Oscar Wilde and “The Critical Spirit”

This article is my submission to the July edition of The BeZine.  For the  table of contents with links to my colleague’s work, click here.

“THE CRITIC AS ARTIST: WITH SOME REMARKS UPON THE IMPORTANCE OF DOING NOTHING” — Oscar Wilde wrote this essay in the form of a dialogue between two characters, Gilbert and Ernest, in the library of a house in Piccadilly.  Here are some key quotes from that piece:

“The one duty we owe to history is to re-write it.  That is not the least of the tasks in store for the critical spirit.”

“When man acts he is a puppet.  When he describes he is a poet.”

I confess I have not read The Critic As Artist in its entirety and so have not discovered Wilde’s “remarks upon the importance of doing nothing”.  However, I do have some understanding of our critical mind, the ways we apply it, and the results of being dominated by it.

First of all, what is ‘the critical spirit’?  I think what the author is getting at is the individual thought process that creates meaning.  What we ‘know’ of the world might be broken into 3 categories: Fact, Experience and Story. Fact is the measured detail of life — how old it is, how big it is, how it reacts chemically, that kind of thing. We learn some things from it, but it has no emotional arch, no meaning.

Experience is the raw sensation of the moment: emotions, smells, sounds, tastes, sights, awareness, feeling.  It is how we know we are alive.

And then there’s Story, and this is how we are all poets: we take in data, we see events transpire, we feel emotion and sensation, and then, we put that together into a narrative that makes ‘sense’ to us.  We have created a story, a meaning, and attached it to history.  That work is largely supervised by our Ego as our thought processes select and omit and weigh the data according to our own preferences and values.  We imagine and imitate what we like, we suppress what we don’t; we spin what comes out.  These stories become part of the body of data that we use to create further meaning as well.  It is essential to realize that we are constantly making up stories.  Civilization is a story.  Religion is a story.  Philosophy and Art and Psychology and Anthropology and so many other pursuits are simply ways that we have manufactured meaning by creating stories.  There is wonderful wisdom in recognizing “the danger of a single story”, and so it is a fortunate thing to have so many different ones.  (a Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, fleshes this out in her profound TED talk, HERE) Stories are ubiquitous.  There is no ‘right’ story.  Good stories point at Truth, but there are lots of ways to construct them.

This awareness of the creation of story by your own Ego is the key to “the importance of doing nothing” as well.  The plethora of stories and the facility of story-telling in our culture tends to dominate our reactions and expectations, creating drama, manipulation and anxiety along with meaning.  In some ways, we want that.  We find it exciting.  But it’s also exhausting and can be exploitative.  To be able to leave the story-telling aside and simply BE is important for my well-being and my personal peace.  Meditation is helpful in the practice of stilling the ego and refraining from making up meaning.  When I concentrate on the present moment and return to the simple activity of breathing, I allow the world to be what it is instead of conscripting it into the service of my creative ego.  Then I am free to relax my mind and let go of my anxieties about how the story will turn out.  My energy is renewed, and I am at peace.  (This is a practice that I am only just beginning to employ.  Awareness is the first step!)

“The imagination imitates; it is the critical spirit that creates.”  We are invited to engage with the world on many different levels, all of which can be useful and appropriate at certain times.  Wisdom is the art of choosing how to engage in a way that is edifying for yourself and others.  For everything, there is a season: a time to imitate, a time to create, and a time to refrain from creative ego activity.  May each of us find joy in the exploration of this Wisdom and delight where we recognize this exploration in others!


© 2015, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

It’s All How You Look At It

Stan Freeburg’s comedy musical “The United States of America” contains a line where a Native American remarks to Christopher Columbus that they discovered the white man.  “Whaddya mean you discovered us?”  “We discover you on beach here…is all how you look at it.”  “Y’I suppose…I never thought of it that way,” Chris replies.

Dualistic thinking, good/bad, right/wrong, is all about thinking, as my sister pointed out in a comment.  It’s not about the actual thing in front of us.  So it seems that often all we learn about the world is about how we are thinking about or perceiving it.  Art and artists play around with this quite a bit, of course.  And then philosophers ask, “What is real?”

Who knows.

Do we choose to look at things in a way that gives us pleasure of some kind, even perverse pleasure?  Sure.  I think we photographers get to do this now more than ever with all the tweaking technology allows.  We get to illustrate the story going on inside our skulls.  Here’s an example.

Sample inner monologue: “Rural life is a thing of the past.  Flat, washed out, joyless and crumbling.  There is no life left in the earth by now.  Life is in the cities.  It’s time we bulldozed these ruins and built something we can inhabit.”

