An earlier post focused on how great the gap can be between the achievement of an artist in his art and the depths to which he can sink in his life (historically it’s usually been a ‘he’). In His Writings, Bahá’u’lláh makes clear that for Bahá’ís there should be no such distance between what a person professes and how they are (Gleanings: page 305).
CXXXIX: Say: Beware, O people of Bahá, lest ye walk in the ways of them whose words differ from their deeds.
I ended up wondering what the possible explanations for such huge gaps might be. I am most intrigued by two ways of accounting for the vast gulfs that can separate an artist’s life from his or her art: the psychological and the spiritual.
Tomalin, in her fascinating biography of Dickens, plainly felt she’d found one of the first kind. She was delighted to have been able to quote Dostoevsky’s account of his conversation with Dickens whom he met, apparently, on his visit to London in 1862. It seems to shed so much light on the relationship between the man and his art (page 322):
The person he [the writer] sees most of, most often, actually every day is himself. When it comes to a question of why a man does something else, it’s the author’s own actions which make him understand. or fail to understand, the sources of human action. Dickens told me the same thing when I met him at the office of his magazine … in 1862. He told me that all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather. what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. ‘From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life.’ ‘Only two people?’ I asked.
Tomalin’s comments below show that this could be gold, though it’s clear she feels the insights Dickens has shared seem slightly improbable given the slender nature of the acquaintance (ibid):
This is an amazing report, and if Dostoevsky remembered correctly it must be Dickens’s most profound statement about his inner life and his awareness of his own cruelty and bad behaviour. It is as though with Dostoevsky he could drop the appearance of perfect virtue he felt he had to keep up before the English public. It also suggests that he was aware of drawing his evil characters from a part of himself that he disapproved of and yet could not control. Dostoevsky’s Dickens reminds us of Eleanor Picken‘s, now one sort of man, now another, the mood-swinging, the charm turning to aggression, the fun that gets out of hand.
In a Sunday Times article she revealed that there is now considerable doubt over the authenticity of this account and it will be relegated to a footnote in future editions. The trail back to the original documents breaks down, and Dickens was only in London for two days during the Russian novelist’s visit. They did have a common language in which to communicate though as both were proficient in French. I thought it worth including as a plausible account of how the black and white world of heroes and villains in some of Dickens’ novels could’ve been rooted in the flaws and virtues of his own character.
While Dostoevsky’s comments can be seen as describing what’s happening during the creative act, in this case of a novelist, it doesn’t really help us understand how a Dickens would have arrived at that place or why. They are compatible with those accounts which see human beings as having a dual potential: angelic and satanic. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá summarises this and we can see clearly how the spiritual, the psychological and the creative can overlap in this domain:
What is inspiration? It is the influx of the human heart. But what are satanic promptings which afflict mankind? They are the influx of the heart also. How shall we differentiate between them? The question arises, How shall we know whether we are following inspiration from God or satanic promptings of the human soul?
(Foundations of World Unity: page 46-47)
These questions are crucial. The idea of ‘inspiration’ lies at the heart of our exploration of creative writing. The dual potential we find here needs some unpacking in this context. One way among many is to look at the matter of the heart which is really the heart of the matter.
Elsewhere I have dealt at some length with the concept of the heart as a mirror (see the first three links below). Various factors too complex to go into here can cause us to make two kinds of interacting mistake. We can turn the mirror to those areas of experience that degrade us as human beings: that’s the first mistake. Then we can also identify with what we experience reflected in our heart: that is the second and by far the greater mistake. To do so can make a mistake even out of reflecting higher things because we come to think that we are what we are turned towards and become proud of the glory we find there as though it were our own.
Great art is capable of reflecting both these areas of experience without making the mistake of identifying with either of them. This results in the breath-taking balance of Shakespeare’s art where he depicts evil and the suffering its causes without, in his greatest work, losing perspective and descending into a theatre of cruelty that seems to enjoy the horror. He combines compassion and detachment to an astonishing degree.
It is hard to find the man behind the characters. Perhaps we are lucky that we know so little of his true biography that we cannot expose the discrepancy between the life and the art in his case as in that of Dickens, or perhaps his life was more of a piece with his art. I’d like to think so.
We are no nearer understanding, though, why some people identify so closely with their own narrow interests that they ride roughshod over others, either in the name of their art or simply to gratify a whim, while others can rise above their own perspective and embrace the views and needs of others with life-enhancing compassion, not just in their art but in their lives as well.
Temporary states of mind induced by periods of threat or stress are not what we’re after here. We’re looking for traits of character rather than states of mind. In that case, early experience as well as inherited temperament are bound to play a part. But is there something about high levels of creative skill that forges an inescapable life-time link with self-centredness?
Does a selfless artist seem the exception because egotism is needed before great art can emerge? How else, we might ask, is a genius going to persist so obsessively with the thousands of hours of intensive practice that the fostering of such a gift requires (see link below to post about effort)? The high levels of drive that seem so essential to great success in any field in our society seem to correlate with a high degree of self-centredness. But is that just because we live in a culture that cultivates and rewards the ruthlessly competitive?
It is perhaps impossible to prove it either way at this point in human history. Maitreyabandhu, whom I have quoted at length in two previous posts (see last two in the list below), has a subtle take on this whole issue that suggests that this binding chain is not only breakable, it may even be undermining an artist’s ability to rise to the highest levels of achivement in his or her chosen field.
He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in this Autumn’s Poetry Review pages 68-69):
The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc – breakthroughs into a new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.
If we are to move as a species from our present level of functioning, both as individuals and as societies, it is to be hoped that the vision unfolded in Maitreyabandhu’s Buddhist approach as well as those of other spiritual traditions, including that of the Bahá’í Faith, will prove within our reach. The day when great artistic skill and noble character consistently combine to produce works of uplifting genius, we will know our culture has achieved true integrity.
I believe that to be possible but I don’t for one moment think it will be easy, so deeply are we convinced that great creativity in any field sadly but almost invariably flourishes best in the soil of extreme egotism.