Saturday, March 29, 2014

Turning Point, Part II: Why Writers Write

Continued from: Turning Point

Still Life Writing Table 
William Michael Harnett (1848-1892)
Private Collection

The three dimensions, Writing for love, economy and artefact

We succeed in writing (as opposed to blogging or publishing) when we manage to transmit something of value to the world. I have categorized the three main values as being associated with genuine self-expression, the benefits associated with utility, and the tangible production of objects of worth. Notably my opinion is that of a western writer living in the 21st century CE. If I were eastern in my mindset or writing from the vantage point of another time period, I'd find other examples to convey my inner sentiments, but as I am a "me" operating from this specific set of attitudes, I am focusing on I approach writing as it is understood in our current era, and am using examples from this point of reference. 

As far as writing for love is concerned, I am drawing on what psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and world leaders skilled in the art of well-being are saying: when individuals do not feel that they have an outlet for genuine self-expression, which is an act of self-love, they are more vulnerable to the negative effects associated with low self-esteem or low self-worth. The love that we express toward ourselves, that we pass on to one another, enables us to acquire 'self-esteem' - a type of resilience for life, without which we cannot as capably engage when life's unforeseen events arise. Resilience in physics is the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape. For living beings, it is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties or tough times encountered in life. Even though the principle of physics does not always apply to the complex emotional states associated with being in human form, the general validity of this principle seems similar: the more endowed we are with a certain level of self-esteem, the more we express love for ourselves, the easier it is to overcome setbacks and obstacles, and the easier it is, perhaps, to progress forward those things for which we strive as we gain momentum in overcoming preconceived impediments. Here we find a fundamental element of love: genuine self-expression. And this lies at the heart of my writing in which, in the vast majority of cases, not only have I written from a state of happiness and well-being, I actually wrote while in a state of love: for myself, for my children, and for the notion of existence in and of itself. In this respect, one could stay that writing an act of worship. 

The second element, just as fundamental, is economy. This is what one might call the dimension of the 'symbolic', of which economy is, to some extent, the archetype. Culturally speaking, economy, the system associated with the production, distribution or trade, and consumption of limited goods and services, is first and foremost the glorification of money, which we are raised to respect because it is associated with the means by which we might live "the good life". Economy or, rather, money, is that substance with which we cannot live without if we wish to safeguard ourselves against the harshness of living in a world of limited resources. It's hard to argue with the value of money, as it is difficult to negotiate with the reality of biological needs. In this case, the principle of "have" and "have not" is a very profound motivator of action, which enables us to live that good life, fulfilling our needs and our wants. To put it more simply, most of us must work or invest effort in obtaining those goods and services we need to maintain our health and lifestyle. Unless we are born into circumstances in which this need has been met by our parents or custodians, most must push forward into the world in a way that results in these needs and wants being met. In this respect, publishing can serve as the means by which people meet those needs and wants. 

Finally, there are artefacts or objects of worth. This is what I would relate back to the ancient mindset, for it was the our ancestors, who, essentially, invented objects of worth. Henceforth, this is how we have learned to associate our productions. Whether these productions are literary, artistic, or scientific (i.e., utile), they are one way in which we pass along knowledge to others (including future generations). This transference of knowledge is the catalyst by which we grow and prosper as a society. Without these tangible productions, we would be continually forced to reinvent the wheel. 

Love, economy, and artefacts are the three categories related to our success in the endeavor known as writing. Recall again that I am talking of writing, not of blogging or publishing, even if artefacts are associated with success directly derived from the writing process. 

The Rosetta Stone, 
Egypt, Ptolemaic Period, 196 BCE
Currently: British Museum

Self-expression imperils respect for economy and the value of objects

Stemming from the ideals associated with the French Revolution, self-love comprises the very heart of western ideals. We love ourselves enough to stand up for ourselves and for others. With such a passion and sentimentality pulsing through the veins of modern western society, far too often are these taken to the extreme, or to points that make it difficult to focus on the real needs associated with economy and the transference of knowledge via objects of worth. Think of the 90-page essay Nietzsche wrote, at the age of fifteen, to his fellow students in high school, in Greek, no less, on the comparative merits of Sophocles and Euripides, to gauge how much our children, however intelligent they might be, have lost the capacity for hard work when compared with the good pupils of bygone centuries. Writing in Greek today, or even during Nietzsche's time (the nineteenth century), is essentially an incomprehensible amount of work. Few western children at the age of fifteen, however brilliant, would be able to write a fraction of what Nietzsche, Schelling, and other literary geniuses wrote by the time puberty hit. One can't help but wonder if we are seeing a decline in the capacity for economy and in the production of objects of worth given our cultural preoccupation with self-worth. 

