Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Virtue, or the Lack Thereof

            Thoughts on Chapter 5 of The Artist's Way.  Part five of twelve on creativity.

            The word virtue comes to mind.  I almost immediately see a woman, wearing a floor-length white dress, looking timid and perhaps even slightly frightened.
            Who she might be is up for debate — Myself?  Some dreamed-of version of myself?  Or the ever-present "good woman" that exists only to remind me of my failures? — though this question remains uninteresting to me.  Certainly she is in white.  Come to think of it, she is white.  And is without question a virgin in the dullest, most colloquial un-penetrated vagina sort of way.  Blah.
            What is interesting is the image.  Female, sexually naïve, and generally ineffectual.  Barbara, wearing a crisp white shift, in the original Night of the Living Dead comes to mind.  When I watched this movie (with a large group of men, mind you), no one could fail to notice Barbara's irritating uselessness in the face of so much need for action.  Of course she's been through a trauma, but everyone's potentially about to get eaten by zombies, so it would be nice if she could stop sitting around, paralyzed by fear, generally being the weak and needy woman she's spent her whole life training to be.  (Obviously I can't decide if I'm more irritated with Barbara or the men I sit alongside who judge her.  Probably best to just spread my displeasure around evenly.)  So there's a distinct lack of agency in this version of virtue.
            Recently I've been reading The Iliad, and since the word came up (via the Greek arete), a friend sent me some very interesting information on the word "virtue."  First of all, "virtue" comes from the Latin root vir, which simply means "man" in the gendered sense.  Regarding the history of the etymology:

            We don't use "vir" anymore, but there seem to be two ways that the root "man" got split up in English. There's the "virile" route, which is a sort of physical manhood thing, more closely linked to actual gendered men — "virility" goes with having a mighty penis, for example. Then there's the "virtue" branch of the vir- family in English. That comes from the Latin "virtus" which used to just mean "the quality of being an excellent man". This is REALLY close to the Greek idea of arete. The difference is that anything/anyone could have arete in Greek. Whereas the Latin concept of virtus was a man-thing only. (Of course they had other concepts for excellence which applied to women, societies, things, etc). A man with virtus was just a vir with arete, if you will pardon the cross-pollination. 
            This concept carried into the early Middle Ages, where the best men had "virtue". As Christian rules of knightly chastity became the new ideal, a huge part of being virtuous was having sexual restraint. And because sexual restraint was most intensely imposed upon young women, "virtuousness" began to be associated with female virginity and chastity, until by the Victorian age, to say a woman was "virtuous" was nothing more than code for "She's a virgin." (Very ironically, the term "virgin" has no etymological link whatsoever to "virtue"). So I find that little flip-a-roo from it meaning "extra manly man" to meaning "extra girly girl" kind of entertaining.

            "For an artist, virtue can be deadly.  The urge toward respectability and maturity can be stultifying, even fatal.  (The Artist's Way, p. 98)
            Clearly, Cameron is responding to this latter-day sense, virtue-as-doing-no-evil-or-anything-else-for-that-matter.  And on the one hand, she's right to do so.  Artists *ahem* have a bit of a reputation.  I saw this in my own family and church environment when I was going to college and announced that I was going to study writing and be a poet.  The primary concern of my Christian friends seemed to revolve around whether that meant I was going to have sex with lots of men and never get married.  There is also, oddly enough, an association between art and homosexuality.  (Why?  All the gay women I know either are stay-at-home moms or work some humdrum, grown-up type job and responsibly pay the mortgage on time every month while saving for retirement.)  Maybe everyone was worried I would turn out to be a lesbian.
            Cameron's point here, I think, is that this urge toward making everyone like you, toward "respectability and maturity," can suffocate many artists.  And she's right.  Openness to inspiration is probably just a fancy way of saying openness to life, and god only knows what you'll find if you open yourself to life.  Please note that I am not being facetious; seriously, what you'll find if you open yourself up to life might very well destroy comfort and peace of mind and retirement plans, so it's not to be taken lightly.  And given the need societies have to maintain the status quo — to keep folks putting their money in those retirement accounts — artists pose a challenge.
            But I have another more personal concern, and that is what I will term "virtuous production."  Because while there may very well be many, many closeted and stifled and blocked artists out there, there are also many artists who are making a living off their art, or working in ACADEMIA (said with a hiss), or who feel compelled to keep working on something all the time because...I don't even know.  Because what?  Because if they stop they might never start again?  Or, if they are in academia, they actually have to write or paint or compose or play or whatever a certain amount.  Because of course, those professors must be seen to do something.
            So here is where I again get old-fashioned:  I kind of go for the Muse thing.  As in, I can't control it.  As in, it comes when it wants.  This, obviously, stands in direct contradiction to my earlier post on practical atheism, but I also do and don't drink the blood of a dead guy every Sunday, so there go any dubious claims I might have to logical consistency.
            But the Muse is great.  The Muse is humiliating.  Because while, on this blog, I have thus far advocated pretty strongly for the idea of the hard work that is art-making, the truth is that you can set aside time every week for your art and not have any real inspiration show up for a long, long time.  True, you have to keep showing up.  (Well, I actually advocate for taking breaks from the showing up.  Hey, if your girlfriend can't be bothered to come on time for months on end, you have every right to not show up and go get a coffee and read a comic book.  She might want to hang out with you again if you're a little more relaxed.)
            But you also have to be intelligent and humble enough to not fool yourself into thinking that that little get-you-by project is actually an inspired piece of work.
            Do I believe in an actual spirit coming from outside of me and speaking through me?  I promise you, whatever idea you have of spirit, the answer is no.  (That's the problem with spirit.)  But then again, it's the most accurate description I can come up with.  Because it is entirely outside of my control.  This is a terrifying thought, because it means I could "show up" to "do the work" (god how I'm sick of those phrases) every day for the rest of my life and not produce anything worthwhile.  I finished the last project I felt genuinely inspired to do almost a year ago, and it was only a week ago that I caught the scent of the next one.  I shudder to think of what poets working in universities do, leeching every drop of "oh, that's a cool phrase" from their veins.
            So if vir split in two, and became the now rather quaint "virtue," it also gave us "virile."  I like this word.  If you read it just slightly metaphorically, it pretty much encapsulates everything I love about men and masculinity.  I think of guys in their early twenties talking about making movies and being astronauts and travelling the world and inventing new things and generally accomplishing shit.  It also, if you read it, erm, less metaphorically, describes an entirely organic process.  As in, assuming you're well-rested and consuming food on a regular basis, you'll have erections and produce semen.  As in, you don't have to masturbate on a twice-daily basis to, I guess, make sure your body didn't just spontaneously decide to stop working.
            And yes, yes I did:  just compare uninspired artistic productivity to masturbation.  Happy Napowrimo!*

