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Sunday, 2 November 2014

Raging in the Dark: Art and its Penultimacy

I: Art vs. Life?

“Since Renaissance days, there can be no doubt that the great works of art were bought at the cost of ordinary living.” – Otto Rank

Those who appreciate, or even love, Franz Kafka’s works, those who values them as great art, or even just art and as such valuable, often turn their noses up at the apparently crass and utilitarian question: Was the cost worth the result? There is no doubt that without the suffering, ennui and self-alienation in Kafka’s life, we would have no “Metamorphosis.” But could it really be such a crass question if we find the great Yeats himself asking it?

The intellect of man is forced to choose
perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story's finished, what's the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day's vanity, the night's remorse. 
--“The Choice”

In her book, Acedia and Me, Kathleen Norris probes this same frontier. Sharing her discovery of Aldous Huxley’s essay “Accidie,” she writes that acedia (also spelled “accidie”) has been been thought, especially by Romantic and modern poets, to be the conditions for inspiration:  “Accidie in its most complicated and deadly form, a mixture of boredom, sorrow, and despair, was now an inspiration to the greatest poets and novelists, and it has remained so to this day.” This delusion, i.e. that inspiration and despair/acedia are linked, deceived Norris herself: “I fell in to a trap that ensnares many novice poets, writing only when I was depressed and allowing the writing to lead me into an excitable, hyperactive state. This method can foster literary productivity for a while, but in the long run it is self-defeating” (51). Worse, though, than its un-sustainability is the toll it takes on a human life, under the guise of its necessity for art. Take the example of Anne Sexton: “in the end, the God whom Sexton found in her verse was not one who could save, and she killed herself soon after reading galleys for the book” (55). To her horror, Norros sees this Sexton’s life paralleled in the lives of countless other artists. It is sacrifice that seems to have been normalized, a right of entry, a badge of authenticity, for artists. Soon Norris found herself asking the same question as in Yeats’ poem: “It became clear to me that the ultimate question that Huxley’s Accidie’ had raised for me was not ‘Can a poet have faith?’ but ‘Can a poet be well?’ …The evidence suggests that poets had not been well for some time. Gerard de Nerval may have brightened his Paris neighborhood by walking a lobster on a leash, but not when he hanged himself from a railing in the Rue de la Vieille Lanterne. His literary contemporaries were haunted by the thought that the poet had killed himself because his muse had failed him…” (59). At this point Norris quotes E. M. Cioran: a book is “a postponed suicide.”

Can an artist be well? Can an artist be mature? Maybe a mediocre one, but a great artist? Is the price of every The Trail and Thus Spoke Zarathustra madness, illness, death?

It gets worse. Karl Jung found himself musing that “there may be some validity in the idea held by the Freudian school that artists without exception are narcissistic – by which is meant that they are undeveloped persons with infantile and auto-erotic traits…To perform this difficult office it is sometimes necessary for him to sacrifice happiness and everything that makes life worth living for the ordinary human being” (The Creative Process, 168-69). Otto Rank, Freud's protégé, seems to affirm this on the level of psychological types: “While aesthetic pleasure, whether in the creator in the contemplator, is ultimately a renunciation of the self, the essence of the creative impulse is exactly opposite tendency towards assertion of the self” (Art and Artist, 23). Is art, then, inherently narcissistic, or egoistic?

Another way of putting the question is, “In a perfect world, would there be art?” Consider it. Take The Great Divorce. In it C. S. Lewis shows an artist come for a visit in heaven, and the artist is threatened by his own superfluousness there:    

“When you painted on earth—at least in your earlier days—it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too. But here you are having the thing itself. It is from here that the messages came. There is no good telling us about this country, for we see it already. In fact we see it better than you do...If you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.”

Otto Rank
C. S. Lewis – who himself was an artist – saw something about the artist figure that non-artists often miss, and that is that often artists find a certain kind of idolatry necessary for their work. Otto Rank puts it this way: “The real artist regards his work as more important than the whole of life and experience, which are but a means to production” (50). (Though Rank specifies that he is referring to “the Classical type only, for to the Romantic type his personal ego and his experience are more important than, or as important as, his work; sometimes, indeed, production may be simply a means to life, just as to the other type experience is but a means to production” (51).) Either way, Lewis shows simply that there is not just “virtue” in the renunciation of art (for the time), but a recognition that art had been a grasping, and that the grasping is now, at least, irrelevant. Implied here is that the worth itself of art is only in flux, and, more significantly, that the worth comes from grasping the right things (i.e. heaven). “Light itself was your first love,” the artist is told. “You loved paint only as a means of telling about light.”

