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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, December 11, 2006

the artist and his doubts

There is a rainstorm with strong wind. Kimmie and I were just out on a short errand to get a chicken breast (kung pao chicken again) and boxed egg-white. I had to partly lower my brolly so that it would not be damaged. Our yellow plastic bag for recycled paper blew away out back. The lights have been flickering occasionally. Power outages are happening elsewhere in the city, but they're rare here. Still--I'd better back this up more often.

Yesterday morning I finished keying notes from Campbell's Primitive Mythology. The final chapter, "Conclusion: The Functioning of Myth", was newly inspiring for me. At the risk of spoiling things for those haven't trawled these depths as yet, here are some of the concluding words from this first volume of his Masks of God tetralogy:

Can mythology have sprung from any minds but the minds of artists? The temple-caves of the paleolithic give us our answer.

Mythology--and therefore civilization--is a poetic, supernormal image, conceived, like all poetry, in depth, but susceptible of interpretation on various levels. The shallowest minds see in it the local scenery; the deepest, the foreground of the void; and between are all the stages of the Way from the ethnic to the elementary idea, the local to the universal being, which is Everyman, as he both knows and is afraid to know. For the human mind in its polarity of the male and female modes of experience, in its passages from infancy to adulthood and old age, in its toughness and tenderness, and in its continuing dialogue with the world, is the ultimate mythogenetic zone--the creator and destroyer, the slave and yet the master, of all the gods.

As I typed this material I felt a renewed connection to my own path as an artist. No matter how meager and halting my output, I'm doing the right thing.

Over the years I have worried about being a creative type, an artist. My worries have come from a mixture of bafflement and contempt for the output of other artists, and a bourgeois sense that one should be productive and do useful things for society--"useful" meaning designing furniture or assembling loan syndicates for sovereign debt, or whatever. One should at least be earning--being responsible for keeping oneself in food and shelter.

Another source of worry has been spirituality. In my 20s, while seeking answers to spiritual questions, looking for a spiritual path, and eventually becoming a Buddhist, I sometimes felt depressed about wanting to break into TV, the very heartland of frivolity, as I thought. I used to read Variety, and felt a pang of guilt or shame when I saw the box giving prices for "amusement" stocks. Amusement, entertainment--these were escapes from reality, what we did to take our minds off our lives, to distract ourselves. There was I, trying to engineer more distractions for people.

In the main I have of course managed to live with these thoughts, these doubts, and work on in spite of them. At times I have felt very encouraged about the vocation of artist, and felt proud to be one--even if an unproductive one. But I still have twinges of worry--still think I should be doing something "useful". (A favorite movie moment for me is in Out of Africa, when Robert Redford's character shows Meryl Streep a gramophone, and plays a record of classical music. "They've finally invented a machine that's really useful!" he says. By the way: this line is so good, like a number of others in that movie, that I'm convinced it came from life, and was not invented by the screenwriter, Kurt Luedtke.)

Whenever I have expressed these ideas people have dismissed them. "Oh pshaw!" I understand why they do, and yet part of me does not easily accept the validity of sitting around doodling with ideas and making up stuff as a way of having social value.

The best antidote to these feelings is Joseph Campbell. In all of his writings, and all of his life, he radiated a profound appreciation for the arts--all of them, and saw in art the highest activities and aspirations that humanity is capable of. (He tried business briefly in his life when he was fresh out of university, hated it, and never went back.)

Another thought I have is that I value art too highly, and feel unworthy of the task of trying to attempt it.

These thoughts and worries are all clearly neurotic, and I acknowledge them as such. However, they do form part of my own psychological fingerprint, so to say, and hang over me and nag at me. So I am very glad to have the counsel of Campbell himself--probably my favorite thinker and writer of them all. Interestingly, he very much wanted to be a fiction-writer himself, but was not that good at it. He did what he needed to do. Thank heavens.

Later in the day I decided to write a review of Holland's Persian Fire on Amazon.com. If you're interested, it's here.

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