as a superficial time travel story, with some odd parts thrown in. There was some wit and some sadness but it didn’t really hit me strongly. Re-reading it, it became a tragic tale of the human condition, showing the madness of killing each other senselessly through inhumane, mechanised wars. The time travel could be interpreted as part of Billy Pilgrim’s broken mind, scarred by the horrors of war. The refrain ‘So it goes’ becomes a grim full stop throughout the novel. The novel is a plea for humanity and hope in the grimmest of circumstances, as well as a furious rage against the direction of time’s arrow. Despite being less than 200 pages, it is a deep, thoughtful work. Each time I read it I feel as if I have barely scratched the surface. I see new details and themes in it. As such, I regard it as one of the most influential works of art I have encountered. Enduring resonance is not the only criteria, but being able to experience it over again and find deeper meanings in the same piece of work is an important aspect.
As well as revealing new details of the world around you, the best art reveals how we have changed in the meantime. The Toy Story films are the best examples of this I can think of. When you watch them as a child, they are fun adventures, filled with memorable characters and excitement. Watching as an adult though, the films take on a deeply melancholic air. All three tinged with sadness and there is an ongoing fear of abandonment that is absent when you watch them as a child. Watching the adventures of Buzz and Woody when you are older, you realise you have left behind your childhood years and lost your innocence. The ending of the third film, where Andy gives away the toys, is the most devastating part of the trilogy because of this theme that is only apparent when you are older. The art hasn’t changed. No new scenes have been added. But watching as an adult, it seems to be a completely different film.
We’re always in flux. Always changing, year to year, day to day, moment to moment. Sometimes the changes are subtle. The days go by, then sometimes you wake up and say ‘My God! What have I done?’
Ok maybe not. But music is a good example of art that will endure over long stretches of time. I must have first heard this song when I was 8 or so maybe. It has recurred throughout my life. I must have heard it thousands of times. Now as an adult, it has more meaning and significance. But the song itself has remained the same as it ever was.
As we change and grow in our lives, we bring different perspectives to the same works of art. We can see deeper meanings in it. We have learned more in the time between and had different events happen in our lives to alter our perceptions. We have changed as people, and the work of art allows us to see those changes. In the end, those significant works of art that we keep returning to are not the ones that have one off significance but that continue to resonate and allow for different interpretations throughout our lives. These are the ones that will guide our thoughts and experiences and have the greatest impact on our thinking, as they endure constantly in our minds.