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Art and Insanity





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THROUGHOUT these chapters, I've been setting down a high-minded, if not downright stately picture of the artist. He's the conscious guardian of his society, the only man in town who's honest by profession. There's morality even in the process he works by; he may get cross, especially at inferior, dishonest artists, but it's all in a good cause. Such a picture, admittedly, does not jibe very well with the conventional notion that all true artists are crazy. That view of the artist is extremely common, not only in our culture but in many cultures, and though it may derive partly from the fact that art can at times be baffling (to many people, even the lyrics of the Beatles were, in the beginning, impenetrable), we know that there's surely more to the rumor that art inclines toward madness. Artists do on occasion behave oddly—living in sin, fighting with policemen, joining faraway minor revolutions, occasionally cutting off their ears. What is the truth about art and lunacy?

The chief quality that distinguishes great art, everyone knows, is its sanity, the good sense and efficient energy with which it goes after what is really there and feels significant.

Let me emphasize two main implications of this description. First, to say that something is "really there"—some right attitude or object of belief, or some situation whose existence challenges our too-easy certainties—is to assert a significant coherence in human experience: to assert that some beliefs and attitudes are beneficial for the flowering of sensation and consciousness, while others, to a greater or lesser degree, constrict and tend to kill. Great artists do regularly make this assertion. Thus Homer, through the character of Hector and Achilles, goes after a warrior-ideal of justice and self-sacrifice that is beyond the understanding of Priam and dog-eyed Agamemnon, at least when the poem opens—an ideal that gave Greek civilization its tone, and one without which Western civilization might not have flowered. Humanness is coherent and can go right or wrong; what's true for Hector and Achilles is true for all of us.

The second implication in need of emphasis is this: to say that artistic energy is "efficient" is to say that it does not spatter out in irrelevant directions, needlessly work against itself in futile self-contradiction, raising more doubt and difficulties than are warranted by the nature of the thing explored; and that it does not, on the other hand, make easy leaps, like careless mathematics which seeks right answers without understanding its means.

Energy does not in itself imply sanity. When we speak of the energy in a given work we mean, normally, the creative process which brought the work into being in the first place—the strenuous labor of thought and technique visible in the perfect control and authority of a Zen painting, on the one hand, or, on the other, in the completely considered quality, the massiveness and weight, of the opening lines of Moby Dick—a process repeated, more or less, in the consciousness of anyone who carefully and intelligently looks at the finished picture or reads the book. It is unimportant that occasionally a work's seeming energy is not a reflection of the creative process which brought it forth—as in the case of the accidental masterpiece which occurs when an artist looks at a painting he has left out in the rain and decides to keep it, rightly seeing in it a fine (albeit accidental) solution to the aesthetic problem he was working on before the storm. As a rule, achievement more directly reflects energy, is less a result of luck. Either way the effect is the usual effect of controlled energy; namely, power. A lovely, easily achieved piece of art can never be called great (even Mozart's genius and facility in the early works come unmoored beside his later works or the greatest works of Beethoven); and a work obsessively labored, tortuously constructed in pursuit of some trivial end is similarly unsatisfying (Edward MacDowell). In one we find too little energy. In the other, the considerable energy—the expenditure of time and hungry ambition (but insufficient intellect)—is not controlled.

"Controlled," we say; but the psychotic murderer has thoughts as sternly marshaled, as intense and electrical, as those of Socrates. Just how sane is that sanity which distinguishes great art? Was Blake not at least a trifle crazy, also Melville, Tolstoy, Gogol, Dickens, Proust, Gide, and Faulkner? To put it another way, is it true, as Plato thought, that the wonderful smiling sanity of Homer was a divine madness? Granted, insanity and divine madness are not really the same; but traditionally, for those who are for some reason attracted to the notion of the poet as lunatic, the distinction between the two has seemed petty. And in any event, poets—especially undistinguished poets—are forever comparing themselves to Cassandra, and everyone who has ever seriously attempted a long fiction knows how remarkably similar writing is, in some respects, to dreaming. The thinness of the line between genius and madness is an ancient cliche and definitely troublesome for the man out to argue that bad art does damage to society and the psyche while good art does good. Yet surely it is true that if we say that the artist's creative energy pursues something real—affirms some value which ought to be affirmed—then we cannot say in the same breath that art's value is a matter of opinion, that in these matters one man's meat is another's poison. We know how to respond when the question is put this way: taste is not open to dispute because it admits of no proofs, but there is nevertheless good taste and bad.

Moreover, the damage which can be done by bad art is demonstrable and has been verified repeatedly—the ways, that is, in which certain kinds of bad art can brutalize, enfeeble, confuse, or wrongfully support. A Clockwork Orange describes phenomena that exist: forcible alterations of behavior and even of consciousness. From the moral standpoint, bad art and good work by similar processes but have opposite effects, one supporting death and slavery, the other life and freedom; and the reason bad art can have any effect at all is that, although some things are indeed healthy and others poisonous, the truth of what is healthy can easily be subverted: some artists, and some people who respond to art, are like Mithridates or, at best, Rappuc-cini's daughter; either voluntarily or involuntarily they have become poison eaters, people cut off from what is normally healthy, so that they're bad people to eat supper or fall in love with.

The true artist's purpose, and the purpose of the true critic after him, is to show what is healthy, in other words sane, in human seeing, thinking, and feeling, and to point out what is not. He may point out what is central to the healthy function of the human spirit—he may deal with morals—in which case his work, if it is successful, is major; or he may point out what is healthy and unhealthy in relatively trivial situations—he may deal with morality as it is reflected in manners—in which case his work is minor. If the artist's statement of what ought to be and, at best, what is, is a statement the wise and healthy man cannot accept because he instantly sees through it, or feels through it—that is, he finds the so-called art "creepy"—then the artist's creative energy is misspent: it has gone after not what is there but something else, or has gone for the right thing but missed. We may admire the gusto in any case, but we distinguish between the gusto of Socrates and the gusto of Charles Manson.

