Friday, November 23, 2012

Art as Psychosis

We still, generally, think of art as the product of an act of creation. (Cue familiar tropes about the artist as God, the Renaissance, etc. etc.) But unlike God, who -- I assume -- was supremely in control of his creative powers, some artists speak of their urges and impulses to create, as if it were some sort of psychosis. Art in this conception is spontaneous. Relatedly, art is then sometimes viewed as the result of possession, of being seized by the creative process. As Martin Amis said about his novel, Time's Arrow, but more generally about the process of writing itself:
"Why did you decide to write a novel about the Holocaust?" This challenge, which I still sometimes hear, can only be answered as follows: "But I never did." Similarly, I never decided to wite a novel about teenage sexuality, or Thatcher's England, or millennial London, or, indeed, about the Gulag (which I nonetheless completed in 2006). With its hopelessly inapposite verb, and presumptuous preposition, the question reveals an understandable naivety about the way that fictions are made. For the novel, as Norman Mailer put it, is "the spooky art".
This view of creation, as an uncontrollable urge to create, could never have come from the Christian mythos with its concrete sense of beginning and end. It is a pagan conception. Witness the Greek account: a messy and undignified process of starts and false starts, with Uranus, Cronos and Zeus. We have Plato to thank, with his Ion:
For all the good epic poets utter all those fine poems not from art, but as inspired and possessed, and the good lyric poets likewise ... For a poet is a light and winged and sacred thing, and is unable ever to indite until he has been inspired and put out of his senses, and his mind is no longer in him' (533e-534b)
But for Plato, artistic possession was something deeply suspicious, a potential source of anarchy and disorder. In the unbeatable explication of Edgar Wind, the first Professor of Art History at Oxford:
Although no philosopher has praised the divine madness of inspiration more eloquently than Plato, he viewed it (like Goethe and Baudelaire) with grave suspicion. He rated the strength of man’s imagination so high that he thought a man could be transformed by the things he imagined. Hence he found miming a most perilous exercise; and he devised curious laws that would prohibit the miming of extravagant or evil characters.
I'm not an artist, obviously. But I imagine when one is in the full swing of things, this process is supremely empowering, like no other. Yet creative failure must feel akin to failed suicide: Philip Roth, commenting on his recent decision to stop writing, speaks of his liberation from failure, from the fact that 'Writing is frustration -- it's daily frustration, not the mention humiliation'. Roth seems to have found a surprising liberation from his calling. But here another idea comes into play, one I am not concerned to discuss, and that is the idea of the artist as vocation. 

But there is one other conception that intrigues me. Art, in this case, is simply an attempt to cope with life. Art is therapy -- for the artist. It is an attempt to lighten the heavy burdens of memory and experience. But I think this itself often becomes another sort of psychosis. It becomes a struggle to make sure none of it goes to waste. The artist jealously hoards experience, safeguarding it, mining his memories and experiences. It is all grist for his mill, and he ever struggles to make more and more of it. He becomes no longer quite part of human society, and even no longer part of his own life: life is all material, just more material, to be collected for the production of art. I imagine -- again, because I am not an artist -- this must alter own's being quite profoundly, and particularly one's relation to reality. Sometimes I have felt as if I'm in a work of fiction. But the conviction that all of life is simply a primordial soup of potential plots, characters, tropes and symbols is beyond me. The writer I think that most conforms to this is Thomas Mann. Colm Tóibín describes Mann's method as such:
There was always a sense with Mann ... that he was an observer at his own life, that he learned very early to stand back as each thing happened, pretend that it was happening to someone else and then store material for later use. (Love in a Dark Time, p. 127)
Later on, in discussing Elizabeth Bishop, Tóibín rakes up another, perhaps even better example: the poet Robert Lowell, who turned one of Bishop's letters to him into a sonnet. 'Bishop', Tóibín writes, 'was greatly disturbed by his use of this material'. Bishop complained:
One can use one's life as material -- one does, anyway -- but aren't you violating a trust? (p. 192) 
One suspects such questions rarely occur to artists, and that Bishop was herself being slightly disingenuous -- a fact betrayed by the throwaway, but entirely undermining, 'one does, anyway'.

But for me, the great observer is the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie. Yes, many will scorn. Yet surely, in her over 70 novels and 150 short stories (and not to mention plays), we can discern that almost pathological desire to make as much of the material as possible. And Christie is an acute social observer. I often say I first encountered the English in Christie, and this gave me a profound understanding of them, far better than any other way. It's completely true: I still recommend Christie for sociological and psychological insight, rather than the mystery.

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