One of the virtues I most admire and assign to my fondest fictional creations is reserve, the kind of reserve that refrains from excessive gregariousness lest it be seen as wanting something.
In the 2001 film Gosford Park the screenwriter Julian Fellowes has a certain gentleman admonishing a younger man not to seem ingratiating because it will be perceived as being up to something. It is in some ways the quintessential expression of British reserve and manners, which are inextricable, but in other ways it expresses a quandary in a vulgarly commercialized society.
The entrepreneurial ethic, if it can be called that, is, Go for it! Pull out the stops, do what you have to do. Can that be done with reserve and good manners? Perhaps. But few of us can pull it off, an increasing few. Society`s very definition of success is vulgar, having to do with status and wealth, with gamesmanship and the praise of fellow players.
Reserve, as expressed in the Fellowes dialogue, is particularly daunting to artists, no matter how restrained they may be by nature, because they do want something: they want to their work to be seen.
Some artists say they never read reviews of their work. Some say they create art for themselves or a pleiad of friends. I believe them. C.P. Cavafy, for one, simply printed a poem when it was ready and shared it with friends.
But in a culture that measures success by the amount of money accrued or the ephemeral attention of people who measure success by money, this kind of reserve is everywhere assaulted and hard to come by.
I think this makes it all the more precious. It is the difference, perhaps, between an emerald and its intrinsic value and a diamond that has value because a market has been concocted for it.
Just as a thing may have what insurers call its inherent vice, so may a thing have its inherent virtue and value. In a poem reserve is priceless. No value can be put on it. It can`t be marketed like a diamond, because it is an emerald.
But how to want your work to be seen and yet to acquire and keep in your personal life the reserve that is so vital to your art itself is, for me at least, the most vexing question I can pose. I do not wish to muddy my shoes in smarm in order to be read, but I have not the wit or facility to navigate the world of doors that must be navigated in order to succeed. "
I know when a poem succeeds. I also know that its success in my eyes is no indicator of how it will be received in the world. Every artist knows this. And sometimes artists are not the best judges of their own work. But we all know, too, that worldly success has a big, ghostly hole in it through which truth walks at will.
Art and commerce are strange bedfellows. One walks out in the middle of the night. They betray each other with disheartening regularity. For the artist, it is always difficult to know how to behave. Some artists are skunks, pure and simple. Other artists are too noble for their own good, depending on how you define good. I wish I could say the skunks do not create great art, but they often do. I wish I could say the noble ones invariably are the greater artists, but that is not true.
All I can say with certainty is that I know I choose reserve and yet often fall short of my own mark.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
The pioneering Online Originals (U.K.), the only online publisher to receive a Booker nomination, published his novella, Alice Miller`s Room, in 1999. Recent fiction appeared in Prima Materia (Woodstock, NY), vols. I and IV, and Breakfast All Day (London, U.K.).In his younger days his poetry was published in literary journals including Solstice (England) and Beyond Baroque and Phantasm (California). Recent poems appear in Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review (www.arabesquespress.org), Perpetua Mobile (Baltimore), and Attic (Baltimore). He is the English language editor of Arabesques Literary and Cultural Journal (www.arabesquespress.org).
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.