One might leave it at that. People have forever been trying to describe the creative process, in particular the relationship of genius to madness, and when a conversation has been going a long time, and has finally died down, there's much to be said for leaving sleeping dogs lie, or burying dead horses, or whatever. Still, that business of poets endlessly claiming to be Cassandra is distinctly tiresome. It's hard to resist trying to get the distinctions between madness and artistic creation a little clearer.

 


One thing investigators of the psychology of creative people have demonstrated beyond doubt in the past thirty years is that creativity has something to do with obsession. The demons of Poe, Van Gogh, and Liszt are not exceptions but extreme cases of the rule. The tensions we find resolved or at least defined and dramatized in art are the objective release of tensions in the life of the artist. This shouldn't surprise us—indeed, it shouldn't make us bat an eye. It does not, in itself, make the artist very different from other productive men and women. This is not necessarily to say—as Freud seemed to say, though he may not have meant it—that art is sick; and certainly it is not to say, as Freud occasionally seemed to say, that the artist has no idea what he's doing. Art begins in a wound, an imperfection—a wound inherent in the nature of life itself— and is an attempt either to learn to live with the wound or to heal it. It is the pain of the wound which impels the artist to do his work, and it is the universality of woundedness in the human condition which makes the work of art significant as medicine or distraction.

What we mean by "wound" in this case of course is some wound to personality and self-confidence, something that attacks or threatens the, dignity and selfrespect of the artist and must be overcome if his personality is to be healthy. The wound may take any number of forms: doubt about one's parentage, fear that one is a fool or freak, the crippling effect of psychological trauma or the potentially crippling effect of alienation from the society in which one feels at home, whether or not any such society really exists outside the fantasy of the artist.

As this last example (alienation from one's home society) hints, the artist's vulnerability may be, as artists have for centuries insisted, that the artist is better than those around him, hence an annoyance or a threat. He is one who can see in the country of the blind. He pursues truth whether or not the pursuit is, in a given instance, useful or important; he will not settle for fashionable simplifications; he is forever raising silly objections, carping over small points, denying the obvious, defending the wicked, asking for precision where no precision is required.

This notion of the artist as better than other people is irritating, I admit. I remember how annoyed I was myself, as a young man, when I first came across it, I think in connection with pronouncements by and about Goethe, Proust, and Ezra Pound. I felt, I think rightly that the people I knew—my parents and friends—were as high-minded and decent as any poet. The poet's business, it seemed to me, is to celebrate or at least understand those people, not arrogantly raise himself above them, pompously proclaim himself the Romantic "great man" who imposes on the rest of poor miserable humanity the duty of groping through darkness, hunting out his footsteps. I would not now take that opinion back, but I might temper it a little. A thousand times since then I've been in conversations where no one seemed to care about the truth, where people argued merely to win, refused to listen or try to understand, threw in irrelevancies—some anecdote without conceivable bearing, some mere ego-flower. A thousand times I have heard some person—some casual acquaintance about whom I had no strong feeling—cruelly vilified, and have found that to rise in defense of mere fairness is to become, suddenly, the enemy. I have witnessed, repeatedly, university battles in which no one on any side would stoop to plain truth. I have seen, repeatedly, how positions which at first glance seem stirringly noble and idealistic—for example, the battle led by Cesar Chavez in California—can in an instant turn cunning and dishonest, seizing whatever means seem necessary, imagining the hoped-for end can remain untainted. I need not speak of the Republican and Democratic parties, mockers of the ordinary citizen's ideals, of America's support of tyranny and corruption, or of the astonishing greed and moral indifference of both public officials and some members of public, whether the payoff be bribery and preferment or those welfare checks drawn by the affluent in Florida on vacation. And sitting in rooms with other artists—sculptors, painters, composers, writers, people whose work I believe to be serious and authentic—I have noticed how frequently, if not infallibly, they react to all these varieties of falsity with stammering, fist-banging rage. In the redness of their faces, the pitch of their voices (not all, of course, shout; some speak quietly, a few make bitter jokes), these artists are not different from the typical Milwaukee banker speaking angrily of the Jews, or the racial fanatic speaking angrily of niggers or honkies; but what these artists care about—what they rave or mourn or bitterly joke about—is the forms of truth: justice, fairness, accuracy.

It is of course far from true that artists are the only honest and compassionate men and women to be found or even that all artists are decent people. But it is true, I think, that the best sort of artist is always, has always been, an enemy of all that is shoddy or false in the world around him and will not hide the fact. The reason, I think, is that the tradition of his art—in the writer's case, the tradition running from Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare to the best, most persuasive contemporary novelists and poets—has set before him and filled his heart with an idea of the good which is incomparably more attractive than the filth and foolishness around him, so that when he's wakened from his trance, his artist's dream, he comes up raging like a madman. This is a modern way of saying what Plato meant when he described the artist as "mad." It is not that the artist is possessed by a god—or not in any sense that I'm able to understand. But out of the fullness of the tradition of his art, and out of his deep pleasure in struggling at art himself, he has chosen, irrevocably, art over life. Art possesses him, establishing his norms, which are not the world's norms; hence he is saner than the world, and daemonically mad.