This is a fact directly connected with the ideals stemming forth from the French Revolution. While one could argue that more is being produced then ever before, thanks to our living in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, this does not necessary denote that items being rolled off the assembly line are of the same calibre as those produced by the master craftsmen of any given enterprise, writing notably included. We love ourselves so much, and sometimes to the point that we want others to love us too, that we lack the minimum authority associated with understanding economy on a large scale, as well as the importance associated with producing objects of worth. 

Marie Antoinette in Muslin dress (1783)
Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842)

Self-love is a problem but it can also be a good thing

Loving oneself is tricky business. It undermines our desire and our capacity for economy and for production, but it is not by economy and production alone that we grow and prosper as a society. To live one's life in pursuit of economy and production only, indifferent to the inner need for peace and serenity, is akin to adopting a stoic mindset: a mindset that promotes the endurance of pain, hardship and effort without a display of feelings and without complaint. On the contrary: it is loving oneself from which stems our ability to love others, and by doing so, we are genuinely inspired toward self-expression, which includes the activities associated with cheerful participation in the world economy as well as with those thoughts and sensations that ignite our innate desire to produce artefacts of worth. Truly loving ourselves arises within us an awareness of our own needs and interests, just as loving others allows us to perceive theirs. Both aspects of love are vital for overall progress and growth of the world community, her economy, and her legacy.

Ghent Altarpiece (1432)
Jan van Eyck

This triptych of value associated with writing is present throughout the history of western culture. The Ghent Altarpiece, or Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, completed in 1432 by Jan van Eyck, is considered the first great painting of the Renaissance and is the world's most coveted masterpiece. Scholars argue that it is is the single most important painting ever made. Standing before this altarpiece, one cannot help but feel overwhelmed by its monumentality. By the details, the strands of hair, the richness of its artistic realism, and by the truly masterful display of what oil paints, in the hands of a master, can become. These effects dazzle the mind and eyes alike, permitting a whole new level of intricacy to invade our subconscious. Basking in the beauty of its complexity, is akin to basking in the beauty of our own complexity. Self-love, in similar fashion to our nostalgic love of objects of worth, connects us to the world and provides for us a sense of cohesion despite the uncertainty that lies just below the surface, an underpainting, if you will, of life's grand production. Our appreciation of objects of beauty and worth is as dynamic and provides the pillar upon which we build each successful society. It is how we apprehend life, how we learn to recognize which items are of value and which are worth preserving. Yet, we would not be faced with the question of what to preserve if there were not individuals creating items for our discernment in the first place. 

This is exactly how self-love corrects itself. We recognize in the masterful works of others the value of production, the worth associated with the work and toil we invest in creating objects rather than just building sandcastles on the beach. Here, the western mindset notably differs from the eastern mindset. Unlike the Buddhist and Hindu practice of creating beautifully impermanent mandalas and objects of worth, only to whisk them away once they are finished, the western desire to hold onto all the beautiful productions we create results in an equally powerful mindset that instills within us the desire to preserve our common global heritage ~ and to create more. As I mentioned earlier, I am of a western mindset, but I do recognize many values associated with the eastern mindset. In this respect, blogging, for me, feels more like an eastern activity than a western one. While there is an undeniable virtual footprint, there is nothing tangible to hold in my hands unless I publish these articles into something tangible.

Today, as the world grows more connected by virtue of the virtual world, the two mindsets, western and eastern, are drawing closer. Of course, we can always come up with counter-examples of how we remain separate, but the overall observation remains true. Those primarily focused on the production of wealth will point out, correctly, that each society continues to take on a larger share of the world's resources. The fact remains that, since the beginning of time, the ways in which we find ourselves living and interacting in the world, the beliefs we hold, and the desires for which we aim, are largely associated with our culture and the era in which we are living, more so than with our own innate talents for any given activity. 

The first thing we need to take care of, however uninteresting this may seem, is the business associated with self-knowledge and self-understanding so that we are positioned in a state conducive to learning. Our ability to become autodidactic learners, a trend on the rise with the advent of easily accessible knowledge via the Internet, directly aids us the skills associated with exercising our minds. By learning and understanding more about the world, we can turn that microscope around and examine ourselves. In doing so, we naturally strive to solve the problems of self as ardently as we strive to solve the problems of the world. By solving our own problems of character, of morality, and of virtue, we invariably interact with others in a way that results in less conflicts and, ultimately, true global progress. 

(To be continued)


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