The nature of the will is one of the major problematics of life. Philosophers and artists have long labored to clarify the position we are in concerning the will. How much power does one person have? How much responsibility does one have in achieving for oneself the good life, and how can this be extended to others? How exactly are we situated in this world? To better understand the nature of will, artists, philosophers, and children open themselves up to opposition by treating it with a sense of play.
The child at play gives form to conflict, practicing “out in the open” in order to internalize what has been noticed in the external world, to gain understanding of self and situation. The forces driving conflicts between people are usually invisible, ideological, and unconscious, but once they are driving behavior, the child becomes aware yet lacks understanding. To develop a working model, or what Edith Cobb called a “world image,” the behavior is reproduced in experimental play.
Philosophers routinely reflect and do their thinking by surveying both sides of a problem. Socrates is the archetype for this. In his dialogues we often find Socrates asking questions normally thought to have obvious answers, questions like, “Do I want what is good?” As part of a chain of questions that bring the other’s inconsistencies of thought into higher resolution, he is surprisingly effective. Socrates often leaves his company in a state of shock from having lived so long under the aegis of certain beliefs and values without examining them.
Similarly, artists often present situations without explicitly taking a side. In crafting a story, an author takes all the time that’s required for viewers to believe and situate themselves in the whole driving conflict. In order to do this, they must give equal weight to opposing sides. Good is labored equally to evil. This cannot be understated. Evil is not run away from. The author must take a detached stance to good as well as evil, and the long process of crafting such a story is a redemptive process for the author, for in that time love has been taken to evil. The work is finished; now the conflict is felt by the reader, in all its natural complexity. And this is what the work offers that life tends not to: honor to the paradoxical complexity of living.
The feeling of conflict is not going to be novel for anyone. Life is difficult, long, a labyrinth. No map could ever be created that would give absolute lasting order to the world, whereby we could determine what to do or where to go next. What is unique to the arts is that they offer safe passage through experience, and thus to transformation. In other words, the arts offer the best simulacrum of such a map. Life is always giving us experience; too often we fail to travel through it. Whether from anxiety or what Kierkegaard called the “dizziness of freedom,” fear or sheer confusion, we seem resistant to understanding or processing what happens to us. Such resistance promotes undesirable thought and behavior loops. If we would travel through experience, our transformation would be the effect. In order to do this, we must sometimes come down from the clouds of our own cleverness and righteousness and ground ourselves in earthly silliness. There are many compatible modes of being. There is no going out of character. To quote Walt Whitman,
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
“Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.” – Thomas Merton
A thousand times a year students ask me, “Is this good enough?” Their eyes gaze up at me from over a work of art that, yes probably, has hit all of the required standards, seeking some respite from the challenge set before them. Good enough? Compared to what? — I send the ball back into their court. In that moment, either they fold, laughing, and label it “good enough” for now, presumably to be improved upon someday, some other day; or a light flashes within them, a neurological bridge sparks, and they begin the journey of passing through the center of their own potential.
An essential idea that I live by and share with my students often is that a work of art must pass through a stage of imperfection, even awkwardness, on its way to something better. (Take, for example, this old caricature sketch of Carl Sagan by Zack.)
Born into a system of norms set strategically before us, it’s always surprising to be reminded that we are still ultimately at the helm of this process of what we accomplish and what we choose to bring into being.
We make sure our jobs are good enough to pay the bills, our health is good enough to get us through our days, our relationships are good enough that we can all get by without killing each other. But isn’t it true that often we don’t take the opportunities to make these things more meaningful, more able to feed our spirits and raise that bar that has been set for us? Have we any idea what’s possible?
The poetically irreverent American novelist, Tom Robbins, once wrote: “we waste time looking for the perfect lover instead of creating the perfect love.” This is a reminder that our relationships, our jobs, our daily interactions are creative acts. We must create the world we seek or else settle for a world designed by someone else for someone else’s vision of what is possible. Our north star then is to find what moves us to raise our bars and push passed the point of “good enough” towards our definition of sublime. The brave and brilliant American writer Annie Dillard put it this way:
“There is always the temptation in life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for years on end. It is all so self conscious, so apparently moral…But I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous…more extravagant and bright. We are…raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.”
At a certain point, we have to ask: Are we aiming to settle for what the world has asked us to achieve, or do we see the potential for something radically more meaningful? The first story has already been told. The second is the story that you may have been born to tell.
The challenge of refining a work of art — and that may be the art of painting or of teaching, of building relationships or being a better or more authentic communicator — is complex to say the least. Realist painter Jacob Collins said that this process “…is torture… There’s always some newly seen flaw. But the little glimpses of beauty between the anxiety make it worth it.” You can tell when your work is definitely not done, but by working on it, you also run the risk of overworking it. And in the back of your mind, you know there is the very real possibility that your work may fail or be noticed by none. On this Thomas Merton wrote:
“Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.”