This alienation from the world's normal values (or general lack of them) is often reflected in another, more ordinary alienation, the social displacement which occurs when Dr. Johnson walks to London, Joseph Conrad leaves Poland, Joyce goes to Paris or Faulkner to Hollywood, or the contemporary novelist leaves Harlem, Brooklyn, Texas, Ohio, or Nebraska for Academia. Such displacement is so common in the lives of artists as almost to be a law of artistic success. (For the roaming Celtic bard, in fact, it was a law.) It is true that cities are the seats of culture, the homes of patrons, theaters, academies, museums, and galleries, so that the country boy has almost no choice but to head for the city if he wants to be an artist. The situation of the immigrant's son—the young Bernard Malamud, for instance—is parallel, though his move is from one part of the city to another. In the unlucky, social displacement leads to maladjustment and to art that whimpers or snarls. In the lucky, it leads to a healthy doubleness of vision, the healthy alternative—crucial in art—to disorientation and emotional insecurity, the anxiety and ambivalence of the neurotic.

The two most eminently sane poets who have ever written in English, Chaucer and Shakespeare, are both people who moved from one locale and station to another, somewhat more prestigious; and a part of their greatness lies in their having found, through the medium of poetry, ways of reconciling conflicts between the old and the new. To the aristocratic activites of diplomacy and poetry, Chaucer brought an imperfectly renounced middle-class mode of thinking and feeling. Whatever mundane considerations may have contributed to his course of life (ambition, greed, duty), it is evident that when Chaucer looked at aristocratic French and Italian poetry, with its self-consciously elevated diction, its intense intellectuality of form, and its elevated feeling, he looked with great interest but also a skeptical eye. His first long poem, the Book of the Duchess, though original in many ways, was at least partly an imitation of the effeminate elegance of such poets as Machaut and Froissart; but even here, and far more noticeably in his mature work, Chaucer plays this elegance against the blunt common sense of his vintry and civil-service background. In the House of Fame, in the Troilus, and, above all, in the Canterbury Tales, he finds ways of asserting what is good in both the aristocratic style of life and the plain style. At those points the two come together, and at those points where their disparity is most pronounced (for instance, in the juxtaposition of the Knight's Tale and the Miller's Tale), the truth of human experience is, as Dante says, "released."

In the same way, Shakespeare's clowns (Peter Quince in A Midsummer Night's Dream, for instance) urgently comment on the world that smiles, mistakenly aloof, at all their antics. Peter Quince is a system of feelings Shakespeare brought with him, perhaps somewhat unwillingly, from Stratford. We need not insist on Freud's word guilt in describing such phenomena. We may as readily say burden, or loss. As often as not, the sense of loss is in the times, not just the poet. Those great periods when old ideas and assumptions are being lost—as in Dante's Florence or Shakespeare's London— are often artistically productive.

The trouble with psychological approaches to creativity is that they tend to oversimplify the nature of the artist's wound. Psychoanalytic theory, as psychoanalysts themselves have often remarked, was developed to deal not with healthy people but with people who have problems—people who cannot stand height or cannot touch doorknobs or cannot stop dreaming the same dream. Artists are singularly complex and as a rule have not one wound to deal with but many, all more or less central to the artist's psyche. We may say that Dante was tortured by sexual guilt or by guilt over Cavalcanti's death (we may be wrong in both cases), but he may well have been equally frustrated by political reversals, by personal betrayals, by loss of property, by his marriage, by exile and physical pain, and by the annoyance which attended his recognition of imperfections in his poetry. Normally, perhaps, the artist is a man who is, as the psychotherapist Jay Haley once remarked, "too complicated to choose a convenient madness." To say that Chaucer had a driving need to resolve a conflict of class loyalties is not to deny that he may have suffered also a conflict of political loyalties— to the absolutist, King Richard, on the one hand, and to the moderate, John of Gaunt, on the other—a conflict, too, of feeling against Christian doctrine, "celestial love" versus an emphatic delight in the bawdy.

But though psychological theory is often all but useless, it can at times provide a focus. For instance, it can help us distinguish between good and bad literature in terms of how the artist's manner of dealing with his troubles compares with the sick man's manner.

The characteristic of all schizophrenic speech—as I mentioned earlier in another connection—is that it denies one or more of the necessary elements of sane communication. If the speaker denies that he is himself, asserting that he's God, speaks gibberish, insists that the hospital is an airbase, or calls his listener Napoleon, he's crazy. How crazy, in these terms, is the writer of poetry or fiction?

Not at all. The writer is fully conscious of what he's up to when he claims to be not James Joyce but Stephen Dedalus, writes the seeming gibberish of Finnegans Wake, pretends to be in Ireland when he's sitting in France, and solemnly, cunningly maintains that the book is for no one. Art imitates insanity and borrows most of the madman's methods (on which more later), but as long as it is art it is only an imitation. The writer's use of a fictitious persona no more qualifies as psychotic than a child's playing fireman or an actor's playing Macbeth. Accidents may happen, but they're irrelevant. When an actor thinks he is the character—as happened to Dickens on several occasions when he was performing onstage—he is no longer working as an actor using but controlling his imagination; he has turned madman.

I need not dilate on so obvious a point. Let me hurry on. Some writers do sometimes deny their identity, not from madness but from a more trivial instability, and their art suffers for it; that is, turns creepy. Writers can affect a high style and do it with self-conscious irony, as Auden does in his better poetry, or they can do it without irony because they've forgotten who they are. Auden .uses such irony in the last lines of his well-known sonnet, "The Hour-glass Whispers to the Lion's Paw." Let me quote the whole poem.

