On the Power of Art: An Unnecessary Digression
September 3, 2012 § Leave a comment
I can safely say that the question of the importance of literature has inevitably crossed the path of every serious reader. Czeslaw Milosz, whom I think of as one of the finest poets of the 20th century, once wrote that ‘Poetry is quite different… Since poetry deals with the singular, not the general, it cannot – if it is good poetry – look at things of this earth other than as colorful, variegated, and exciting, and so, it cannot reduce life, with all its pain, horror, suffering, and ecstasy, to a unified tonality of boredom or complaint. By necessity poetry is therefore on the side of being and against nothingness.’ (1)
The question here is not whether all types of literature adhere to this definition of the nature of poetry or not, and this unnecessary digression isn’t a comparison between the qualities of poetry and prose. However, the nature of poetry as described by Milosz can be read in a wider context: I think of it as a possible explanation of the importance of literature at large, or even art as a whole.
But before I dive into that, allow me to digress: Let’s agree, first of all, on the idea that all forms of art have been created, in the first place, to retell reality, re-represent it, communicate it, probably because the individual reality that was to be communicated to another individual was not lived or witnessed by him, that is, the latter. I imagine a primordial man telling another primordial man about the adventures he had while hunting in the dense forests. Let’s agree that that, before even the mythical explanations of the world, was the birth of a primordial and unique form of art: In other words, communicating individual stories to an individual or a small circle of individuals, who, in return, communicate it to other individuals, etc. We can safely conclude then that the creation of art is, at least in its origin, a purely individualistic action.
But that’s not all. Art is also a rebellion on reality. Mario Vargas Llosa, the great Peruvian author, realized that and tried to explain it in his Letters to a Young Novelist. Allow me to quote, ‘Why would anyone who is deeply satisfied with reality, with real life as it is lived, dedicate himself to something as insubstantial and fanciful as the creation of fictional realities? Naturally, those who rebel against life as it is, using their ability to invent different lives and different people, may do so for any number of reasons, honorable or dishonorable, generous or selfish, complex or banal. The nature of this basic questioning of reality, which to my mind lies at the heart of every literary calling, doesn’t matter at all. What matters is that the rejection be strong enough to fuel the enthusiasm for a task as quixotic as tilting at windmills – the slight-of-hand replacement of the concrete, objective world of life as it is lived with the subtle and ephemeral world of fiction.’(2) Thus, in this retelling and re-representing of reality, an individual automatically refines and recreates it. Upon realizing that, storytelling, for example, ceases to be an innocent action. Art is a recreation that is rebellious, whether consciously or not.
Finally, art is also truth. By presenting the core or the truth of the world it depicts – in a thingly quality uniquely its own according to Heidegger – art contributes in representing truth. But what is truth? I’ll leave that question to great philosophers and sages for sadly I cannot enter this debate without taking a gargantuan amount of space in the process. But let’s say, for the sake of easiness, that what is meant by truth here is the original and inward nature of things. The truth in the shoes Van Gogh drew (a uniquely Heideggerian example to point truth out). The truth in the chair Picasso drew. That which if no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not, as St. Augustine once put it. Let me conclude this point with a quote from Heidegger’s Poetry, Language and Thought, ‘Yet truth is put into the work. What truth is happening in the work? Can truth happen at all and thus be historical? Yet truth, people say, is something timeless and supertemporal.’(3)
But I digress. Apologies! Let’s return to Milosz’s quote at the very beginning to bring this circle to its logical end. ‘Poetry is on the side of being and against nothingness’ because ‘it cannot reduce life, with all its pain, horror, suffering, and ecstasy, to a unified tonality of boredom or complaint.’ My argument is very simple: This is not only a quality of poetry, but also a quality of prose, of all literature, even – I dare say – of all art. If it is good art. For only good art has truth in it, and this truth is, by default, on the side of being and against nothingness.
Now I have to admit that this article began as a little thought-game on the power of literature and not art as a whole; however, during the process of writing, I somehow realized that I cannot differentiate or draw a clear line between literature and the whole bulk of forms of art in terms of power or influence. Yes, novels might sell better than paintings (and have a larger audience) and films might be more expensive to make than music, but in terms of power, in terms of the unique thing that makes great art the great art it is, all forms are equal in my opinion. However, since literature is my personal favorite of those forms, allow me to linger on it a bit before I end this article. Literature shares the qualities of any form of art, it is an individualistic action designed to communicate on a much deeper level, intellectually and linguistically. It is also an act of rebellion which carries truth in its heart. Needless to say, it is precisely because of those qualities that an unbelievable power stems out of literature. And it is this power that drives Italo Calvino, for instance, to say, ‘Perhaps it is a sign of our millennium’s end that we frequently wonder what will happen to literature and books in the so-called postindustrial era of technology. My confidence in the future of literature consists in the knowledge that there are things that only literature can give us, by means specific to it.’(4)
But literature has an advantage over any other form of art. It is not that literature is more powerful than other forms of art, but it is more immediate. The immediacy of literature differs from the immediacy of cinema in the fact that when we read, our whole consciousness is immersed in the act of reading. That is not the case with painting, for instance, which can be sometimes alienating, or films, which we cannot substitute for reality. Literature ‘reveal[s] the colors and complexities of our lives and [is] full of people, faces, and objects we feel we recognize. Just as in dreams, when we read novels we are sometimes so powerfully struck by the extraordinary nature of the things we encounter that we forget where we are and envision ourselves in the midst of the imaginary events and people we are witnessing.’(5) And this is the uniqueness of literature: the ability to sustain the illusion – or the naiveté as Pamuk likes to call it – that forces us to see the same world with new eyes.
Let me conclude: Art, great art, can change the world with the power it exerts on its subjects. And in a world that constantly bludgeons ideals and universal truths, the only absolute to look for is to be found in a brush stroke that signifies meaning, in the wailing of a violin, in a carnation drawn with words, between heaps and heaps of paper. We need art now more than any other time in history. We need poetry. We need prose. We need a new Cezanne to teach us how to see with new eyes, and a new Debussy. Oh, and we need readers and lovers of art. Need I say more?
(1) Milosz, A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry.
(2) Llosa, Letters to a Young Novelist (translated by Natasha Wimmer)
(3) Heidegger, Poetry, Language and Thought (translated by Albert Hofstadter)
(4) Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (translated by Patrick Creagh)
(5) Pamuk, The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist (translated by Nazim Dikbaş)