Picasso knew a thing or two. The truth is that art is a pack of lies: fiction, paintings, sculpture, music, opera, theatre, and all the other constructed elements of the artistic mind. And those new pretenders claiming to anchor themselves in the nitty-gritty facts of life—non-fiction and reality TV—are the greatest liars of all.
Last month I had the good fortune to visit the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park during their Picasso retrospective, “Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso.” I’ve always admired Picasso’s approach to art, his disdain for what passes for public taste and establishment art. But apart from his personal rebellions, I also admire what he discovered and brought into human consciousness. One of his fascinating inventions, Cubism (which he developed with the help of Georges Braque in the early 20th c.), isn’t so much a way to represent something we might encounter in daily life, but rather an exhibit of what we can perceive when the human imagination is rendered by visionary genius.
Nonetheless, Cubism is a lie. It gives concrete form to something that doesn’t exist. Yet at the same time it delivers a perception of almost mathematical balance and design, of intention, motion, and resolution. When you carefully examine the parts and the whole of a particular image, the synergy of Picasso’s work can feel overwhelming. This feeling of artistic heft is due to the greater weight of the whole compared to the sum of its parts. Whether you are looking at the Portrait of Dora Maar or Deux femmes courant sur la plage, or La Lecture you can find yourself nodding in agreement, thinking, Yes, this is the way it is: the truth.
Other art forms provide similar instructive deceptions. Hemingway and many other writers admitted to it. When they are well rendered, the illusions of art are so powerful that we accept fiction, dramatic and film characters as legitimate personnas in our lives. The same holds for music that we love and repeat (sometimes endlessly it seems) in our minds—and for other art forms divined from human imagination.
If there’s a point to this bit of argument (another clever form of deception) it’s that good art—art worth our time and money—can lead us to understand who are what sort of place we can make for ourselves in this world.
Over the past three weeks I drove through Washington, Oregon and California to do some research for my new novel. While I was in San Francisco I had the good fortune to hear Paul Hindemith’s Cello Concerto (1940) performed by Yo-Yo Ma with the San Francisco Symphony.
As Ma’s fingers worked the cello fret board and strings the air rang with a complexity of sound I’d never heard before. To say that Yo-Yo Ma is a brilliant cellist is common-place. But what struck me was the remarkable aura he emitted during the breaks in his performance when he was not playing a note—the respites when the orchestra carried the music through the transitions that moved the score forward without the soloist.
In these brief interludes Ma sat back in his chair and scanned the musicians, the maestro (Michael Tilson Thomas) and the audience surrounding him. Ma’s face was lit by the forces streaming through him, his knowledge and talent and years of practice and study—all of it compacted in the moment of his performance which was both completely under his control, yet completely controlling every molecule in his being.
This reciprocal stream of creative energy reminded me of the current Dalai Lama, a man whose face glows despite the unending trouble and grief he encounters day after day. In his case, I suspect he’s sustained by faith in the unity of the one and the many: the knowledge that his place in the world is like a fading rose nourished by forces which will reinvigorate his mission for generations to come.
Is this the same stream of being that “totally scared” Yo-Yo Ma—an experience that made him “an infinitely richer person”? The answer is not as important to me as the thought that an artist has to enter a psychological world that is both enlightening and frightening, energizing and enervating, a vortex of the one and the many.
Sometimes I’ve been afraid to explore this world, the places my fictional characters have created. But I tell myself that I have to look upon their scenes with unblinking eyes and transmit what I see without censorship or the slightest filtration.
My greatest fear is that I’m not up to the task. Too often I turn away, or it seems the language that I need to convey this meta-reality is beyond my grasp. The work is too huge, too ambitious for me to render competently. What sustains me is the idea that there is no other task worth doing. That, and the transcendent look on the faces of Yo-Yo Ma and the Dalai Lama. I would give a lot to wear their faces for even a few moments.
I have to confess to neglecting my blog for the past few months. Since my last entry I’ve pushed myself to re-work the first draft of my new novel and prepare for the arrival of my first grandchild. But if a defence were required—and of course, none is—I’d rely on Allen Ginsberg to plead my case for indolence.
I’ve attended two Ginsberg readings, both in Vancouver, the first in 1972 and the second in 1978 or ’79 (or thereabouts). Both were marvellous events held in hockey arenas, with hundreds of people pressed toward the stages which were adorned with Indian carpets, incense burners and assorted props to put Allen in the mood. He was accompanied on stage by Peter Orlovsky and a local poet or two, people who read from their own work to warm up the audience.
