I. The Impasse

Carlo Rotella, Charles Farrell and James Parker

Charles Farrell:  I always think that what’s important are innovators, and that anyone who does something right predicated on something they heard or saw is not going to be as good as the person they learned from.  And so, yes, they can be good, and as standards develop and increase and people get better and better, they can become great at what they do, but eventually great becomes average because everybody can do it.  So they’re producing products that aside from maybe being pleasing—and I recognize there’s real value in that, and there may be money in it as well—those products have no great impact, no great meaning.  It’s tired, and it doesn’t educate in any way.  And it also, to me, doesn’t touch me emotionally.

Carlo Rotella:  The last thing you said makes your position much more compelling to me.  Up until then, I would just have come back and said, “Look, a farmer doesn’t have to make it new.  I don’t need that farmer to be farming in some bold, new, innovative, out-there way.  Just trying to get some food out of that piece of land, that’s good enough for me.  I don’t need an avant-garde plumber—just get the toilet to flush.”  I’m exactly the same way with art—and by “art,” I mean almost anything in which the truth-and-beauty consequences play a leading role, which extends from literature and music and other obvious suspects into sports and other less obvious ones.  I don’t need art to go beyond itself, and I don’t see anything tired in simply doing it right in the way others have done it right, without any fuss about innovation.  But then you raised the stakes by saying it doesn’t educate you, it’s not as meaningful, it doesn’t touch you emotionally—which I agree that the kinds of truth-and-beauty creative practices we’re talking about, unlike the production of food staples or maintenance of plumbing, should do.

James Parker:  One thing Charles has said that stays with me is “Good is boring; bad is biography.”  If it’s bad enough, that’s when you might see something very human expressed.

CR:  Part of the impasse is the suspicion that at the bottom of doing it right is boring stasis, and the parallel suspicion that at the bottom of making it new is bullshit, fakery.

JP:  These are the shallow signs of those two things.  They’re not the bottom.

CR:  Okay, point taken, but that’s the mutual suspicion.  And so Charles and I got to thinking that we should invite in some other people, not necessarily to break the impasse but to make the impasse a more interesting place to hang out.  I don’t need to break the impasse; I need it to be more generative.  I want someone I trust, or someone I don’t trust, to find nuances in it, wrinkles, ways of looking at it that I’m not seeing.  We decided to ask people we know in various lines of work—writers, musicians, academics, people who deal creatively with money or hair or whatever—to write brief pieces that tell us something about doing it right and making it new.  And also, since we both trust James to come at things from an unpredictable angle—and since James and Charles have in common that they both meditate with their dog, which I find strangely touching—we started by asking James to join us for dinner and to contribute his own essay.  We both have faith that by turning our two-person deadlock into a three-person conversation, James will help destabilize the impasse.

JP:  Destabilize the impasse, that’s my job.  I’m struggling not be Derek Smalls in Spinal Tap.  Remember?  “There’s fire and there’s ice, and I’m in the middle—lukewarm water.”  I think the tension itself is the generative thing.

CR:  Exactly.  The last necessary framing remark I’ll make is that there’s an obvious Goldilocks compromise position that none of us finds all that exciting.  That position goes Well, a little bit of making it new and a little bit of doing it right is just right.  You have to know how to do it right before you can make it new, and if you authentically do it right you are inevitably in some sense making it new, maybe in some micro way, like, between the measures, and so on.  The just-right bowl of porridge.  Picasso could draw a hand; you have to know the rules so you can break the rules.  Yes, okay, fine, that may be true as far as it goes, but none of the three of us finds this response all that explanatory or productive.

Charles Farrell has spent his professional life moving between music and boxing, with occasional detours.  His book (Lowlife): A Memoir of Jazz, Fight-Fixing, and The Mob, will be published in July, 2020.

James Parker is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the editor of The Pilgrim, a literary magazine from the homeless community of downtown Boston.

Carlo Rotella‘s latest book is The World Is Always Coming to an End: Pulling Together and Apart in a Chicago Neighborhood.  He is a professor of English at Boston College.

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