Goethe On The Artist’s Supposed ‘Originality’

In Conversations with Goethe With Johann Peter Eckermann, Goethe says,

People are always talking about originality; but what do they mean? As soon as we are born, the world begins to work upon us and goes on to the end. What can we call our own except energy, strength, and will? If I could give an account of all that I owe to great predecessors and contemporaries, there would be but a small balance in my favor. [p. 115]

Elsewhere, Eckermann makes note of Goethe’s response to Byron‘s critique of Faust that Goethe had ‘found one thing here, the other there’:

The greater part of those fine things cited by Lord Byron,” said Goethe, “I have never even read, much less did I think of them, when I was writing ‘Faust.’ But Lord Byron is only great as a poet; as soon as he reflects, he is a child. He knows not how to help himself against the stupid attacks of the same kind made upon him by his own countrymen. He ought to have expressed himself more strongly against them. ‘What is there is mine,’ he should have said, ‘and whether I got it from a book or from life, is of no consequence; the only point is, whether I have made a right use of it.’ Walter Scott used a scene from my Egmont and he had a right to do so; and because he did it well, he deserves praise. He has also copied the character of Mignon in one of his romances; but whether with equal judgment, is another question. Lord Byron’s transformed Devil is a continuation of Mephistophiles, and quite right too. If, from the whim of originality, he had departed from the model, he would certainly have fared worse. Thus, my Mephistophiles sings a song from Shakspeare, and why should he not? Why should I give myself the trouble of inventing one of my own, when this said just what was wanted. If, too, the prologue to my ‘Faust’ is something like the beginning of Job, that is again quite right, and I am rather to be praised than censured. [pp. 82-83]

Like all truly great artists, Goethe recognizes that ‘genius’ and ‘creativity’ have little to do with ‘originality’–whatever that means. Rather, the artist, as noted by all too many who create, is a magpie, a borrower and stealer and copier and mime and ventriloquist. She takes what she needs for her work and synthesizes them into a new work. It is this genius of synthesis we recognize; it is this vision, the one that picked out what it needed and combined them into a whole only visible to it, that we so admire. Great works of art, like all human productions, do not spring forth, fully formed, like Athena out of the skull of Zeus. They have long gestations, and the raw material that goes into this making is drawn from the world around them, from the creative work of other humans, artists or not. The history of an artwork always includes that of the pieces that went into its making.

As always, Goethe remains relevant; so-called ‘intellectual property‘ acolytes would do well to pay attention to a man who knew a bit about artistic creation.

Late Work And Shying Away From Decay And Death

In ‘Late Francis Bacon: Spirit and Substance‘ Colm Tóibín writes:

It would be easy to imagine…that Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice was written toward the end of his life. In fact, it was written in 1911, when Mann was thirty-six. It is a young man’s book; its images of desire, decay, and death could not be so easily entertained by a writer facing into late or last work.

Tóibín does not make clear why we would imagine that Death in Venice “was written toward the end of [Mann’s] life” but be that as it may, of more interest here is the claim that an artist (of whatever stripe) would find it difficult to entertain “images of desire, decay, and death” in “late or last work.”

Tóibín has found himself making this claim, I suspect, as a way of pushing further the speculative query by Edward Said with which he opens this essay:

In his book On Late Style…Edward Said ponders the aura surrounding work produced by artists in the last years of their lives. He asks: “Does one grow wiser with age, and are there unique qualities of perception and form that artists acquire as a result of age in the late phase of their career?”….he also questions the very notion of late serenity:….What if age and ill health don’t produce the serenity of ‘ripeness is all’?”

Said further ponders…the sheer strangeness of Ludwig van Beethoven’s late string quartets and his last piano sonatas, their insistence on breaking with easy form, their restlessness, their aura of incompletion…the feeling that they are striving toward some set of musical textures that have not yet been imagined and cannot be achieved in Beethoven’s lifetime….these late pieces wish to represent the mind or the imagination not as it faces death but rather as it faces life, as it sets out to reimagine a life with new beginnings and new possibilities.

The obvious counterpoint to Tóibín’s claim is implicit in Said’s first query: as artists approach death, they, like other humans, find a new openness to the very idea of death and non-existence and the bodily decay that precedes it. An excellent example of this might be Roger Angell‘s essay ‘This Old Man’ which begins with the following lines:

Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B. No, it’s more as if I’d been a catcher for the Hall of Fame pitcher Candy Cummings, the inventor of the curveball, who retired from the game in 1877. To put this another way, if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Arthritis.