Allen’s readings were preceded by a series of generic chants—oom, oom, oom—incantations, the cling-cling of finger cymbals, some a-rythmic drumming and a bit of amateur hand-organ ditties. But when he began to read, the effect of his deep and resonant voice was immediate. The mass of people fell into complete silence. His poems and prose-poems, the anecdotes and stories, all of it revealed a perspective on the world that suggested we should all be exploring “the visionary thing” in ourselves.
Although the bloom had faded from the hippie era by the mid-70’s, here was a man who’d quit his day job in the 1950s and dedicated himself to his perceptions and the unique expression he could provide about the world as he saw it. He was living the writer’s life and thriving. We were in his thrall.
Now when I listen to contemporary slam poets it’s easy to link them to Ginsberg’s days at jazz club and bookshop readings in San Francisco and New York. The slammers are extending Ginsberg’s legacy. Sadly, today’s slam poets have to endure the American Idol-style audience scoring as if their work is the subject of a reality TV blitz.
I still read and listen to Ginsberg. My current favourites are his collaborations with Phillip Glass (“Hydrogen Jukebox”). His work continues to influence new writers and readers who open themselves to his message. Certain passages carry me into the vast universe unfurling beyond our tiny speck of time and space—and well beyond the reach of MTV.
Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
I do enjoy reading the occasional spat between authors. Often they’ll make perfectly good arguments for diametrically opposed propositions. In this case we have Rilke chastising the writer who is unable to extract a few grains of ore from the “riches” of everyday life. On the other hand, Emerson urges us to let our “blunders” pass and forget them ASAP.
Every human being has setbacks and disappointments. Perhaps artists experience more than their fair share—or is it possible that their share of failure is rightly due? So many of them are trying to squeeze more out of life than those who accept the limitations of mortality. And if you squeeze too hard, sometimes you draw blood.
Rilke was fond of
dispensing advice to young writers. A few years ago I
re-read the collection of Letters to a Young
Poet, which was originally addressed to Franz
Kappus, a 19-year-old student enrolled in a military
academy in Vienna. The advice is sound overall and
most writers could embrace some of Rilke’s wisdom and
adapt it to their daily practice. Or perhaps I should
say, adapt it to their daily
attitude—because so much of Rilke is about
an approach to writing, and a way of living as a
Ralph Waldo Emerson, seems so much more practical in
his advice. While Rilke is the European idealist
searching to connect humanity to the eternal through
art, Emerson is the pragmatic American: a craftsman
at work on a great labor who acknowledges human
frailty—and admits that when it emerges on a page of
writing, it is simple enough to tear out the page and
Is it possible to adapt any of this to our current, post-modern circumstances? I think so. In my own case, I can describe two benefits of writing on a computer, each corresponding in different ways to Rilke and Emerson. Let’s start with the latter.
The blank computer screen is infinitely malleable. Sentences, paragraphs, and entire chapters can be switched, transposed, adapted or excised in a few keystrokes. If I’ve had a truly bad day of writing, I often cut the entire piece of writing and dump it into a wasteland I call “File 13.” Occasionally I’ll wade through the weeds of this mess and find a scrap or two worth resuscitating—but usually it’s a land of no return. However, there’s something bracing about this ability to simultaneously discard and restore, to both create and destroy—an approach to writing I doubt neither Emerson or Rilke could have imagined.
The second pleasure of writing on a computer—that related to Rilke—is the way that it provides direct contact with the inner world of the emerging imagination—the flood of characters and dialogue that flows onto the screen as if it’s being dictated. It’s an near-spiritual experience that I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the blog, something that flows through me unmediated except for the words themselves. And because I don’t have to worry about spelling, grammar, syntax, word spacing, and all the related imperfections of typing a manuscript, I can simply let the words pour onto the screen. Later I’ll sort out the nouns and verbs and put them into an orderly sequence.
So let Rilke and Emerson fight it out, I say. Meanwhile, I’ll extract whatever wisdom I can use—from both of them, simultaneously.
There are moments when one feels free from one's own identification with human limitations and inadequacies. At such moments one imagines that one stands on some spot of a small planet, gazing in amazement at the cold yet profoundly moving beauty of the eternal, the unfathomable; life and death flow into one, and there is neither evolution nor destiny; only Being. — Albert Einstein
When people ask what it’s like to write a novel I often reply that it’s the closest I get to levitation. You can imagine my pleasure when Einstein and Wasson testify to similar experiences. Despite their endorsements, I suspect the subject deserves some elaboration if it’s going to make compelling sense to readers.
