Humble Executive. Literary Artist. Altruistic Libertarian.
Chapter 4 - The Artist
[Ford] was the complete writer, brought up to believe that artists were the only serious people, that
everyone else was simply ‘stuff to fill graveyards.’
An artist is someone who struggles—sometimes successfully, oftentimes not—to express in a creative manner the meaning that reverberates within. As already discussed, this can take many forms: painting, music, dance, poetry—or prose fiction.
To become an artist, one must first embrace art (if art hasn’t already embraced you, captivated you, seized you unmercifully), and then manically develop artistic sensibility with the energy and desperation of Kerouac’s ‘benny addict.’
William Faulkner writes that
The artist…finds that he has been dedicated to a single course and one from which he will never escape. This is, he tries, with every means in his possession, his imagination, experience and observation, to put into some more durable form than his own fragile and ephemeral life—in paint or music or marble or the covers of a book—that which he has learned in his brief spell of breathing—the passion and hope, the beauty and horror and humor, of frail and fragile and indomitable man struggling and suffering and triumphing amid the conflicts of his own heart, in the human condition. (1)
He goes on to describe an artist as anyone
who has tried to create something which was not here before him, with no other tools and material than the uncommerciable ones of the human spirit; who has tried to carve, no matter how crudely, on the wall of that final oblivion beyond which he will have to pass, in the tongue of the human spirit, ‘Kilroy was here.’
That is primarily, and I think in its essence, all that we ever really tried to do. (2)
“And I believe,” Faulkner goes on to say, “we will all agree that we failed. That what we made never quite matched and never will match the shape, the dream of perfection which we inherited and which drove us and will continue to drive us, even after each failure, until anguish frees us and the hand falls still at last.” (3) And yet this failure proves ultimately productive:
Maybe it’s just as well that we are doomed to fail, since, as long as we do fail and the hand continues to hold blood, we will try again; where, if we ever did attain the dream, match the shape, scale that ultimate peak of perfection, nothing would remain but to jump off the other side of it into suicide. (4)
The artist’s job, according to Susan Sontag, “is inventing trophies of his experiences—objects and gestures that fascinate and enthrall, not merely…edify or entertain.” (5) She goes on to add, perhaps paradoxically, that “So far as he is serious, the artist is continually tempted to sever the dialogue he has with an audience.” (6)
But does any of this make the artist special? Andy Warhol didn’t think so:
Why do people think artists are special? It’s just another job. (7)
An entirely understandable remark coming, as it does, from such a forgettable artist, yet most people, as he indicates, do believe there is something special about artists, something that sets them apart from others:
Side by side with the human race there runs another race of beings, the inhuman ones, the race of artists who, goaded by unknown impulses, take the lifeless mass of humanity and by the fever and ferment with which they imbue it turn this soggy dough into bread and the bread into wine and the wine into song. (8)
Bruno Schultz claims that “The role of art is to be a probe sunk into the nameless. The artist is an apparatus for registering processes in that deep stratum where value is formed.” (9) And yet, according to Proust, artistic genius may be less than obviously displayed, as
men who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is most brilliant or their culture broadest, but those who have had the power, ceasing in a moment to live only for themselves, to make use of their personality as of a mirror, in such a way that their life, however unimportant it may be socially, and even, in a sense, intellectually speaking, is reflected by it, genius consisting in the reflective power of the writer and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected. (10)
“The truth,” according to Proust, “is that there is only one freedom for the artist, and that is originality.” This is because “the great tyrant is love, and when we are not original we slavishly copy what we love.” (11) Henry James writes that the artist’s “supreme use in the world is to master his intellectual instrument and play it in perfection,” as “It takes…a great deal of life to make a little art!” (12) Ayn Rand writes that “An artist does not fake reality—he stylizes it.” (13) I would contradict Rand and suggest that he creates it, rather than stylizing something that already exists.
Specific to writers, Schopenhauer, in a characteristically wonderful metaphor, divides writers into
meteors, planets and fixed stars. The first produce a momentary effect: you gaze up, cry: ‘Look!’ – and then they vanish for ever. The second, the moving stars, endure for much longer. By virtue of their proximity they often shine more brightly than the fixed stars, which the ignorant mistake them for. But they too must soon vacate their place, they shine moreover only with a borrowed light, and their sphere of influence is limited to their own fellow travelers (their contemporaries). The third alone are unchanging, stand firm in the firmament, shine by their own light and influence all ages equally, in that their aspect does not alter when our point of view alters since they have no parallax. Unlike the others, they do not belong to one system (nation) alone: they belong to the Universe. But it is precisely because they are so high that their light usually takes so many years to reach the eyes of dwellers on earth. (14)
The Nature of the Artist
The achievement of a true personality, some sort of harmonious whole, is a work of art. Nature does not support or guide the artist in his work. Thus each such achievement, as the work of a serious artist, bearing as it does the stamp of his unique self, is bound to be different from every other. Man requires art, but few possess it. As natural men are all the same, civilized ones are all different. And most of them are a mess... (15)
But what is so special about artists? Are they born, or made? Schopenhauer believes it’s a combination of both:
The artist lets us peer into the world through his eyes. That he has these eyes, that he knows the essential in things which lies outside all relations, is the gift of genius and is inborn; but that he is able to lend us this gift, to let us see with his eyes, is acquired, and is the technical side of art. (16)
According to T.S. Eliot, special circumstances can combine to produce artistic genius, circumstances that many of us can strive to replicate, to some degree, in our own lives:
The question about Blake the man is the question of the circumstances that concurred to permit this honesty in his work, and what circumstances define its limitations. The favoring conditions probably include these two: that, being early apprenticed to a manual occupation, he was not compelled to acquire any other education in literature than he wanted, or to acquire it for any other reason than that he wanted it; and that, being a humble engraver, he had no journalistic-social career open to him.
