Much is said and written nowadays of the proper functions and uses of leisure. Some people, as we know, are all for the organisation of spare time. Some take exercise; some sleep; some wind up the gramophone; some lean against bars or mantelpieces. Others develop the resources of the intellect. I myself have been, all my life, a privileged person with considerable leisure. When asked how I spend it, I feel both dubious and embarrassed: for any answer implying some degree of activity would be misleading. Perhaps an approximation to the truth might be reached by stating that leisure employs me – weak aimless unsystematic unresisting instrument – as a kind of screen upon which are projected the images of persons – known well, a little, not at all, seen once, or long ago, or every day; or as a kind of preserving jar in which float fragments of people and landscapes, snatches of sound.
It is a detached condition. It has nothing of the obsessed egotism of daydreaming, and only a ghost of its savage self-indulgence. One might almost be dead, watching from the world of shades, so pure is one’s observation, so freed from will, from the desire to shape or alter to personal ends. There is no drama in which one plays star-role; there is no emotion but that mild sort of satisfaction, based on familiarity and recognition, which one gets at the cinema, when the film turns out be an enjoyable one seen several times before.
Yet there is not one of these fragile shapes and aerial sounds but bears within it an explosive seed of life. For most of us they will flit and waver by, and be gone again; but for a few, the shadowy and tranquil region which harbours their play is a working-place, stocked with material to be selected and employed. Suddenly, arbitrarily one day, a spark catches, and the principle of rebirth contained in their cold residue of experience begins to operate. Each cell will break out, branch into fresh organisms. There is not one of them, no matter how apparently disconnected, that is not capable of combining with the rest at some time or another.
Perhaps this is a wordy, unscientific way of describing the origins and processes of creative writing; yet it seems to me that nowadays this essential storing-house is often discounted, and that that is the reason for so much exact painstaking efficient writing, so well documented, on themes of such social interest and moral value, and so unutterably boring and forgettable. The central area has not been explored, and therefore all is dead. There is not a false word, nor one of truth.
I am surprised when authors have perfectly clear plans about the novels they are going to write; and I find it dismaying, for more reasons than one, to have the projected contents related to me, at length and in rational sequence. I would be more encouraged by such an answer, given in rather a hostile and depressed way, as: It is about some people; and if the author could bear to pursue the subject and mention any of the images and symbols haunting his mind – If he spoke for instance of a fin turning in a waste of waters, of the echo in the caves, of an empty room, shuttered under dust sheets, of an April fall of snow, of music from of the fair at night, of the burnt-out shell of a country house, that woman seen a moment from the bus top, brushing her long dark hair – I should feel that something was afoot. Writers should stay more patiently at the centre and suffer themselves to be worked upon. Later on, when they finally emerge towards the circumference they may have written a good novel about love or war or the class struggle. Or they may not have written a good novel at all.
But this is a far cry form the four red-haired Miss Daintreys… (The Gipsy’s Baby)
Rosamond Lehmann is saying something profound here, if only we could stop for a moment and listen. She is writing about the nature of creativity; an organic process that lives inside us; leisure the soil where it is seeded, hibernates and grows. The origins of art, this passage suggests, have nothing to do with our conscious mind or self-directed will; rather, Lehmann implies, they exist somewhere else in our bodies: art an independent being, a parasite, is perhaps the better word, that lives off the human animal, and which requires the freedom to create itself, mostly from its own resources.[i] We are simply its vehicles, clapped out old bangers or flashy Jags; providing, that is, we park up, and sit silently by the roadside, to watch as the pedestrians go by… A man approaching in the wing mirror, his t-shirt a white graffiti’d wall, his pink mini-skirt clashing with his blue tights; and his white boots incongruously sixties in today’s 1930s Shoreditch. From the rear he could be a woman; Marilyn inevitably smiling back at me; defaced in spray can style; his bum wobbling just a little. Pink suits it. The zip provocatively exposed. A hooker or civil servant? Which street will the mind turn down… we leave him as he walks across Hoxton Square; heading, we think, towards Sh!….
We have to absorb the world, if we want to create it. This is what I receive from this passage. Once you turn your senses off - by not paying attention; by constantly doing things; by talking too much; by imposing a conscious intellectual pattern - the rain stops, and the plant dies. The work of art needs to be buried deep inside the body, let us call it the unconscious, otherwise it will wither very quickly away; even if it breaks the surface: a published novel in paperback; fragments of Camden on the cover. For art, existing below the conscious mind, although it needs the latter like a country estate its skilled gardener, must, in its germination, follow its own laws and be attracted to its own fancies; only then can it recreate the natural world in its own form – for now something of the profundity of reality has grown into its aesthetic structure. Second hand ideas, that world of talk and quick fire social response, are merely excrescences, the stuff we have subtracted from life and add onto it. Immensely important, but weak and trivial when put inside the artwork; and left there un-integrated – like coke cans thrown into flowerbeds. Even the ideas of the greatest philosophers are less important than the thinking processes which created them: it is the reason why a Kant or a Hume can still be read with interest - how they think is akin to how an artist creates; and it is this which excites us. For thought is different from life, it follows its own rules and requires its own country houses; where it lives mostly alone; only occasionally coming out to perform.
We need so much time! Or at least the creative thinker or artist needs a great deal – a lifetime, if possible. Others may find such large temporal expanses tiresome.[ii] But even time is not enough. Lehmann didn’t write for years after the sudden death of her daughter; her will to create was overcome by her emotions. For an artist needs both leisure and the creative urge; it is the latter that defines them. The relationship between the two is complicated. François Truffaut once brilliantly expressed it when he wrote, describing himself, that the laziest people are the busiest.[iii] For years I was fascinated by this idea, but could make no sense of it – there were times I thought it simply a clever paradox; François flirting as usual. What he means, I think, is that when an artist works they work superhumanly;[iv] but it also captures something of Lehmann too: an artist never stops, even when they are lying on the sofa, half asleep, a tea on its tray beside them – always working, even when doing nothing, absolutely nothing, at all.
[i] See the discussion in the footnotes to Sea-Grape Tree; and particularly the quotes from Tsvetaeva. This post has an extended discussion on Lehmann’s interest in spiritualism. The quoted passage here, written before her interest developed, may give some insight into the nature of that experience.
[ii] Think of the novels of Turgenev, where most of the leisure class fill up their time playing cards.