Although Wasson and Einstein were contemporaries, they were very different from one another. We all know Einstein as a physicist, or perhaps as an amateur violinist. The lesser-known Wasson was a vice-president at JP Morgan & Co. and a self-taught ethnomycologist who began the study of edible wild mushrooms on his honeymoon (must have been quite a romance!)—a pursuit that led to his personal discovery of magic mushrooms and other hallucinogenic fungi. Despite these differences, both men were accomplished writers.
Wasson and his wife began to travel the world reporting on their experiments with psychedelics and the variety of transcendental experiences associated with spiritual and religious practices. His first-hand reports reveal a sense of wonder at his out-of-body journey, one that provided an elevated view of consciousness.
I’ve never heard reports of Einstein toying with psychotropic drugs of any kind. Yet I’ve come across several passages written by him that express a disembodied awareness similar to Wasson’s accounts. While he never fully endorsed any religion (he was a secular Jew), there are hints here and there that he was a pantheist, one who believes that God inhabits all things. When I read these statements from Einstein, I take them literally. I suspect there were several occasions in which he possessed a complete identification with “Being”—free, as he says, from the constraints of “evolution or destiny.”
Please be assured I’m
making no claims to identify myself with Einstein,
Wasson, or anyone else. However, many artists report
similar phenomena to those of Einstein and Wasson,
especially when their painting or composing or
writing enters a groove when the work seems to create
Some writers, for example, have revealed that at some point their characters begin to generate their own dialogue. I’ve certainly enjoyed this experience—and much more. In my current work-in-progress (somewhere around page thirty) I discovered a girl hiding in a bedroom in her mother’s apartment. I had no idea she was there, yet when she entered the narrative, she immediately demanded an important place in the novel—one so important that it drove the story in a direction I didn’t imagine when I began to write.
When the creative act reaches this point of “lift-off” it can become a form of dictation in which I simply record the text and correct bits and pieces to ensure it makes sense. Sometimes the force of this experience is so powerful that I feel as though I’m almost irrelevant to the process. All I need to do is trust it as the words appear on the page. Once that sense of trust is complete, I am free to read the narrative as a disembodied eye, to witness the unfolding of the forces of nature as they are transmitted through my being.
It’s a remarkable experience. Much safer than psychedelics.
As short stories go, this six-word, micro-fiction from Hemingway may be one of the shortest. Rumours, gossip, and speculation surround the origins of the story. Some report that Hem wrote it on a bet. Others maintain that he believed it was his best short story. Certainly it’s a rare gem.
To make sense of this, consider Hemingway’s “iceberg” notion of the story, which he mentions in various interviews and in his own writing. As we know, the visible part of an iceberg is roughly ten percent of its entire mass—most of which is out of sight, lurking below the surface. Likewise, a short story or novel that bears real heft will reveal only a portion of its substance in the words on the page. The impact will derive from what is left unwritten, and when it hits you the effect is deeply felt.
Some might imagine
Hemingway’s stylistic innovation is drawn from
Shakespeare’s oft-quoted advice to be sparing in
expression, since “brevity is the soul of wit.” But
Hemingway perfected his lean approach to writing
during his years as a foreign correspondent reporting
the news from Europe over the wire. Since every word
added to the cost of transmitting his stories, he
developed a talent for tight writing and economy of
When he adapted this line-by-line technique to a thorough-going narrative style in his stories and novels, he set down the foundations for a revolutionary literary standard: Minimalism. This new way of telling stories was echoed in a lot of detective and noir fiction in the 1940s and 1950s and taken to new heights in the short story collections of Raymond Carver in the 1980s. Over the decades Minimalism found an audience of readers who were busy and distracted, unable to dedicate hours at a time to the pleasure of reading.
What I find fascinating is that at the same place and time (Paris in the 1920s) where Hemingway was developing his literary style, another writer, James Joyce, was perfecting the style of interior monologues that led to stream-of-consciousness writing. Both writers developed and mastered new, unique styles and a century later, young writers continue to imitate and learn from them.
Speaking of imitation, the internet is full of writers trying to perfect the six-word short story. Are they up to Hem’s standards? You be the judge: click here for some examples.
Is it possible to read this sentence—the opening line to Márquez’s One Hundred years of Solitude—without wondering what follows? Consider all the elements established in this single sentence:
- someone, a colonel, is about to be executed
- at such a time the colonel remembers his father
- the memory is completely innocent: a child’s discovery of the natural world
How important is the opening sentence in a novel? In my mind it’s absolutely critical—perhaps superseded in importance only by the novel’s conclusion. Yet in almost every way, the final passage is incomparable to the opening. The closing sentence completes everything that precedes it, much like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle as it snaps into place. If the finalé is well done it provides satisfaction and generates approval. Yes, we nod with a measure of admiration, that’s exactly how it should end.