There was, that is to say, nothing to distract him from his interests or to corrupt these interests: neither the ambitions of parents or wife, nor the standards of society, nor the temptations of success; nor was he exposed to imitation of himself or of any one else. (17)
In other words, if you work in a profession that doesn’t depend on your literary success, manage to maintain your intellectual and artistic independence, and avoid the ‘temptations of success,’ as Eliot indicates, than you have a good chance to create works that are aesthetically unique, and perhaps of lasting value. If not for others, than surely for yourself.
It also helps if you work in a non-intellectually demanding occupation (although these days that proves increasingly difficult for a reasonably well-educated, intelligent individual, one who wishes to live somewhere above the poverty line), an occupation that you can spend your intellectual energy on literary creation instead of mundane commercial complexities. Phillip Jose Farmer writes about working in a steel mill, and how this allowed him to create while working. I had a similar experience, as I conceived my first novel while grinding magnets – mindlessly loading one into a machine every two minutes, thousands of them for weeks at a time. Later, in a corporate environment, I found myself exhausted daily with the difficulties and concerns managing complex businesses, systems, organizations and networks, greatly inhibiting my ability to creatively write.
In order to write novels, the creative mind requires dedicated time and emotional energy to spend contemplating the literary project, to run scenes graphically through the imagination, and solve thematic and structural problems. While more on this topic later, the point here is that if personal and professional considerations dominate the intellect, no time is left for the largely sub-conscious and casual reflection necessary to effectively create, even if a few hours a week have been carved out to actually write. Most of the important work takes place away from the writing pad (or typewriter, or word processor), and if the aspiring novelist believes he or she can simply sit down at some point of the day and just start writing, they will find they have little or nothing to express. This lack of creative productivity is often attributed to ‘writer’s block,’ or some inherent lack of talent or ability, when in fact, they have missed a crucial step on the process, and are not prepared to attempt a first draft.
While many of us are tempted to live entirely within the world of words, it seems crucial for a successful artist to genuinely experience life, to live beyond the realm of books and pictures. The shallowness of so much youthful artistic effort can be attributed largely to this lack, making the exceptions all the more startling (Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter for example). And those who have progressed in years, yet simply repeated their days in endless repetition, have gathered very little clay in which to imprint a lasting, meaningful impression. Along these lines, Ford Madox Ford thinks that
If literature is to hold its own as the great instructor of the human race, its devotees must have faced life. Whilst doing so they may read books, or they may read them afterwards—but to live a hard life and to be dependent on it is indispensable. (18)
Why do people become artists? Joyce Carol Oates provides “several theories of the genesis of art”, and an excellent overview of what motivates an artist:
I suggest [she writes]:
She goes on to ask
Is the artist, by temperament, a perpetual antagonist to the crowd? the state? the prevailing ethos? This collision of the ethical/tribal/familial world and the world of the individual; the world of the individual soul and the universe of sheer numbers—“laws” of nature: This is the drama that arrests me, and haunts me in life as in writing… (20)
The answer is yes: the artist is by nature an individual, one necessarily set apart from society and friends, a person who either succumbs utterly to their artistic impulses, or struggles, as most of us do, to conform in some minimum manner to community and society. The purer the artist, the greater the potential transgression:
Freedom for ordinary people is the free exercise of their habits. For [artists] it means going beyond what is permitted. (21)
“The artist is an imaginer” Jeanette Winterson writes. She goes on in her characteristically uncompromising manner:
The artist imagines the forbidden because to her it is not forbidden. If she is freer than other people it is the freedom of her single allegiance to her work. Most of us have divided loyalties, most of us have sold ourselves. The artist is not divided and she is not for sale. The clarity of purpose protects her although it is her clarity of purpose that is most likely to irritate most people. We are not happy with obsessives, visionaries, which means, in effect, that we are not happy with artists. (22)
“An artist is always alone,” Henry Miller insists, “if he is an artist. No, what the artist needs is loneliness.” (23) The cost for such loneliness can be very high, as Gore Vidal indicates: “Writers, after all, are valuable in spite of their neuroses, obsessions, and rebellions, not because of them.” (24) Adorno agrees: “Those who produce important artworks are not demigods but fallible, often neurotic and damaged, individuals.” (25) “The writer, in fact, is the least inclined of all men to scoff at folly. Unhappily, he is more unhappy than ill-natured.” (26)
All artists, all writers, even the greatest, the acknowledged geniuses, suffer limitations of some kind; in their character, their vision, or their intellect. Even so, some are arguably less limited than others, at least aesthetically, and deliver to the world art objects more perfect, more profound and enduring than the mass of mediocre entertainers that encumber each age. Joyce Carol Oates might disagree, as she writes that
All enduring works of art…bear the imprint of their time, place, and social perspective. All art is selective and therefore, from some perspective, unfair; no art can be universal, for no artist is universal; we are all local individuals, shaped by the customs of our tribes. The enduring artist is not the creator of perfect works but of works that transcend the circumstances of their creations and contribute to the aesthetic development of their craft. (27)
Certainly we all bear such imprints, but it’s not just the work that transcends the time, but the artist, as the greatest of them touch upon the universal and speak to us with profound meaning across centuries, translated languages, and diverse cultures. Somehow their works continue to exert their influence as they charm new readers with vastly different ‘perspectives’.