Annie Dillard and Thomas Merton are two twentieth century writers, working somewhere between spiritual pilgrims and fringe revolutionists, who spent their lives conjuring and stoking this devotional fire dedicated to telling a different story of being human in our modern world. They found quickly that to do this one must abandon the temporary comforts of seeking affirmation and instead follow with steadfastness the vision of human potential that haunts their hearts like a calling.
The act of pushing passed our inherited story of “good enough” is nothing short of a miracle. It’s the task of taking the antiquated, inherited definitions of “commitment” and “devotion” and “faith” and “beauty” and reclaiming them, covering them in graffiti, in your very blood, and letting them help you bring your vision of your great works passed product straight into the heart of the process. Annie Dillard put it this way:
“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
Thinking about Media with Socrates and McLuhan
“Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.” – Marshall McLuhan
A gradual externalization of human knowledge began with the advent of written language, the first alphabets arising around the 3rd millennium BC, and the old Latin alphabet around the 2nd century BC. Invented smack in the middle of a world thriving on oral traditions, alphabets gave humans a revolutionary tool for sharing and preserving information, knowledge, and wisdom. This new vehicle for human thought seriously influenced not just how we communicated and documented our world, but it changed the ways that we understand and respond to reality. The brilliant and prolific writer, Marshall McLuhan, known best for his memorable statement “the medium is the message,” commented on how the invention of writing laid the foundation for our modern mode of thinking:
“Western history was shaped for some three thousand years by the introduction of the phonetic [alphabet] .… Rationality and logic came to depend on the presentation of connected and sequential facts or concepts.”
The advent of writing also relieved individuals of what was likely an ongoing and challenging task—that of memorizing and internalizing all of their stories, myths, rituals, poetry, recipes, and inter-generational knowledge. What once only travelled by means of memory and the tongue, now could be written down and spread across great distances, enduring the test of time with acutely consistent messages. Socrates spoke of this transition, and Plato wrote of it. However, these two thinkers were not quite so keen on the convenience of writing, but rather wary of its effects on man.
“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.”
In Plato’s writing entitled Phaedrus, Socrates claimed that his true teachings would never in fact be transposed into writing, but spoken only. So, can we say that we know anything of (the already very elusive) Socrates? He feared the disembodiment of learning which he believed came with writing, including the loss of context, intonation, and response. Still, it proceeded thus onward with the invention of the printing press, the telegraph, the photograph, and so on to the virtual age, each technological medium bringing with it great strides for the collective human thought-pool.
With such elaborate conveniences, however, one must wonder which muscles of ours have been allowed to rest, and to what atrophy?
Living alongside the Internet, for example, we today need remember little because Google will always recall it for us at a moment’s notice. Nothing need be internalized or set to memory because it’s already stored in the mind of the global village, in the external memory of our collective consciousness. McLuhan, who referred to these inventions as extension of man — a reaching outward, beyond oneself. He was aware of and wary of this disembodiment, and yet he knew that this was the direction into which humans would need and choose to venture. (And indeed we have–from living through online avatars, to visiting art museums via robots, to the Voyager space probes–humanity has created a multitude of extensions of our selves and species which enable us to reach further and with greater and more creative facility out into the universe.)
We expand adventurously outward into the universe with our tools as our tightropes. Alan Watts once said that we “…are a focal point where the universe is becoming conscious of itself.” From this perspective, our man-made extensions only reveal an ongoing natural progression of extensions and connectedness between us and the universe. Whitman, in his epic Song of Myself reminded us that we are “not contain’d between [our] hat and boots.”
Still, what other effects are included in this abundance of extensions? Socrates went on to describe the burden of too much information:
“And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.”
Many of us have so little time today to spend in quality research of a topic in order to really understand it. So we trust various news sources, reporters, writers, or journalists to garner for us information synthesized into an understanding. And this sates many of our hunger pains or the social pressures to stay “informed.” Yet these are second hand opinions, often from perspectives containing ulterior motives. If we are seeking to learn online, the distractions alone can turn many sincere pursuits of knowledge into scenarios of kids in candy stores.
So, how we learn about the world around us is a tricky and mysterious process. We learn whether or not we intend to. One thing is certain, as McLuhan points out:
“Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.”
Education specialists suggest that educators and learners need to bridge the gap between theory and practice—that is, to practice what is referred to as Experience Based Education. We need more opportunities to practice and have experiences with a body of knowledge in order to effectively transform it into useful insight or wisdom. We must embody it: try it on, touch it, maneuver it. If we try to build knowledge with bits of information which are housed—to varying degrees—outside our heads and out of our hands, it becomes significantly harder to synthesize these bits into meaningful, larger ideas, projects, or movements.
This synthesis produces all of humanity’s great emergent art forms and includes the alchemy necessary for making meaning in, improving, and contributing to our world. Maria Popova, an articulator of interdisciplinary thought and a prolific author, writes:
“In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new castles.”