The opening, on the other hand, points to a hundred possibilities. It suggests a time, a place, an attitude, a style, a character, some tension, some colour or atmosphere. It hints at the narrative scale, the shape of the canvass, the atmosphere, the politics. It can divine the death of legions or the intimate sexual proclivities of the secret life.
One quality every first line MUST possess is a “catapult” to read the sentence which follows. And the second sentence had better be as brilliant as the first—or employ a device to establish the imaginary world of the novel. The sooner the writer can immerse his audience in the narrative web, the more certain he can be assured of the power of his voice, the characters, the plot and everything we consider integral to the story as it unfolds.
Are there any great novels that begin half-heartedly? Wherein mediocrity is the touchstone? Where the opening is dull or tiresome? Perhaps, but none come to mind. However, turn these questions on end and consider all the wonderful works of fiction that begin with sparkling brilliance. There are hundreds to available, enough to keep you reading for years without a break. (Check here for the 100 Best First Lines of Novels.)
By the way, if you want to read the second line from Márquez’s One Hundred years of Solitude, pick up a copy and read on. One Hundred Years of Solitude
Celebrity is just Obscurity biding its time. — Carrie Fisher
Assuming we humans still possess a musical culture 300 years from now, I can’t imagine that the music of Beethoven will be forgotten. And if Beethoven is remembered, his Ninth Symphony, with its famous “Ode to Joy” will be admired again and again. The libretto to the “Ode to Joy” was written by Schiller, and his fame will be enshrined by this remarkable music—and perhaps by many of his other literary works, too.
Friedrich Schiller on his deathbed by Ferdinand Jagemann, 1805
But what can we make of
Schiller’s claim to fame? The Greek and Roman Stoics
would dismiss it as unvirtuous. Buddhists would
assert that fame is little more than an illusion of
the ego. And Carrie Fisher, Star Wars’
Princess Leia—and a popular author and screenplay
writer—believes that all celebrity will dissolve in
the passage of time.
Schiller’s boast provides an insight into the mind of the Romantic era, the time of Keats, Napoleon, Goya—a period when common citizens could rise from the masses to achieve greatness in politics, the arts, war, and grand love affairs by aligning themselves with an idealized notion of nature pitted against the perceived grip of industrialization and the dehumanization of the individual.
The Romantics championed the individual and theirs was one of the first social movements to include women (like Mary Shelley) in its ranks. The American and French Revolutions—with their attendant emphasis on citizen rights and freedoms can be seen as Romantic political projects. In its extreme form, certain Romantics, like Schiller, believed the power of their individual genius could achieve immortality.
Carrie Fisher: mature, witty, wise
But we live in such different times. An existential awareness permeates our notions of fame and fortune. How quickly we see our megastars forgotten, their images commodified (like Marilyn and Elvis) and their work “covered” by a million pretenders in the Karaoke bars across the land. This is the turf that Carrie Fisher knows so well. She once embraced fame only to see it slide from her fingers like a stream of sand. Fortunately she’s had the good sense to step back and recognize this illusion for what it is: a mirage.
Schiller provides a lesson for us all. Better to choose a genuine, purposeful life without striving for the variety of illusions that cost us our freedom, than to to enslave ourselves to a fantasy of immortality that only the very few will find if they can win Fortune’s favour.
Remember the Rorschach test, the famous ink-blot test? The 10 ink blots developed in the 1920s by Hermann Rorschach (pronounced raw-shock) as a “projective test” were intended to provide a sort of mental map of the mind which trained psychologists then used to work with their patients.
If we apply the same idea to books, then we can begin to understand Marcel Proust’s claim that a novel, for example, is a kind of ink-blot series that the reader reacts to with every turn of the page. Each reader interprets the text differently because we each bring a unique personna to the text. The way you respond to a novel can provide unique insight into your life circumstances and sensibility.
It’s likely that you’ve come across a book where the characters seem familiar. Or you’ve found yourself saying “that has actually happened to me.” In other cases, the novel may have some scenes that are not part of your own experience, but nonetheless, you read on convinced “this is exactly how I would react if I were there.” These effects are called verisimilitude and writers of realistic fiction work very hard to ensure they are part of your reading experience.
But Proust suggests there is an even higher plain to a successful book, a level where the novel can offer you a new perspective about your own life that you’ve never considered. It’s as though the narrative can lead you by the hand to a plateau, spin you around and point to the place where you live and work from a new angle that you never imagined.
