Anthony Wheeler

Humble Executive.  Literary Artist.  Altruistic Libertarian.


Through the mouth a sunshine beam
Within a cave of stone
Passes by the actual truth—
You face the wall alone.

Walk within the light so fierce
It scratched the hard design.
Stumble past a broken dream
And ruins, some sublime.

Simple facts and subtle thoughts
Create reality.
‘Cause shadows cast against the wall
Are nothing, actually.

Meaning only means to Man
Nature seems unimpressed.
Much exists, the universe
In truth? it’s meaningless.

So sing along artistic soul
And build upon the beam.
A dream make real, your world alone
To play, eternally.

                                                               Chapter 1 - The Nature of Reality

                                                                               Nothing that actually occurs is of the smallest importance.

                                                                                                   Oscar Wilde, The Artist as Critic

Some people grasp Art at an early age and never let go.  They understand the essential nature of artistic activity, never question the value of what they do, and make little attempt to do anything else.  Sometimes they live in dire poverty, maniacally devoted to their art; occasionally they become wildly successful.  The majority of them, however, fall somewhere between these two extremes.

Most people give up any artistic pretensions at a young age (if they ever had any), and exclusively devote their intellectual and emotional energy to more practical pursuits: managing a career, raising a family, paying off a mortgage, acquiring nicer cars, enhancing their social status.

Then there are those who make the full circle: they begin with vague notions of creating artistic forms, yet find little talent in themselves to do so.  They never give up, though, and ultimately succeed in producing something they consider of lasting value, artistic works that validate their original desire to create.

Their intellectual development may go something like this: 

  • At an early age they gain consciousness and become aware that a world exists outside of themselves, a world independent from their own being, (one, incidentally, utterly indifferent to their own existence).

  • They become interested in current events, at first in their immediate community.  They begin to read newspapers.  Their interests widen and take in greater portions of the geographic world, until they develop a general understanding of what takes place in Pakistan, Bolivia and Japan. 

  • At some point, they wonder how the society of nations came about, so they study history.  Ancient history illuminates the foundations of Eastern and Western culture, and modern history details the currents that brought the world to rest on its present shores.  But in the course of their study, they grow dissatisfied: limited to description, history as an academic discipline possesses few tools to understand the underlying mechanisms that drive geo-political and cultural change.

  • The study of history leads to political-economy: study ensues that range from econometrics through economic history and economic theory, from libertarian political theory to Marxism.  They discover that within political theory, differences related to how people should live within social organizations create lasting and impenetrable challenges to consensus.  In economics, Marxist labor theory of value contrasts sharply with the Austrian school’s subjective theory.  Given the subjective nature of all “Human Action,” it becomes apparent that ultimate political-economic positions cannot be finalized within the academic field of economics, as the perpetual controversy that characterizes political economy rests on differing views of human values. 

  • Only in Philosophy do they discover explicit exploration of human values, the proper conduct of life, the nature of knowledge, the implications of existence, and everything else significant that impacts human life.  (Science will be discussed in some detail later).  After immersing themselves within the philosophical realm, however, they discover that final positions remain elusive, that the most thoughtful writers through history, from the pre-Socratics through Aristotle, from Kant and Hegel through Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, inclusive of Rousseau, Locke, Mill and into the 20th century, including Wittgenstein, Popper, Russell, Heidegger, Jaspers, Adorno, Sartre, Foucault, and Derrida, all speak in significantly different tones, styles and substances, and once again, consensus fails to coalesce.  Instead, radically differing views on everything relevant to human experience expands to every corner of a rational imagination.  Intellectually exhausted, after all of these climbs and flights and falls, they find themselves ultimately washed up on the shores of Art.    

The Metaphysical Model

To understand the importance of Art, and its appropriate place within a balanced human life, it’s first necessary to discuss the nature of the actual universe, and the relationship of that universe to individual human reality.  For the purposes of this work, actuality refers to the physical universe.  Every physical manifestation can ultimately be reduced to this fundamental actuality.   Reality pertains to what individual humans perceive and understand in their totality of existence.  This reality is collectively known as the Human Universe.  Understanding the difference between the two perspectives brings radical implications.  “Philosophy and literature are speculative constructs of the commerce between word and world.” (1)   Further:

Language is the main instrument of man’s refusal to accept the world as it is.  Without that refusal, without the unceasing generation by the mind of ‘counter-worlds’—a generation which cannot be divorced from the grammar of counter-factual and optative forms—we would turn forever on the treadmill of the present.  Reality would be (to use Wittgenstein’s phrase in an illicit sense) ‘all that is the case’ and nothing more.  Ours is the ability, the need, to gainsay or ‘unsay’ the world, to image and speak it otherwise.  In that capacity in its biological and social evolution, may lie some of the clues to the question of the origins of human speech and the multiplicity of tongues.  It is not, perhaps, ‘a theory of information’ that will serve us best in trying to clarify the nature of language, but a ‘theory of misinformation’. (2)

The intersession between human reality and the actuality of the physical universe extends, as Peter Sloterdijk indicates, to all aspects of a human’s ability to apprehend the basic nature of existence:

What is taste, anyway?  How can such an unfathomable quantity take on meaning in intellectual terms?  And what if this is not the proper way to phrase the question?  What if all systems of signification have always been merely systems of taste—different ways and means of translating the aroma of the world into linguistic articulations?  Could it not be that all metaphysical doctrines have only served to coat the bitter pill of life in the sweet confection of an assigned meaning? (3)

Adorno relates his perspective: “The separation of what is true in itself from the merely adequate expression of false consciousness is not to be maintained, for correct consciousness has not existed to this day, and no consciousness has the lofty vantage point from which this separation would be self-evident.”4   George Steiner agrees: “Metaphysics, religion, ethics, knowledge—all derive from man’s will to art, to lies, from his flight before truth, from his negation of truth.” (5) 

Giambattista Vico, an extraordinary early 18th century thinker, wrote that “The human mind, while it can indeed think about things, cannot understand them.  It therefore participates in reason, but lacks mastery of it.” (6)   Mark Lilla further explains:

If, as Vico contends, all knowledge is a post facto collection of the elements used in creation, then clearly man is permanently barred from complete knowledge of anything he encounters in the natural world. (7)

While Vico went on to build a Christian structure from this metaphysical foundation, his unique and prescient insight remains valid today.   

Man invents from within himself the fictions of point and unit, and from them derives a world of shapes and numbers.  In this world he is the cause.  But it is a fictive world; he can know it, but what he knows will bear no necessary relation to anything corporeal. (8)

Reality/Actuality/Human Universe

Presented in terms of Plato’s parable of the cave (the central metaphor of Western metaphysics), human reality is the multi-dimensional, fully-colored shadow that dances upon the cave wall, and all subsequent derivations, including:

  • Sensations
  • Perceptions
  • Emotions
  • Sex
  • Pain
  • Dreams
  • Memories
  • Thoughts
  • Language
  • Family
  • Friends
  • Concepts
  • Ideas
  • Imagination
  • Work
  • Entertainment
  • Culture
  • Games
  • Society
  • Religion
  • Ideology
  • History
  • Dogma
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Philosophy
  • Art
  • Literature

In short, the Human Universe. 

Actuality is that which casts the shadow.

                                              Figure of the Human Universe



























Which leaves only one solution: by reflecting upon the data from the sensible intuition, by comparing them, assessing them, by using an innate and secret art hidden in the deepest profundities of the human soul…we do not abstract but construct the schemata. (9)

In order to survive, individual humans, embedded deep within their cultural jungles and surrounded by the fronds of commercial and social engagements, necessarily avoid all sense of actuality, and instead, embrace the fictions they create:

At the central level the enemy is not the other drinker at the water-hole, the torturer seeking your name, the negotiator across the table, or the social bore.  Language is centrally fictive because the enemy is [actuality], because unlike the Houyhnhnm, man is not prepared to abide with ‘the Thing which is’. (10) 

Humans minimize the significance of actuality, ignore the implications of mathematical physics and organic chemistry, in the same manner that religion averts the eyes of the faithful from the prosaic and points instead to an afterworld, one both above and below them:

Creators and connoisseurs, all those for whom art exists (in other words, who are as responsive to the forms it creates as to the most emotive mortal forms) share a faith in an immanent power peculiar to man.  They devalorize reality [actuality], just as the Christian faith—and indeed every religious system—devalorizes it.  Also, like the Christians, they devalorize it by their faith in a privileged estate, and a hope that man (and not chaos) contains within him the source of his eternity. (11) 

So humans write stories, both on paper and with their individual lives:

Nietzsche’s main thrust is that it’s errors (as well as lies) that have been thus functional.  Our cognitive practices are crucially built out of dispositions designed to get things wrong—i.e., out of drives to simplify and otherwise distort reality.  Nietzsche interprets Kant’s categories as precisely such requisite mistakes: we all instinctively structure our experiences into substances and causes, because these fictions helped our ancestors to cope quickly and roughly with their surroundings. (12) 

With this created fiction life perpetuates itself in a semblance of harmony and meaning:

Man is nothing but a mythical animal.  He becomes man—he acquires a human being’s sexuality and heart and imagination—only by virtue of the murmur of stories and kaleidoscope of images that surround him in the cradle and accompany him all the way to the grave….That being the case, it becomes easy to describe the social—one might even say biological—function of the creative artist.  The artist’s ambition is to add to or at any rate modify the ‘murmur’ of myth that surrounds the child, the pool of images in which his contemporaries move—in short, the oxygen of the soul. (13) 

According to Richard Rorty, it was Lionel Trilling who said that Freud “showed us that poetry is indigenous to the very constitution of the mind; he saw the mind as being, in the greater part of its tendency, exactly a poetry-making faculty.”  Rorty goes on to write that

Leo Bersand broadens…Trilling’s point when he says: ‘Psychoanalytic theory has made the notion of fantasy so richly programmatic that we should no longer be able to take for granted the distinction between art and life.’ (14) 

To find meaning in the universe, humanity creates the semblance of meaning through works of art:

What [ancient megaliths] all seem to have had in common was the desire to order.  Indeed, it may well be that the chief aim of early art was to make sense of a chaotic universe. (15) 

How is this any different today?  People embrace entropy to directly combat meaningless chaos, by constructing with their biological existence mounds of stone or piles of words—in all cases works of art intended to ward off the pure nihilism that stands ready to overwhelm all but the most thoughtless and ignorant individuals, those incapable of perceiving the vast wasteland of everyday life.  Yet the thinking, aesthetically aware human has already chosen, and been chosen:

If individuated life is essentially a composing of self-representation above a foundation of painful pleasure and impulsiveness, then one can certainly be of the opinion that the universal concert to a great extent is composed of the noise of these compositions of self, which resound against each other and are dependent on each other.  Since life is already compelled to art because it has been afflicted with individuation, it must discover within itself the yearning that the philosopher identifies as a will to power and that more than anything signifies the will to implement one’s own true lie of life and art…. (16)

It is this internal resonance that maintains the sanity of the thoughtful, and brings them eternal hope that something actually matters, both to them and to others:

The relationship between life and purposefulness, seemingly obvious yet almost beyond the grasp of the intellect, reveals itself only if the ultimate purpose toward which all single functions tend is sought not in its own sphere but in a higher one.  All purposeful manifestations of life, including their very purposiveness, in the final analysis have their end not in life, but in the expression of its nature, in the representation of its significance. (17) 

The implications of this perspective range extensively across the human cultural terrain.  If there is an ‘actual’ world and a ‘real’ world, and if they are not the same, but in fact, are related through some measure of correspondence, and if it is humanity’s desire, ability and necessity to live within a ‘real’ world that is not exactly equivalent to the ‘actual’ world, and that in fact, every human’s capacity for enjoying life in some meaningful or significant way depends upon the ‘real’ world he inhabits, then what has occurred since the Enlightenment is humanity’s attempt to make the ‘actual’ world fully ‘real’:

In the eighteenth century the bourgeois Enlightenment challenged the theological position that the heavenly and earthly cities were contradictory extremes, one full of sin and suffering, the other a place of redemption and eternal bliss.  It called on human beings to use their own, God-given reason to create the “heavenly” city here and now, and as an earthly paradise, material happiness was to be a basic component of its construction.  The industrial revolution seemed to make possible this practical realization of paradise. (18)

In the past, when life was particularly difficult, within Dostoevsky’s world or Solzhenitsyn’s prison, for instance, the only source of human happiness, fulfillment or exaltation was in and through the artistic/religious imagination.  As a result, these artists created some of the world’s greatest fictions.  Later, as the idea became prevalent that humans could actually perfect themselves and their surroundings, they strove to create within the actual world what before had only been dreamed.  Thus, instead of castles in the clouds, they built skyscrapers; no more magic carpets, they fly jets; they no longer search for genie bottles on the beach, but instead, buy lotto tickets; they venture forth not in steel armor to slay dragons, but instead, in suit and tie to conquer markets and competitors and win customers. 

