Saturday, May 1, 2010
The second sort of solitude that comes to mind is the existential anxiety that comes from one’s awareness of mortality and one’s own singleness of journey through this finite life. This is the Angst of Kierkegaard and Heidegger. This kind of solitude occurs because each individual is their own locus of consciousness. One can share ideas, but one can’t share actual consciousness. Because we each have separate brains and nervous systems we can’t co-experience sensations and we can’t recall each other’s memories. Yes, we can each taste some sugar at the same time, but how can we ever know if we each experienced the identical sensation of sweetness?
So, each a universe unto themselves, we die alone and a whole universe dies with us, even if others crowd round the bed. We are even born alone despite all the physical intimacy involved in the event. The trauma of birth separation simply serves to underscore that essential aloneness. As the old gospel song has it, “you gotta walk that lonesome valley, you gotta walk it by yourself ... ain’t nobody else gonna walk it for you, you gotta walk it by yourself”. This solitude touches on our artistic concerns.
But there is a third kind of solitude, I think the one we are most concerned with here. The isolation of imagination. To have colour reception in a world where most only seem to tune in on black & white sets. Does this kind of solitude breed depression, or is a melancholic disposition needed in order to be aware of it? (Rilke battled depression, especially after WW1). This solitude of imagination particularly occurs when the above existential solitude is consciously observed and acutely felt.
Also, in large part, it is a solitude that comes from being in the small upper percentiles of the population in regard to giftedness. It may be very high intelligence, or exceptional aesthetic awareness, or highly attuned emotional and social intelligences, or creative imagination, or facility with language or music. Inevitably there are limited numbers of persons in a population who are capable understanding the mental and creative output of such individuals. And so they seek out compatriots that are similarly gifted. For example, Rilke joined the Worpswede Group, the German proto-expressionist colony of the late 19th century (could his verse be regarded as a kind of lyrical expressionism?).
Everyone knows the solitude of an unshared interest or hobby. It is the reason why people join book clubs, fly-fishing clubs, and orchid societies. Fortunately there are plenty of people about who like to read or go fishing or grow flowers. But what if one has a heightened facility for imaginative engagement and lucid understanding of what one reads, or is so obsessed with trout he will sleep in the snow just to caste a line at dawn. Already the club becomes less attractive.
Collaborative art making is in vogue at the moment, made possible because installations have become ubiquitous and they lend themselves to committee work. Situational comedy and Hollywood script writing certainly illustrate that highly skilled writing can be done, even must be done in large ‘industry’ projects, collaboratively. Seventeenth century paintings were frequently studio productions where the master would paint in the face, the fabric specialist was called in for the costumes and then apprentices filled in the background. Drama too was workshopped and not simply scripted. Nevertheless, nearly all our serious great works that deal with the human condition have been written, painted or composed by individuals. The reason for this goes directly back to the existential and imaginative solitudes already described. The great works, not of science and engineering, but of the arts, are the voices of gifted individuals rising to cry out ‘how it is’.
Which puts me in mind of the opening lines of the Rilke’s Duino Elegies: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me from amongst the orders of angels?”.
Rilke’s cry is not heard by the angels, could not even be heard by the immortals, but is heard by those fellow mortals who are themselves familiar with his human condition. This was not only an evocative statement of solitude, but required solitude to write. Writing and painting need ‘space’. Furthermore, there is a ‘cone of silence’ that descends during the writing or the painting process when one gets ‘in the zone’. This is the solitude of rapt attention, absorbed focus, singularity of purpose, distraction from daily routine, absorption in ideas, preoccupation with complex activity.
The creative process has a meditative or hypnotic quality about it at times. And it is during those times that the content of the unconscious is able to well up and spill into the work. In his first letter, Letters to a Young Poet , Rilke writes of the “descent into yourself and into your solitude “. He explains, “Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. ... I can't give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows.” Collaborative projects are the very antithesis of this. They have the greatest difficulty in accessing the unconscious in any compelling way.
But art practice in solitude is bitter-sweet. Art is a communication. The poet writes, the painter paints, in the hope that others might read or see – and understand. But the law of percentiles means that few will. If the art is too solipsistic and esoteric then maybe none will.
But skylarks must sing whether we are below to hear or not. Alpine plants will bloom in the most inhospitable of places while the herd tramples past.
What other choice is there? ... Not to bloom at all? ... For skylarks to fall silent?