Now, still facing you, if I cover my left, or better, eye with one hand, what I see is a blurry encircling version of the ceiling and floor and walls or windows to our right and left but no sign of your face or head: nothing in the middle. But cheer up: if I reverse things and cover my right eye, there you are, back again. If I take my hand away and look at you with both eyes, the empty hole disappears and you’re in 3-D, and actually looking pretty terrific today. Macular degeneration.

And so it goes on. Angell, of course, is writing an essay on old age; he is not working these images into his sports writing. What about other writers? I will rest content with another example: Phillip Roth, whose late work was replete with such ‘images’; he never  shied away from them. Comments with support or refutation for Tóibín’s claim welcome.

Freidrich Hebbel’s ‘Profound Question’

In ‘Notebook 11, February 1817’ from Writings From The Early Notebooks (eds. Raymond Geuss and Alexander Nehamas, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2009, p. 81), Nietzsche cites “a profound question of Friedrich Hebbel” [link added]:

If the artist made a picture, knowing that it would last for ever,
But that a single hidden feature, deeper than any other
Would be recognized by no man living either now or in the future,
To the end of time, do you think he would omit it?

Well? Do you write for an audience or do you write for yourself, to bring ‘a work’ to fruition, whether or not anyone reads it? I write because I like to write; because I like to express, verbally, on the written page, thoughts and ideas that seek expression; because I enjoy watching the written word appear on the page and screen; and so on. But I like readers too–and their responses to what I write can affect what I write, in both form and content. I’d like to think this is not the case, but I’m not sure I’ve always resisted this pressure. I do not disdain the praise and appreciation some readers occasionally send my way; I might even ‘crave’ it, turning it into a stimulus for writing. And of course, I make efforts to secure readers for what I write: I send links to posts I write here to folks who might be interested (and in this desperate world of social media ‘promotion,’ I hope they ‘pass it on’); I participate in marketing efforts for my books; I am disappointed by poor reviews and sales, by the lack of critical attention sent my way by those well placed to ‘promote’ my writings; and so on.

Still, to address Hebbel’s question, which is more narrowly pitched than my question above: I would incorporate that ‘single hidden feature’ into a written work, even if I was sure that it would never be read by anyone till the end of time. This is because, more often than not, I write simply because I want to, because I have convinced myself that I am ‘a writer,’ and thus, I must write as often as possible. Whether or not anyone reads what I write. Bizarrely enough, I do not always hate what I write, and sometimes even do enjoy reading what I’ve written. (Yes, I know, this is terribly arrogant.) The presence of that ‘single hidden feature’  provides, crucially: a sense of completion, because that piece might be ‘incomplete’ without it, and the knowledge that it has found its ‘appropriate’ place within a larger whole, a sensation familiar to all kinds of creators, ranging from those who paint to whose who write computer programs. This could give me all the pleasure I might want out of a piece of writing–readers or not.

Note: Characteristically, Nietzsche precedes the lines quoted above with “[W]ho would doubt that the world of the Greek heroes existed only for the sake of one Homer?” and follows up with “All this clearly shows that the genius does not exist for the sake of mankind; although he is definitely the peak and the ultimate goal of it.”

‘The Spring is The Autumn’

In ‘Henriette Wyeth: Scenes from a painter’s life’ (from A Certain Climate, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 1988, pp. 164) Paul Horgan makes  note of, and subsequently quotes Wyeth on, the wellsprings of her work:

Ideas added to feeling, then, inform both her still lifes and portraits, and the most constant impulse is the desire to record that which must change and go.

“The reason I paint flowers is that I see them fading. This reminds me of the eternally renewed, the spring time, all of that, because I feel death and disaster lurk right behind them.” Her work is testimony to the enduring power which abides strongly in certain forms of fragility. In a flower detail of a still life, in a child’s wrist, she makes a little essay on mortality, but one reclaimed from morbidity by its celebration of present beauty.

Shortly before my mother passed away after a five-year encounter with breast cancer, she began writing small bits of poetry: fragments of poems, solitary lines, couplets. She wrote these on scattered pieces of paper, sometimes the pages of a notebook, sometimes the margins of a magazine–as and when thoughts, reflections, came to her. She wrote with pen or pencil, as either came to hand; she wrote in English or Hindi, retaining the form in which these thoughts were cast. She told me she did so without ever directing me to read anything she had put down on paper. I did not ask to look at her work, presuming she wanted to keep her thoughts to herself; she, for her part, gave me no indication she wanted me to do so. We might have collectively presumed–at some only dimly sensed level of intersubjective awareness–that I would read her work ‘later.’