The hour-glass whispers to the lion's paw,The clocktower tells the gardens day and night How many errors Time has patience for,How wrong they are in being always right.But Time, however loud its chimes, or deep,However fast its falling torrent flows,Has never put the lion off his leap,Or shaken the assurance of a rose.For they, it seems, care only for success,While we choose words according to their sound And judge a problem by its awkwardness;And Time, with us, was always popular;When have we not preferred some going round To going straight to where we are?**From W. H. Auden, Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson. Copyright 1940 and renewed 1968 by W. H. Auden. Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.
At the risk of belaboring the obvious, let me mention that the word popular here is artificially, one might say affectedly, extended, as is much of the poem; but the extension, here and throughout, is in control, part of the poem's subject. (Consciousness of Time makes us poets and mathematicians; lions and roses—and by implication, certain unpleasant sorts of people—are more efficient.) All the cadenced, almost tortuously elegant lines of the poem ("When have we not") collapse into— and make their point by contrast to—the flat speech of the poem's final line. If Auden is posturing, as Pound and Eliot so often did and as Guy Davenport does, he knows it and has, like them, his excellent reasons. On the other hand, as Longinus long ago pointed out, not all writers who pursue elegance know what they're about. Most falsify their true feelings by adopting the mannerisms of some imaginary ideal speaker, someone like John Milton. No example of this is really necessary, but for fun I offer the last lines (the first would do as well) of Lucretia Maria Davidson's—alas, now forgotten—poem to the family clock:

Friend of my youth! ere from its mouldering clay My joyful spirit wings to heaven its way,Oh, may'st thou watch beside my aching head,And tell how fast Time flits with feathered tread. The lines are a delight to analyze (the simultaneously mouldering clay and the aching head, the ingenious feather trick), but I forbear.

A writer need not fake elegance to belie himself. He can as much deny his nature by insistent obscenity—a brainless pursuit of the modern extreme of what once was called the "low style"—or by an insistent eschewing of sentiment—as in Hemingway and many a later writer—which invariably ends up screamingly sentimental. Or he may go for the good, old-fashioned sentimental, saying sappy things, untrue things, not bothering with proofs because he believes all sensible people must agree with him. In this vein James Wright is occasionally an offender, as in these lines:

I was only a boy.I swam all the way through a tear on a dead face.America is deadAnd it is the only country I had.Harry. Harry.Are you Still alive?20 This refusal of writers to admit or bother to discover who they are—the sacrifice of thought for pious rant—is one of the most noticeable and tiresome faults of contemporary literature, though hardly a fault invented in our time. The Romantic age produced more Southeys than Keatses, as the American version produced more Lucretia Maria Davidsons than Poes. It has always been easier to define one's character in terms of those things one is not than to say what one is, and easier still if the things one is not are all straw men, like the Zeboamites invented by the Mormons. This is the "new sentimentality," as A. M. Tibbetts calls it:

The new sentimentality in fiction is characterized mainly by the emotionalism of intellectualized self-pity, dislike, or even of hatred. The new sentimentalist customarily disapproves of his world. The more civilized and decent it is, the more he disapproves of it. He finds refuge in the pedantic play of his mind over the flaws in the world and in himself; for ultimately he secretly dislikes himself (the unhappy Outsider) as much as he loathes the bulk of men who live on the Inside. He considers Insiders beneath his contempt, yet he writes long books oozing with contempt for them—that unthinking crowd of human beings who are stupid enough to ignore him and sometimes even to be happy.21

The healthy alternative to the false voice, of course, is the true one; and remembering how silly a false voice sounds, we remind ourselves of the aesthetic—to say nothing of the human—value of the true. That is what makes younger poets like Carl Dennis stand out. These lines, for instance, from a poem about an art museum:

So he looks hard at the painted scene.Maybe the boy with the bird and the whale Would tell him something useful about the soul If only he hadn't neglected his studies.He needs a teacher, he thinks, to help him see,And looking around the room discovers me Looking at him with my sympathetic stare.If he comes this way I hope to tell him the truth About the shortage of teachers everywhere.22 It's the same power, that magical truth of voice, that we're first caught up by in the best poems of Linda Pas-tan, Dave Smith, Galway Kinell, Donald Finkel, or among older poets Mona Van Duyn, Howard Nemerov, Anthony Hecht, and William Meredith. Not that such perfect, clear health in art proves health in life—as no one knew better than the late Anne Sexton. Even in her darkest poems, the voice is sure, the expression of even the most terrible feelings accurate. But her best, I think, is in the poems in which she fights with all her heart against the illness which eventually killed her—poems electric with a voltage beyond madness, the energy of ferocious struggle against madness, an almost frightening determination to affirm life and love—such poems as the painfully triumphant "Live," at the end of the volume Live or Die, or in the same volume, "For the Year of the Insane: A Prayer," which closes,

O Mary, open your eyelids.I am in the domain of silence,the kingdom of the crazy and the sleeper.There is blood hereand I have eaten it.O mother of the womb,did I come for blood alone?O little mother,I am in my own mind.I am locked in the wrong house.23 What happened in the best poetry of Anne Sexton is that art's gift for playing roles gave her distance, helped her see and survive, helped her escape from the madwoman into the artist. Even a thoroughly sane poet needs the distance of the poetic dream to get life into focus, for the terrible truth, Anne Sexton knew, is that life does not care about any of us: by our existence we may celebrate and intensify the moment, but we're as expendable as frogs. So Linda Pastan writes, speaking in the voice of Penelope,

Meanwhile the old warsgo on, their dim musiccan be heard even at night.You leave each morning,soon our son will follow.Only my weaving is real.24 Another way one may turn his speech psychotic, according to the formula with which we started out, is by speaking gibberish. It goes almost without saying that gibberish—or something that at first glance looks like gibberish—is one of the most interesting things an artist can create. That statement will not seem curious to the experienced reader, but it is interesting and a little surprising to notice that hacks and primitive artistic dabblers—always so quick to steal true art's devices— almost never use gibberish. It veers too close to true poetry, to the absolute seriousness of the divinely mad. For true poetry it has always been one of the noblest inventions, now riddling, now oracular, now heightening a dramatic effect in Dostoevski, Dickens, or Melville. Shakespeare made it his specialty, not only in the ravings and ramblings of characters like Lear and Hamlet, the pointed lunacy of fools and bumpkins, but also in more out-of-the-way places, like the syntactically blurry underwater song 'Tull Fathom Five." In modern fiction seeming gibberish provides some of the most moving and thought-provoking passages in the work of Joyce, Dos Passos, Anderson, Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, William Burroughs, John Hawkes, William Gaddis, and Joyce Carol Oates—to name only the most obvious.