Søren Kierkegaard
Even more challenging is Kierkegaard’s insistence that, in the religious sphere, renunciation is not trumped by anything – not love of chocolate, not love of your spouse, not even love of high art – for anything at all, and especially the greatest things, are capable of becoming idols. (Many were shocked and offended at Tolstoy’s renunciation of his own novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, precisely because they were so great and so hard to renounce.) Kierkegaard’s assessment of the artist in relation to the gospel is, thus, as hard for the artist to hear as Matthew 19:23 is for a CEO of an MNC:

“That such a genius-existence is sin, despite its splendor, glory, and significance, is something that requires courage to understand, and it can hardly be understood before one has learned to satisfy the hunger of the wishing soul. It is true nonetheless. That such an existence may nevertheless be happy to a certain degree proves nothing. Talent may be conceived of as a means of diversion, and in so doing one realizes that at no moment is it possible to raise oneself above the categories in which the temporal lies. Only through a religious reflection can genius and talent in the deepest sense be justified. Take a genius like Telleyrand… If such a genius had distained the temporal as immediate and turned toward himself and toward the divine, what a religious genius would have emerged! But what agonies he would have had to endure… What profound religious reflection would be required to reach such an outward task, for example, that of becoming a comic actor! That it can be done, I do not deny, for whoever has some understanding of the religious knows that it is more pliant that gold” (The Concept of Anxiety 102).

Kierkegaard cannot, of course, pronounce on the accidental significance such works of art have on our lives (I might be lead to a deeper self-understanding through reading Kafka, or perhaps reading Kafka has helped one think about certain concepts, etc.), yet he puts the question of art in the perspective of eternity as a way of showing up the true nature or worth of his subject – just as dipping one’s body in the salty ocean reveals all the small cuts and scratches invisible and unfelt to yourself before immersion. “Relating relatively to the relative and absolutely to the absolute”: this was Kierkegaard’s master formula, and he tested everything by it. Really, he might have said it more colloquially: take everything with a grain of salt. But everyone has their way of putting this deceptively difficult task. Jewish scripture: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” And von Balthasar:

“This voice from eternity whispers and breathes right through everything that exists in the world, all intramundane values; and, without depriving the things of this world of their meaning and value, it lends them a bottomless dimension, exploding whatever is closed, relativizing whatever seems ultimate, revealing hidden depths in what seems simple, sweetening pain and bringing reconciliation to what is tragic. Now, renunciation can mean boundless enrichment; death can mean plunging into eternal life… A whole world of love-mysteries opens up to us” (Prayer, 39).

II: Art’s Penultimacy?

“If he seeks his salvation in artistic creation instead of in the development of his own personality, it is because he is still in the toils of old art-ideologies.” – Otto Rank

For this reason, I am not convinced that art is anything “essential” – just as I am not convinced that religion is essential, or any human-made reality for that matter. Human-constructed reality may be essential in itself (whatever that means), but not specific human-made realities themselves.

This is hard to say, because I adore, you know, like, idolize, really good literature. But I'll say it again: art is a penultimate endeavor. And it must, in situations where there is a difference in goal between them, be subordinated to “personality development,” as Otto Rank would have it, or, as I would have it, the constant struggle to open oneself to reality through loving more and perceiving more, etc. Art may be a tool to aid in this (hardly a utilitarian notion, however much it appears so here), but in actual fact art more often functions as a retarding force to moral and spiritual development.

The example of Dylan Thomas comes to mind. He seems rather playful, which is attractive, but I cannot help suspecting it is not the playfulness of a Meister Eckhart, say, and really hides something trivial. Here is a piece of the article:
           “Sceptics found his imagery inscrutable or meaningless. Some called it surreal – a charge he detested. His greatest fault as a poet, his subordination of meaning to musicality, was also his greatest asset…
            His ambitions outstripped his efforts. He and Sir William Walton agreed to collaborate on a tragic opera set in a dockside slum. Months later Walton asked about the libretto. ‘Finished,’ said Thomas and scribbled something on a postcard which he handed to the maestro. ‘With a sound like thunderclaps / The little mouse comes out, perhaps’”

Why do we celebrate such figures? Why did I spend so many hours reading him, with so little reward? Why can I not lose the notion that doing what he does is unquestionably worthwhile? What is so seductive about it? And is it a seduction worth being seduced by? Sometimes I feel like Theo Decker from The Goldfinch:
       “I look at the blanked-out faces of the other passengers--hoisting their briefcases, their backpacks, shuffling to disembark--and I think of what Hobie said: beauty alters the grain of reality. And I keep thinking too of the more conventional wisdom: namely, that the pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, that beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful.
          “Only what is that thing? Why am I made the way I am? Why do I care about all the wrong things, and nothing at all for the right ones? Or, to tip it another way: how can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is illusion, and yet--for me, anyway--all that's worth living for lies in that charm?
           “...If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or...is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?”