Yes, perfect works are rarely, if ever, created, yet the greatest accomplish more than simply contributing to the ‘development of their craft’. They contribute far more; they contribute, as Harold Bloom puts it, to the “Invention of the Human.” Robert Musil echoes Bloom, when he writes
The task [of the creative writer] is to discover ever new solutions, connections, constellations, variables, to set up prototypes of an order of events, appealing models of how one can be human, to invent the inner person. (28)
The majority of us, however, even those most aesthetically serious, will never create literary masterpieces. Even so, John Updike points out that
The combinations that the human mind invents are relatively facile and unmagical compared to reality’s dovetailed richness. Behind the artist’s transformative sorcery lurks, like a sheepish apprentice, an irrational willingness to view the accidents of the actual as purposeful and the given as sacred. We are all artists insofar as we take the inexorable and quite unchosen data of our own circumstances and philosophically internalize them, give them a significance to match their awful centrality, and thus lend our lives a “meaning.” (29)
That’s why we, as artists, regardless of how modest our skill, talent or intent, create art objects; we wish to make our lives meaningful, meaningful in a way a machinist, a network engineer, a corporate executive simply cannot. Producing the useful things in life is respectable, necessary and important, but it’s not enough. Rarely in such roles can a person create something of lasting value or leave a unique impression on the fabric of time. Mostly the product of such talented professionals is mindlessly consumed and quickly forgotten; the fixture so expertly machined wears out and is junked; the once-sophisticated network becomes obsolete and shut down; the profitable company gets purchased and organizationally consumed without leaving a trace of its special nature.
The need for meaning is virtually universal in humans (or should be – for those who consciously, willingly and unchangingly live meaningless lives deserve our pity). “Blake…affirms that, besides intelligence and righteousness, the salvation of man has a third requirement: that he be an artist.” (30)
Oscar Wilde insists that
[T]the past is of no importance. The present is of no importance. It is with the future that we have to deal. For the past is what man should not have been. The present is what man ought not to be. The future is what artists are. (31)
And artists often suffer the fate of the dreamers they are:
For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world. (32)
William Faulkner draws an interesting distinction:
With a man it is—quite often—art for art’s sake; with a woman it is always art for the artist’s sake. (33)
While I am sympathetic with the notion of ‘art for art’s sake’, I have argued consistently for a more feminine approach to art (feminine, at least, in Faulkner’s terms), in that the primary value of engaging in artistic creation is profoundly personal, regardless of the relationship between the artist, their aesthetic objects, and the public. I suspect even the most successful artists, despite awards, large sales or critical admiration, find such things empty compared to the act of creation itself. Awards tend to be politically motivated, and rarely based entirely on aesthetic merit; the market is fickle, and often rewards the mediocre with handsome profits, while leaving the most significant art objects commercially neglected; and as far as the critics go, most of them apply a cursory glance and reflect the superficial. They rarely add to an artists understanding, keeping, as they do, one eye on the academy and the other on the public (leaving very little to focus on the work at hand), and as a result, will often miss what matters the most.
The Ambitious Artist
But the truth is that all writers are ambitious: if they were really humble they would choose a craft that involved less risk of failure and milder penalties for the crime of being average. (34)
Cowley is probably correct; there are likely few humble writers. Even if we have no intention of sharing our work with others, we probably write out of aesthetic, if not social, ambition. We wish to create something that hasn’t existed before, at least not within our experience. And who knows? Maybe we will actually write that great masterpiece and be universally acknowledged as the genius we dream to be…
Probably not. “But always,” Malcolm goes on to write, “mingled with cheaper ambitions, is the desire to exert an influence on the world outside, to alter the course of history.” (35) This may be true as well, for some of us anyway, but Walt Whitman expresses what may be the greatest personal aesthetic ambition (and conceit) when he writes:
After continued personal ambition and effort, as a young fellow, to enter with the rest into competition for the usual rewards, business, political, literary, etc.—to take part in the great melee, both for victory’s prize itself and to do some good—After years of those aims and pursuits, I found myself remaining possessed, at the age of thirty-one to thirty-three, with a special desire and conviction. Or rather, to be quite exact, a desire that had been flitting through my previous life, or hovering on the flanks, mostly indefinite hitherto, had steadily advanced to the front, defined itself, and finally dominated everything else. This was a feeling or ambition to articulate and faithfully express in literary or poetic form, and uncompromisingly, my own physical, emotional, moral, intellectual, and aesthetic Personality, in the midst of, and tallying, the momentous spirit and facts of its immediate days, and of current America—and to exploit that Personality, identified with place and date, in a far more candid and comprehensive sense than any hitherto poem or book. (36)
Amazingly enough, he accomplished exactly what he set out to do.
Novelist as Generalist
In the age of the excessive division of labor, of runaway specialization, the novel is one of the last outposts where man can still maintain connections with life in its entirety. (37)
Adam Smith’s insight into the advantage of specialized labor has been realized to a magnificent degree, such that we live in the wealthiest world that ever existed, one that promises to continue growing more productive as people and nations become ever more specialized. While many lament this development, the commercialization/industrialization of the world has improved countless lives and offered opportunities to scores of thousands on a vast scale, opportunities to realize or to waste, depending on the individual temperament.
All to the good, I say. However, given the relentless need to specialize and the personal rewards that go with it, few opportunities remain to explore human totality. As Kundera points out, the novel is one of the remaining realms – both in terms of reading, and more particularly in the writing of one – to reflect upon the myriad facets of human existence. The novelist must understand the nature of existence (metaphysics), what people can know and not know (epistemology), what is wrong and what is right (ethics), what motivates people (psychology), what makes up a particular landscape/cityscape (geography), the nature of a good book (aesthetics), the structure of society (sociology/history), how to communicate (language), be familiar with the natural world (science), and how people live (culture). In addition, the literary novelist develops a unique point of view, some uncommon melding of perspectives, ideas, experience and facts in order to create something worthy of attention.
Common readers can range freely as well, as opposed to the poor scholar who must read and master everything on their narrow subject. When someone like Walter Kaufmann can write that Nietzsche not only didn’t write something in particular, but in fact, never meant it, that is a truly impressive statement, one that speaks to countless hours reading even the most lackluster texts of a particular school or thinker. The rest of us can focus on the best, those works that promise the most reward for our limited attention.