Our memories and experiences are qualitative and exponential “castles” which continuously build upon themselves. Though it’s wonderfully exciting to live vicariously through film and sitcom and bloggers and vloggers, it is essential to remember that they cannot earn for us our experience or or make for us our art. And though it is convenient to allow our technology to temporarily remember for us our stories, recipes, quotes, and poems, we must keep in mind that it cannot earn for us our wisdom.
“Man’s hand traced the stick through the mud to make a line before he learned to throw the stick as a javelin.”
“Undoubtedly the first man was an artist,” begins a remarkable little speculative essay written in 1947 by Barnett Newman. It proposes that the aesthetic act of wonder precedes the social and utilitarian acts of animal survival. The aesthetic experience requires a mind capable of connecting disparate dots, that can render the non-local local, the concealed revealed, that can ask whether “to be or not to be.” Although historically Newman is remembered as a modernist painter who challenged, and continues to challenge, with his large, minimalist color field paintings, I will always, probably, think of him as the one who wrote “The First Man Was an Artist.”
The essay was published in a periodical called Tiger’s Eye at that time when the home of modern art was shifting from Paris to America. Its power reminds me of that poetic power typical of essays of the past, from writers like Emerson, Stevenson, Montaigne, and Chesterton, which subtly illuminates the limits of analysis. Chopping things up into little bits may lead one to understand a system and to a kind of wonder, but the analytical process of sizing something up, of measurement by separating something into its constituent elements, cannot grasp meaning. “The whole is other than the sum of its parts,” as the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka wrote. Other is the operative word, commonly misquoted as “greater.” The whole (whether we’re talking about life or an artwork) has a reality of its own; no cataloguing of parts can ever indicate that reality, and that reality is what I mean by “meaning.” Nevertheless, it is possible to court this connectivity, to glimpse the whole within one of its parts. William Irwin Thompson writes that this glimpse is precisely what the sacred is. In The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, Thompson writes:
To begin to understand what is going on in the…art of the Upper Paleolithic, we have to escape not only the ethnocentricity of academic male subcultures, but also the limited epistemology of social science. We have to use the “Imagination” to recover a sense of the sacred. The sacred is the emotional force which connects the part to the whole; the profane or the secular is that which has been broken off from, or has fallen off, its emotional bond to the universe.” (102).
We could replace Thompson’s “Imagination” with “aesthetic sense.” The aesthetic is a connected, sacred, imaginal, intuitive, emotional force. The modern scientific-material mindset has not done well to encourage the fostering of creative self-reliance and the health of whole systems, tending more toward bottom-linism and banal profit motives. While it should be no surprise when intuitions are written off as airy ethereal “fluff,” it should be a deep concern that we are in the middle of an aesthetic crisis.
Even with an experience of the sacred, the question is likely to remain for one who thinks in material terms and seeks material proof: what sustains the underlying Celtic knotwork of things on Earth? It is as unknown today as it has ever been, despite our becoming conscious of ecology and despite our looking to nature for models of how to live, build, and organize, as in the field of biomimetics. We know it isn’t a substance, but the hard sciences only can deal with experimentally viable phenomena. This rules out the possibility of science reasoning out the connection between human dreams and termite mounds. Still, for our own lives, we don’t need to look far into the analogous ways of the wild to be thrown into reverie: why is it you never see a line of ants on a log in gridlock for an accident ahead? Can the Department of Transportation take its next cue from the ants? Questions like this are fantastic, practical endeavors for scientific research, and they may be the best hope for restoring a healthy balance between our species and the rest of the world. This is the gift rationality offers us. But notice that the connectivity is understood by category (how is human infrastructure connected to insect infrastructure)? How is a part related to another part? Not, How is a part related to the whole of Nature? The latter is the question we are all forced to ask today. Rationality reaches its limit. To get at this question, other means are necessary. Perhaps we are in the present ecological crisis because we have ceased to make decisions for aesthetic reasons, insisting always on the utilitarian angle. We must learn to employ that ancient inherited aspect of us which is creative, for the aesthetic act is a byproduct of an intuition of wholes and the urgent desire to express them.
In its earliest flowering, according to Newman, “speech was a poetic outcry rather than a demand for communication.” It is human to feel deeply, not just to communicate, and the need to express what is uniquely human in us is deep-seated. It is even more human to become aware that however loudly one may cry out, the source of that expression and the purpose of that expression are one and the same.
“It is important to keep in mind that the necessity for dream is stronger than any utilitarian need. In the language of science, the necessity for understanding the unknowable comes before any desire to discover the unknown.”
How in control can a creature be? We are in control in much the same way as a man who builds a bridge as he walks out in space across it. He floats in the air and is free to hammer in the next board. He extends the bridge, and he may choose to begin curving its path, but he is confined to build forward, standing on a small walkway. Therefore, he is far from complete control. His destiny is determined by the section of the bridge he has just created.