Unfortunately, over the past few hundred years, humans have expended the majority of their individual and cultural energy on those things that provide food, shelter, transportation, communication, and everything else that makes up the mundane world, and held those things as it, and not focused attention on the interior realms that promise more reward.  “Art, then, became, for the hard-working bourgeoisie, a relief from life rather than, as for pre-capitalist tribesmen, an explanation and intensification of it.” (19)  

Today, when we all know that television lies and that the media do not in the least supply disinterested and objective representations of the world, and when even what we call “nature” is only accessible to us through scientific paradigms fraught with historicity and loaded with theory, hence with “prejudice” (lacking which, for that matter, we would be unable to know anything), we can no longer tranquilize ourselves by pretending to stand with our feet on the ground observing things as they are and dismissing the rest as nonsense.  The end of ideology is also the triumph of ideologies, of the multiple interpretations of the world seen for what they are, that make individual choice and decision ineluctable. (20)

And when it becomes apparent that all this bourgeois and idealistic effort proves ultimately unrewarding, they become disillusioned, angry, rebellious, full of ‘nausea’, and ‘Fear and Trembling’.

We secrete from within ourselves the grammar, the mythologies of hope, of fantasy, of self-deception without which we would have been arrested at some rung of primate behavior or would, long since, have destroyed ourselves.  It is our syntax, not the physiology of the body or the thermodynamics of the planetary system, which is full of tomorrows.  Indeed, this may be the only area of 'free will', of assertion outside direct neurochemical causation or programming.  We speak, we dream ourselves free of the organic trap. (21)

Robert Wright, in The Moral Animal, provides one of the keys for understanding the general human behavior that dominates most of our lives.  He argues that evolutionary-driven genetic influences pervade human activity in subtle and not so subtle ways. 

Assuming that evolution actually takes place (that is, current biological forms have descended from previous ones, and that all life shares a common genetic structure), and that human behavior is influenced by genetics (take the human smile, for instance: its form and meaning is universal across all cultures and all peoples); that all organisms strive to reproduce themselves, and that the behavior of individual organisms impacts their relative success or failure, resulting in more successful behavioral strategies being passed along; and we accept humans as part of nature, then we can conclude that men and women tend to pursue strategies that enhance their chances for reproductive success (at least their ancestors did).

Passions for life and sex are built into us, hardwired, pre-programmed.  Between them, they go a long way toward arranging for many offspring with slightly differing genetic characteristics, the essential first step for natural selection to work.  So we are the mostly unconscious tools of natural selection, indeed its willing instruments.  As deeply as we can go in assessing our own feelings, we do not recognize any underlying purpose.  All that is added later.  All the social and political and theological justifications are attempts to rationalize, after the fact, human feelings that are at the same time utterly obvious and profoundly mysterious. (22)  

In a primitive state, women require resources to feed and protect their children.  They favor men who posses wealth and status, as they are more likely to effectively support her children.  She, in turn, will provide such men her intimate company.  She never has a doubt whose child she bears: it’s always hers.

Have we forgotten that the president is the alpha male of the tribe, and the alpha male gets the youngest and the most nubile females with or without foreplay?  It’s like that with chimps, gibbons, and even presidents of the United States.  What the alpha male wants the alpha male gets.  It was Evelyn Lincoln, JFK’s secretary, who reported having to beat women off with sticks.  Does it count as sexual harassment if women are harassing the president for sex?  Let’s be honest about this.  Why do guys want to be president?  It’s not for the rubber-chicken dinners.  Anyone who has ever watched women falling all over one another to date fat middle-aged moguls should have no doubt about the desirability of the president’s penis…       …“Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” said Henry Kissinger.  And he wasn’t even as cute as Bill Clinton. (23)

Men want to mate with attractive women.  They gain access to such women by obtaining wealth and status, and trading it, essentially, for their intimate favors.  Men often doubt the child’s paternity, and may never know for certain.

These fundamental genetic drives manifest themselves in modern society in a variety of demonstrable ways:

  • Rock stars and dictators have no trouble obtaining pliant female companionship, even when they look like Keith Richards or Manuel Noriega.

  • Rich old men, regardless of their physical condition, never lack feminine attention or company.

