Richard Wagner had a term for the complete synthesis of music and drama. He called it Gesamtkunstwerk or ‘total art work’. I will go one up. My term is called Gesamtlebenswerk and it means ‘total life work’. It signifies the complete integration of artistry and living life.
The idea of Gesamtlebenswerk started at JS’s place after Easter brunch. We were sitting in the study debating how they should restore the Notre Dame Cathedral (which had burned down the week prior). JS is one of the premier building restoration superintendents in the city, and his natural reaction was to build it back to the original specifications of Eugène Violett-le-Duc. That’s what they did when York Minster burned in 1984. I sat on the other side of the debate, wondering if they would use this opportunity to rebuild the spire higher–even higher than any Master Builder could climb with a commemorative wreath. I love bigger and better. The Cathedral of Chartres (in 1194 and 1836) and Metz (in 1877) have provided my view a precedent as well: when rebuilding, go with the latest and greatest, not a replica.
The conversation eventually drifted to Notre Dame’s position in the pantheon of European cathedrals and then to the relationship between the building and the architect. It was at this point that either JS or L quoted the epitaph of Sir Christopher Wren, the architect who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral: “If you want to understand me, look around you (e.g. at the cathedral).” Though their recollection of the quote was slightly off (it actually reads Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around”), it got me thinking: could it be possible to integrate life, work, and vision in a unity as Wren had done? Could it be possible for an author to lose or subsume individuality into his creation of art as perfectly as Wren had done, once upon a time? This idea is what I mean by Gesamtlebenswerk. And yes, that is so cool how German allows you to stack all these nouns and adjectives together.
The traditional view advocates for a separation between author and work. The artist creates the work and sends it out into the world. At this point, the work becomes independent, as it becomes thrall to interpreters who will judge it. The work takes on an identity of its own, one formed by the interaction between the text, image, or sound and its interpreter-judges. So far, so good. But then the question arises: if a book (or painting or musical piece) is defined by its reception, what the defines its creator? In the traditional view, the creation does not define the creator. But in this Gesamtlebenswerk model, the creator subsumes his individuality into the art world through his creation. If that sounds complicated, here are some straightforward examples.
The “Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwright Competition” (what a handful, I have to shorten this name!) has been running for over a year now. I cofounded the competition with Langham Court Theatre. Whenever playwrights participate, I try to befriend them on Facebook and LinkedIn. Many of them accept my invitation. The initial goal was to project the project into social media feeds. But what’s happened is that my newsfeed from friends has been overwhelmed from the newsfeed from my new playwright friends. And, since my connection with these new Facebook friends is based on a mutual appreciation for art and theatre, it draws my own individuality into the art world. Drawn into my book’s orbit, I am become art. Oh yes, if you’re reading for the first time, the playwright competition is based on a theory of drama I wrote called The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. And yes, I consider the interpretation of art–or aesthetics, as the philosophers call it–to be an art form in itself.
Here’s another example of Gesamtlebenswerk. I enrolled in match.com, a dating site, a few days ago. Usually, people write quite vague descriptions on their profiles. “I like going for walks,” “I like movies,” or “I like to travel.” This isn’t very helpful, as this is the sort of stuff everyone likes. More daring folks might be more specific, as in: “I like walks along the sand,” “I like Paris in the spring,” and so on. But here too, it’s hard to see a person’s character. And character, I think, is what people want to see.
When writing my own profile on match.com, I remembered how Wren had said “If you want to see who I am, look at what I’ve been doing.” This is the writeup I came up with. Its goal is to integrate life and the pursuit of art. Like my Facebook page, I am integrating myself with my artistic endeavours.
WRITER, PHILANTHROPIST, PROJECT MANAGER, BLOGGER, PROMOTER.
Hello! Here’s a little about me. My book, “The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected,” has just hit the bookstores. It’s about a subject I’m really passionate about: theatre and performing arts. It was thirteen years in the writing.
I also sponsor (this is the philanthropy part) an international playwright competition at Langham Court Theatre. The competition is based on the book, which invites dramatists to dramatize and simulate risk on the stage. During the day, I’m a project manager for a construction company. During the evenings, I’m promoting my book, blogging, and managing the Risk Theatre Playwriting Competition. Did you know that, in our first year, 182 playwrights from 11 countries participated? It’s my life’s work to see how far this idea of theatre can go. I believe that we have an obligation to understand risk in today’s world, and the best way to learn about risk is to explore it on the stage.
How would my friends describe me? They would say that I’m generous, approachable, and down to earth. They would also say that I am opinionated, but they would also add I’m a good listener. They find that I’m sort of a walking contradiction. For example, I listen to both classical music and metal. If it’s one thing they would fault me on is that I like to talk quite a bit about my book and the theatre competition.
I’m looking for someone who enjoys reading and talking about the arts. Someone who feels comfortable talking about ideas and ideals. I love ideas. Someone who likes reading as much as I do. An ideal vacation would be a weekend getaway with a good book. Someone who believes that art can change the world. An introverted extrovert, if there’s such a personality type. Is there something of that in you?
Hobbies? Besides the writing, philanthropy, project managing, blogging, and promoting, there isn’t that much spare time! I do try to get out on the bicycle once in a while. Or a run around the lake (these days it’s more like a run to the lake and back again). I also try to fit in kickboxing classes at Peterecs Gym.
Gesamtlebenswerk signifies a sort of unity of being where public and private life come together. Why not have more of it? Privacy in this digital age seems to be a thing of the past. And if what you do means a great deal to you, why not publicize it, even it comes at the expense of privacy? Someone might find what you have to say most interesting!
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I love doing Melpomene’s work.