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Posts Tagged ‘expression’

The arts put man at the centre of the universe, whether he belongs there or not. Military science, on the other hand, treats man as garbage – and his children, and his cities, too. Military science is probably right about the contemptibility of man in the vastness of the universe. Still – I deny that contemptibility, and I beg you to deny it, through the creation of appreciation of art.”

Kurt Vonnegut -1970

Unless you’re already some sort of celebrity, it’s a well established fact the arts are no way to make a living. But what they do for the ordinary Joe and Joanna, is make living meaningful, or even just bearable. It brings each of us back to the centre of our universe. It may be there is nothing to life and death, nor anything beyond it, and all our stories to the contrary are wishful thinking. But the person who takes up a pen, writes a story, or a poem, paints a picture, sings in a choir, dances, performs in amateur dramatics, or even – as Vonnegut once also put it – makes a face in their mashed potato, performs an act of defiance. If there’s art, creativity, inside of you, you have to let it out. Do not deny you have a soul, or the soul will become a demon, and it will eat you.

Trying to write for money nearly killed my desire to write in the first place. It’s likely there’s a good reason my novels never tickled an editor’s fancy, but an inability to court the art-world or write like a Hemingway or a Vonnegut is no reason not to write. My novels have taught me, and shaped me in ways that would not have happened if I’d spent every night in the pub, or watching trash TV. I dabble in watercolours too. I’m no good at it, and can only marvel at the masters, but I do enjoy working with colour. Poetry, comes and goes. Photography is more constant. I spent a good bit of yesterday setting up a shot of a watering can and a garden fork, then waiting for the sky to turn interesting. I don’t know why. Art can use technology, too. It all depends on how you use it. The picture isn’t going to win any competitions, but it’s what I saw and felt, what I was looking for, and what I was trying to express that’s the important thing. And I don’t always have words for that. Nor does it have to please anyone else.

I mention this to illustrate how when we get stuck with one form of expression, we simply turn to another. There’s an endless list of creative means. I’ve just adopted the ones that appeal to me. Thus, we cycle. If we’re not performing for money, it doesn’t matter. The work gets done, effortlessly, and the work is about you. It’s about building you by whatever means come to hand.

I enjoy reading blogs. But the blogs I follow are of a particular sort. They’re not selling anything, and are written by people with no agenda, other than to give vent to their creative energies. And what interesting personalities they are, each of them worthy of a glossy, hard-backed biography on the shelves in Waterstones, and these individual perspectives have shaped me too. But, other than through the semi-anonymity of the blogging medium, these authors have discovered the secret of contentment in being unknown. They do it because they enjoy it, and seek no explanation for it. But they’re growing their souls, and mine, all the same. They are, to quote Kurt Vonnegut again, “becoming”.

I remember an old trades union leader telling of looking up at a monolithic block of Brutlaist flats. To others, it would have presented a grey, depressing vision of “the masses”. But behind any one of those hundreds, or thousands of little windows, he said, was a potential philosopher, mathematician, writer, actor, social activist, or an inspirational leader, and to deny them the opportunity of “becoming” is the tragedy of a regressive society. To treat people as contemptible, as trash, is to diminish all people, everywhere.

I like the way Vonnegut put it in that opening quote. Yes, maybe the materialists are right, there’s no soul, no purpose, consciousness is an illusion, and we’re all just robots made of meat. Who am I to deny it? Yet, I deny it anyway. The soul is a work in progress. The tools we use are the whole panoply of creative expression. And if you don’t feel yourself to be naturally creative, you can always feed upon the art of others. Read. Look at pictures. Watch a play. Listen to music. But try not to fall for what is shallow – you can usually identify it by the fact its purpose is more to empty your pockets for little return, or to make you hate. Try to go deeper, into the sublime, and feel it. And what you will feel there, that is the only reality. Yes, there is certainly a world, a universe, without a soul, where we can erase all feelings with a pill, but it’s one we’ve created. I never said we were perfect, and perhaps it’s integral to the human condition that when it comes to the journey of the soul, we will always have a long way to go. So be creative for its own sake. Every day. It’s good for you. And it’s good for everyone else.

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I’ve been thinking about the Muse and how indiscriminate she is. The Muse is where the desire to create comes from. It’s a mysterious thing, a surge of something from deep in the imagination that we can overlay upon reality. It makes the mundane magical, blissful, sometimes even shocking. It’s partly of us, but mostly, I think, it’s something “other”. Men personify it as a woman, an angel, a goddess, because its nature is akin to love. You hear her singing a song that can lift you to heaven, while being perfectly aware, as in the siren song, it might also lure you to your doom. The choice is yours, the risk is yours, because she doesn’t care, and your biggest mistake is thinking she does.

