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Dancing with uncertainty

In The Courage to Create, Rollo May argues that creativity is dependent on the limitations of human existence: it is the confrontation with borders that inspires people to push against them. “Creativity arises out of the tension between spontaneity and limitations, the latter (like the river banks) forcing the spontaneity into the various forms which are essential to the work of art or poem,” he writes (114). The partners in this tension can be envisioned as imagination and trepidation, energy and lethargy, life and death. May describes them as freedom and restriction—the infinite possibility of the imagination and the unyielding reality of mortality and all the lesser restraints (115). At the meeting of these unlikely consorts emerges the struggle that bears the most beautiful fruits of human activity: art, science, design, and all other occupations that generate new directions in the way we think, express ourselves, and live our lives.

For psychologist Carl Jung this struggle operates on a societal level: the artist is a conduit for the vision of mankind, which rebalances the collective psyche. He describes this as an enormous and difficult task: “There are hardly any exceptions to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of the creative fire” (230). Creativity is the harder choice, but it’s also the more rewarding path for the individual and for society at large. To deny creativity is to go to the eight-grade dance and stand against the wall. To practice “creative courage,” as May calls it, is to navigate an awkward body under the lights and eyes of our peers to the groove of life—to dance with uncertainty. All people experience pain due to their limits; the artist transforms pain into joy. The dancer creates grace through movement; he defies gravity with his own volition; he smiles in the face of his own immortality.

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Me dancing in a park in Braunschweig, Germany, in 2007 with my group beebop-n-butoh.

But the dance of creativity is not a dance of chaos. It requires a frame, a practice, the daring of disclosure, and the willingness to express. In other words, creativity demands the contributions of both partners in the dance: discipline and freedom. The four elements above are key to the creative process: the artist must begin with a dedicated space, fill it with a structure that nurtures openness and intention, take the real risk of exposing her deepest and most honest impressions, and offer the resulting creation to the world that gives it a life beyond the inventor.

By frame, I refer to the practical, physical aspects of the creative space. As Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own, “…a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Implied in Woolf’s political statement about creativity as opportunity, is the fact that the creative act requires time (money) and space. More specifically, space represents solitude and silence, which are imperative as a basis for creative inspiration. Mozart writes, “Where I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer…it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly” (34). A writer’s frame may be a room, as Woolf suggests, or a laptop on a table for a dedicated hour. While writing poetry for my creative project this semester, I found the space I needed by opening my computer, setting my intention to write, and tuning into my own body. Even at busy times in a home with children, I found a quiet corner and projected an air of solitude that kept distractions at bay. In Fearless Creating Eric Maisel calls “hushing” the most critical exercise in his book. “Find a quiet place,” he advises. “If there is no quiet place in your environment, that’s your first task, to make a haven in which silence is available” (5).

I propose that this quiet place is both the physical space the artist occupies, as well as her own body, which houses all the psychic, emotional, and spiritual aspects of creativity. As Yeats implies in his poem “Long-Legged Fly,” creativity must originate in the individual: “Like a long-legged fly upon the stream / His mind moves upon silence” (109). The silence from which creativity is born requires a physical frame of space and time that is dedicated to the creative act and has multiple layers, beginning with a quiet mind, a still body and a calm haven—a room, a table, a yoga mat, or an open road. With practice of internal silence, a skilled creator can find solitude wherever she roams.

“Hushing,” as Maisel calls the kind of silent, meditative state that opens a channel of reflection and inspiration, is one of the disciplines or methods of creativity that fill the creative space. Silencing the mind and tuning into the body, allows the artist to sample fuller dimensions of experience that encompass all the senses. In “Three Pieces on the Creative Process,” Yeats reflects on “The Thinking of the Body” and his own response to two paintings in his house: “Neither painting could move us at all, if our thought did not rush out to the edges of our flesh, and it is so with all good art” (106). Art demands a physical presence and a physical response, which requires less emphasis on thinking and more focus on feeling and sensing. For most modern people, this is not a natural state of being, but one that must be sought and practiced.

Silence allows creative inspiration to emerge from the subconscious: the words of poetry come through the physical senses, the deep gut feelings into the quiet mind. As I practiced silence of mind and sensation of body in writing poetry, I thought about the poet A.E. Housman’s description of the process of poetry making as a “bubbling up” of sensation: “…so far as I could make out, the source of the suggestions thus proffered to the brain was an abyss…the pit of the stomach” (91).