Of course, you could be having a completely different monologue in your brain with this image.  Go ahead, share it with us!  Here’s another:

Sample thought: “Ah, the good old days!  Blue skies, wood, stone, a farm.  Life was simpler; it meant something back then to work hard on the land.  All you need is within reach – your livelihood, your family, your pleasure.  Who could ask for anything more?”  Another:

Sample thoughts: “The world is an interesting juxtaposition of contrasting elements – texture, color, shape, pattern, organic and inorganic.  There’s no making sense of it.  The dynamic of life is about the tension and release we experience through our senses every day.  Nothing more.  I need a cigarette!”

There’s no right and wrong in this little exercise.  “Is all how you look at it!”  Please, have a go!  Amuse me!

While You Were Sleeping

As usual, he called me at the office that afternoon while he was working from home.  “Hi.  How are you doing?”  I probably mentioned something about my ordinary frustrations on the job or something about our daughters.   Then it was down to business.  “What are you doing tonight?”  It was Friday night.  Our youngest had a rehearsal at a church only a few blocks from our house, starting about a half an hour after I got off work.  “Do you want to go out to dinner?”  “SURE!”  It was cold, the roads were icy.  We didn’t want to go far, so we dropped her off and went to a bar & grill  that had just opened behind the strip mall in our little town.  It was full of activity: TVs were on, people bustled about, artwork from the public schools was displayed on the wall.  There was lots to look at and hear.  The menu was new to us.  Teriyaki green beans sounded good.  So did fried artichokes.  I ordered a beer; I think he did, too.  We had sandwiches as well.  Then he got a call on his cell phone.  Our daughter was not feeling well and was leaving rehearsal early.  We said we’d meet her at home.  We all talked in the living room for a little while, as he sat on the couch gathering his strength for the climb upstairs.  He seemed pretty tired.  He’d come home from the hospital just 10 days earlier with 2 cardiac stents implanted.  In the bedroom, he turned on the flat screen TV, took his medications (all 23 of them) and hooked up his dialysis machine and his sleep apnea mask.   In our big, squishy bed, we watched an episode of “NUMB3RS”, and then the movie “Regarding Henry” came on.  I’d seen it before: Harrison Ford and Annette Bening in a good story about marriage, change and intimacy.  It complimented the mood perfectly.  We were feeling secure, companionable, close.  I fell asleep beside him, holding his hand.   I awoke at 6:30 AM.  His body was still and cold.

That day was exactly four years ago. What did he dream about that night?  Did he feel any pain?  Did he try to get up?  Did he try to call out or wake me?  Did he see a brightness as his neurons flashed for the last time?  Was it peaceful?  I can only imagine.

I can imagine him firing up feelings of love and bathing in them, floating on a surge of endorphins while images of his babies rushed by.  I can imagine him strolling an endless golf course of rolling green fairways, tree-lined and bright.  I can imagine him soaring with the tenor section in an angel choir, his energy trembling and resonating with clouds and stars.  I can imagine him satisfied and proud and smart and good and kind.  I can imagine him wrapped in the embrace of the Universe…forever.

I can imagine him, but can I know him any better, any more?  I still feel open to him, and as I continue to try to expand my awareness, I wonder about that.  I know that I don’t know what I might be able to know.  What is memory? What is sleep?  What is consciousness?  What is death?  Are they ‘real’?  I don’t know.  What is ‘real’?  What I know is that I don’t know.  What I feel is that he mattered and still matters.  I feel that he is.

Muck and Muddle

I hate hormones.  Why anyone would want to replace estrogen once she’s finally lost it is beyond me.  The moods and emotions it produces are so murky.

I feel like I haven’t learned a damn thing about who I am, and I’m almost 50 years old.  Aren’t I supposed to get this right, eventually?

Annie Dillard writes about awakening to her consciousness when she was about 10 years old.  How do you do that at ten?  And remember what it felt like decades later?  The woman must have a brain six times the size of mine.  Here’s a passage I read this morning, from An American Childhood:

“I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years.  I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again.  I woke at intervals until, by that September when Father went down the river, the intervals of waking tipped the scales, and I was more often awake than not.  I noticed this process of waking, and predicted with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.

“Consciousness converges with the child as a landing tern touches the outspread feet of its shadow on the sand: precisely, toe hits toe.  The tern folds its wings to sit; its shadow dips and spreads over the sand to meet and cup its breast.

“Like any child, I slid into myself perfectly fitted, as a diver meets her reflection in a pool.  Her fingertips enter the fingertips on the water, her wrists slide up her arms.  The diver wraps herself in her reflection wholly, sealing it at the toes, and wears it as she climbs rising from the pool, and ever after.”

Why do I feel like I never achieved this perfect fit, this awakened consciousness, not as a child and that I’m struggling to find it still?   The idea of ancient grace that began this blog seems as ethereal and unattainable as ever.  The clumsy truce I’ve maintained with myself wears thin.

Time to cocoon under the blankets and let the snow fall.  Perhaps I’ll emerge as from a chrysalis and feel differently by supper.