Every age has its idols. Ours is the idolatry of the useful. Oscar Wilde said, “We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it.” By this standard, civilization has become unforgivable. We do not merely admire that which is useful, we worship it.
Take a look at the modern kitchen. How many useful gadgets to be found there? Coffee makers that grind beans make cappuccino and froth milk at a pre-set time. Microwave ovens know exactly how long to nuke a potato. It goes without saying that most people no longer know how to cook. We defrost, open packages and jars, we call for delivery. Coming soon: Refrigerators that know when you are running low on milk and add it to your shopping list or perhaps just order it directly from the internet. We could, of course, walk though every place in the house, every part of our lives identifying useful things.
Men’s pockets have always been the dominion of the useful. The number of pockets routinely included in our clothes is one of the two truly great things about having been born a male. A man who wears a suit to work could easily have seven or more pockets at his disposal and these days, I need every one of them. Wallet, keys, coin, comb (for a while yet anyway), pens, and a Smartphone.
Yes, that’s right, that most useful of all objects, the Smartphone. Mine (an iPhone) holds my calendar and address book, more books than I could read in a lifetime, photos of my friends and family, everything good or bad that I have written in the last five years, music and movies, and an app on which I can check off how much I have gotten done (i.e. how useful I have been) today.
This is, of course, the measuring stick of a person’s importance in the 21st century. It is no longer, how physically attractive we are, not what kind of car we drive, or how much money we have. The new gold standard for success is that we live, in the words of the title of a bestselling self-improvement book, a purpose driven life.
The Chief Rabbi of the Untied Kingdom, Jonathan Sacks defines happiness as the confluence of three things: something to do, someone to love, something to look forward to. This is an attractive definition because it seems true and is so simple but note what is first on the list. Something to do. In other words, to be happy, Sacks claims, person needs a purpose, some way of being useful to others.
I am not against being useful. Being useful has, well, its uses. Without useful people, we’d have no teachers, no plumbers, no electricians. There’d be no one to deliver the very useful newspaper, pick fruits and vegetables, clean buildings, or secure food and prepare meals. Yet there is something to be said for the useless.
I enjoy a fascination with antiquated office technology. Stuff that was once useful but is, for the most part, now out-moded. I have a Model B Bates Stapler circa 1936 that makes its own staples from a spool of brass wire that still works well and is in daily use on my desk. Fountain pens, can of course, still be used, but what a pain! Cleaning them, filling them, blotting the wet ink on the paper after writing! It is almost impossible to fill a fountain pen with ink without getting at least some ink on your hands and very often your clothes. I use a fountain pen.
For the most part, however, the items in my collection share two characteristics. They still work perfectly and are now virtually useless. My 1941 Royal Typewriter, my Dad’s Pickett Slide Rule, an old film camera, a package of carbon paper, all as functional as the day they were made but so cumbersome and inefficient in comparison to the technology of today that they are relegated to a role in which their sole purpose is to be admired. They are useless. In other words, they have become art, which is to say for the most part, they have been forsaken.
Who has time for art, for the useless? In our rush to embrace purpose, we have forgotten pure beauty, the loveliness that comes with being useless. And yet, somewhere deep in its depths, the human soul longs for the useless. And it may not be buried quite as deep as we think.
A recent article in The Wall Street Journal documented the quiet return of an object that first debuted in the 1950. Dubbed, “The Useless Machine” it is a device that has no purpose other that to turn itself off after a person has turned it on.
According to the article, Coca-Cola repair man, Brett Coulthard, of Saskatchewan saw a video of the machine and knew that he had to build one for himself. Perhaps even more remarkable, he thought there might be a market among the like minded and he began selling kits for others who wanted to build a Useless Machine. If you don’t need a kit, but want to build one on your own, Mr. Coulthard will give you the plans for free! Could such a venture be successful? Let’s just say that Mr. Coulthard no longer repairs Coca-cola machines.
That such a venture could be commercially viable I found it at least somewhat surprising. Why? Because though there is a part of the human spirit that is drawn to the useless, we are rarely willing to pay for it. Which brings me to poetry, arguable the most useless of all the useless arts. Poetry is utterly useless.
Generally, how useful something is directly proportional to how many people are willing to pay for it. Cars? Computers? Useful. Many are willing to pay for them. A house? Really useful. Lots of people own houses. (Glass houses less so in our stone throwing society and you see far fewer of them.)
Of the arts, music is somewhat useful for the pleasure it gives, movies for their entertainment value. Paintings can set a mode or a tone or can be purchased for the sole purpose of matching the color scheme of the sofa. Fairly useful. Creative writing, perhaps less useful. Most modern novels are read and toss. Anything older than 6 months sells for a few dollars used on Amazon. Finally, least useful of the useless – poetry. It is telling, that virtually no one supports him or herself by exclusively writing poetry. Even our most widely known poets, mostly also worked as college professors or in more useful occupations. William Carlos Williams was a doctor. His friend Wallace Stevens worked for an insurance company.
Last year I attended an event at a major DC venue where Billy Collins and Mary Oliver both read from their work. These two juggernauts of poesy were able to gather a nice crowd though the hall was far from sold out as it was when I saw singer-songwriter Randy Newman perform there the year before. But as Collins himself pointed out nearly everyone in the audience was a writer of poetry or at least a writer. Except for people who write poetry, most people just have no use for it. When I told my non-poetry writing friends whom I had seen, most of them gave me blank stares. They had no idea who these writers were. Consider that these are the two most famous living poets working in America today! Try this: ask any friend who is not a professor of literature or a poetry writer to name a living American poet. My experience is that most can’t name a one. In all likelihood many folks can’t even name dead one.
Reading or hearing poetry won’t help you earn more money. It won’t organize your day. It won’t prepare a meal or make a hotel reservation. Rather than make your life easier in any way, poetry actually makes your life harder. It is impertinent, intemperate. It makes demands. It requires you to bring yourself, to complete it, to change, to wonder. It may delight, amuse, or even irritate but ultimately it is like the machine that serves no useful purpose.
So what is the point of art in general or poetry in particular? Or is there a point? Alas, it is another sign of our era that we even dare to ask such a question. Only in the 21st Century is useless synonymous with pointless. You may as well ask, what is the point of a flower? What is the point of a rock? Or love?
We create art specifically to remind us that not everything must be useful. Form need not follow function. The only point of art is to connect us more fully with our humanity and to express the beauty and existential uselessness of the human condition.
As Wilde concluded in his famous preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.”
This post previously appeared on Laura Shovan's blog, Author Amok.