  • Successful middle-aged men routinely ditch their faithful first wives and abandon their family in order to obtain trophy wives; younger, attractive women attracted to the man’s relative wealth and status.

  • Middle-aged losers with no money and no prospects spend most of their nights alone.

  • In a recent poll, men and women were asked to rank the ten most important things.  Women ranked money as number one.  Men ranked sex.

A popular song has it right:

     Girls don’t like boys, girls like cars and money
     Boys will laugh at girls when they’re not funny.

Erica Jong, certainly a literary authority on modern sexuality, summarizes:

Despite the fact that women’s sexual standards have risen as male organs have wilted, it can still be demonstrated that young women like older men with money and that mating is as determined by economic imperatives as it ever was. (25)

Many readers will blanch at the harsh, biological reduction of our finest sentiments, exposing, as Wright does, the unappealing underbelly of raw human biological existence.  While so much of our desire and behavior is driven by these underlying forces, most of the time we remain oblivious to the genuine source or purpose of these drives, and simply carry on anyway:

Understanding the often unconscious nature of genetic control is the first step toward understanding that—in many realms, not just sex—we’re all puppets, and our best hope for even partial liberation is to try to decipher the logic of the puppeteer.  The full scope of the logic will take some time to explain, but I don’t think I’m spoiling the end of the movie by noting here that the puppeteer seems to have exactly zero regard for the happiness of the puppets. (26)

Humans, perhaps uniquely, have the ability to overcome, at least to some extent, their genetic wiring.  The successful CEO doesn’t have to abandon his family, even if he is flattered by his beautiful young assistant.  He might well remain faithful to his faithful wife.  The young attractive woman doesn’t have to fall in love with the rich and popular movie star, even if he energetically romances her.  We can use our will to bypass certain instinctual tendencies (especially if the older wife is a good, loving and admirable woman, and the movie star a shallow jerk). 

Wright argues that:

Of course, we’re designed to pursue happiness; and the attainment of Darwinian goals—sex, status, and so on—often brings happiness, at least for a while.  Still, the frequent absence of happiness is what keeps us pursuing it, and thus makes us productive. (27)

So most of us, most of the time, remain productive so that we can obtain more money, more status, more sex.  Doing so requires a thick veil between our actions, and the underlying motivation for them.  We generally believe we know some things for certain, when in fact—pace Holmes*—we most certainly do not:
                                               * “We are not sure of many things and those are not so.”  Oliver Wendell Holmes

In short: if Freud stressed people’s difficulty in seeing the truth about themselves, the new Darwinians stress the difficulty of seeing truth, period.  Indeed, Darwinism comes close to calling into question the very meaning of the word truth.  For the social discourses that supposedly lead to truth—moral discourse, political discourse, even, sometimes, academic discourse—are, by Darwinian lights, raw power struggles.  A winner will emerge, but there’s often no reason to expect that winner to be truth.  A cynicism deeper than Freudian cynicism may have once seemed hard to imagine, but here it is.

This Darwinian brand of cynicism doesn’t exactly fill a gaping cultural void.  Already, various avant-garde academics—“deconstructionist” literary theorists and anthropologists, adherents of “critical legal studies”—are viewing human communication as “discourse of power.”  Already many people believe what the new Darwinism underscores: that in human affairs, all (or least much) is artifice, a self-serving manipulation of image.  And already this belief helps nourish a central strand of the postmodern condition: a powerful inability to take things seriously. (28)

Aesthetically sensitive humans are capable of overcoming their genetically determined tendencies; they need not settle for the meager rewards that obtaining more money and/or more status will bring.  They will find these commercial achievements hollow, and the good feelings that go with such public success ephemeral.

Writing is surely a delicious craft, and the writer is correctly envied by others, who must slave longer hours and see their labor vanish as they work, in the churning of human needs. (29)

While it is appropriate to work within the actual world in order to feed and cloth ourselves, keep ourselves warm, healthy and safe, we should seek ultimate human fulfillment elsewhere.  We can do so within our capacity as humans to create and experience flights of the imagination; that is, through creating and experiencing original works of art, in whatever form most suited to our individual temperament.  “The only worth-while objective, as [Gissing] sees it, is to make a purely personal escape from the misery of poverty and then proceed to live a civilized, aesthetically decent life.” (30)