Clearly there is nothing psychotic in all this. Even in Burroughs' The Ticket That Exploded, where throughout the closing section we read nonsense phrases produced by a looped and scrambled tape of the novel's earlier sections, the babble is not in fact senseless. The threat against humanity in every Burroughs novel is that we may allow ourselves to be destroyed by our own accidental nature if we make no choices among accidents, such as the rise of mechanization, seen at its worst in behaviorist mind-altering and in mechanized politics, both of which are amoral and tyrannical. We are ourselves the ticket that exploded (DNA-determined creatures in overpopulation) and almost all that we see and feel is accident folding over accident; yet we do see and feel and can make choices: the novel is the proof. Not at first understanding what they are, thinking them stream-of-consciousness sections like those earlier in the novel, we read the garbled sections in Ticket exactly as we read the intentional gibberish of Finnegans Wake, and here as there we see things, make discoveries, find good. What is best in life, the willingness of consciousness to respond and judge, is strengthened by the right kind of gibberish—a serious and decent novel fractured to all possible symbol and phrase combinations. As for what is ugly in life, Burroughs (or rather Brion Gysin, author of the novel's "closing message") speaks of people's mindless and machinelike repetition of old opinions, prejudices—"shop keeper snarling cops pale nigger killing eyes reflecting society's disapproval fucking queers i say shoot them"—as a vast tape recording, and advises:

only way to break the inexorable down spiral of ugly uglier ugliest recording and playback is with counter-recording and playback the first step is to isolate and cut association lines of the control machine carry a tape recorder with you and record all the ugliest stupidest things cut your ugly tapes in together speed up slow down play backwards inch the tape you will hear one ugly voice and see one ugly spirit is made of ugly old prerecordings the more you run the tapes through and cut them up the less power they will have cut the prerecordings into air into thin air.25

What must be remembered is that in good poetry and fiction the writer speaks, first, to clarify in his own mind what he thinks and feels and, second, to make that clear to somebody else, on the assumption that the reader has sometimes felt, or can now be encouraged to feel, the same. Molly Bloom's soliloquy in Ulysses is as it is becaue it cannot be otherwise and mean what it has to mean. The same is true of The Sound and the Fury, though not of all the queer writing in Faulkner. When Faulkner's mixed-up language and structure go awry, they do so because the writer has fallen from a basic concern with matter to a self-conscious concern with manner: not sure what he's trying to get hold of, Faulkner at times tries to whip up his inspiration by incantation, forgetting that once the incantation was designed to call up subject matter known to be there: the dizzy breathlessness of the librarian, for instance, who rushes with her news, in the prologue to the first edition of The Sound and the Fury, to Jason's store.

Every person who wants desperately to write, or desperately enough at least to go through the enormous inconvenience even bad writing imposes on one's life, and who, when he or she sits down to it, focuses all attention on finding for its own sake some new mode, some new bafflement for the defenseless reader, has misunderstood what makes one sit down at the typewriter in the first place. He justifies his existence by showing the world, as if it cared, that he is a Writer. But the stylemaker knows, even if his critics miss it, that the whole thing is a delusion. He has not answered the voice of the wound—"You're nothing, not even a writer"—he has merely drowned it out for a moment and unwittingly fed it ammunition—"You're worse than nothing, a fraud." On the other hand, of course, the writer who does nothing to achieve a necessary and necessarily personal style, but speaks the banalities and rhythms of others, is in no better shape and stands in even greater danger of tumbling into nonsense.

Sane speech also admits its context. The schizophrenic, to be cured, must be persuaded to face the fact that he is standing in his mother's house or the hospital or wherever he is. The writer who creates, who does not merely spin his wheels producing nothing, understands where he is, where his world is. He does not simplify or evade.

Obviously the writer who knows about his time and place need not therefore limit himself to realism. Writers of fantasy, science fiction, or retold-myths like Gide's Theseus have often given expression to the deepest concerns of their time. J. R. R. Tolkien in his Ring trilogy sums up more powerfully than any realist could do the darkness of total war and the essential opposition of evil and good in the shadow of some monstrously destructive power. (Though the atomic bomb was not yet invented when Tolkien wrote, its general principle had been understood for years in England and was the common whisper in educated circles.) The Ring trilogy presents, among other things, Tolkien's understanding of the threat of English annihilation and his intuition of still more terrible things to come. Fantasy writing, of course, nearly always comments on the time and place that produced it, from The Arabian Nights to Gulliver's Travels to the best of contemporary fantasy.

Social context is of course more directly important for those writers whose primary concern is with the evils of society, political systems, and the like. Context is at the heart of the matter for Negro, Jewish, and regional novelists and poets, for city writers whose chief complaint is alienation or the mechanization of modern life, and for novelists and poets interested in, say, "Americanism." In this crowd most recent and contemporary novelists and poets fit, and one sign of how bad most contemporary literature is, is the extent to which writers simplify and melodramatize for lack of real understanding of the social groups or general forces now at work. We have seen in recent years a few great novelists and poets like Par Lagerkvist, who have interested themselves not only in the anguish of the social moment but also in a larger or at least more enduring problem: metaphysical anguish. For them the question is not merely right assessment of the motivation and character of individuals and groups around them but also the deeper matter of understanding contemporary science and philosophy and the climate of feeling these express. But clearly such writers are exceedingly rare in comparison with writers like Robert Coover in The Public Burning, who reduces large and complex forces to humorless comic-strip cartoons, or Thomas Pynchon, who, in Gravity's Rainbow, carelessly praises the schlock of the past (King Kong, etc.) and howls against the schlock of the present which, he thinks, is numbing and eventually will kill us. We may defend Gravity's Rainbow as a satire, but whether it is meant to be satire or sober analysis is not clear. It is a fact that, even to the rainbow of bombs said to be circling us, the world is not as Pynchon says it is. That may not matter in this book—the reader must judge—but it would be disastrous in a book impossible to read as satire.