Maybe it is odd that I am concerned about this, when there are so many greater problems in society than jesters who distract and confuse a very small portion of us who have that luxury. Indeed it is important to realize how little influence art actually has on the lives of most people. However, for those of us for whom it is master, this is not a tertiary issue. We few at least need to know the nature of what is going on in art if any false gods are to be brought out and smashed.

This does not happen enough. We are so used to defending against the dual attack of (1) the thoughtless art-bashers (“it’s hogwash, bewildering mysticism!”; “I don’t read novels – I only read about things that actually happened”) and (2) the more sophisticated and subtle utilitarian totalitarianism that tries to evaluate/valuate art. Thus defensiveness becomes the default attitude, and we become incapable or scared of questioning the value of art ourselves. But we must admit that it is not enough that artists get us “imagining differently,” or confront our closed, organized, neat little worlds with something that cannot be immediately categorized, utilized, etc. Those things are not great enough to devote one’s life to, nor to convince any non-artist to spend much time with art. Yes, the world could use more poetry, more beauty in general; yes, it could use more patience with difficult texts, etc. And maybe even artists help nudge us in this direction. But there must be more than this, otherwise “devoting oneself to art” seems a lot like casting oneself against a brick wall in the hopes that, by breaking one’s bones, the wall might be moved just a bit further to the right. Yeats put it more eloquently while keeping the sense of sacrifice in his poem, “The Choice.”

Tartt has a nobler way of framing this sacrifice. Theo Decker writes:

“And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”

But I think: that is only because you cannot imagine anything greater, anything more worth devoting your life to. Renee (of The Elegance of the Hedgehog) writes, “At times like these you desperately need Art. You seek to reconnect with your spiritual illusions, and you wish fervently that something might rescue you from your biological destiny so that all poetry and grandeur will not be cast out from the world” (98). Again, I think: she can only write this because her imagination has not been introduced to anything that would make Art penultimate to itself (something that even is more than “illusion”). If you found a greater god, you would turn your back on beauty and worship this latest.

So, it is actually rather easy to see why Decker cannot move beyond his obsession with “The Goldfinch” – he cannot imagine any greater hope or meaning than this obsession! Decker sums up the belief which allows him this obsession, which makes his particular entrapment possible: “And as much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.” But from a higher perspective, it cannot but look rather meaningless to write, “...as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn't touch.” There are worse ideologies in the world than Decker’s art ideology, sure. But even for those very few whom it does entrap there must be apostles.

The issue may just be this: it is not possible to motivate oneself to do art through confidence in its worth; motivation is only possible by letting oneself be seduced and claimed by the mystery and the beauty of it. Only a silly, brooding metaphysical thinker like myself could make this mistake. I see something unstable and I want to prop it up with metaphysical crutch. The fact is, art’s value is so contingent, so uncertain, that it simply cannot be argued for. Examples here and there of inspiration and encouragement coming from a poet’s words exist. And, sure, the beauty of a cathedral is uplifting, edifying, and so on. But what does this inspiration, this beauty, do? The meaning of the beauty here becomes essential: in which paradigm do we receive it? If the beauty is breathing something into our souls, what is it saying? Does it simply indicate to us how creative the artist is, how great humankind is, to have dreamt such a dream? Most often, for me, I see poems as mysteries whose beauty poses a challenge: can I figure it out? And if there is encouragement in the activity, it is often encouragement to create. I find this self-referentiality frustrating. I cannot accept that art is its own good, because there is so much else going on in the world, so many forces of goodness and destruction, and art, being so vulnerable, so defenseless, will always be bound up somehow in them. It is not possible to detach even pure beauty from this network of relationships. The specific artwork is always construed somehow.

