We like to think that we are finely evolved creatures, in suit-and-tie or pantyhose-and-chemise, who live many millennia and mental detours away from the cave, but that’s not something our bodies are convinced of. We may have the luxury of being at the top of the food chain, but our adrenaline still rushes when we encounter real or imaginary predators. We even restage that primal fright by going to monster movies. We still stake out or mark our territories, though sometimes now it is with the sound of radios. We still jockey for position and power. We still create works of art to enhance our senses and add even more sensations to the brimming world, so that we can utterly luxuriate in the spectacles of life. We still ache fiercely with love, lust, loyalty, and passion. And we still perceive the world, in all its gushing beauty and terror, right on our pulses. There is no other way. To begin to understand the gorgeous fever that is consciousness, we must try to understand the senses—how they evolved, how they can be extended, what their limits are, to which ones we have attached taboos, and what they can teach us about the ravishing world we have the privilege to inhabit.
And that’s another thing this passage hints on: that first-generation immigrants often model artistic behavior for their children. They don’t necessarily realize it, like the father who says the immigrant life is art in its greatest form. But I realize now I saw artistic qualities in my parents’ choices—in their creativity, their steadfastness, the very fact that we were in this country from another place. They’re like the artist mentors people have in any discipline—by studying, by observing, by reading, you’ve had this model in the form of someone’s life. My mother could not have found time for creative pursuits with four children and a factory job. But she modeled the discipline and resourcefulness and self-sacrifice that are constant inspirations in my own life’s work. The things she did, the choices she made, made the artist’s life possible for me. I didn’t know it, but she taught me that being an artist makes sense. While it’s natural for the children of immigrants to want to be artists, it is natural for the parents to feel threatened by artistic vocations. As a parent myself, I completely understand that impulse. When you’ve given so much, when you’ve sacrificed everything to make this huge transition, you want to see your child have an easier life as a result. You want to spare them the anguish of worrying always about survival, especially after all the sacrifices you’ve made. The first generation feels they created a path, they sacrificed, they made the way—and now their children should have stability and peace of mind. This, of course, is not the emphasis of being an artist. And so, for children of immigrants, the creative path is fraught with added risk: There’s so much more at stake if you fail. There’s a feeling that—as the character in the passage feels—if you fail, you’re not only failing yourself, but your family, your parents who have gone through so much to give you this opportunity. It’s not just your own failure at stake—artistic failure can mean the failure of your family’s entire enterprise.