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Making Art in Troubled Times

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Image from the webpage of the Ashmolean Museum: http://britisharchaeology.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/highlights/alfred-jewel.html 

I will admit it: after the election in November, I succumbed to a sense of defeat. What is the point, I moaned, if autocracy and tyranny are not merely accepted but welcomed by the masses, if the great ideal of a democratic country is systematically dismantled before our eyes? Why bother with anything, much less with the last fifty pages of a novel that no one will ever read?

At the time, I was working through the last part of a story I’d begun a couple of years earlier, and I was ready to give it up, because, well, why would I finish it when the world as I know it is coming to an end? (My feelings arose not only because of the U.S. election results or the ensuing realization that a foreign power had tinkered with our “free elections,” but also because of the global rise of a dangerous populism, coupled with imminent global climate change.)

But a good friend gave me some advice, and I soldiered on and completed the draft. Right now, I am steadily working on it, revision after revision. And I am doing this not because I think my novel can change the world. It certainly won’t; it won’t be read by more than a hundred people, and that’s if I’m lucky.

But this short essay is not about the art of writing without readers; I will deal with that in a future post. For now, all I want to do is to encourage everyone who reads this blog to go on and continue their artistic activities. I say this not as a writer, or even as a reader, but as a scholar. And I have a very simple reason for doing so.

Art is the residue left by human culture. When civilizations disappear, when lives and institutions have crumbled into the dust, what remains is the art they created. Some of this art arises from genius, like the works of Mozart and Shakespeare; some of it comes from normal people, like the rest of us. But we need it all–every last scrap of it, not only the wonderful pieces that make us cry with joy or sadness, but even the average and ungainly works of art, because even bad art is an expression of human experience, and in the end, it is the experience of being human that binds us together on this lonely little planet.

So go ahead with your art. Draw, paint, weave, write, compose or play music. Do not worry that you are fiddling as Rome burns. Rome will, ultimately, burn–history tells us that. But what is left behind are wonderful murals that will take your breath away, mosaics, epic poems, statues and monumental structures. Don’t worry about whether your art will be appreciated; it is the act of making it that is important, not whether or not it is celebrated. Think of that lonely monk who produced Beowulf; he  was probably scared shitless that his Anglo-Saxon culture would be erased by the next Viking invasion, but he fought off this feeling of futility and kept going, thank goodness. Remember his small act of courage, try to emulate it, and above all, keep going.

Do not be afraid of working in the darkness; you may not be able to dispel it, but your work could provide light for others, not only now, but in the future as well.

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On Rediscovering Forgotten Books: Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination

A couple of years ago, one of my colleagues retired and began cleaning out his office. He had a stack of books on the floor beside his desk, and he invited me over to claim first dibs on any of the books I wanted. Because I teach English and Speech at a community college, taking any of these books, which were clearly left over from my friend’s days in graduate school (back in the late 1960s, I’m guessing) was a monumental indulgence for me: I knew I would not be using them in my composition or speech classes. But I’m a sucker for homeless dogs and books, as I have mentioned in an earlier post, and so I took about ten of them and found places for them on my crowded bookshelves.

One of these books is a small volume called The Educated Imagination, by Northrop Frye. I’m not sure why I picked it out, but it’s probably because I remembered reading Northrop Frye during my own grad school days (late 1980s). Frye is famous for creating archetypal criticism; before there was Joseph Campbell, in other words, there was Northrop Frye. I had never heard of this book, however, and picked it up on a whim.

I didn’t open the book for about a year and a half, but about two months ago, I began to read it. It’s actually a wonderful series of essays. The Preface tells us that it was originally a series of radio programs.
Here’s the really interesting part: the series was called “The Massey Lectures” in honor of a former Governor-General of Canada. That’s pretty cool in and of itself, but because my mind is a magnet for largely unimportant information, I know that The Right Honorable Vincent Massey may have been an important lawyer, diplomat, and Canadian statesman, but he was also the older brother of Raymond Massey–that’s right, the actor who played Lincoln before Daniel Day-Lewis did. masseyThe Masseys were one of the most influential families in Toronto, partly because they owned Massey-Ferguson Tractors. This is all, as I said, largely unimportant, but it does provide some colorful background information for the book.

Here’s a sample of the kind of wisdom that appears quite plainly on the pages of The Educated Imagination. In the second chapter, called “The Singing School” (taken from William Butler Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium“) Frye explains that literature is a tool for both self-discovery and escapism–at the very same time–although these two things seem to be the opposite of each other: how can one discover one’s place in society while one is actively engaged in forgetting that place by looking at society from the distancing prism of literature? Yet, Frye implies, this double duty is one of the most important functions performed by literature.

However, in the next chapter, called “Giants in Time,” Frye seems to correct his earlier statement by saying that literature is not really escapist after all: “Literature,” he tells us, “does not reflect life, but it doesn’t escape from life or withdraw from life either; it swallows it. And it won’t stop until it’s swallowed everything…. If even time, the enemy of all living things, and to poets, at least, the most hated and feared of all tyrants, can be broken down by the imagination, anything can be.” I had to stop and re-read that statement several times, because for me, a scholar/critic/theorist/writer, this is a ground-breaking idea. Think about it: we writers don’t read or write to escape from life. Rather, we read stories and write stories because we want more of life. We engage in these activities not because we want to escape from life, but because we want to gorge ourselves on life itself. Like No-Face in Hiyao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away, we want to swallow it all–stories, cultures, history, even time itself–in order to be part of the great conversation that is life as we know it. Spirited_Away__colored__by_DarkKenjie

That is a powerful idea, and one worth pausing over. I’ll be back in a couple of days with a few more comments on the second half of this important and overlooked book.

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