But she did tell me about a line that ran through her head once, as winter rolled away and spring moved in, as her treatments for a metastasized cancer entered their fifth month. Then she had seen, on one of the short walks she took in the early evening, glimpses of the coming full bloom: buds and blossoms making their first tentative appearances. In response she had written a single line: ‘the spring is the autumn.’ (The emphasis on the assertion of identity is present in the original formulation–in Hindi.) As my mother put it, at that moment, as she saw a fledgling leaf pushing its way up, poking its head out, she saw it too, as fully grown, and then again, a little further on, she saw it change color and form, yellowing, wrinkling, and falling, drifting down; the new leaf wore its life on its sleeve; the inevitability of its eventual fate was present at the moment of its birth. That, or something like it, was what she wanted to say as she wrote that line down.

I never saw that line written down in her handwriting. But I still remember it–in both its original and translated forms–as it was said to me that day.

 

Descartes, The Planned City, And Misplaced Philosophical Desires

In Part 2 of Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences Rene Descartes, as a prelude to his ‘clearing away’ of prior philosophy, writes:

[T]here is very often less perfection in works composed of several portions, and carried out by the hands of various masters, than in those on which one individual alone has worked. Thus we see that buildings planned and carried out by one architect alone are usually more beautiful and better proportioned than those which many have tried to put in order and improve, making use of old walls which were built with other ends in view. In the same way also, those ancient cities which, originally mere villages, have become in the process of time great towns, are usually badly constructed in comparison with those which are regularly laid out on a plain by a surveyor who is free to follow his own ideas….we understand how difficult it is to bring about much that is satisfactory in operating only upon the works of others.

Interestingly enough, as the examples of Chandigarh, Brasilia, and Canberra show, the planned city, built from scratch to purpose, the product of a singular architectural vision, is very often a counterpart to the bustling, chaotic, cosmopolitan cities whose growth has proceeded, at best, along an entirely haphazard trajectory.The ostensible beauty of the planned city’s design has not compensated for its lack of history, the absence of accretions of culture and lives lived within its precincts; the planned city gets off the ground with little interference from what came before, but it does not encourage riffs and improvisation. The planned city offers a gleaming surface and little else; it lacks the blemishes that speak of a rich interior. It has set itself apart, and there it shall stay. (No offense is intended to the residents of these cities; still, I think they would agree their city’s lack of a past, its ab initio origins, contribute in some measure to the contrast it offers to the great metropolises of the world.)

There is much that goes wrong with Western philosophy thanks to Descartes: the obsession with system building, the epistemic foundationalism, the quest for certainty, the alignment of philosophy with the sciences and mathematics, the appearance-reality distinction, the desire to ground truths in something beyond the human, the divorce of philosophy from history. (These sins cannot all be laid at Descartes door, of course; Plato is the original culprit for many of them.) Here, in the Discourse, we see the glimmerings of another problematic vision, one manifest in domains other than philosophy as well: that works made in splendid solitude are necessarily inferior to those made jointly with others, through acts of creative, even if sometimes clumsy and flawed, appropriation and improvisation. In doing so, Descartes reinforces–among other things–the fallacy of the lone creator, the solitary artist, the self-made man, the sole author.

Ironically, Descartes ended up generating a great deal of undergrowth that hasn’t been cleared yet (or alternatively, a foundation that still tempts too many of those who came after.)

Freud On Group Production (And ‘Intellectual Property’)

In ‘Group Pyschology’, (Standard Edition, XVIII, 79; as cited in Peter Gay, Freud for Historians, Oxford University Press, 1985, pp. 150), Sigmund Freud writes:

[A]s far as intellectual achievement is concerned, it remains indeed true that the great decisions of the work of thought, the consequential discoveries and solutions of problems, are possible only to the individual, laboring in solitude. But even the mass mind is capable of mental creations of genius, as proved above all by language itself, as well as by folk song, folklore and the like. Beyond that, it remains unsettled just how much the individual thinker or creative writer owed to the stimulus of the crowd among which he lives, whether he is more than the completer of mental work in which the others had participated at the same time.

