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.


  1. Good stuff again, Leigh. I confess I hadn't ever connected the virtue-virile roots before. And they certainly have fallen along a cultural gender split, haven't they? Also, I endorse your announced surliness, and Cameron's related rejection of respectability.

    On the closing note of scribal wanking, I have also made this observation. This is what an uninspired morning of ink-spilling feels like, exactly. But I am hoping to improve on this.

    Who was who said, Luck is when opportunity meets preparation? (Before Tom Waits, I mean. I think he was quoting.) But the same could be said for inspiration. The purpose of showing up (and I know you know this already) is so that we are not caught unprepared when it arrives, like the (virtuous?) maidens in the biblical story, waiting for the (virile, of course) bridegroom, with their lamps filled with oil. Though if the bridegroom can't stick to a schedule any better than a muse, you may not want this guy for a husband.

    Which brings me to the moment when I mostly lost respect for Allen Ginsberg. (One happy hour cocktail says you didn't see that one coming...)

    If you've seen the Ken Burns documentary on Jazz, there's an interview with Ginsberg about Charlie Parker, in which he's gushing about Parker as this fount of spontaneous expression, of pure improvisation of the spirit.

    Very convenient for beatnik poets who treasured first drafts, and shoddiness. Except: bullshit.

    Charlie Parker practiced 10 hours a day. On his light days. All of that spontaneity was the result of a solid foundation. It was through hours of private technique-building and experimentation that he came to the conclusion that he could fly all over the place and still be aware enough of the chord structure he was working with that he could stick the landing and have the apparent chaos make musical sense. (Unlike "free jazz," which came later, which really had no rules, and most of which was crap.)

    So here's my goal: to find ways to show up more intentionally, to build more preparation, instead of just showing up. I haven't settled on the best way to do this yet, though focusing on structure (sonnets, for example) does seem to help.

    I'll let you know how it goes.

  2. Your comment about Charlie Parker reminds me of an oft-quoted remark of Miles Davis': something like, "There are no mistakes." I don't know how many hours a day Davis practiced, but he certainly didn't say this when he was first learning to trumpet. (Or at least, whichever family members had to listen to him might not have shared this sentiment.)

    Also, I've never gotten past Ginsberg's support for NAMBLA, and *ahem* I sort of hate the beats. So, um... I'll quietly slink away now.

    1. Is the slinking because the beats are fashionable? I think they're mostly good for comedy. I should tell you about my project to read a collection of a friend's Facebook statuses (stati?) over an improvised bass solo. So maybe I'd better slink away, too.