But listening is just one half of the practice of creativity. As writer and artist Jean Cocteau suggests in “The Process of Inspiration,” it is all too easy for inspiration to remain in the half-shadows of sense perception: it’s the work of the artist to drag the vague beginnings of creation from the dark into the light. “To write, to conquer ink and paper, accumulate letters and paragraphs, divide them with periods and commas, is a different matter than carrying around the dream of a play or a book,” he writes (80). This is why the artist must fill the creative space with tools and techniques for acting on what he senses. In the case of poetry, the active half of writing requires putting down words; arranging, rearranging and substituting them; reading them aloud, acting them out, drawing them in shapes on paper, or typing them. Conscious effort must add the spirit of “whatever it takes” to give birth to art from the deep amorphous pool of subconscious experience. Passive listening and active articulation make up the two aspects of practice required in the creative process.

The frame and practice elements of creativity relate to the discipline side of the dance – they are the banks of the river, to use May’s metaphor. They are the tools an artist uses to tame and shape the wild rush of imagination and inspiration. But without the spark of spontaneity, the daring of uncovering the less civilized impetus of art, creativity would not produce its many splendid things. Maisel addresses “wildness” as a fundamental element of creating without fear. It’s “many faces,” according to Maisel, are “passion, vitality, rebelliousness, nonconformity, freedom from inhibitions” (12). He literally encourages artists to create while naked the way Georgia O’Keeffe was found painting in the nude. Getting naked in the creative process is a way of tapping into the reality of who you are. It’s about allowing the deepest, most authentic parts of yourself to be revealed in your work. The artist who dares to expose her authentic truths must confront and move through the anxiety of uncertainty. She must ask tough questions: what will I find out about myself; will it be accepted and understood by others? True creativity cannot skirt these questions without denying its products the power they deserve. Poetry often taps into those unsaid thoughts and intimate feelings that are too frightening to express in everyday conversation. It challenges the poet and the world he lives in, by pushing at the borders of the mundane and acceptable. As I worked on my collection of poems, I found that their entire force was aimed at dredging up, exposing, examining and crafting the perceptions that I otherwise carry silently in a secret part of myself. As May writes in The Courage to Create, the essential element of creativity “is the freedom of artists to give all the elements within themselves free play” (76).

Yet, it’s not enough to put the most beautiful and honest revelation in a frame and hang it in a basement. Creativity is not complete until it is shared. As Valéry writes in “The Course in Poetics,” art is the very exchange of voices—“It is the performance of the poem which is the poem” (99). One of the biggest revelations this semester came from sharing my poetry collection and receiving the responses of readers. How could so many different interpretations, impressions and meanings be evoked from one poem? What sprang from a deeply personal experience of a single individual grew exponentially as it was experienced and processed by those who were on the receiving end of this sharing.

Both these last elements—exposing yourself honestly and sharing the inspiration you have crafted with the world—take a lot of courage. They are the elements that require freedom despite our uncertainty.

I return to the significance of May’s statement about limits and creativity to define a few parameters of the human condition related to creativity. People are emotional creatures: they love deeply and feel strongly despite the fact that nothing in life is permanent. Furthermore, humans have limited knowledge and free will but limited powers—they act but cannot know if their choices are right and cannot control the outcome of their actions. As people move through life they gain knowledge and experience, but if they are open, they also become more acutely aware of how little they know or control as they move steadily toward the ultimate limit of life. The question emerges: what will a person do with her finite time on earth?

To live creatively is to embrace these margins, to live passionately knowing the value of time, health, love, and giving. Experience tells us the difference between love and hate, warmth and aloofness, kindness and greed. As people age they get harder or softer; they brace themselves to avoid pain, or they open themselves up to the experience. Grandparents shower their grandchildren with love; they express their love more easily because they know how precious it is. Creativity is expression—it’s action, but it’s also receptivity. Like breath itself, creativity is taking in and giving out. It’s being open to the unknown, to the spontaneous, the unpredictable—embracing the unforeseen. It’s dancing with the limits of life and the fears those limits evoke. But the dance of creativity is more like ballroom than a rave: you have trained all the moves in the studio and know your partner well, but you must let the passion guide you into unknown territory to be great. You have to dance on the edge.

Works Cited

Cocteau, Jean. “The Process of Inspiration.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 79-80.

Jung, Carl Gustav. “Psychology and Literature.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 217-232.

Maisel, Eric. Fearless Creating. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1995. Print.

May, Rollo. The Courage to Create. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994. Print.

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. “A Letter.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 34-35.

Valéry, Paul. “The Course in Poetics: First Lesson.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 92-105.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. The University of Adelaide, 4 March 2014. Web. 1 Aug. 2014. <https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91r/index.html&gt;

Yeats, William Butler. “Three Pieces on the Creative Process.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 106-109.