Unlike scholars, common readers don’t care what someone really meant, or how a thinker changed their mind over the course of their life, or what their final view might have been. Countless hours are spent by academics arguing such points, sometimes over entire careers. Common readers, on the other hand, read with abandon and pleasure, and can gain from even the most egregious mis-readings.
The Artist as Genius
But genius, and even great talent, springs less from seeds of intellect and social refinement superior to those of other people than from the faculty of transforming and transposing them. (38)
Proust is probably correct, but it seems like the title ‘genius’ gets applied without adequate reserve. A genius is radically creative. While special individuals hit targets others cannot see, the genius hits those that don’t yet exist. An original character, the creator of names:
What is originality? To see something that has no name as yet and hence cannot be mentioned although it stares us all in the face. The way men usually are, it takes a name to make something visible for them. Those with originality have for the most part also assigned names. (39)
It is difficult, if not impossible, for a non-genius to recognize a genuine genius. Non-geniuses do not possess the necessary intellectual capability to evaluate the accomplishment of genius. How then, do we determine who deserves the title of ‘genius’? Do we believe Dali when he insists he is an artistic genius? If enough non-geniuses get together and vote, will that determine who resides within this exclusive club? You know, the Einsteins, the Goethes, the Newtons? This seems more of a social expression than an intellectual or creative judgment.
My idea of genius is burdened by limited intellectual range and a narrow perspective. As such, I couldn’t insist on the inclusion of anybody. I suspect that ordinary intellectuals (non-geniuses) face a similar challenge:
The genius one gapes at is actually born in the marketplace of the vanities; his splendor is radiated in the mirrors of the stupidity that surround him. (40)
Originality means that the artist’s (and perhaps the genius’s) “supreme work is not the one in best accord with any tradition,” Andre Malraux writes.
—nor even his most complete and ‘finished’ work—but his most personal work, the one from which he has stripped all that is not his very own, and in which his style reaches its climax. In short, the most significant work by the inventor of a style. (41)
The Artist in Person
Good artists exist simply in what they make, and consequently are perfectly uninteresting in what they are. (42)
Those who live interesting, exciting lives, people who command armies or rule over corporate giants, star athletes and talk show hosts, have little incentive to creatively write (Carrie Fisher perhaps one of the few exceptions). “The fortunate,” Ford Madox Ford writes, “seldom find the need to express themselves.” (43)
Writing a novel allows a person to be somebody different; they are limited by nothing but their talent and imagination. Whether they are tormented, timid, or terribly ordinary, writing provides escape, uniqueness, nobility even. J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, two of the most successful novelists of our time, are relatively ordinary people, with nothing biographical that indicates the magic and the horror that populate their fictional worlds.
A literary writer will rarely impress us by what they say, as “A thinker [or a novelist] generally puts his madness into his works and keeps his common sense for his ordinary relations.” (44) The famous meeting between Proust and Joyce amounted to exactly nothing; they had nothing to say to each other. They had already expressed what mattered to them in their novels, and we shouldn’t be surprised at the non-event of their meeting.
John Updike, as he so often does, captures this point perfectly:
[A writer] is invited to come onto television and have his say, as if his book, his poor thick unread book, were not his say. (45)
As Walter Kaufmann wrote, writing is thinking in slow motion. Not only that, but the best writers are the best critics of their own work (again, a process that takes time, concentration and discipline). This makes it unreasonable to expect a talented writer to also be blessed with outstanding conversational skills. While exceptions certainly exist, it’s likely that the impulse to write is related to a natural sense of individuality, a felt apart-ness, a touch of the asocial. We’re not particularly good at parties, we literary artists, or talk shows, or visiting relatives (“Speak for yourself,” I can hear writers reading this say, offended by the crass generalization). We tend to be impatient with the banal (even if we are quite ordinary):
One does best to separate artists from their work, not taking them as seriously as their work. They are, after all, only the precondition of their work, the womb, the soil, sometimes the dung and manure on which, out of which, it grows—and therefore in most cases something one must forget if one is to enjoy the work itself. (46)
Faulkner makes a pitch to keep the public out of the writer’s private life. This is an admirable notion for both the writer and the public:
Only a writer’s works were in the public domain, to be discussed and investigated and written about, the writer himself having put them there by submitting them for publication and accepting money for them; and therefore he not only would but must accept whatever the public wished to say or do about them from praise to burning. But that, until the writer committed a crime or ran for public office, his private life was his own; and not only had he the right to defend his privacy, but the public had the duty to do so since one man’s liberty must stop at exactly the point where the next one’s begins… (47)
No matter how important somebody is, regardless of how critical their work seems to be, they are not given leave from basic civility. It takes an effort for most of us to maintain basic courtesy with others, especially when we encounter people we don’t like, folks who are rude or stupid, say, or simply nasty. Even so, we are obligated to make the effort, and even the most exalted have no natural right to insult people, treat them poorly, or needlessly hurt them.