It’s like now, heading out across Lancashire’s Harrock Hill in this beautiful, late afternoon winter’s sun. Winter is a time for trees, for the bare shapes of them against the sky. There are some good, ancient specimens here, lone trees in a gentle landscape, something expressive about them, like the header picture, in this case a pair of pollarded oaks, grown together like lovers to form between them, a single perfect hemispherical dome. They are expressive, though of what, I cannot say, only that the Muse has lured me out here, teasing me with the notion I might catch a glimpse of her, if I tread carefully.

So much rain these past weeks, the paths are deep in mud now, more Wellingtons than walking boots kind of terrain, more waxed thornproof than Goretex kind of walking. Last time I came this way, I saw a buzzard, close enough to get a picture of him. He’s out again today, but keeps a wary, camera-shy distance, circles the blue in lazy sweeps, pivoting the world about his wing-tip. No muse for him though, I’m thinking, poor creature, just the will to live, and to live he must eat, and to eat he must kill. Only we humans see the poetry in him, and then only some of us. Only we sense the magic behind his manifestation, and have the strange psychological disposition to romanticize it.

It’s quiet for a Covid afternoon. I encounter just the one family with an army of small, ferocious children and big, wet, bouncy dogs, wife with a voice like a foghorn and a friendly “hello”, husband with a face like slapped arse, sullen, trailing, and wishing he was somewhere else. I hear the children squealing from a mile away. If they’re not careful they’ll disturb the faery, and they really don’t want to do that. Mud and air, a low slanting sun and the noise of children. They’re loving it, as are the dogs, crazy, unconscious, delightful creatures. My own children are in their twenties now, and forever precious, but I miss them at that carefree, squealing age, the age before mud became irksome, and the world of men got hold of them.

Anyone can cop for this burning desire to create stuff. You don’t have to have gone to a posh school and talk like Hugh Grant. Fair enough, a good education helps you to think and express yourself, so that’s a plus. Then the posh school will instil in you a pathological self belief, so if you’re a career creative, that all adds up. But if you make it big or not, or die in obscurity – again – the Muse doesn’t care. Nor does she care if your fame spreads her gifts far and wide, or if you keep them a guarded secret along with the fluff in your pocket, it’s all the same to her. I’m not sure, but I think her motive is simply to offer you the chance to let her into your life, in some ways even to be your life. Any misunderstandings as regards the nature of the relationship that henceforth develops are all yours.

The philosopher Schopenhauer held a view that the only visible manifestation of the power behind the universe was in the blind will to life. This manifests itself in nature, which appears cruel and self consuming and, like our friend the buzzard, void of any real meaning – the sort of meaning a man might hope for against the odds, and keep the glimmer of it safe in a corner of his heart. But beyond the will, reckoned Schopenhauer, there was something else, something blissful, and that’s what artists feel, and strive to give expression to. That’s where the muse lives. Such glimpses of bliss are fickle though and, as I said before, she’s indiscriminate with her favours. She can point her finger at anyone, prince or pauper, articulate Bard or poor illiterate serf.

Speaking of princes and paupers, I’ve been reading an old biography I once wrote of the Wigan poet John Critchley Prince (1808-1866). Humble beginnings, self-educated and all that, born into grinding poverty not that far from here, and died the same way. His life was interesting, heroic in an unsung sort of way. It was also terribly hard and tragic, and a story without a happy ending. I wrote about Prince because I was interested in obscurity, and what drives men to create, even when no one is listening. He did find a little recognition along the way, but judged it toxic and irksome, so he destroyed it. Prince left behind several large volumes of poetry, but isn’t considered to be one of the greats – just a minor poet, as they say – but those volumes speak of the power of the muse, and how she can drive a man all his life to create a prolific body of work, regardless of its worth to anyone else, or to posterity. She possessed him through thick and thin, and in the end she turned him to drink, and then she killed him.

Then there’s the novel I’m reading, Niall Williams’ “This is Happiness”, and his description of the musicians in the pubs of Ireland’s west, in the early ’60’s, before electricity, and maybe for centuries before that. They were unassuming men, men who came together, and all forgotten now, but who for a night, for even just an hour of spontaneous reels, became perfect channels for the Muse, and made a music that the listeners carried in their hearts to the end of their days.

Danger, beauty, bliss. You’d better be careful courting her, but so long as you can arrive at that delicate understanding, your life will be all the better for having her in it, be it in poetry, art, the writing, or even just in the shapes of trees.

Speaking of muses, men are also prone to projecting them onto mortal females, imagining them timeless, ageless. Here’s one from fifty years ago:

Keep well, and thanks for listening.

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