Monday, 24 May 2010

Flowers are Lovely when You Laugh at Them

What is happiness? Those times we forget ourselves, when, putting down our heavy baggage, those fashionable suitcases we carry, we skip away, lost in the moment to dance in dappled light under cherry blossom trees?

We turn off the mind, and are happy. So nice! Though I wonder: a little too nice, too easy?

For another place where we lose ourselves is in the creative act. Time goes and space shrinks to the page. Are we happy when we create? Often we’re not self-aware enough to know…. and afterwards, with good work done, there is a feeling of fulfilment: you’re a carafe bubbling over with rich wine.

And those epiphanies when we respond to an artwork, is it happiness conveyed - the artist resurrected in his audience (their self-release unleashed in us)? Maybe. Though our responses are often beyond a particular kind of feeling; rather there’s a sense of completeness, of fullness; or sometimes a pulsating shock.

Creativity and happiness share a sense of the loss of self. And that feeling of wholeness – that moment when we recover the self, when still hot and molten it pours back into us? Yes, this could be: the ebb and flow of self, of tension and releash, until Don Quixote appears on the beach.

A different view: happiness is that loss of self-reflection. The varieties of happiness are then just different aspects of that phenomenon. But when we work we often forget ourselves. True. Perhaps there are different degrees of ego loss, from tepid to boiling hot. Happiness jumps in when the bath water is just right?

C.K. Stead in his marvellous study of T.S. Eliot and the new poetry discusses Eliot’s “objective correlative” and his view that the poet loses his personality in the act of creation. To elucidate this idea Stead quotes professor L.C. Knights on Shakespeare:

…there are passages in Shakespeare where… [paraphrase] is of a very limited usefulness indeed, for what we are given is not the poetic apprehension of thought, but thought in the process of formation. Such a passage is the speech of Macbeth in the moment of temptation (‘This supernatural soliciting cannot be ill, cannot be good…’) where we are directly aware of the emotional and bodily accompaniments of a state of being issuing in a conception that will not easily yield itself to conceptional forms…. [S]uch ideas as it contains are held loosely in relation to a current of feeling which is the main determinant of meaning.

And he concludes rather well:

The poet’s mind is eclectic: it ranges among various sources, selecting images, translating images, not in order to arrive at a system of thought, but to give form to its deepest feelings.

In the act of creation we lose our self-awareness but the mind is wandering around picking up images, generating ideas and shaking hands with our feelings. It’s where the well ordered view of our workaday world is broken up, and mixed around; and from out of the pieces art is made.

What we should learn from artists…. Moving away from things until there is a good deal that one no longer sees and there is much that our eye has to add if we are still to see them at all; or seeing things around a corner and as cut out and framed; or to place them so that they partially conceal each other and grant us only glimpses of architectural perspectives; or looking at them through tinted glass or in the light of the sunset; or giving them a surface and skin that is not fully transparent – all this we should learn from artists while being wiser than they are in other matters. For with them this subtle power usually comes to an end where art ends and life beings; but we want to be the poets of our life – first of all in the smallest, most everyday matters. (Friedrich Nietzsche)

To create one has to get away from our 9 to 5 selves, where our ego is in command, dominating the terrain. There is something a little boring about our everyday personalities, with their fixed, too coherent, worldviews. Something too hard and immobile, like rocks in the sea, that impedes our growth, our happiness.

To be an artist is not to turn off the mind and let the emotions flow; no, we must allow the mind to be more alive, more sinuous: there is something a little too solid, impervious, in our egos, which we have to escape from, to fool. To do this we need energy! Thus, a certain excitement about the creative act.

And when we consume art? What are we doing when we read Anna Karenina or look at Natalya Goncharova’s Laundry? We are directing our attention outside the self; so no longer are the emotions the lead actors on our mind’s stage. Our longings and desires now have somewhere to go: they are not trapped inside our heads. Remember that solid, impervious ego? Our mind’s a dam! We have to turn it into a sluice gate: we have to let our desires, our Will, our energy, out into the world around us, focussing it on some object, however abstract. We have to engage with our world, those objects; and in these activities we lose our self-consciousness.

When we create we let something out, and we give birth to new things in the world outside.Something? Be more direct man! But do we really know what this is… emotion, feeling, the Will? Do we need to know; is it that important? To create our world, the act of creation itself, that perhaps is what gives us the highest happiness.

But now the minor characters enter.

If you can get rid of self-consciousness, are you getting rid of the self? Or are they separate things? They must be! Or at least the mind and the sense of self can be separated out. Yet if we are happy directing our thoughts to Macbeth, why are we not happy when contemplating our own anger, our own blood lust? Everywhere there is thought, but there must be something different, some quality to self-reflection that can unsettle us. Is it when we become aware of the drives, the forces inside us? And they smash against our cliff face, because there’s nowhere else to go? For Schopenhauer it was the Will, and art was a victory of the mind over that Will; for short periods. Art gave us rest from longing. So what are you saying? That for as long as we can forget ourselves and grab things, we will be happy?Maybe I am, though it sounds too crude; too simple. A sense of fullness, of ripeness, of solid achievement, an exercise of talents, of growth… all these can create happiness. Is it the freedom to expand, and the opportunity to merge mind and body, is this the key to happiness?

Pasternak is the great artist of this feeling. Here he is on the joy of his last years:

But inwardly, I have nothing for me to complain of. In terms of fullness and clarity of life and preoccupation with the work I love, my life these last years has been one long spiritual holiday for me. I am more than content with it. I derive joy from it and the novel is the outcome and expression of my joy.

Despite the public dismissals, the attacks, Pasternak was happy because he was able to complete work that was meaningful for him. This raises a question: can you be happy doing nothing? If the answer is no; what about leisure time: should we work eternally?

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