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A visual world

le_voyage_dans_la_lune

From A Trip to the Moon by Georges Méliés, 1902

 

Theorists might argue that film influences and reflects cultural presumptions and biases. Contemporary culture is saturated with visual information: film, photography, and video. I often think we are rarely conscious of how visual our world has become and how many snippets of narrative we come in contact with daily, through television, Facebook, YouTube, and Netflix. Film is artistically constructed narrative. When we go to the cinema, we expect to be thrilled by a fictional work. In theory, much film (other than documentary) does not purport to convey reality, whereas other visual media, such as news, video clips, and commercials are presumably based on reality. However, with advances in technology, much of what is produced for television and the Internet has become more cinematic. When our day is filled with moving, clamoring pictures, are we able to distinguish the real from the embellished? Can we learn the devices filmmakers use to create their effects? Can we understand their connection to history, philosophy, and politics? Film theory sheds some light on the connections between culture, the work, and the viewer.

A vivid film can enter our dreams, follow us into our day, and color our emotions and perceptions.

Film theory can help us be more conscious consumers of the experiences we seek in film, but it can also wake a more general tendency to ask why, what, and how when presented with any product of art or culture. As Nealon and Giroux convey in the first chapter of The Theory Toolbox, theory prompts us to ask questions about what we might otherwise accept as “natural” (5). Moreover, they write, theory invites us to think and act, not merely consume (5).

It’s natural to be swept away by the cinematic experience; this is certainly one of the joys of film. However, film can be a powerful conveyer of messages. It functions very similarly to our own minds and memories in its rich presentation of images and sounds, its emotive impact, and its manipulation of time and space. A vivid film can enter our dreams, follow us into our day, and color our emotions and perceptions. Today we have movies in 3D; tomorrow we will have virtual reality movies. It seems that critical thinking about film is becoming ever more important as film becomes ever more engulfing and enticing.

Postmodernist theorist Jean Baudrillard argued that signs now precede reality—technology has become so astute at simulation that it has replaced the real (“The Precession of Simulacra”). When I first read Baudrillard several years ago, I reflected on a tangible experience that supported his theory. Upon returning to America after 13 years of living abroad, I noticed that people had begun to speak to each other in sarcastic manner that was similar to the way Americans in sitcoms spoke. It seemed to me that they were imitating the imitation of their lives. Since then, I have assimilated, and it’s no longer noticeable to me, but the question sticks with me: how much of what we have become can be traced back to the media we consume?

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. The Precession of Simulacra. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 1556-1566. Print.

Nealon, Jeffrey T., and Susan Searls Giroux. The Theory Toolbox: Critical Concepts For The Humanities, Arts, And Social Sciences. n.p.: Lanham, Md. : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012. Print.


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Freeing the Body as revisionary art

 

freeingbodysketch

Sketch inspired by Marina Abramovic’s Freeing the Body, Angela Anderson

In 1976, performance artist Marina Abramovic danced for eight hours until she collapsed.

It was one performance of a three-part conceptual artwork called Freeing the Body, which sought to empty the mind, body and voice of the artist. Although Abramovic has rejected the feminist label, Freeing the Body demonstrated a revisionist spirit that was central to second wave feminism (Baker). Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar write about the dynamic that historically lead women artists into “a battle for self-creation” in The Madwoman in the Attic (1929). Women who dare to write or create in a patriarchal society are forced to revise their own image, they argue. In Freeing the Body, Abramovic stretches the surfaces of her identity—physicality, memory and expression—until they are reduced to a blank slate, which the artist calls freedom. This conscious reduction of self symbolizes the female artist’s “revisionary process” (1929).

In Freeing the Body, Abramovic stretches the surfaces of her identity—physicality, memory and expression—until they are reduced to a blank slate, which the artist calls freedom.

According to Gilbert and Gubar, the woman writer’s struggle “ . . . is not against her (male) precursor’s reading of the world but against his reading of her. In order to define herself as an author she must redefine the terms of her socialization” (1929). In Freeing the Body, Abramovic covers her head and dances naked to an African drum until collapsing. The viewer sees her female form in motion, driven on by the beat until it falls. The faceless body is “freed” through the artist’s command—to dance until it can no longer function. Symbolically, the body represents Hegel’s slave to the mind’s master, which is set free through work (Phenomenology of Spirit). Abramovic has rendered her working female form useless, thereby reaching a state where new purpose can arise. It is a radical demonstration of redefining the self, which Gilbert and Gubar say is essential to creation of a new vision, one that must reach beyond female anatomy.

In The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar quote Adrienne Rich on feminist revision: “Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction . . . an act of survival” (1930). In the second part of her artwork, Freeing the Memory, Abramovic sits in a chair with her head tilted back while she speaks a free-flowing stream of words for one and a half hours until her mind goes blank. In this performance, the artist traverses her memories until she bankrupts yet another part of her self. She reaches back in her mind to come to a place where she can “see with fresh eyes” through emptiness.