I remember having that experience when I saw Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town at the age of 11. It helped me realize we are all mortal, but living an illusion of immortality. I had similar epiphanies when I read Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Keats’s “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” and many other texts.
Ultimately, everyone will find their own “proof of the book’s truth” — or not. Whether you find yours in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past or Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code depends on who you are — and (perhaps more important) where you look.
No matter how ephemeral it is, a novel is something, while despair is nothing. — Mario Vargas Llosa
Though I speak it quite badly, I love the French language. The French possess a wonderful word without an exact counterpart in English: ennui, which means “studious boredom,” or something close to it.
In an existential age the most common affliction is despair. Many believe that nothing—no ideal, no religion, no individual, no love, no career—can transcend the drudgery of existence. Imagine the joyless burden: endlessly seeking new entertainment, wasting away on booze and drugs, mastering sexual diversions. They all lead to despair, the very heart of ennui.
The French poet Baudelaire was an early explorer of this realm. Consider this passage from his preface to Les Fleurs de Mal:
...If rape or arson, poison or the knife
Has wove no pleasing patterns in the stuff
Of this drab canvas we accept as life—
It is because we are not bold enough!
Despite his despondency, he has lessons to offer us. The value of work, especially the work of the artist, is found in the relief it provides. Herein lies the seed of hope.
Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian Nobel laureate, takes the notion several steps further. Yes, most novels are vapourous and likely to disappear from the public mind within a few years (or months) of publication. But all art is born from the human imagination, and is therefore a vestige of nature and the universe. And like a broken twig or stray feather, it is something—and most definitely not an artifact of despair.
I would take the argument much further and suggest the work of the artist can transcend despair and ennui. Both the act of writing and the completed novel—the process and the product—generate this kind of elevated experience. When you create something you emulate the natural world. Better still, by aligning your creative energy with the forces of nature within you, you directly contact the creative state of being which is the polar opposite of ennui: joie de vivre.
Let me state this even more forcefully: Creativity transforms us from beasts into gods. I imagine that Baudelaire would disagree. On the other hand, perhaps Llosa would support the idea.
Just when you think you’ve come up with an original idea, you check it in Google and see 91,600 hits for the exact idea that—only seconds earlier—you assumed sprung solely from the genius of your imagination.
This humbling experience befell me when I searched for the phrase “art is a way of knowing” only to discover that it’s a book title by Pat Allen. I don’t know Pat Allen, but I’m sure he must be quite brilliant to scoop my idea 11 years before it occurred to me.
(The lapse of 11 years probably disqualifies me from claiming that our mutual discovery is an example of synchronicity, Carl Jung’s notion that certain ideas or events occur simultaneously in discrete cultures at the same time. One of the best examples of this phenomenon is the independent invention of calculus by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz in the 1660s.)
While I haven’t read Allen’s book I see that it received five, five-star reviews on Amazon. The reviewers reveal that the book focuses on art therapy and the unique psychological insights art offers to anyone seeking personal growth (aren’t we all?).
What do I mean when I claim that art is a way of knowing? Unlike science and some forms of logic and math which allow us to gain objective knowledge of the world, art opens the door to specific aspects of personal knowledge. For instance, each day when I’m at work on my current novel (Exit from America) I don’t anticipate what will be revealed by the end of the writing session. I rarely know what individual characters will say, who will do what to whom, and where they might end up. It’s a constantly unraveling mystery of nature—of my own nature—that I feel privileged to witness.
Early on in the novel, Mavis Helm, a budding Gestalt therapist, is invited by her client, Fay Flood, to visit her apartment. I had no idea what (or whom) might be in the apartment. But behind the door a beautiful child, a savant of sorts, was hidden away, waiting to emerge as a central figure in the novel. Later we are introduced to her father and witness the events that drive the narrative—the conclusion of which will be revealed to me (I hope) in the months ahead.
Another example from the novel: James Wayman (Mavis Helm’s husband) has discovered a new form of meditation that he calls White Light Meditation. WLM offers its practitioners an opportunity to transcend their egos and experience their natural being uncluttered by personas and ambitions. James’s efforts led me into a new world of inner discovery and personal meaning that I don’t think I would have experienced without writing this particular novel. Quite literally then, art has provided the way of knowing this inner world.
By the way, I Googled the phrase “White Light Meditation.” Guess what? Only 3,170 hits! I’ve taken the liberty of registering WhiteLightMeditation.com and soon you will find a page on this site that will reveal the techniques you can employ to achieve this elevated state of self-knowledge.
My thanks goes to James Wayman. I couldn’t have discovered WLM without you.