As far as duty goes, the paradox that Sartre poses below is a false one:
Such is the present paradox of ethics; if I am absorbed in treating a few chosen persons as absolute ends, for example, my wife, my son, my friends, the needy person I happen to come across, if I am bent upon fulfilling all my duties towards them, I shall spend my life doing so; I shall be led to pass over in silence the injustices of the age, the class struggle, colonialism, Anti-Semitism, etc., and, finally, to take advantage of oppression in order to do good. Moreover, the former will be found in person-to-person relationships and, more subtly, in my very intentions. The good that I try to do will be vitiated at the roots. It will be turned into radical evil. But, vice versa, if I throw myself into the revolutionary enterprise I risk having no more leisure for personal relations—worse still, of being led by the logic of the action into treating most men, and even my friends, as means. (48)
Sartre is not obligated, at the cost of his family, to ‘throw’ himself into the revolutionary enterprise (a harmful act in itself, and one that has done, and will continue to do, no one good); nor is he bound to ‘pass over in silence’ any injustice: he is free and capable of voicing his concerns as a citizen, as a writer. Doing so does not, as he seems to think, eliminate the possibility of treating his family and friends decently and with respect. In fact, if everyone focused on making themselves better, and took appropriate responsibility for their immediate surroundings, the world would be a far better place. Sort of a ‘Categorical Imperative’ for those who wish to meddle in the affairs of others, something to remind them to mind their own business. Nobody has a duty to save the world, to right all its wrongs, and most people who attempt it do more harm then good. The road to hell, like they say, is paved….
Every artist (every serious professional for that matter), must decide how to balance their life: if they wish to dedicate the majority of their time and energy to their art, that’s fine. Doing so may be required to achieve world-class levels of achievement. In such cases, however, it would be inappropriate to make commitments they cannot or will not keep, particularly when it involves children. Remaining childless would prevent the necessity to make excuses for being poor, neglectful parents. The only natural duty is to one’s children; the only unnatural one is to one’s art:
The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work. (49)
Most of us strike a working balance between professional/productive work, our creative activities, family/partnerships, social relationships and health. When we do so, we necessarily limit what we produce artistically, often in both quality and quantity.
The Artist and Friends
The artist who gives up an hour of work for an hour of conversation with a friend knows that he is sacrificing a reality for something that does not exist… (50)
There are probably tens, maybe even hundreds of literary artists who maintain profound personal friendships. Some may even be popular, go to parties, lead extensive social lives. But I suspect there are thousands more who tire in the company of neighbors, dread family holidays, and continuously fight to retain some precious private time to read and write.
I have had such fine fancies lately about two or three persons which have given me delicious hours; but the joy ends in the day; it yields no fruit. Thought is not born of it; my action is very little modified. (51)
Social friendships (as opposed to relationships that are profoundly deep) take up time and energy and return nothing:
Friendship is a dispensation from this duty, an abdication of self. Even conversation, which is the mode of expression of friendship, is a superficial digression which gives us no new acquisition. We may talk for a lifetime without doing more than indefinitely repeat the vacuity of a minute, whereas the march of thought in the solitary travail of artistic creation proceeds downwards, into the depths, in the only direction that is not closed to us, along which we are free to advance—though with more effort, it is true—towards a goal of truth. (52)
Montaigne had a profoundly deep friendship; he and his friend developed the intellectual context between them necessary to take mutual pleasure in the various realms that dominated their intellect. When his friend died, Montaigne took up writing (much to our benefit). Like Montaigne, if we haven’t the good fortune to be engaged in such a relationship, we have no alternative but to read and write – alone:
When a man has great studies and is writing a great work, he must of course give up seeing much of the world. How can he go about making acquaintances? (53)
William Blake is even more radical when he insists that “You must leave Fathers & Mothers & Houses & Lands if they stand in the way of Art.” (54) On the other hand, Chapman believes that social interaction is crucial for the writer:
All good writing is the result of an acquaintance with the best books. But the mere reading of books will not suffice. Behind the books must lie the habit of unpremeditated, headlong conversation. We find that the great writers have been great talkers in every age…. (55)
He goes on to indicate how the modern age differs from the past, and the impact on our social relationships:
But our democracy terrifies the individual, and our industrialism seals his lips. The punishment is very effective. It is simply this: “If you say such things as that, I won’t play with you.”…We are all as careful as diplomats not to show our claws. We wear white cotton gloves like waiters—for fear of leaving a thumb mark on the subject. (56)
This rings true, and may account for both the banality of a typical social encounter, and our individual unwillingness to express what we really think in such situations: too easy to offend or misunderstand; the unwillingness or inability to develop the context necessary for a meaningful encounter. So we gossip, and talk about the weather, families, our favorite sports.
T.S. Eliot also believes it’s important to talk, but he allows for the possibility of a more intimate conversation:
To write well it is necessary to converse a great deal.…I believe that there are two types of good writers: those who talk a great deal to others, and those, perhaps less fortunate, who talk a great deal to themselves.…all literary creation certainly springs either from the habit of talking to oneself or from the habit of talking to others. (57)
If Eliot is correct, it comes down to the individual. While I certainly belong in the latter category, those who socialize do so because they enjoy it. Those who don’t, don’t. Either way, we can develop into a ‘good’ writer if we converse enough, either internally or socially.
Yet in a typical social situation, it is very difficult to fully engage another person with something of deep significance. Too much time is taken on banalities (sports, weather), or social posturing designed to put one in one’s place, to allow a rank order to take place: Where do you live? (how much money do you make?) What do you do for a living? (what is your professional status?) Where do your children attend college? (what social class do you belong to?) Who do you know? (what clique are you associated with?) Where do you dine, what do you listen to (do you have good [fashionable] taste in food, music?) Have you been to Europe, Hong Kong perhaps? (how sophisticated are you?) Do you skydive, scuba dive, attend the opera? (how adventurous, worldly?)
