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!
A piece I wrote in the last century…
The King’s Dream (John 4:13-14)
There once was a wise and noble king who had a magnificent kingdom. The king loved his kingdom immensely. He could name every tree and flower, river, rock and creature in it. He knew every thing about his kingdom, down to the number of the grains of sand on its shores. He would take long walks through the hills and valleys, and sometimes he would come across a traveler, and they would walk together for a while. Usually, the traveler did not recognize him immediately. This may seen odd to you or me, since we are used to seeing pictures of our leaders in the newspaper or on our money, but this king had never had his likeness made in print or statue. However, after some time in conversation, most people who encountered him could identify his authority by his regal bearing and knowledge. For some reason that the king could not entirely understand, the travelers would begin to feel uncomfortable with him and refuse to keep his company after discovering his identity. The king was puzzled and a bit hurt by this phenomenon.
In time, the people of the kingdom convened among themselves and decided to build the king a palace and a throne room where they assumed he would reside happily without the need to walk about the countryside bumping into them unexpectedly. Certain subjects vowed to devote their lives to the business of making sure the king was reasonably content to stay in the throne room. They brought lavish gifts of food and music to him and decorated his chamber with fine art and furnishings. The king was very kind and wanted to honor these subjects’ devotion, for it seemed to him that they were trying their best to serve him in their own way.
It wasn’t long, however, before the king began to miss his time among the rocks and trees and flowers that so delighted him. It had also come to his attention that not all of his people had visited him, or were even allowed to visit him, in his fancy estate. He wondered what the ones who hadn’t met him might think of him, and he still wondered why the ones who did meet him became uneasy in his presence. Would they want to meet him here, gathered around this throne of gold, or would they stand just as uncomfortably, shifting their weight from foot to foot and shifting their eyes from floor to exit, just as they had done on the road? He wondered what kind of a throne it could be around which they might gather comfortably.
The king began to daydream about what it would be like if he could be king of the palace and king of every inch of his kingdom all at the same time. He wondered how he might set up a throne wherever people were: in their homes, on the road, where they played, worked and visited, maybe as close as under their very skin, so that wherever people were, there was a place for him right in their midst. He thought of the things that were common to every person in his kingdom, things that were linked to the richness of the land on which they all lived. He thought of them walking home for supper at the end of the day, lighting fires in their hearths, gathering their children about them, and sharing a loaf of bread and a jug of cool water. He thought of the water that flowed down from the mountain glaciers, cutting a fertile river valley in the plains and coming to rest in a large and bountiful lake.
“To be truly king of this kingdom,” he thought, “I would have to be like water. Then my throne would be on the highest mountain, in the smallest dewdrop dangling from a flower, in every kiss between two people, and at the feet of the children dancing on the beach. Oh!” he thought, “to be amongst my people like water would be the best way to reign!”
Giggling softly at his own pun, he drifted off into a contented sleep. He dreamed that he was in a meadow. He felt the warmth of the sun on his face and the tickle of the grass against his skin. Suddenly, he heard laughter coming from the woods, and a host of joyful people burst onto the meadow. Children skipped among the tall wildflowers playing games. Women gathered bouquets and spread out colorful cloths on the grass. Met set out large loaves of bread and wheels of cheese, cutting slices with knives that flashed sunlight back to the heavens. In the middle of this happy scene, a young man carrying a wooden buck and and young woman with a crystal vase approached. Steadily they advanced, and the king realized they were probably going to fetch water.
“Let me help you,” he tried to call out, but he found he had no voice.
Still they came nearer with clear purpose in their step. The king was puzzled as they held out their vessels in his direction. Then, with a smack! they plunged them through his heart and drew back their brimming containers dripping with the cool, clear liquid.
Breathless, the king realized that he was the source of the water they were now pouring and passing among themselves, and more than that, he could feel everything he flowed into all at the same time. He was still the meadow spring that felt the impact of the bucket, but he was also surrounding the bouquet at the bottom of the vase. He was ladled from the bucket to the lips of a child whose throat was dry and greedy and whose sleeve ran quickly over him. He was passed in a wooden bowl to a lady, old and withered. She parched in skin and bone and tongue, and he longed to fill her completely, to cool the burning heat that age had baked into her body. He was mingled with the mud and dirt on the feet of men who had walked for miles to come to this gathering. He heard them sighing in relief as he cleansed their weary soles. A woman slicing cheese had slipped and blood ran from her finger. He was pressed into her would to guard her from disease.
He found himself poured out, divided, spilled, then multiplied in a thousand new encounters with his people, while a part of him lay quietly in the meadow, ever-filled from deep below the earth. His dreamed adventure set him about the kingdom enthroned in living water, and never did a traveler turn from him uncomfortably again. He was able to be present in every corner of the land at once, and they say in that kingdom that the king has never fully awakened from his dream.
Letters and symbols, icons and shorthand. We use them to convey meaning, experience, fact and story to create a reference. Weave several together, and you have history. We’ve created these continually throughout time, and have become so prolific at it that most of us have begun to filter out these symbols habitually. We don’t bother to slow down to read signs. We delete pop-up messages and junk mail. We are inundated and overwhelmed with letters all day long and hardly think about them. What if we focused in on one letter, one symbol, and let it represent an entire text, like the medieval scribes did with illuminated manuscripts? This illuminated letter represents my daughter Rebecca’s first Christmas in 1989. What kind of a history does this describe? That there once was a mother who commemorated her child’s first Christmas by making a special ornament. She decorated a tree with it every year for 20 years. The child grew up, her father died, and she moved away from home. The mother stopped celebrating Christmas, but she gave her daughter the special ornament to keep. Soon the daughter had her own house and her own Christmas tree. She decorated the tree and invited her mother to come celebrate with her. Her mother was pleased to see the ornament hanging in just the right place, so she took a picture of it. The End.
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?”
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!