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The artist looking inwards: Lewis v Parks

Alright, let's set up a fight between two literary greats. First, here is a passage from C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce. The setting is heaven, not clearly the heaven of any particular religion. A painter, referred to as 'the Ghost', has arrived from Earth. He may choose to stay, or he may leave. He has as his guide a person, apparently himself an artist of some sort, who has been there a long time – this guide is referred to in the passage as 'the Spirit'. Immediately upon arrival, the painter, i.e. the Ghost, is shocked by the beauty of what he sees and wants to paint it, but he finds he hasn't got his painting materials with him. His guide, the Spirit, tries to explain that this doesn't matter:

“When you painted on earth – at least in your earlier days – it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too. But here you are having the thing itself. It is from here that the messages came. There is no good telling us about this country, for we see it already. In fact we see it better than you do.” “Then there's never going to be any point in painting here?” “I don't say that. When you've grown into a Person (it's all right, we all had to do it) there'll be some things which you'll see better than anyone else. One of the things you'll want to do will be to tell us about them. But not yet. At present your business is to see. Come and see.” [...] “How soon do you think I could begin painting?” The Spirit broke into laughter. “Don't you see you'll never paint at all if that's what you're thinking about?” he said. “What do you mean?” asked the Ghost. “Why, if you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you'll never learn to see the country.” “But that's just how a real artist is interested in the country.” “No. You're forgetting,” said the Spirit. “That was not how you began. Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.” “Oh, that's ages ago,” said the Ghost. “One grows out of that. Of course, you haven't seen my later works. One becomes more and more interested in paint for its own sake.” “One does, indeed. I also have had to recover from that. It was all a snare. Ink and catgut and paint were necessary down there, but they are also dangerous stimulants. Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling, until, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him. For it doesn't stop at being interested in paint, you know. They sink lower – become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations.”

Next, here is a paragraph from one of the essays in Tim Parks's Adultery and Other Diversions:

‘That there is a natural trajectory in a writer’s production seems obvious enough. One begins in a whirlwind of describing telling evoking. The world is so fresh, so interesting, so urgently in need of our engagement. But once the most obvious material is exhausted, what then? My first unpublished attempt, ‘The Bypass’, was all spoken in the northern intonations of my infancy. I was then weary of that. My first published novel spoke of the Christian charismatic movement in the sixties. I could hardly tackle that again. The second featured an office in Acton where I had worked, a secret love affair. Acton is not a place to revisit and one secret love affair is surely enough. So on and on. Marriage will offer much material. Children. In my case people write to me regularly asking for a third book on Italy. But I feel Italy has had more than its fair share of my attention. One can of course go out and seek material. A novel about Christ’s disciples? A novel about the moon landings? But after this has been done once or twice? There comes a point where the mind grows more interested in the way it deals with materials than with the materials themselves. For there have been so many. Or rather, the mind begins to appreciate that the materials cannot be understood separately from its own operation upon them. It starts to claim hegemony, demand the upper hand. There is an entirely natural inward-turning in a writer’s later development. Not a withdrawal from action, but a penetration of what lies behind all action: the seductive, luminous, coercive, shadowy, genial, and rancorous mind.’