Finally, sane speech is speech to someone. The creative process is vitiated if the writer writes only for himself. This is not to say that all good writing is "popular." In the modem world, with its thousands of colleges and universities, it is absurd to imagine that any writer exists who is of such genius that no man of his time can enjoy and understand him. The wail of modern poets and novelists—that art has lost its audience— is a piece of what Hobbes called insignificant speech. The audience of Joyce, Pound, Beckett, even Burroughs, is enormous. The writer who is out to do something, not merely pass the time, must recognize that nothing prevents his trying to talk to readers as sensitive and intelligent as himself. True, commercial editors may not gamble on his work. But to write badly because otherwise one might not get published is useless compromise.

On the other hand, if an intelligent and sensitive writer would rather communicate with the general public, let him learn the conventions of popular fiction and turn them to his purpose. As John le Carre, Isaac Asimov, Peter Beagle, Curtis Harnak, and many others have shown, one need not be a fool or a compromiser to write a mystery story, a sci-fi or fantasy, or a book about growing up in Iowa. The fool is the man who arrogantly denies the worth and common sense of the people to whom he pretends to speak. In short, another test of creative energy is the test of efficient communication: to what extent does the artist know whom he is dealing with, telling him what he needs to know, not less.

A great deal more might be said on this subject, but not by me.


I have spoken of art and psychotic non-communication; one might also compare art and ordinary neurosis. It would serve no purpose to do so here at length, but to illustrate what I mean let me mention just two of the more common neurotic symptoms, displaced emotion—love or hate directed not at the thing actually loved or hated but at something toward which the neurotic feels indifferent, or would if he were well—and symptomatic repetition, the common "tic."

Artists, even good ones, sometimes do displace emotion. When it happens, the result is either sentimentality (sometimes in the form of nastiness) or hollowness. As everyone knows, in Eugene Field's once popular bit of doggerel, "Little Boy Blue," the emotion directed toward "the little toy dog ... all covered with dust" (but sturdy and staunch he stands) and "the little toy soldier . . . red with rust" (and his musket moulds in his hands) parallels neurotic displacement. What Field's narrator really experiences is self-pity at the loss of his child, some years ago, and pride in his own faithfulness (not that of the toys). Except for these emotions he would not have left the child's bedroom untouched, as a kind of shrine. The reader senses the distortion and draws back in embarrassment. With the same feeling of distaste one shrinks from Pound's self-righteous mistranslation of "The Seafarer." Of the better known writers now at work, nearly all are at least occasionally guilty of emotional displacement. One is tempted to believe that bigotry is in, fair-mindedness and even humorous detachment out. The exceptions, of course, are a pleasure to encounter—writers like John Irving, whose humor never snipes with mere cruelty, or poets like Samuel Hazo, James B. Hall, Robert Pack, Ruth Fainlight (in her later poems), or, as I said before, Linda Paston or Carl Dennis, poets whose expressions of feeling, whether trivial or deep, ring true.

Hollowness in poetry or fiction shows itself mainly in the writer's exaggerated interest in the trimmings of his drama—in compulsively elaborate description which does not feel to the reader like description of objects loved or hated but seems creative emotion (concentration) arbitrarily directed. So one reacts to the imagistic excesses of Kazantzakis' The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel or to the pseudo-Arabic lushness of Durrell's Alexandria quartet. Hollowness may also show itself in compulsive tinkering with trivial but omnipresent symbolism. This is of course not to say that symbolism is a bad thing and should be banished; it is merely to say that to work at all, symbolism must work forcefully, partly below consciousness, generated by and commenting on the dramatic conflict.

As for neurotic repetition, its most obvious evidence is the writer's treatment of the same central question and situation in work after work, with no sign of growth. D. H. Lawrence is an example, as Daniel Weiss pointed out some years ago in Oedipus at Nottingham. Healthy fiction is dialectic: the writer's understanding increases with each book he solves. Consider the progression of thought in Yeats, or in Wallace Stevens, or notice the growth of Faulkner's understanding of the Snopes family from their first introduction down to The Mansion.

Another form of neurotic repetition is the fossilized emotion regularly triggered by certain ideas (rote religion, polite manners, and so forth) in the late works of Tolstoy. What fossilized emotion naturally suggests is that the wound has not been healed but merely calmed by morphine, or compensated by a tic. The same sort of fossilized emotion is visible, of course, in any writer's witting or unwitting repetition, throughout a book or canon of books, of some seemingly insignificant word or phrase or detail of description, Faulkner's "myriad" and "apotheosis." A psychoanalyst might be able to figure out, in time, exactly what the nervously repeated word means to the writer, but his findings would be of no interest except, possibly, to the writer and his family. What counts for the reader is that, like a self-regarding, preening style, nervous twitches distract him from the writing to the writer. We suspect that the writer is trying to recapture some earlier, more authentic emotion by repeating himself. Much the same can be said of hysterical style—again D. H. Lawrence is the prime example among major writers, Baraka among minor—that is, a style that screams, endlessly repeating a few ideas or even phrases.

It shouldn't be necessary to compare in more detail than this the ways of art and the ways of neurosis, for the general point is simple: art treats emotion, and when it distorts emotion, it fails in one or another of the ways the neurotic personality fails. Whatever Milton really meant, it is in this sense that we should understand his notion that to write a true poem one must first become a true poet.