Perhaps this is where I ought to locate the problem of art: rather than in the neurosis or self-indulgence or immoral dependence of the artist, or the self-referential nature of artwork, it may be in the eyes of the beholders. That, of course, is too simple, for the eyes of the beholder, the cultural paradigms at work, also generate artists and artwork… Or could it just be that I have an incredible talent for being discontented, and just as art is not ultimately “good enough,” neither is anything else I have happened upon within the world of human constructs. Because, really, the “talent for discontentment” comes from a talent for hope, which, being over-hasty, is so often disappointed.

III: Concluding

“ The individual may, by his nomination to be an artist, have asserted his independence of the human community and rooted himself in self-sufficient isolation; but ultimately he is driven by the work he has autonomously produced to surrender again to that community.” – Otto Rank

In his book, Art and Artist, Rank argues that art has been throughout the ages ultimately an expression of the ego (individual) or human spirit (collective), representing the abstract in the concrete and proving the soul by creating it. It has, therefore, been involved in the heroic denial of death, driven by the need for transcendence. However, it has constantly grown bloated and collapsed. The artist repeats a cycle in which he stretches for transcendence and, reaching so high, falls on his face:

“He desires to transform death into life, as it were, though actually he transforms life into death. For not only does the created work not go on living; it is, in a sense, dead… it no longer has any significance for its creator, once he has produced it. He therefore again takes refuge in life, and again forms experiences, which for their part represent only mortality – and it is precisely because they are mortal that he wishes to immortalize them in his work” (39).

The artist therefore does not achieve the freedom from fear (of life and of death) unless he blinds himself, creating an art-ideology that keeps him from looking at the futility of the cycle. This solution, however, is still trapped in the futility of that ‘grasping’ which is art. It seems to me that the artist, then, cannot produce his own answer. The only answer to mortality which can be finally satisfying and which relies upon no illusions must come from outside of mortality…
So here is one hypothetical response to the problem of art and truth. There is no “objective” value to art: it’s value comes from being situated in a process of growth, and not just any growth (we would not say that just because this piece of art came in a stage on a larger journey to “self-actualization,” i.e. priggish self-indulgence, that it is “valuable”), but the growth of one’s participation in the “divine economy of love” (which, being nit-picky, we might say is the only form of growth anyway, since another term for this, less “Christian,” is reality).

We might also say something different, i.e. that art has value objectively if it is art that helps us imagine reality more richly, more intensely, and whose ultimate context (regardless of the specific goal of a piece of art, if it has a goal) is the redemption story of the cosmos. That is to say, it is this context which gives things value: not just art, but everything has worth when it is situated in this story of love. Art’s specific vocation is the expansion of our imaginations, thereby drawing us deeper into reality. So, for example, we might find Kafka valuable in that he shows us the reality of anxiety; if we were to read only absurdist literature, however, it would suddenly be without value, because it is now construed and interpreted from outside the story that gives it purpose.

Please note: this context, which gives art its only worth that is free of illusion, is a context which comes from outside of art.


  1. Good essay.
    But how do human beings in this time and place go beyond the dreadfully dark impasse in which they are collectively trapped. An impasse/trap created and held in place by their left brained "mind-forged-manacles" - which includes all of the usual "theology", however seemingly insightful.

    What happens to our understanding of Art and its relation to Sacred Culture when the Very Divine Person comes to town in a Radiant Form and creates an entirely new genre of Sacred Art?
    Which is introduced via these references:
    1. www.aboutadidam.org/readings/art_is_love/index.html
    2. www.aboutadidam.org/readings/transcending_the_camera/index.html Artists Statement
    3. www.adidaupclose.org/Art_and_Photography/rebirth_of_sacred_art.html
    4. www.adidamla.org/newsletters/newsletter-aprilmay2006.pdf The Realization of The Beautiful
    5. www.adidaupclose.org/Literature_Theater/skalsky.html an introduction to The Orpheum Trilogy and its cultural significance. Adi Da was/is Orpheus
    6. www.aboutadidam.org/testimonials/art_architecture/index.html Testimonials & Appreciations

    Adi Da pointed out that all of the usual egoic art, regardless of the seeming topic/subject(including what are usually called "religious" themes) is an auto-biographical description of the artist who produces it.

  2. One artist imagines himself the creator of an independent spiritual world and takes on his shoulders the act of creating that world and its population, assuming total responsibility for it—but he stumbles and breaks down because there is no mortal genius capable of bearing such a load...Another artist realizes that there is a supreme force above him and works away gladly as a small apprentice beneath God’s heaven, even though his responsibility for everything he draws or writes and for the souls which perceives it is all the more strict. But still: it was not he who created this world, nor is it he who provides it with direction, and he has no doubts of its foundations.
    - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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