Art and the Mundane

How then, does art relate to real life, to the mundane?  Art opposes daily life in many ways, and often acts as a balm that calms life’s pain, and other times exalts human existence.  Art expands and amplifies human experience, whenever it is created and performed by the artist, and wherever enjoyed by an audience, a reader.  Even so, the ‘real’ world always intrudes, the world of families, society, work, money, food:  “I cannot, as you once proposed to me—‘solve the problem of life by losing myself in the problem of art.’  In my case, life is always struggling to predominate and art naturally suffers.” (31)

So art suffers from the demands of daily existence, yet efforts should be made to overcome the mundane, and make room for intellectual (and by extension), creative activities:

By intellectuality we are freed from the thralldom to the familial commonplace, from the materiality and concreteness by which it exists, the hardness of the cash and the hardness of getting it, the inelegance and intractability of family things.  It gives us power over intangibles and imponderables, such as Beauty and Justice, and it permits us to escape the cosmic ridicule which in our youth we suppose is inevitably directed at those who take seriously the small concerns of the material quotidian world, which we know to be inadequate and doomed by the very fact that it is so absurdly conditioned – by things, habits, local and temporary customs, and the foolish errors and solemn absurdities of the men of the past. (32)

It could be that most people rank their everyday life above the aesthetic world, and consider reading a book, seeing a play, watching a movie as simple, unimportant entertainment, and nothing more, and wait anxiously to return to the world of work, of bureaucratic warfare, office politics, activities more substantive and ‘real’ (pace Wright), creating an ongoing conflict between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ existence: 

It is an inescapable peculiarity of European culture that every minute the ‘inner world’ is proclaimed the best and most profound thing life has to offer, without regard for the fact that this inner world is treated as merely an annex of the outer world.  And how this is done is frankly the secret balance sheet of this culture, even though it is an open secret: the external world and the “personality” are set off against each other.  The assumption is that the outer world stimulates in a person inner processes that must enable that person to respond in an appropriate fashion; and by mentally setting up this pathway leading from a change in the world through the change in a person to a further change in the world, one derives the peculiar ambiguity that permits us to honor the internal world as the true sphere of human grandeur and yet to presuppose that everything taking place within it has the ultimate task of flowing outward in the form of an orderly external action. (33)

Goethe assures us that, “There is no surer way of evading the world than art, and no surer way of attaching oneself to it,” (34) while Jeanette Winterson insists on the basic antagonism between the act of art and the living a real life:

Art coaxes out of us emotions we normally do not feel.  It is not that art sets out to shock (that is rare), it is rather that art occupies ground unconquered by social niceties.  Seeking neither to please nor to displease, art works to enlarge emotional possibility.  In a dead society that inevitably puts it on the side of the rebels.  Do not mistake me, I am not of the voting party of bohemians and bad boys, and the rebelliousness of art does not make every rebel an artist.  The rebellion of art is a daily rebellion against the state of living death routinely called real life. (35)

But a paradox remains between real life and the aesthetic realm, one that William Gass explicates when discussing Rilke’s approach to poetry:

First, [Rilke] expects of ordinary life far more than it can possibly produce in any regular way.  Second, he consequently enters a state of dismay and disappointment.  Third, he requires of the poet that he lead an elevated life anyway.  Fourth, the poet, in order to lead that elevated life, is forced to accept and praise the same ordinary world he began by disdaining. (36)

“The eternal difficulty of the non-romantic or the proletarian epic poet or novelist,” Ford Madox Ford writes, “is: How are you going to make interesting a central character whose circumstances and temperament are in no way interesting?” (37)   This seems to me the challenge taken up by many modern writers, Joyce and Updike for instance, with varying degrees of success.

Each person who embraces some form of artistic expression must resolve this paradox in their own way.  Proust “possessed a powerful will to believe in the redemptive quality of art itself (redemption by means of art may be said to be the most important theme of his work as a whole) and in order to be able to do so he had to postulate a world of ideas or a noumenal world above the evanescent world of passing phenomena.” (38)   Oscar Wilde doesn’t hesitate to rank the experience of art far above that of real life, and in fact, indicates that “Life by its realism is always spoiling the subject-matter of art.  The supreme pleasure in literature is to realize the non-existent.” (39)   Only in art do we find the non-existent raised to sufficient powers to justify our individual existence.


There is nothing in the biological world that presupposes human imagination.  Dig deep into sub-atomic physics or peruse bio-chemical reactions, and nowhere will you find human desire.  In our complex universe, entirely new realities emerge from the substrate, realities completely unpredictable and unobserved from the material out of which it develops, realities that stand radically separate and independent from their source. 