*Note: the author is a strong advocate for masturbation.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

pour essayer de passer à autre chose

es-say  (ĕ-sā')  tr.v. -sayed, -saying, -says.  1.  To make an attempt at; try:  "The Lieutenant essayed a few initial pleasantries"  (S.J. Perelman).  2.  To subject to a test; try out.  —n.  (ĕs'ā, ĕ-sā' for senses 1, 2; only ĕs'ā for sense 3).  1.  An attempt; endeavor.  2.  A testing or trial of the value or nature of a thing:  an essay of his capabilities.  3.  A short literary composition on a single subject, usually presenting the person views of the author.  [Old French essaier, assaier, from essai, assai, a trial, from Vulgar Latin exagiāre (unattested), to weigh out, from Late Latin exagium, a weighing, balance, from Latin exigere,  to weigh out, examine.  See exact.]  —es-say'er  n.

            As it so happens, I did see exact.  Which led to the discovery that both words come from the Indo-European root ag-.  From which we get words as disparate as "act," "agent," "agony," and "purge"; "ambiguous," "litigate," "synagogue," and "axiom."
            So I have been stalled.  As is probably obvious from the fact that over two weeks ago I finished with "Jesus of Nazareth is dead," and haven't written here since.  Truthfully I haven't written much of anywhere.  I can't claim I haven't had time, or have been too stressed to write.  It's just that I've been reading The Iliad and a book called War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (which I highly recommend to any- and everyone), and between the massacres of the ancients and the massacres of the moderns, I haven't been able to articulate a response.  As John mentioned in his comment on my last post, the church calendar seems to move too quickly at this time of year.  I am still stranded somewhere in Lent.
            The problem with remaining stranded, of course, is that I still think that humanity is worth something.  A lot, as it so happens.  And I don't see things as simply, "Oh, those governments.  If only they'd listen to those of us who care!  Everything would be just great."  But there is no us and them.  There are no "governments," "me," "you," "nature," "Croats," "Jews," "Yemenis," or "corporations."  For all the left has criticized our government for calling corporations individuals, we certainly treat them as though they were discreet entities.  As if we weren't just as much a member of the Big Club that Is Killing Everyone as Obama and Putin and Jeff Bezos are.  Own anything that came on a boat?  Ever ride in anything powered by gasoline?  Eat in restaurants whose food came from God only knows where?  Me too.
            But this is where I get stranded.  I hesitated to include this next quote, because I'm hardly familiar with Theodor Adorno's work.  But the blogger Brian A. Oard posted something on Adorno's famous and horribly misunderstood quote about poetry after Auschwitz that I think articulates what I'm getting at:

Here is the entire passage, from the English translation by Samuel and Shierry Weber:

The more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own. Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation. (Prisms, 34)

It's a difficult passage from a difficult essay, made more difficult by being wrenched out of context. (One really must read the entire essay to understand the closing lines. If you find an inexpensive copy of Prisms in a secondhand bookstore, grab it.) Adorno's meaning, particularly what he means by the word "reification," becomes clearer when read in light of two earlier sentences in this same page-long paragraph: "In the open-air prison which the world is becoming, it is no longer so important to know what depends on what, such is the extent to which everything is one. All phenomena rigidify, become insignias of the absolute rule of that which is." Here's my paraphrase/interpretation of the key sentences: To persist, after Auschwitz, in the production of monuments of the very culture that produced Auschwitz (Adorno might have spoken of Strauss's Four Last Songs  rather than generalized "poetry") is to participate by denial in the perpetuation of that barbaric culture and to participate in the process (reification) that renders fundamental criticism of that culture literally unthinkable.

            To persist, not even after the "war" we are calling our own global version of terrorism (certainly that is how civilians around the world experience), but to persist in reading my books (published by whom?), watching my movies (starring whom?), and listening to my music (it's depressing how obvious it all becomes after awhile, isn't it?) — to persist during participates in the perpetuation of that culture.
            So this is my way of saying:  I love human culture desperately, so much and so intensely and engage with it so completely that I can't stop without slitting my wrists.  But I don't want to live in self-satisfied contemplation.
            I still don't know exactly what all of this points to, and so in the meantime I will keep writing about books and creativity and movies, and I even want to start writing about television shows in the future.  But somewhere in the back of my mind is something agitating against the very world it engages with.  I suspect it is in the back of everyone's mind whether we know it or not.  I might even be so old-fashioned as to refer to the part of us that knows something is wrong, constantly, all day everyday, as the soul — and it isn't going to be fixed or satisfied or placated by the internet.  No blog or porn or news or shopping is going to redeem the degrading moment we are all caught in right now.