Dull conversation, stupid conversation, the conversation of those innumerable occasions when neighbor’s hearts appear to melt towards those present while they chuckle over the delinquencies of those absent, the conversations of relatives who are not in the remotest degree interested in each other’s minds, the society-talk of social climbers—it is this that can leave a person’s whole interior being completely untuned, debauched, ruffled, outraged, with an acrid taste of dead-sea ashes in the mouth! (58)
Dostoevsky captured the essence of such an experience for the poor artist in Notes From Underground:
I had the patience to sit like a damn fool beside these people for hours, listening to them, neither daring to speak to them, nor knowing what to say. I got more and more bored, broke out into a sweat, and was in danger of getting an apoplectic stroke. But all this was good and useful to me. When I came home, I would put off for a time my desire to embrace all mankind. (59)
If you talk about yourself you will quickly bore people. If you let people talk about themselves, they will bore you. What is necessary, and rare in social gatherings, is the development of enough context between two people (three at the most) to discuss something significant that is of mutual interest. This requires a special affinity between the individuals if they are to discover something new during the experience, or if they are to find themselves reconsidering a familiar topic from a different perspective. But these encounters, as rare as they occur, are not really social in nature, but in fact, far more personal:
For this reason, real friends, who are always off in a corner discussing privately with each other, are problematic for any community. “What are they talking about? What are they planning?” Their preference for each other is an affront to everyone else, and when they have high intelligence, distrust is increased. This is exacerbated by the fact that they probably could not be understood by the generality of mankind, which is another reason why they have to be so private in the first place. (60)
This is why intelligent friendless folks read so much: they need to encounter another mind at its best, and the odds of experiencing such an encounter socially are what keep them at home:
[Parrington] is put out by Hawthorne’s loneliness and believes that part of Hawthorne’s insufficiency as a writer comes from his failure to get around and meet people. (61)
Unless writers are lucky enough to live within a world-class literary community, their only opportunity to commune artistically and intellectually is through the written word. Stephen King suggests that writing is a form of telepathy (albeit one way). When someone reads Goethe’s Werther, Goethe communicates directly to their mind, as if he sat in their presence and told the tale himself. Writing goes the other way – an opportunity to visit someone else’s mind sometime in the future, presumably expressing something of significant interest. After engaging in such dialogues, it may be difficult to endure typical backyard barbeque banter.
The Artist and Society
Mankind hates us: we serve none of its purposes; and we hate it, because it injures us. So let us love one another “in Art,” as mystics love one another “in God.” (62)
The artist tends to go his or her own way; that’s what makes them artists. They explore aspects of human experience and consciousness without restraint. They challenge the world as they find it; alter human nature to suit their aesthetic needs; willingly rend apart the very threads that hold a nation together; attempt to topple the very ‘pillars of society’, demonstrating again and again the needlessness of such supports. Artistic activities, the results of these activities (specific art objects) and the behavior associated with artistic activities often make ordinary people uncomfortable. Totalitarian regimes smother artists first; they pose too great a threat. Plato famously cast them out of his Republic, due to the dangerous nature of independent creative artists.
In fact, society—and culture in general—is far hardier than many believe. Yes, the human soul can be crushed by oppressive regimes, or starved by brutal natural conditions, but given a minimum of structure and simple freedom, people will overcome their situation and make something of themselves. This is because
The stability of our personal lives rests upon a consensus of perception and memory that in fact has no guarantee. We are solipsists who in uneasy conjunction with other solipsists construct a society and a shared world. (63)
This shared world, to the extent it exists, will endure the sharp blades of actuality in the same way a wave remains unchanged by a thrust sword. The true dangers to the human spirit are posed by an aggressive state (National Socialism for example, or Stalinism, or Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”), an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, or a super volcano like the one brewing under Yellowstone. Human civilization will not founder because of gay marriage, promiscuity, drugs, long hair, rock music, strip malls, pornography, day-time TV, poor education, mind-altering drugs, illegal aliens, Democrats, Harley Davidsons, soap operas, Republicans, reality TV, or any one of a thousand cultural activities, icons, personalities, fads or trends. None of these indicate society’s decay, but in fact speak largely to its creative resilience, flexibility and hardiness. Social critics (many artists among them) have decried every age, complained about the degenerate youth, lack of respect for this institution or that custom, hailed the coming apocalypse, expressed disgust with just about everything.
Really, what difference does it make? According to the social critics, the world has been in decline since the Golden Age of Athens (and even then, Plato and Aristophanes, among others, were highly critical of the ‘perfect’ civilization – hell, that same polis executed one of the most exceptional men in human intellectual history). History is filled with countless expressions of imminent destruction and dire warnings of catastrophic cultural failure. If they’re right, we must be approaching the lower reaches of Dante’s famous Inferno.
Does it really matter what some people believe is happening with society as a whole? ‘Society’ is simply an abstraction used to support one perspective or another. The term is dangerously misleading, and largely meaningless. Any individual living within a reasonably civilized nation outside a war zone (and sometimes within) can cultivate themselves—or choose not to. Within any given age and society, those people capable of living an autonomous life—always a small minority—will do so. The rest is just statistics.
On the other hand
Does the cry in the tragic play muffle, even blot out, the cry in the street? (I confess to finding this an obsessive, almost maddening question.) Coleridge thought so: “Poetry excites us to artificial feelings—makes us callous to real ones.” (64)
Most people who pay attention to such cries, the same ones that watch the daily news and read the editorials, get indignant once in awhile, perhaps a bit angry, then go about their business. Tomorrow there will be another cry in a different street as the cycle turns another new day.
There are those who feel it is the writer’s duty, if not everyone’s within a given society, to work towards its improvement:
To the measure of his powers, the artist should live in—and render—his own day: as a rule the great artist has done it. But, though the business of the artist is to render his own day, it is certainly none of his duty to approve or to glorify it. The artist is frequently a man of high intelligence or, at the least, he must be a man of sympathy for his fellow human beings. So, no poet has ever fully approved of his own day…
His duty, then, like that of every other citizen, is to persuade his day to improve itself. (65)
Without question, certain literary works have made a profound impact on how people live, what they believe, and how they behave. Reforms have been initiated, regimes toppled, and economies shifted based, at least in part, on this novel or that. Other works have left a less discernable, more subtle impression, but perhaps with even more lasting influence than those overtly political. And of course fashion has much to do with the exposure and degree of influence a particular work has in any given age.