Women artists on the quest for recreation are the girls in “The Red Shoes” of Anne Sexton’s poem who illustrate the “hidden but crucial tradition of uncontrollable madness” by taking apart their bodies, say Gilbert and Gubar (1935). The third part of Abramovic’s work, Freeing the Voice, the artist lies on her back and screams for three hours until she loses her voice. To the audience, the artist might appear mad, the performance an exorcism of the hysterical female Gilbert and Gubar refer to in their text (1932). Yet, her aim is to exhaust yet another instrument of expression—one that is clearly connected to both mind and body as evident in the physical and mental effort involved as she pushes out each cry.

In Freeing the Body, Abramovic dismantles her own body to reach a point she calls freedom—a freedom of all that has been written in the nerves, muscles and brain tissues of her body. Her art is conceptual, but she uses her own flesh to make her point. The fact that the artist did this performance piece in the 1970s during second wave feminism is significant. She showed the world that a woman with red shoes could dance herself to freedom: She could take control of her own identity—her self—and traverse its realms to find a new place free of their influences.

Works Cited

Abramovic, Marina. “Four Performances 1975-76.” YouTube. July 15, 2013. Web. November 10, 2013.

Baker, Katie J.M. “Marina Abramovic Isn’t a Feminist.” Jezebel. July 30, 2012. Web. November 11, 2013.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 1923-1938. Print.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Phenomenology of Spirit. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 541-547. Print.


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Anna Karenina and the deception of courtly love

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“Atheist in Love,” from Rapture, a collection of poems and forms, Angela Anderson 

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is one of the most famous love stories of all time. Yet, the tale is a tragedy. At the heart of its woeful ethos is the deceptive promise of courtly love, as explained by Slavoj Zizek in his 1994 essay “Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing.” The “Lady,” or the beloved, is unattainable, Zizek proposes, because she is not real—she is a culturally constructed mechanism that paradoxically precludes authentic love. The romantic notion of spiritual love is narcissistically projected onto the vacant Other (2408). The lover can never truly see the beloved, and the result is perpetual separation (2413). In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy presents two stories as possible outcomes of love, but the “fantasy matrix” of courtly love leaves all parties—the lover, the loved, the faithful and the betrayed—ultimately and sorrowfully alone (Zizek 2426).

The lover can never truly see the beloved, and the result is perpetual separation.

According to Zizek, courtly love is not an earnest pursuit of relationship, but rather “a social game of ‘as-if’” based on the masochistic dynamic of man as the victim and woman as the master (2409). “It is the victim (the servant in the masochistic relationship) who initiates a contract with the Master (woman), authorizing her to humiliate him. . .” (2409). In Anna Karenina, Count Vronsky pursues Anna, the wife of an esteemed politician, after an exchange of passionate glances and a night of dancing. He follows her; she tells him to forget her, all the while yearning for his advances. “I beg for only one thing,” he tells her in the novel. “I beg for the right to hope, to be tormented, as I am now” (Tolstoy 140). Vronsky plays the role of the victim to the object of his passions. He convinces Anna to run away with him, and when they are finally together, and she is his, he becomes restless for the life he used to lead.

“The Object, therefore, is literally something that is created—whose place is encircled—through a network of detours, approximations and near-misses,” Zizek writes. The obstacles elevate the value of the unattainable Other, which Zizek describes as the “’black hole’ around which the subject’s desire is structured (2412). In a parallel love story in the novel, the character Levin, initially rejected by Kitty, retreats to his work in the country but cannot forget her. After being abandoned by Vronsky for Anna, Kitty realizes that Levin was the one who truly loved her. They marry, have children and live his ideal country life. But Levin finds his soul still yearning. He becomes obsessed with the meaning of life surrounded by all that he desired: “And, happy in his family life, a healthy man, Levin was several times so close to suicide that he hid a rope lest he hang himself. . .” (Tolstoy 789) The promise of his great love was an illusion: Once the obstacles are removed he still finds himself, as always, alone with his doubts.

Zizek argues that the object of courtly love does not represent the metaphysical good, but rather symbolizes evil—a sense of perversion which compels wrongdoing because it’s wrong (2417). But the masochistic play of courtly love never reaches full-blown violence (2410). In Tolstoy’s novel, Anna crosses that boundary, taking courtly love to its ultimate tragic end. Feeling her love slip away—the love she sacrificed everything for—she throws herself under a train. But she leaves behind a whole society that lives on in the theater of the “as if.” Levin, aware of the emptiness at the end of the rainbow, continues to live a tortured but steady life. Regardless of the outcomes, the result is the same, Tolstoy seems to imply: We are all alone in our narcissism. This is what Anna realizes on the eve of her suicide: “Aren’t we all thrown into the world only in order to hate each other and so to torment ourselves and others,” she thinks (746). In Anna Karenin, suicide symbolizes the effect wrought on the lovers by courtly love: The very device used ostensibly to bring intimacy and union ends in irrevocable separation—end of game.

Works Cited

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Penguin Group, Inc., 2000. Print.

Zizek, Slavoj. “Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 2407-2427. Print.