Monday 30 August 2010

In Defense of Torment

Anguish visited on creative artists has become a stereotype, and for a reason. For centuries, artists have shown themselves to be unusually susceptible to anxiety, pain, and self- destruction. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of remarkably successful Eat, Pray Love, took on this suffering in her February 2009 TED talk. Locating the source of the creative spark within (as was the case since Renaissance), rather than without (in daimons of ancient Greece and geniuses of Rome), proved to be, according to Gilbert, an uncommonly destructive idea for artists. If you think you are the source, then you are to blame all those times when your pen, brush, or body, either refuses to move, or, worse, moves in a way that insults the muses. She suggests that the return to the old idea – that it is all out of our hands, good art and bad – may create a protective construct artists may hold up against the onslaught of creative blocks, anxiety, and self-destruction. The important thing, she says, is to keep showing up for work. If a great work of art is created, you can’t take the praise (which will prevent narcissism), and if you produce something lame, it is not your fault. After all, you have showed up for your part of the deal and it is really your daimon who must have been sleepy that day. She should take the blame.

One can’t but be moved by Gilbert’s tender plea for a shield with which to protect artists against themselves. But chasing the torment away, I think, is even more dangerous than yielding to it. Torment serves a purpose, and the purpose is to remind us that, at this particular time, we are not very good channels for inspiration. And being a rusty channel, I’m afraid, is entirely our fault. If we want to take lessons from the ancients, we should swallow both their sweet and bitter seeds. Socrates’ lesson was not that your daimon shows up some days to fill your page, other days staying away. It is that we all have a daimon, and that our daimon is with us all the time, but that our ears are too full of other things to hear it. Socrates was a slave only to his daimon, and consequently heard it all the time. Modern artists, like ancient ones, and like non-artists too, are slaves to many other things besides - success, fear, productivity – and enough noise will make the gentle music of art inaudible. Torment is the way we are reminded to quiet the noise, and start paying attention. It is a reminder to be slaves to our art. And being slaves to our art does not mean being chained to your desk. It means probing, and sometimes destroying, the inner landscape that has grown insensitive to the elusive caress of art.

So it seems it’s not just about showing up at your writing desk. While inspiration is still a gift, the torment is a warning signal that we are, for now, unfit to receive it. So, no matter how much Gilbert wants to save us from ourselves, we cannot wish away the paradox that seems both unfair and irrational - that in art, while we cannot take the praise, we have to take the blame.

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formerly a wage slave said...

I am a bit uncomfortable with the reference to Socrates and his "daimon".

I realize that among contemporary educated people, Socrates is as much a figure or prototype as he was in Aristophanes' play, but there is something to be learned from a bit more historical accuracy.

Of all the characters in the philosophical literature, Socrates is one of the least anxiety ridden. His daimon only warned him off from doing something, never told him what to do. Nor was his daimon a sort of outside voice that was pulling his strings.

To say that Socrates was any sort of "slave"--whether to the voice he heard or anyone else--would be a grotesque misrepresentation.

Recall our current political climate in which numerous great and powerful men and women have been implicated in the most barbaric crimes, and have shown great cowardice in their complicity. The courage and clarity of mind which they lack is precisely what Socrates possessed.

He resisted pressure from the powerful, and willingly died doing so.

Neither was his religion a source of external influence.
It would be useful here to recall the story of the "Apology". The oracle was put the question about who was the wisest, and answered that Socrates was. Socrates himself thought that was nonsense and set out to refute it. And that's what his life was about. Nothing slavish here.

MJ Lovas, aka "formerly a wage slave"

formerly a wage slave said...

Actually I think what you're saying now is terribly not Socrates.....I mean now: your explication.
the idea of being a slave to your conscience depends upon a picture of what we call "morality" that is very much at odds with Socratic moral psychology.
One place to find such a view in print is in Naomi Reshotko's book "Socratic Virtue"

The idea of a conflict between what we want to do and what our conscience tells us to do depends upon a picture of morality were happiness is factored out. And that sort of picture of morality or ethics (choices about living) has a hard time telling us why we are motivated in the first place....

(conflict of interest statement: Reshotko and I are both former pupils of Terry Penner, who has been presenting this interpretation of Socrates for many years)

Sorry I missed your comment till now... Also sorry if I'm a bit long-winded. It's a curious question how dominant views of the nature of morality interact with views of the emotions and art....
best wishes
Mark L

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