Even so, the ‘committed’ writer, one who writes principally to support a specific political cause or ideology, finds it difficult to render a successful work of art. The polemic tends to overpower the aesthetic, leaving most readers impatient.
[Barthes] defines the writer as “the watcher who stand at the crossroads of all other discourses”—the opposite of an activist or a purveyor of doctrine. (66)
Ayn Rand serves as an interesting example, as she so thoroughly infused her novels with Objectivist philosophy that those who remain unsympathetic with her views often despise her work. Yet I believe, despite her philosophy, that she succeeds in creating free-standing art objects, ones that can be enjoyed by anyone, in the same way Dostoevsky, another Russian with very strong views, can be appreciated by non-Christians. This is because Rand, as did Dostoevsky, recognizes the primacy of art:
A story is not written to accomplish any purpose beyond itself. (Not even a propaganda story—and I’m the chief living writer of propaganda fiction, I think—at least I think I’m the only one who knows how to do it properly—and I still say that: the propaganda is not the purpose of the story.) A STORY IS AN END IN ITSELF. It is not written to teach, sell, explain or destroy anything. It is not written even to entertain. It is written as a man is born—an organic whole, dictated only by its own laws and its own necessity—an end in itself, not a means to an end. Therefore, a story cannot be concerned with its future readers. That is a different consideration entirely. A story must be written for itself, for its own sake. (67)
Most writers, if not all of them, believe in something they wish to share. I am no exception: I started my first novel as an ideologist and finished it three years later an artist. That first novel, however, is marred by an overtly political agenda, one that aimed at specific ‘disclosure’:
Thus, the prose-writer is a man who has chosen a certain method of secondary action which we may call action by disclosure. It is therefore permissible to ask him this second question: ‘What aspect of the world do you want to disclose? What change do you want to bring into the world by this disclosure?’ (68)
I could answer Sartre’s questions explicitly in my first full-length literary effort: I knew exactly what I wished to disclose, and what change I wished to bring about, but this didn’t make it a better book. My second novel, however, while still infused with important thematic content, is almost purely literary, and therefore significantly better than the first.
Everybody must decide their priorities: are they first a citizen? parent? son? teacher? Or are they principally an artist?
The artist, [Proust] repeatedly insists, is not another citizen, a social creature with social duties; he is a solitary explorer, a pure egotist. In a great parenthesis he explains that “when human altruism is not egotistic it is sterile, as for instance in the writer who interrupts his work to visit an unfortunate friend, to accept a public function, or to write propaganda articles.” (69)
If the artist is not just another citizen, but instead, focused almost exclusively, perhaps even maniacally on their art, what good are they to society? Adorno argues that
Artists today are intellectuals, whether they accept that fact or not, and as such they are what social theory calls “third persons”: they live on profit that has been diverted to them. While they perform no “socially useful work” and contribute nothing to the material reproductions of life, it is they alone who represent theory and all consciousness that points beyond the blind coercion of material circumstances. (70)
The function of the literary artist is important, essential even to a person sensitive to the nature of being, and concerned with something beyond their next paycheck and what it can buy them.
For the disenchanted world the fact of art is an outrage, an afterimage of enchantment, which it does not tolerate. (71)
Independent thinking, autonomous individuals generally produce the best art, and as such, pose a standing threat to structured society. Those who advocate ordered society crave conformance and cultural homogeneity.
If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway. (72)
People who look, think or talk in an odd manner are distrusted, often excluded, sometimes persecuted. Countless examples exist: Koreans in Japan treated as second class citizens (actually, any non-Japanese residents in Japan are so treated, despite the ubiquitous courtesy). Caste still exists in India, and of course the history of Black Americans stands as an obvious example, along with the persecution of Jews throughout history. Despite increased visibility and acceptance over the past couple of decades, gay individuals still face hate and harassment.
This is unfortunate, as the greatest threat to any society (outside of natural disasters) is the Nation State (Canada, the United States, Russia, Uganda, Iraq, Israel, etc.). In fact, the only justification for the existence of Nation States is to protect its citizens from other Nation States. In other words, if we didn’t have Nation States we wouldn’t need any.
The Nation State is not synonymous with ‘government’. In order for people to prosper in peace, freedom and prosperity, government is required. Government is the sole institution in society empowered with the legal use of violent force. With this power, the government’s uses violent force—or the threat of violent force—to provide basic legal structure and lawful protection of its citizens from criminals. This includes contractual structures defining and protecting property rights and the formal redress of wrongs done by one party unto another. The alternative to government is anarchy. In an anarchic society, unless individual behavior is effectively bound by family and/or tradition, nobody is safe, free or at peace.
The Greeks had the right idea when they determined that the polis (city-state) was the ideal unit for effective government. Only when the Greek polis’s banded together in the semblance of a Nation State to protect themselves from Persia (an imperialistic Nation State) did things begin to founder. After defeating Persia, the members of the Athenian League continued to provide Athens with tribute to maintain protection from the foreign threat. On the one hand, the additional wealth funded the art, drama and culture so admired in the west; on the other, the circumstances eventually led to a quarrel between Athens and Sparta, resulting in the Peloponnesian War, a conflict that lasted a quarter century, effectively ending the Golden Age of Athens. As indicated earlier, it’s been all downhill since.
I suspect that the majority of people disagree with this analysis, and believe that the Nation State is necessary and good: the Third Reich, Star Spangled Banner, God Save the Queen, I Pledge Allegiance, John Philip Sousa, etc. etc. Citizens desire uncomplicated order, feel patriotic and proud of their nation, and generally think it’s the best one that ever existed, and can do no wrong. How many terrible wars and bloody battles have been waged for ‘God and Country’? ‘Kill them all and let God sort them out!’ ‘We had to destroy the village in order to save it.’ ‘Bomb them back to the Stone Age.’ As Graham Greene put it, “When war began, the absolute moral code was abolished; you were allowed to do evil that good might come.” (73) But ‘good’ never comes from war; only death and destruction, and the foundation for future wars.