Before I leave these musings on art and insanity, I would like to mention and briefly develop certain aspects of one last approach to the whole business, the approach through philosophical speculation. It goes without saying that, exactly as with art, nothing an old-style philosopher says can be proved except by the tests of inclusiveness and internal consistency; but philosophical speculation can nevertheless be fascinating and, insofar as one believes it, instructive.26 R. G. Col-lingwood develops, in The New Leviathan, a theory of the rise of consciousness through the conflicts of instinctual passions, and in his Principles of Art he shows, somewhat confusedly (he wrote in haste, trying to out-race a sickness entailing brain deterioration), the implications of his general theory for art. Suddenly made aware of a dangerous bull in a field, Collingwood says, a man responds with two simultaneous and contradictory animal emotions, fear and anger, each of which urges a different course of action: to run or to fight. If the emotional reactions, or "charges," are of equal strength, the man either stands frozen or else rises to consciousness and chooses between the emotions. If he can do the latter it is because he recognizes the emotions; in other words, has risen to what William James called the first stage of consciousness—"Ha! There goes the same thing I saw before again!" This rise into consciousness is in effect man's first creative act—one requiring an enormous amount of mental power—and, according to Collingwood, it is also man's first act of freedom. Consciousness means consciousness of self; it resides in naming one's mental processes, reasoning about the names, and then naming each successive deduction or connection.

The creative thinking involved in art is an extraordinarily complicated version of this same activity of mind. The urgings of passion, both present and remembered, provide the poet with his "fantasy"—the raw material of his fable. The necessity of choosing between conflicting emotions or emotionally charged ideas, the necessity of choosing what to put first, and the necessity of meeting the arbitrary demands of form (for example, rhyme) fully awaken the artist's critical consciousness, both intellectual and organic testing processes, and govern what it is that he puts down. In revising, the creative artist repeats this process, coming with each revision to fuller and more totally conscious awareness of his feelings. Throughout this discussion, I should make plain, feeling means idea as well as raw emotion. The name of the feeling—in other words, the idea of its whatness, the feeling articulated—retains at least some of the emotion's charge.

If this seems strange, consider the fact that a man trained in autohypnosis can glance at the corner of the room, say seven numbers, and drop instantly into total recall of a particular past experience. The hypnotic key (the group of numbers) is the name of an amazingly complex body of feelings, memories, and so forth. In a light trance state these may be "recollected in tranquillity" in the sense that the subject can detach himself from the recollection and know that, say, the train he remembers bearing down on him did not at that time kill him. In a deep trance such detachment is less likely.

The phenomenon of the hypnotic key provides a clue to something not mentioned in Collingwood's description of creative process. Autohypnosis of a certain kind is at the core of artistic creativity. Whereas the usual autohypnotist is a man who has trained himself to recall any given situation or feeling state by means of a key, the good creative artist is a man who has learned, normally without so obvious a key (it may be the apple core in the poet's desk drawer), to drop at will almost anywhere he wishes in his experience, recapturing an infinite variety of impressions from the past—though he may not have a clear idea of where in his past they come from. Only the greatest writers, among them Joyce, Tolstoy, and Proust, show this talent developed to the maximum. It may be, as Freud and others have thought, that the artist is someone who never lost the eidetic memory normal in childhood. Certainly the parallel though rather different descriptions by Coleridge and Wordsworth of waning imagination might be viewed as chronicles of waning eidetic recall. In any event, it seems certain that a writer is someone who has developed to a high degree an ability to remember things and to alter them at will, for instance placing imagined characters in remembered situations, placing remembered characters in imagined situations, and so forth; and it seems to me in these imaginative moments the writer is certainly in some sort of trance.

At certain times in my own experience the sense of entrancement has been vivid. Several years ago when my wife was in the hospital and I was under emotional strain I worked on a piece of fiction almost steadily for three days and nights, stopping only for brief hospital visits, coffee, and cigarettes. When I finished, exhausted, I went to sit on the couch in the living room of our apartment, drinking a last cup of coffee before going to bed. As I sat, passive, it came to me that the room was full of a mumble of voices much like the mumble one hears as one slips into dreams, except much louder, as loud as the voices at an ordinary, crowded party; and the room was full, too, of obscure shapes, forms as large and solid as bears or people but unstable: by the slightest effort I could change them into anything or anyone I pleased. All this surprised me but did not at all stir fear or anxiety, because what was happening seemed clear—in fact, I seemed to recognize the experience. While I was writing, earlier, I had been daydreaming similar creatures and voices: a light touch of intellect made the creatures into people who showed me how an imaginary line of action must go if it was to be true to the real process of life. Now, as the controlling intellect relaxed, the darker machinery was running overtime, without purpose, filling my room with things not really there. Metaphor and fact had become one.

That, I think, is about as mad as art gets. The writer and the psychotic make use of the same faculty and similar energy, the same ability to escape external time and space. If it is true that the motive force of this energy is some tension in the life of the artist or madman—an "ego-wound," the psychologist would say, but Collingwood allows us to extend this to mean any driving need for understanding or choosing between the rival claims of intense brute or human feelings—then a proper use of artistic energy is one which treats the tension, makes decisions about it rather than evading it. The artist is free, the psychotic—helplessly driven by his fear—is not. The theoretical border between art and madness seems to be, then, that the artist can wake up and the psychotic cannot. In fact, though, the difference must be one of degree. Psychotics, we know, can snap out of it, and sometimes do, and an occasional artist relinquishes his hold. Shakespeare understood this. When Hamlet plays mad, he takes a step toward real madness. Sanity is remembering the purpose of the game.