Consider the print on the page of a book.  At some level, it begins as ink and wood, and means nothing until an alphabet, a syntax, a language is spoken.  Even then, meaning remains imperceptible if the language remains unknown.  Once understood, however, the text may represent something creative, meaningful, of lasting interest, and if so, art itself has miraculously emerged from the page:

What the poet aims for…is that novelty of combinations which will suggest to the listener, to the reader, a corona, a new-lit sphere of perceptible meanings, of radiant energy, at once understandable and adding to (transcending) what is already to hand. (40) 

Walt Whitman provides an excellent—if ironic—example in Leaves of Grass:

     Homer with all his wars and warriors—Hector, Achilles, Ajax
     Or Shakespeare’s woe-entangled Hamlet, Lear, Othello—Tennyson’s fair ladies,
     Metre or wit the best, or choice conceit to wield in perfect rhyme, delight of singers;
     These, these O sea, all these I’d gladly barter,
     Would you the undulation of one wave, its trick to me transfer,
     Or breathe one breath of yours upon my verse,
     And leave its odor there.

The wave has nothing to teach Walt.  Language transcends (emerges) from all else.  It is the sole source of meaning for humans, or more precisely, the sole source of experiencing, communicating, remembering or understanding meaning:

Together with music, language, any language, has in it these infinite resources of being.  It is the supreme gift to and gift of man.  It makes possible the building of powers half-way to the stars. (42)

Dogs may hear, see and feel many of the same things we do, perhaps in much the same way, but they have no ability—lacking language—to apply meaning to what they experience.

If you pushed far enough into language you found yourself in the embrace of thought. (43)

Art is a human’s way of transcending (making emerge) new meaning from the raw material of life—and language is the principle means of attaining such transcendence.

[T]he major poet’s creativity is heuristic; it is concerned with…new realization, such as the discipline [of grammar and logic] precludes; with apprehensions and intuitions that of their nature can’t be stated. (44)

Understanding this basic notion of ‘emergence’, and its counterpart ‘reduction’, is crucial to comprehending various aspects of art, as virtually everything we feel, criticize, debate or hate about an art object is something vastly more than the physical (actual) object itself. 

Objects and concepts can be treated at various levels, at emerged higher ones, or alternatively, reduced to more basic components:

To the eyes of the artist things are primarily what they may come to be within that privileged domain where they “put on immortality”—but where, for that very reason, they lose some of their attributes: real depth in painting, real movement in sculpture.  For every art purporting to represent involves a process of reduction.  The painter reduces form to the two dimensions of his canvas; the sculptor reduces every movement, potential or portrayed, to immobility.  This reduction is the beginning of art. (45)

Yet while physically reduced, something in a work of art always emerges: significance, beauty, meaning, insight, truth.  If the work remains mute, it is not art:

Admixed with art’s own concept is the ferment of its own abolition. (46)

That which emerges also risks radical reduction, if it contains inadequate substance, receding perhaps into the meaningless nothing out of which it arose.

While language is the medium of human meaning, memory is the storehouse.  “For an experienced event is finite” according to Walter Benjamin.  “At any rate, confined to one sphere of experience; a remembered event is infinite, because it is only a key to everything that happened before it and after it.” (47)

Thus we find that art, meaning, language, significance and memory come together in precisely one form—the literary novel.

Novelists Invent a World

In order for an art object to accomplish this feat, the artist must create something new, an object that otherwise would not exist.  For the novelist this means the creation of a new world, a different reality, an existence imagined only by him or herself, and once completed, offered up to others to share as they please:

An original author always invents an original world, and if a character or action fits into the pattern of that world, then we experience the pleasurable shock of artistic truth, no matter how unlikely the person or thing may seem if transferred into what book reviewers, poor hacks, call ‘real life.’  There is no such thing as real life for the author of genius; he must create it himself and then create the consequences. (48) 

As William Gass indicates, “the novelist now better understands his medium; he is ceasing to pretend that his business is to render the world; he knows, more often now, that his business is to make one, and to make one from the only medium of which he is a master—language.” (49)   John Updike agrees: “For a work of fiction is not a statement about the world; it is an attempt to create, out of hieroglyphs imprinted by the world upon the writer’s inner being, another world.” (50)   Finally, Schiller points out the proper relationship between this created world and the actual one, when he draws the aesthetic line between the two:

From this you see that the poet transgresses his proper limits, alike when he attributes existence to his ideal world, as when he aims at bringing about some determinate existence by means of it.  For he can bring neither of these things to pass without either exceeding his rights as a poet (encroaching with his ideal upon the territory of experience, and presuming to determine actual existence by means of what is merely possible) or surrendering his rights as a poet (allowing experience to encroach upon the territory of the ideal, and restricting the possible to the conditions of the actual).
            Only inasmuch as it is honest (expressly renounces all claims to reality), and only inasmuch as it is autonomous (dispenses with all support from reality), is semblance aesthetic.  From the moment it is dishonest, and simulates reality, or from the moment it is impure, and has need of realty to make its effect, it is nothing but a base instrument for material ends, and affords no evidence whatsoever of any freedom of the spirit.

For Horkheimer and Adorno, the artist must establish the boundaries:

The work of art still has something in common with enchantment: it posits its own, self-enclosed area, which is withdrawn from the context of profane existence, and in which special laws apply.  Just as in the ceremony the magician first of all marked out the limits of the area where the sacred powers were to come into play, so every work of art describes its own circumference which closes it off from actuality. (52)

Andre Malraux provides a telling clue when he focuses his attention on perhaps the greatest artist ever:

[Vermeer]…proved that a man of genius, though seeming to limit himself to the world of Pieter de Hooch, could vie with Rembrandt by bringing out a truth that Hals had strongly, Terborch confusedly, adumbrated—a truth that Rembrandt’s obsession with the absolute had inhibited him from realizing: that the depiction of a world devoid of value can be magnificently justified by an artist who treats painting itself as the supreme value. (53)

Perhaps the same can be said of all art, every aesthetic activity, and the objects that result from those activities, even if the artist remains merely human, and unable to rise to the level of genius.  Nietzsche points this way, and directs us along this path towards the shining light of aesthetic creation, and away from the putrid swamp of nihilistic actuality. 

               It is through Art, and through Art only, that we can realize our perfection; through Art, and through Art only,

               that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.

                            Oscar Wilde, The Artist as Critic

Notes for Chapter 1, The Nature of Reality

  1. George Steiner, No Passion Spent
  2. George Steiner, A Reader
  3. Peter Sloterdijk, Thinker on Stage
  4. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory
  5. George Steiner, A Reader
  6. G. Vico, from Mark Lilla’s G. B. Vico
  7. Mark Lilla, G. B. Vico
  8. ibid
  9. Umberto Eco, Kant and the Platypus
  10. George Steiner, A Reader
  11. Andre Malraux, Voices of Silence
  12. John Richardson, Nietzsche’s New Darwinism
  13. Tournier, quoted by John Updike in Odd Jobs
  14. Richard Rorty, Nietzsche: Modern Critical Views
  15. Paul Johnson, Art: A New History
  16. Peter Sloterdijk, Thinker on Stage
  17. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
  18. Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing
  19. John Updike, Odd Jobs
  20. Gianni Vattimo, Dialogue with Nietzsche
  21. George Steiner, A Reader
  22. Carl Sagan/Ann Dryan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors
  23. Erica Jong, What Do Women Want?
  24. Good Charlotte, Girls & Boys
  25. Erica Jong, What do Women Want?
  26. Robert Wright, The Moral Animal
  27. ibid
  28. ibid
  29. John Updike, Odd Jobs
  30. George Orwell, Essays
  31. Tina Modotti, quoted by Alberto Manguel in Reading Pictures
  32. Lionel Trilling, The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent
  33. Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities
  34. Goethe, Elective Affinities
  35. Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects
  36. William Gass, Reading Rilke
  37. Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature
  38. Milton Hindus, A Reader’s Guide to Marcel Proust
  39. Oscar Wilde, The Artist as Critic
  40. George Steiner, Grammars of Creation
  41. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
  42. George Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle
  43. Henry James, Literary Criticism – French, European
  44. F. R. Leavis, The Critic as Anti-Philosopher
  45. Andre Malraux, Voices of Silence
  46. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory
  47. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
  48. Nabokov, quoted by Robertson Davies in The Merry Heart
  49. William Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life
  50. John Updike, Odd Jobs
  51. Schiller, Essays
  52. Horkheimer/Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment
  53. Andre Malraux, Voices of Silence