George Steiner poses the fundamental issue in the following way, questioning how society copes with autonomous individuals:
The ‘examined life’ demanded by Socrates requires that each and every one of us serve on that Athenian jury. How would we have voted? Goethe’s dictum, ‘rather injustice than disorder’, puts the prosecution case concisely. It argues, as does Hegel in respect of Creon’s conflict with Antigone, that the preservation of social-legislative order makes possible the reparation of miscarriages of justice. Disorder, the dispersal of civic solidarity through anarchic individuality and ‘the inner light’, destroy not only daily life, but the eventuality of progress, of amelioration in the understanding and performance of justice. Is the price paid for autonomous feats of conscience too high? (74)
I would answer that autonomous individuals only threaten societies that require threatening, that is, societies that have lost their mandate to govern due to their restrictive nature, one that unreasonably limits how people live, think or behave. A truly free society is not threatened by autonomous individuals; only a society injurious to its citizens is threatened by such people. (Actually, the people who rule unjustly are the ones threatened, including state bureaucracies, the undeservedly privileged, the ruling class protected by its self-made and self-serving laws and regulations.)
It is precisely the fact that the market does not respect vested interests that makes the people concerned ask for government interference. (75)
The Statists have the firm advantage over artists, though, because, as Faulkner points out, “being individuals, not even two artists could ever confederate…” (76) So the autonomous artists have no political influence, lacking the will to join and follow others. And besides, according to Joan Didion, “Writers are always selling somebody out.” (77) So you can never trust them. How can you respect such a collection of societal misfits?
Dali provides what might be considered the artist’s manifesto:
If you decide to wage a war for the total triumph of your individuality, you must begin by inexorably destroying those who have the greatest affinity with you. All alliance depersonalizes; everything that tends to the collective is your death; use the collective, therefore, as an experiment, after which strike hard, and remain alone! (78)
So with that, artists remain defiantly, gloriously alone.
The public education system is designed to inculcate societal values within the mass, to shape and mold each student into a good, obedient, abiding citizen. Most people submit mindlessly to this process, and little harm comes to them. For those who stand out, though, or don’t fit into the basic molds, school can be a painful, denigrating experience, as they feel the stress that comes with being the square peg pounded relentlessly into a round hole. Sometimes the process works, and their edges become suitably rounded until they resemble everybody else. Other times they break altogether and simply drop out:
It is important that the artist should be highly educated in his own art; but his education is none that is hindered rather than helped by the ordinary processes of society which constitute education for the ordinary man. For these processes consist largely in the acquisition of impersonal ideas which obscure what we really are and feel, what we really want, and what really excites our interest. It is of course not the actual information acquired, but the conformity which the accumulation of knowledge is apt to impose, that is harmful. (79)
The Artist and Solitude
Books are the work of solitude and the children of silence. (80)
Even when they have family and jobs, children and homes, friends and hobbies, literary artists spend much of their spiritual and intellectual time alone:
Even the people who are always with me—my children, my wife…In the midst of all these people I am alone, quite alone and isolated. (81)
“Solitude,” Cioran writes, “so fulfilling that the merest rendezvous is a crucifixion.” (82) This doesn’t mean novelists always suffer the loneliness described by Henry James (although a certain amount of this lost feeling is probably extant in all artists):
The port from which I set out was, I think, that of the essential loneliness of my life….This loneliness…what is it still but the deepest thing about one? Deeper, about me, at any rate, than anything else; deeper than my “genius,” deeper than my “discipline,” deeper than my pride, deeper, above all, than the deep counterminings of art. (83)
Instead, artists enjoy the necessary solitude, the pleasure of being alone with themselves:
No one should think it strange that Michelangelo loved solitude, for he was deeply in love with his art, which claims a man with all his thoughts for itself alone. Anyone who wants to devote himself to the study of art must shun the society of others…: the artist must have time and opportunity for reflection and solitude and concentration. (84) This despite the cost:
Only solitude, difficult, humiliating, even corrosive as it is, can safeguard art and thought from corruption. The media, the lust to communicate by socially sanctioned and rewarded means, the manipulation of discourse towards approval and success, are an irreparable waste of spirit. (85)
Philip Roth expresses well the joy of writing in solitude:
I lead virtually no public life at all. I don’t consider this a sacrifice, because I never much wanted one. Nor have I the temperament for it—in part this accounts for why I went into fiction writing…and why writing in a room by myself is practically my whole life. I enjoy solitude the way some people I know enjoy parties. It gives me an enormous sense of personal freedom and an exquisitely sharp sense of being alive—and of course it provides me with the quiet and the breathing space I need to get my imagination going and my work done. (86)
Susan Sontag insists that “to write, as Kafka said, you can never be alone enough.” (87)
As so often happens in this extended discussion on writing literary novels, Goethe provides the sobering counterpoint, in this case pointing out the danger of excessive solitude, particularly for the sensitive artist:
It is true that we are so made that we compare everything with ourselves and ourselves with everything. Therefore, our fortune or misfortune depends on the objects and persons to which we compare ourselves; and for that reason nothing is more dangerous than solitude. Our imagination, by its nature inclined to exalt itself, and nourished by the fantastic imagery of poetry, creates a series of beings of which we are the lowest, so that everything else appears more wonderful, everyone else more perfect. (88)
In everyday life I was usually bored and vexed by the things that people were always telling me I must do.
Starting to paint I felt gloriously free, quiet and alone.
Matisse, The Grove Book of Art Writing
Notes for Chapter 4 – The Artist