In an era of intolerance, I have often wondered whether our opponent, the Other, also known as the Competition, actually helps to make us better?
I was in Paris recently and attended an exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay on the paintings of Manet and Degas, two impressionist painters of the 19th century, who were friends and yet who competed to create the same subjects in their work that would be compared for posterity by audiences like me. The similarity of Madame Manet at piano, painted by her husband, to the one done by Degas—who threw in his friend, Monsieur Manet, sprawled on the sofa beside her as well—is striking; so is the rage evident in Manet when we hear that he tore a strip of the latter painting, intending to repaint it himself (he never did). The torn painting is on display at the museum.
The following day, I went to the Musee de l’Orangerie, and two other famous rivals of the modernist age, nearly a hundred years later, Matisse and Picasso, were also on comparative display. They too competed on every level, each creating his own artistic movement as a consequence, Fauvism for Matisse, and Cubism for Picasso. Check out their nudes – they make different statements and raise different emotions in the viewer.
Extending this competition to literature I wondered about Hemingway’s attempts to sabotage third wife Martha Gellhorn’s journalistic career, and Scott Fitzgerald putting his name to the work of his wife, Zelda. In both cases, the women trounced their more famous husbands in imagination and talent, but did not get due credit. Even Old Papa Hem and Scott had a go at each other in the literary department before they sank into a haze of alcoholic stasis. There have been other rivalries, and I’ll call out a few: John le Carré vs. Salman Rushdie (Rushdie accused le Carré of joining forces with his fatwa assailants), Paul Theroux vs. V.S. Naipaul (Theroux, who was Naipaul’s acolyte, gradually saw the shine go out of his mentor’s halo as the famous author became “a man without a shadow”), Stephen King vs. James Patterson (King charged that all of Patterson’s books were the same, while Patterson deflected by heaping praise on his accuser) and Margaret Drabble vs. A.S. Byatt (and this duo are sisters, to boot). Public rivalries spurred something else: publicity, and one wonders whether these feuds were like those WWF “duel to the death” matches which prompt us to scream “Fixed!”
Fixed or not, the threat of the Other trying to steal one’s thunder must spur the artist to greater creativity and force them to “up” their game. In the process, both competitors become better at their art and craft. Therefore, as much as there is to scorn in the Other, there is much to be grateful for as well. There must also be an unspeakable loss when the Other passes away and is no longer around to provide creative tension. Like the loss of a spouse or a child. That these French museums thought it worthy of highlighting the element of creative competition must make it real and necessary in an artist’s development.
Artists function best when there are forces arraigned against them, when they are the outsiders looking in and fighting to gain a seat at the table but not quite qualifying. As Thomas Mann said, “Everything that comes into being, comes despite something else.” Take that “something else” away and nothing might come into being. And this something else, or Other, may not be a person, but an inner manifestation within the artist themselves, an illness or handicap that needles them and does not allow them peace. So, we are able to forgive the squalor of Orwell, the lupus of Flannery O’Conner, the blindness of Borges, the epilepsy of Dostoyevsky and the depression of Sylvia Plath. The Other also comes in the form of being ignored by fans, critics, and peers. The Other is looming mortality, for artists seek immortality through their work. These inner Others lead to great creativity and urgency, something not experienced by the hale, hearty, and imaginatively placid masses.
Who is your Other? Perhaps it’s best we confront it one of these days and say “Thank you for being in my life, pain in the ass though you may be.”