We've got a fight here, right? Either between Parks and Lewis, or Parks and Lewis's Spirit character. For simplicity, I'm just gonna say it's Lewis from now on. I think the Spirit is expressing Lewis's view here. And note we're of course taking 'the writer' in Parks's account to be merely an instance of 'the artist' in Lewis's. In fact, maybe Parks is exactly the kind of artist that Lewis describes as being 'in Deep Hell' – indeed, at the second lowest level of Deep Hell he cares to mention. A proper fight, no? Well, not necessarily. There is not necessarily such a big disagreement here. Very important, perhaps, is that Parks speaks of the mind, not his (or the writer's) own personal mind. This better enables a reading according to which he is describing not necessarily the increasing self-obsession that Lewis identifies as a cardinal vice artists everywhere are susceptible to, but perhaps just one case of 'telling of', in Lewis's terms – a telling of the innermost surroundings, the innermost dynamics of this world we live in, for the mind could be characterised that way, couldn't it? Especially by any who believe the mind to be something inhabited by a soul. And it seems to me this point can stand even if it is his (or the writer's) own personal mind that Parks is referring to. We might ask: Is he interested in it because it's his personally (and to the extent and in those ways it's his personally)? Or is the fact that it's his personally incidental? Still, I'm not sure such an attempt at reconciliation can be wholly successful. Parks mentions becoming less interested in the materials of his art, and more interested in how he deals with them. Isn’t that much like Lewis's vision of the artist losing interest in what he tells of and becoming correspondingly more interested in the telling process itself? Parks specifies the object of his increasing fascination as 'the seductive, luminous, coercive, shadowy, genial, and rancorous mind'. Some might read that and say, 'yes! Exactly! That is how the mind is!' Others might say, 'Speak for yourself! These are far from the first adjectives I'd use to describe my mind, or those of the other people I'm closest to.' Perhaps then Parks is describing his own personality – the more internal aspects of his own personality maybe, but his own personality nonetheless. (And perhaps Parks is guilty of some additional vice in supposing these internal aspects of his own personality to be universal primary features of minds.) So, I take it that they are in disagreement. Yet there's a lot that I agree with in both views. First, I agree with Lewis that artists who are interested in the world around them only or mainly as a source of things to create art about are not going to be great artists. I think great art emerges, normally, from strong feelings about things other than art. 'Telling of' is a catch-all term, of course – sometimes art warns or criticises or condemns, sometimes it commemorates or mourns, sometimes it defends or celebrates or explores appreciatively, etc. Very often it does many of these different things in the same piece, even in the same part of the same piece. In any case, to effectively mourn or celebrate something (for instance), you've got to really care about it for its own sake, haven't you? Caring about it only or mainly as a thing to make art about won't do, surely. Because it just won't be nearly as strong and textured an interest, will it - so it won't return the felt experiences and searing insights that that direct interest would. And I think this is an important point because, in my impression, a lot of people who aspire to be artists (of one kind or another) are not interested in anything nearly so much as they're interested in being artists. I like Lewis's way of putting it: 'if you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you'll never learn to see the country'. And, as an ironic side-effect, you'll never paint it well either. This is an example of what some have called the principle of obliquity: some goals we might have are best achieved not through their direct pursuit, but through the pursuit of other things, which have the achievement of those goals as side-effects. Granted, great artists do normally have real love for their art form, not to say a need for it – and for many reasons, including because it radically empowers them; it empowers them to, in diverse ways, some of them wholly non-intellectual, understand and communicate and fight for what matters to them; and enables them, furthermore, to feel the primitive joys of reflection and self-expression, of mental journeying and making, and of battle too, perhaps. Loving their art form, valuing it in these and other ways, they of course are greatly interested in it. Granted also, some great art, especially in the last hundred years, has been made about the artistic process (I think of Charlie Kaufman's film Synecdoche, New York, or the Toy Story series in another way), but the best of that has exhibited also strong interests in other things, I'm sure, and, well, personally I feel I've more-or-less had my fill of that kind of art – I feel there's rather too much of it about, and its possible contents are pretty well-covered at this point. (But yeah, OK, a changing world – and we've certainly got one of those – will throw up plenty of new possibilities for art-themed art, as well.) I think I also agree with Lewis that a particularly bad way of being an artist is being interested only really in your own reputation. That's not to say a yearning for social recognition, or even the approval of a small number of particular other people, doesn't often play at least some role in the creation of great art. I'm sure it does. We're deeply social animals, and a longing for these kinds of affirmation runs deep in us and motivates us powerfully, and not necessarily any less when there happen to be other things powerfully motivating us as well. But if, in the creation of a work of art, the only really strong interest in operation is one in reputation... It's hard to see there's much fertile ground for artistic inspiration there. If even the artistic medium is a sheer means to an end, no source of joy or fascination in itself... yeah, that doesn't bode at all well, does it? I'm less pessimistic about the artist that has, as their major fascination, their own personality, or their own mind. Well, I feel I should emphasise that I think great artists, generally, are gonna be people with a multiplicity of strong interests; and strong interests do have a tendency of spilling over, one into another – given, as Dirk Gently puts it, ‘the fundamental interconnectedness of all things’. But yeah, more in line with Parks, I think a major purpose of art is the pursuit of self-understanding. And why shouldn't that be the predominant purpose in some instances? (So many great artworks quite explicitly take this kind of form – from the self-portraits of painters like Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Bacon, to confessional poetry like that of Sylvia Plath, to raw personal music like Bon Iver's, to literary novels like Knausgaard's My Struggle... I mean really the list is endless.) Parks makes the point that ‘the materials cannot be understood separately from [the mind's] operation upon them’. I've studied Philosophy, and a bit of Psychology – I agree with Parks on this point. And I agree with what follows: that artists that don't pay significant attention to their own mind, don't scrutinise it, don't try to get to know its ways, are guilty of a kind of neglect, or can be, certainly. But I want to add balance here. OK, the materials cannot be understood separately from the mind's operation upon them, but neither surely can the mind be understood separately from their operation upon it. I mean to say, how can the artist – or anyone – experience their mind, in all its diversity, except through diverse engagements with the outside world, bringing diverse forces to bear on the mind? More prosaically: you learn new things about yourself when you put yourself in new situations, and that's as true for artists as for anyone else. It's not as if Parks, to satisfy his mature writer's fascination, could simply sit in his armchair for the rest of his life, mentally probing the different elements of his seductive, luminous, coercive, shadowy, genial, and rancorous mind; no, not moving from his armchair would radically, radically limit his ability to mentally probe – or even see – said mind. To really see anything much of his mind, he's got to get out and live! He's got to, in Lewis's terms, see the country, catch glimpses of its Heavenly beauty, love its light, etc. And again, getting out and living simply or mainly in the service of probing his own mind probably wouldn't get him very far. Because he wouldn't be invested enough for all that much of an affect to be had, and it's the affect that makes the difference. (Why leave your armchair, if there's not gonna be much affect?) No, it has to be for its own sake. I think of Orwell's words on Shakespeare: ‘he loved the surface of the earth and the process of life’. There's a prescription, as good as any, for great artistry. Parks doesn't say any of this, but he doesn't say anything in clear contradiction with any of it, and I don't think he would disagree with any of it. In Adultery and Other Diversions, he speaks in very engaged and insightful ways about a wide range of subjects other than his own mind, and he's continued to do so in his subsequent writing, as far as I'm familiar with it. Nor do I think, for one moment, that Lewis was guilty in his writing of not scrutinising his own mind and personality much. (See his A Grief Observed, or The Screwtape Letters, for instance.) Though maybe he, in his words here, seems more like he's disclaiming the value of doing that. Even so, those words are a good counter-weight to Parks's, I think. A good fight in the end, wasn't it?



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