The Grand Old Man of Psychoanalysis is, as usual, quite perspicuous here (As Gay notes in a parenthetical remark, his concluding ‘reasonable aside…joins, once again, individual and social psychology.’) His choice of examples of the works produced by ‘the mass mind’ are, in particular, telling: language, folk song, and folklore.  Without the first, there is no language to be used as the medium of expression by the novelist, the poet, the writer; no home, as it were, for them to set up safe camp and experiment, boldly, perhaps striking out where none dared have gone before. Idiosyncrasy must have an orthodoxy to pit itself against. Without the second a giant repository of sources for classical and popular music alike is inaccessible.  Bach, it must be remembered, drew heavily on German folk music for some of his most famous compositions; rock and roll owes its provenance to the blues etc. As in language, folk songs and music provide a foundation upon which many an impressive superstructure, sometimes radically different from its lower levels, may be built up. Without the third, similarly, the wellsprings of stories–long and short alike, plays, novels, dries up. The child hears these at her mother’s and grandparent’s knees; she learns them in school; and again, further sorties into territories visible, but not yet ventured into by them, are suggested.

The ‘individual, laboring in solitude’ is not denied any of the credit that is her due by her drawing upon these sources of inspiration. It is her particular and peculiar utilization and deployment of these source materials that is the cause of our appreciation and praise. Our acknowledgement of the genius’ work only tips over into fantasy–and counterproductive restraints on borrowing and creative amendment–when we imagine that her productions  issued as singular emanations from her, and only her, alone. Moreover, the true value of the genius’ contributions does not lie in the solitary splendor of her literary, visual, or musical creations; rather, it is that those creations, by being poured back into the collective cultural potlatch, become fecund sources of further artistic production for those who follow in her footsteps.

We are born into a made world; when we leave, we’ve laid a couple of bricks ourselves. With the mortar and materials of those who came before us.

Skyler White, The Anti-Muse?

Yesterday I wrote a short response to Anna Gunn‘s New York Times Op-Ed about the negative reaction to the Skyler White character on Breaking Bad. I want to add a couple of points to that today.

Some of the adverse reaction to Skyler finds its grounding in her instantiation of an archetype that I alluded to yesterday: the domestication, and hence taming, of the artist. Walter White is an auteur, a maven who marries science and art to produce the purest crystal meth possible, who worries incessantly, and proudly, about the quality of his ‘product.’ This is a man obsessed, like all good artists are, about whether his vision has been realized, who is capable of endless ‘revision’ and ‘drafting’ to get things to come out just right. His pride may be his downfall, as in when he cannot stop himself from bragging to Hank about how Gale was a mere child compared to Heisenberg, but it is a justified pride: his work is just that damn good. Skyler, however, is no such thing. Remember that in the first season we are told that she writes short stories and sells items on Ebay. The former activity marks her not as creative but as delusional, like all those people who imagine they will write the next Great American Novel, the latter as a not particular edifying combination of a hustler and parasite. Later she becomes book-keeper for Beneke Fabricators.

The contrast is clear: in one corner, creativity, innovation and enterprise, in the other, dull, stodgy, mundane beancounting. And more significantly, the brilliant male artist, bought to heel by the cackling, nagging, domesticity of the home and hearth, his rising star brought back to earth by the dead weight of the home. An old joke has it that one mathematician wrote to his colleague after his marriage, ‘Congratulations, you can do more mathematics now’, but in general, the received wisdom is that the artist’s work suffers after marriage. He is called away from his easel, his desk, because of the calls from the kitchen and the nursery. Skyler is thus the sand in the wheels for Walter’s artistry; she gets in the way of his work. she prevents him from realizing his potential. We are invited to see her as a millstone and barrier.

There is an interesting visual grammar to the contrast drawn between Skyler and Walter. As the show progresses, Walter becomes sharper: he loses his hair, starts dressing in black, speaks with gritted teeth, delivers his lines with barely controlled violence, and his actions follow a trajectory of decreasing compromise (like all good artists’!). His rough edges are smoothed, he becomes menacing, not just in his deeds, but in his appearance as well. Compared to him, Skyler appears rooted in the ordinary. indeed, for a while, she is visibly weighed down with pregnancy, viewed here not as fertility, but rather, as a symbol of the artist’s enslavement.

It is little wonder Skyler provokes such visceral reactions; her character carries the burden of many pernicious tropes.