Art — what is it good for?

“I was only happy once: that was at Hyeres.”


That is a favorite talking point for tourism people in this picturesque little town in France, built on a hill topped off with medieval ruins and providing a view of the Mediterranean Sea, roughly halfway between Marseille and Nice. There, in March of 1883, Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny rented a Swiss-style house for an undetermined period of time.

They named this “little doll-house” — Fanny’s words — Chalet La Solitude, and here the Scottish author of “Treasure Island” found, for a brief time, relief, relatively speaking, from his chronic lifelong illness, which he had exacerbated by the year he spent in America in 1879-80. That journey, its purpose and the realization thereof, were put into literature by RLS when he wrote “The Amateur Emigrant” and “The Silverado Squatters.”

Relief from his illness — relatively speaking, in Stevenson’s case — probably can’t be appreciated by the average lucky human specimen in good health. Scholars and writers and fans who take a close look at the way RLS “lived” might come away wondering why he bothered to live at all. Reading his poem “Requiem,” which are the words of his epitaph cast in bronze on his tomb, might make you wonder if he meant it when he says he would “gladly die.” The people closest to him wondered themselves how he did it. One of his best friends, American expatriate and big name in English literature Henry James, said of RLS, upon learning of his sudden death, that “One feels how one cared for him — what a place he took, and as if suddenly into that place there had descended a great avalanche of ice. I’m not sure that it’s not for him a great and happy fate, but for us the loss of charm, of suspense, of fun is unutterable.”

Robert Louis Stevenson told at least one friend why he hung on. It was in May 1888, about a month after his sudden departure from Saranac Lake. He was with the picture painter Will H. Low, taking a walk along the New Jersey shore at Manasquan under a star-choked sky. Louis had made his decision at lunch that day to cancel his return trip to Saranac Lake to spend the summer camping at Floodwood, per Dr. Trudeau’s advice. The past winter spent by the invalid author and his family while living with the Bakers had returned Louis to a state of “relative” health not enjoyed since early January 1884, when he was still living at Hyeres. “I have myself passed a better winter than for years,” he wrote to a family friend in Scotland, a few days before checking out of Baker’s. To Sidney Colvin, he said that he was “wonderfully better; this harsh, gray, glum, doleful climate has done me good.” But for RLS, “good” was not as good as it is for non-invalids. So as Will Low listened to his friend on the beach, he decided to preserve what he was saying and many years later put it in his book called “A Chronicle of Friendships”:

“We had not spoken for a moment, and alone, we two upon the beach, the world seemed very large, the sea boundless and the sky without limit when Louis broke the silence: ‘Low, I wish to live! Life is better than art, to do things is better than to imagine them, yes, or to describe them. And God knows, I have not lived all these last years. No one knows, no one can know the tedium of it. I’ve supported it as I could — I don’t think that I am apt to whimper — but to be, even as I am now, is not to live. Yes, that’s what art is good for, for without my work I suppose that I would have given up, long ago …”