We began with the observation that what distinguishes great art is its sanity. Now we must admit that the observation is a half-truth. Art's essential method verges on the psychotic: the artist creates, by the energy of his mind (including his anguish or, at least, concern), prodded and assisted by the substance and conventions of his artistic medium, a world that isn't there, a dream. Other things being equal, the more intensely the artist imagines his dream world, the more fully he surrenders to it, the more passionate his devotion to capturing it in words, images, or music—or, to put it another way, the deeper his trance and the greater his divorce from ordinary reality—the greater is likely to be the effect of the artist's work on the reader, viewer, or listener. So long as the artist avoids what I have described as "hollowness"—that obsessive fussing with the trappings of the vision (decorations of the set, language for the sake of language) which substitutes for true intensity—and so long as the artist is a master of technique, so that no stroke is wasted, no idea or emotion blurred, it is the extravagance of the artist's purposeful self-abandonment to his dream that will determine the dream's power. The true artist plays mad with all his soul, labors at the very lip of the volcano, but remembers and clings to his purpose, which is as strong as the dream. He is not someone possessed, like Cassandra, but a passionate, easily tempted explorer who fully intends to get home again, like Odysseus.

True art is not rabid, though to ordinary mortals some artists may seem just that—to Mrs. Hawthorne, for instance, when Melville came around, crazy-eyed, drunk, and wearing one of those hats, asking to see Nathaniel, who was none too comfortable himself in Melville's presence. The true artist is likely to be furious in the company of cheapness or compromise. (It is careless criticism, not Melville, that forgives Captain Vere.) He may be indifferent to his own welfare, like an Old Testament prophet in the presence of an unjust king. But it is precisely at the point of rabidity that the gifted but false artist—even one as gifted as Ezra Pound—and the true artist part company. True art's divine madness is shot through with love: love of the good, a love proved not by some airy and abstract highmindedness but by active celebration of whatever good or trace of good can be found by a quick and compassionate eye in this always corrupt and corruptible but god-freighted world. To return one last time to the image of Thor's hammer with which I launched all this, it strikes outward at the trolls, or inward when the trolls have made incursions, not blindly in all directions. It smashes to construct. Most artists will no doubt claim they do just that, and most critics will no doubt claim that they praise only artists who, in one way or another, fight for the good. Some artists and critics tell the truth; some lie. The business of civilization is to pay attention, remembering what is central, remembering that we live or die by the artist's vision, sane or cracked.

NOTES

 

1. What Is Art? and Essays On Art, trans. by Aylmer Maude, The World's Classics edition (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 286-88.

2. Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1976). Some of Bettelheim's explanations of how fairy tales work seem doubtful, to say the least, but there can be no doubt that his main point is convincing, if not downright obvious; that fairy tales educate and liberate children's emotions.

3. Besides "What Is Art?" see especially "On Truth in Art," a comment on folktales, Tolstoy's introductions to S. T. Semenov's Peasant Stories and to the Works of Guy de Maupassant, and the essay "On Art," all included in What Is Art? and Essays On Art.

4. Homer's system is examined in detail in Homer's "Iliad": The Shield of Memory, by Kenneth Atchity, (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1977).

5. There are some, these days, who deny that Beatrice was ever anything but a poetic metaphor. Dante did have, after all, twelve children by another woman. Though I am fully persuaded that Beatrice did exist and that Dante loved her, the point is unimportant; in all his writings about his life, Dante treats himself, too, as a poetic metaphor.

6. The thirtieth canto of the Purgatorio and the closing cantos of the Para-diso might be described as exceptions, but though the tenor at these points may be mystical images of, respectively, the Host and the Trinity, the vehicle is in both cases Beatrice, and the effect seems consciously sexual as well as religious, as it never was in mystical writing. In the first case, in fact, Dante ha's just finished alluding to Dido's sexual passion for Aeneas, comparing it with his own for his lady.

7. Edgar Allan Poe, Marginalia, excerpted in Edgar Allan Poe—Representative Selections, ed., Margaret Alterton and Hardin Craig for the American Writers Series (New York: The American Book Company, 1935), p. 412.

8. George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1961), p. 127. Much of my argument, here and elsewhere in this book, draws on Steiner.

9. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. by Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956), pp. 55-36.

10. This is meant as no insult to Chaucer, of course. As I pointed out in The Poetry of Chaucer (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1977), Chaucer was well-acquainted with nominalist theory. His Canterbury Tales, as well as some earlier poems, is in part anti-nominalfst satire.

11. E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime (New York: Random House, 1974), p. 54.

12. What Is Art?, p. 21.

13. I. A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1924), pp. 5-6.

14. Northrop Frye, The Well-Tempered Critic (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1963), p. 141.

15. Frye, The Well-Tempered Critic, p. 140.

16. Frye, The Well-Tempered Critic, p. 141.

17. For the full defense I do not take time for, see Brand Blanshard, Reason and Goodness (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1961).

18. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism, p. 283.

19. Edgar Allan Poe, The Complete Works (New York: G. D. Sproul, 1902), ed., J. A. Harrison, vol. 14, pp. 197-98.

20. James Wright, "Heraclitus," in The Paris Review, vol. 16, no. 62, pp. 68-69. Reprinted with permission.

21. I copied this comment of Tibbetts' down into a notebook five or six years ago, God knows from where.

p 22. From Carl Dennis, "Students," in A House of My Own (New York: George Braziller, 1974), p. 5. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

23. From Anne Sexton, "For the Year of the Insane: A Prayer," in Live or Die (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966), p. 46. Copyright © 1966 by Anne Sexton. Reprinted with permission.

24. From Linda Pastan, "You Are Odysseus," in Aspects of Eve (New York: Liveright, 1975), p. 21. Reprinted with permission.

23. Brion Gysin, "Closing Message," in The Ticket That Exploded, second version (New York: Grove Press, 1967), p. 217.

26. In the last few years numerous philosophical speculations on art have appeared, some interesting but almost totally unreadable, like Roman Ingarden's The Literary Work of Art (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1973) and Justus Buchler's The Main of Light: On the Concept of Poetry (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), others more approachable, for instance, Mikel Dufrenne's The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1973).

 

 

Photo © 1977 by Nancy Crampton

 

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