Thursday 19 August 2010

Sunless and Stillness, by Tessa Overbeek

Last Thursday and the Thursday before we described the competition among people registered at the recent conference in Utrecht of the International Society for Research on Literature (IGEL 2010) for an essay on the concept of stillness. The competition was organized by Frank Hakemulder and Emy Koopman. "Stillness," said the invitation, "signifies the counterweight against our hectic, stressful everyday existence. To give a preliminary definition we would say that it is an emotion of calmness and/or reflection which can be evoked by beauty. But of course, you are free to give your own, diverting, thoughts on the matter. For the contest we would like you to respond to the following question: What particular piece of fiction (novel, short story, movie, play) contributes best to ‘stillness’ according to you and why?"

The essays for the IGEL competition were all rather different, and the organizers awarded three equal first place positions. Each winner read his or her essay to a plenary session at the conference, and an arrangement was made to publish their winning essays on OnFiction. The essay we present this week is by Tessa Overbeek of the University of Groningen.

An extra piece of information, published with the invitation and relevant to Tessa's essay, is that the idea for the competition came from the Yann Martel’s project, What is Stephen Harper Reading? Stephen Harper is the Prime Minister of Canada.

Here is a quote from Martel's website:

"Who is this man? What makes him tick? No doubt he is busy. No doubt he is deluded by that busyness. No doubt being Prime Minister fills his entire consideration and froths his sense of busied importance to the very brim. And no doubt he sounds and governs like one who cares little for the arts.

"But he must have moments of stillness. And so this is what I propose to do: not to educate—that would be arrogant, less than that—to make suggestions to his stillness.

"For as long as Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada, I vow to send him every two weeks, mailed on a Monday, a book that has been known to expand stillness. That book will be inscribed and will be accompanied by a letter I will have written. I will faithfully report on every new book, every inscription, every letter, and any response I might get from the Prime Minister, on this website (click here)"

Sunless and Stillness

“All I have to offer is myself.” Chris Marker 1997

This quote by the famously unfamous Chris Marker seems like the second best way to introduce this reclusive French filmmaker. The best way would be to show you his films. Marker is what could be called media-shy. He does not do interviews or publicity. But what better way to let himself be known than to make art?

His film Sans Soleil (Sunless) inspired me to write this essay, but describing it could not possibly do it justice, even if I had a billion words at my disposal. I can only hope that a reflection on my experience of it will encourage others to go and see it for themselves.

Seeing Marker’s Sunless felt like being inside his head, looking through his eyes, following his train of thought, or trying to. The gaps between ideas may have been small in his mind, but required a giant leap in mine. This made watching it quite challenging, yet at the same time makes this film great. My understanding grew with each viewing, and it felt like that process would never stop.

By now you must be thinking: “That sounds like hard work, wasn’t this essay supposed to be about ‘stillness’?” It is, although I would like to make a few changes to this definition of it: “an emotion of calmness and/or reflection which can be evoked by beauty.” What I would want to challenge most is the last word. There is a lot to be said about beauty, which I think is a very important phenomenon when studying literature and other media (which from here on out, I would like to call “the arts”). But not all great art is necessarily beautiful.

Yann Martel’s inclusion of Art Spiegelman’s Maus in his list of books for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (and his motivation of this choice) shows that he means something more when he uses the concept of stillness. I would also like to erase the “or” from the definition, because I think great art makes calmness and reflection occur together, although not always simultaneously.

What seems very accurate in the introductory text to this contest, is the statement that stillness can be a counterweight against our stressful everyday existence. It is my hypothesis that experiencing art entails roughly the same processes as making art. I would like to propose that it has more to do with creativity than with beauty (which are both not restricted to art).

The Brain Book, a recent and comprehensive guide to the human brain by Rita Carter, states that creativity depends on two things: the first is a certain state of “idleness,” the second is a foundation of knowledge. The bombardment of stimuli we have to endure in our daily lives forces us to ignore a lot of information. In order to function, we only consciously perceive what is relevant to what we are doing at that moment.

Creativity, however, requires a different state of mind, which is more open and relaxed, or calm, if you will. On EEG scans, this state can be recognized by slow alpha waves. In this state we do absorb information that we usually shut out, and are able to let it resonate with our memories (or reflect on it). According to Carter, this results in the generation of new thoughts and ideas that can be novel and useful.

This is a definition of creativity that closely resembles my (slightly altered) definition of “stillness.” There is calm and there is reflection, plus it is a state that is different from the one that is usually dominant in our daily lives. I would like to call it an “open mind.” It goes without saying that when something is open, things can both enter and leave it.

Which brings me back to Chris Marker, Sunless and my experience of it. It truly felt like someone had opened his mind to the world, had mixed what entered with what was already there, and had finally opened up his mind to me. Because he was in this special mental state, he could be more open than he could ever be in an interview.

Opening my own mind in return seemed like the only right thing to do. At first, I could not take it all in, and some things escaped my attention. What I did absorb engaged with my memories and must have been appropriated by that process, as if it was converted into my knowledge. This enabled me to see new themes and motives with every viewing, and this helped my interpretation of the film, which by that time was probably as much my own construction as it was his. I followed his associations as well as I could, but could not help but add my own.

The memory of that experience resulted in this essay. Could creativity lead to more creativity? I would not dare to compare mine to his, but something new was created nonetheless. Creativity does not only occur in art, but in science and leadership as well. New ideas can change the world, so anything that can stimulate their occurrence must be encouraged.

Martel’s plan may make his prime minister a better leader, and it may even lead to more funding for the arts, which seems to be the writer's second objective. If politicians would feel what I felt when experiencing Sunless, would they be more willing to invest in art? Possibly, although perhaps some people are more open to hard facts, presented in a more straightforward manner.

This is where the empirical study of arts comes in. Technologies that allow us to study the brain are becoming more numerous, and with the right methods we can hopefully soon prove what we already feel: that art can stimulate our minds in a way that is not only pleasurable, but also useful.

Rita Carter et al. The Brain Book. An Illustrated Guide to its Structure, Function, and Disorders. London: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2009.

Chris Marker, director. Sans Soleil (Sunless). Argos Films, 1983.
Tessa Overbeek

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