Toward A Joyful Self-Quarantine: Find The Right Artist And Go To Town. (Virtually)

As we hunker down at home, hoping that theaters and museums will reopen the doors, there’ve been any number of good listicles about what to watch or read. I just finished season one of "Babylon Berlin" on Neflix as a result of a friend recommending it and also seeing it on one list or another.

I’d like, though, to propose something a little more purposeful and, ultimately, more rewarding. The idea dates back to the great 1988 interview series, "The Power of Myth," that Bill Moyers conducted with mythologist Joseph Campbell.

In the fourth episode, Campbell said it was the artist rather than the religious leader who has the transcendent experience in today’s world and who then acts like a shaman for the rest of us. Moyers asked how the rest of us, who aren’t artists, can tap into that experience, that sense of divinity. Campbell answered, in part: “When you find an author who really grabs you, read everything he has done. Don’t say, ‘Oh, I want to know what so-and-so did — and don’t bother at all with the best-seller list. Just read what this one author has to give you. And then you can go read what he had read. And the world opens up in a way that is consistent with a certain point of view.”

I agree, even if Campbell is too restrictive. There’s nothing wrong with staying current, but if that’s all you’re concerned with, you wind up like James Corden, sitting there depressed over all the things you think you need to watch, as in the early moments of this video.

What Campbell says about writers goes for any genre. There is something about immersing yourself in one artist over the course of time that makes life more meaningful — even if the artist, like Samuel Beckett, is saying that life is ultimately meaningless. Contemplating the abyss can be kind of fun if you have the right guide.

So, who you gonna call? That’s up to you, but what I can say is that given the time we currently have to explore and the ease of finding things on services like Spotify, the Kindle Store and video streaming, it’s easy to binge more artfully whether it’s with Toni Morrison or Van Morrison.

Four years ago, for example, I said that if the presidential election went in a certain direction I’d spend the next four years listening to all of Beethoven and finally reading “Finnegans Wake.” I still couldn’t make it through James Joyce’s brainbuster, even with Campbell’s “Skeleton Key.” But I did hear all of Beethoven, which is a pleasure under any circumstance.

What lifted it from the realm of listening to one nice piece of music every day — following his opus numbers — was Jan Swafford’s beautifully and accessibly written biography, “Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph." Swafford not only details how his music broke from Mozart and Haydn, but how each opus extended (or didn’t) Beethoven's musical vocabulary. And how his tormented personality led to such transcendence in art.

I’ve done the same immersive thing, over the course of decades, with authors Edith Wharton and Patricia Highsmith (let’s not call her a mystery writer), filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, playwright-filmmaker Martin McDonagh, classical conductor-composers Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez, South African jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and Bob Dylan.

At the moment, I have company on my semi-self-quarantine — I'm reading all of Ruth Rendell’s (aka Barbara Vine) psychological crime novels in order and listening to all of Miles Davis’ multifaceted jazz. And as soon as I finish my old Globe colleague James McBride’s captivating “Deacon King Kong,” I’m going to go back and fill in the gaps I have in his body of work, which ranges from John Brown to James Brown. Any great artist worth his or her salt will take you to other expansive and immersive worlds. Miles, for example, starts with Charlie Parker and, at the time of Davis' death, was about to work with Prince. There's a scene of the two of them playing together toward the end of the recent documentary "Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool."  (It's at and Netflix and there's audio on YouTube.)


Since my trip to Japan was canceled, maybe I’ll delve into the films of Akira Kurosawa instead. I don’t think there is any one TV auteur who fits the criteria of all these artists, but since all the theaters are closed, I might just rewatch the three seasons of that great insightful and hilarious show about theater, "Slings & Arrows," set in a Toronto festival seemingly modeled after Stratford. (It's available on Amazon Prime through Acorn TV.)

Again, the idea is not to have a checklist of accomplishment. Nobody’s keeping score or painting gold stars on your forehead for being a completist. The idea is to use the viral snow days we have wisely and, most important, joyfully. Maybe even by finding someone you might be a little skeptical of. Boulez, for example, struck me as a superlative conductor of modernists like Stravinsky, Bartok and Debussy, but listening to those recordings alongside Schoenberg, Webern and his own music — and reading his thoughts on them — made that universe more inviting, as the atonality of their music shed an appropriately harsher light on the postwar world we inherited.

I’d also recommend finding a good biography or documentary of whomever you choose. I got into a Facebook debate recently with some musical-theater folks who thought that Dylan was a lousy singer. I shot back that Dylan was one of the half-dozen great popular-music singers of the 20th Century, his voice a combination of Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, Allen Ginsberg and Buddy Holly. I don’t know that I could have codified that without Martin Scorsese’s putting-it-all-together documentary, “No Direction Home.”

The other thing I said I’d do if the unthinkable happened four years ago was watch a lot of sports, which I did.  I can remember the highs of Roger Federer winning Wimbledon and the lows of him losing Wimbledon; the highs of the Red Sox winning the World Series and the lows of the Celtics under-achieving.

But you know, when you listen to Beethoven’s “Eroica,” watch the resurrection of the Star Child in “2001” or — insert your favorite book/movie/record here — the world is a different and better place, even in self-quarantine. A world, unlike the world of sports, where you’re always a winner.


Headshot of Ed Siegel

Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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