Thursday, April 12, 2012

Negative Capability and the Chameleon Artist...

And what is a genuine lunatic? He is a man who prefers to go mad, in the social sense of the word, rather than forfeit a certain higher idea of human honor...For a lunatic is a man that society does not want to hear but wants to prevent from uttering certain unbearable truths (from Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society, by Antonin Artaud).

Artaud's lunatic could be any artist who prizes integrity over profit, authenticity over so-called success.

What a Buddhist might call “comfort with uncertainty,” the romantic poet John Keats famously defined as “negative capability.”

…when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching out after fact & reason…What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion [sic] Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one

Samuel Taylor Coleridge described the “fugitive causes” behind the “thin partitions” dividing conscious creation and sub- or unconscious “inspiration.”

Poetry, even that of the loftiest, and seemingly, that of the wildest odes, has a logic of its own as severe as that of science, and more difficult, because more subtle, more complex, and more dependent on more and more fugitive causes.

Keats described the experience of spending time with Coleridge at their first meeting:

…he broached a thousand things – let me see if I can give you a list – Nightingales, Poetry – on Poetical sensation – Metaphysics – Different genera and species of Dreams – Nightmare – a dream accompanied by a sense of touch – single and double touch – A dream related – First and second consciousness …Monsters – the Kraken – Mermaids… A Ghost story … (in Touched with Fire, Kay Redfield Jamison. Free Press, 1994)

W.B. Yeats, in his colorfully entitled essay, A Remonstrance with Scotsmen for Having Soured the Dispositions of Their Ghosts and Faeries articulated one of the differences between those artists able to “tolerate extremes of emotions and to live on close terms with darker forces” (Jamison) and the so-called normal people ruled primarily by reason traditional religion and/or Cartesian logic.

You – you will make no terms with the spirits of fire and earth and air and water. You have made the Darkness your enemy. We – we exchange civilities with the world beyond.

The chameleon Arthur Rimbaud, the only poet in literary history to give up verse for munitions dealings, quitting Europe for Africa, wrote vividly about the “voyage and exploration” of the artistic process. The poet,

makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement of the senses. All forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself. He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences… He reaches the unknown

One of the reasons art has the ability to move us, to evoke a catharsis of emotion and bring us to tears is its authenticity as experience: “not the feeling of the thing but the thing itself,” as Debussy described it. True art is never mere representation, though some replicas – prints and recordings, for example – may still stimulate a visceral response. Articulating the spaces of the “vast, unknown region” is an art in itself.

Writing ostensibly about Byron, fellow romantic and neurotic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley chimed, Most wretched men / Are cradled into poetry by wrong, / They learn in suffering what they teach in song. The same transformative process – alternately purgatorial, purifying, refining & / or alchemical – applies for the range of human emotion, from pain and suffering to joy and love, and every variation across the spectrum of what we call the human experience.

Byron himself describes in his autobiographical epic poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, how “the act of creating becomes…essential in its own right” (Jamison):

‘Tis to create, and in creating live / A being more intense, that we endow
With form our fancy, gaining as we give / The life we image, even as I do now.

Martha Graham called the varied impulses of the artistic chameleon “urges” that motivate the artist and make her “more alive than the others.” Byron’s and Graham’s prescriptions need not be read as judgments, though they may indict many a narrow-minded philistine or proletariat. Accessing the source of inspiration and its enlivening vitality, the artist cannot help but be more sensitive to light and attuned to shadows. And this “many-personed” existence should not be one in need of justification or rationalization: it should be celebrated, held up as exemplary and emulated.

“Essentially a chameleon gift, a gift for fluent adaptation and vivid response,” as one Coleridge biographer described the visionary and volatile talents of his subject. Jamison lists Virginia Woolf, Keats, Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson among the vivid examples of the “amphibious, mercurial…and highly responsive nature” of these “chameleon” artists. That “negative capability” is necessary if one is to achieve balance with such a combustible temperament as the artistic one (which mirrors the manic-depressive with uncanny likeness; this is the subject of Jamison’s excellent book).

How the chameleon lives and thrives in a world of venality is an essential concern for anyone who has witnessed and/or experienced discrimination related to the mercurial temperament that is symptomatic of both the artist and the manic-depressive individual (this artist prefers that descriptive term over “bipolar” or its milder incarnation, the equally antiseptic and clinical “cyclothymia”). Jamison underlines one of the undervalued advantages of this difficult temperament:

the undulating, rhythmic, and transitional moods so characteristic of manic-depressive illness and its temperaments can also blend, or harness, seemingly contradictory moods, observations and perceptions. Yet, ultimately, these fluxes and yokings may more accurately reflect the changes, ambiguities, and linked oppositions that truly exist both in man and the natural world. The “consistent attitude toward life,” may not, as Professor Jerome McGann points out, be as finally perceptive as an ability to live with, and portray, constant change.

One of our most spectacular chameleons was so influential as to have one version of the romantic hero named after him, the “Byronic.” Lord Byron’s wry response to Madame de StaĆ«l’s comment, “You should not have warred with the world – it will not do – it is too strong always for any individual,“ resonates with the volatile artist and the victim of prejudice where mental imbalance or illness is concerned. I perfectly acquiesce in the truth of this remark; but the world has done me the honor to begin the war.

I find Byron’s life as arresting and inspiring as I find his poetry, and the line between them is tenuous across the span of both. Towards the end of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the poet sings,

But I have lived, and have not lived in vain:
My mind may lose its force, my blood its fire,
And my frame perish even in conquering pain,
But there is that within me which shall tire
Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire;
Something unearthly, which they deem not of,
Like the remembered tone of a mute lyre,
Shall on their softened spirits sink, and move
In hearts all rocky now the late remorse of love

Jamison cites the “sheer power of his life and emotions,” and it follows the two are inextricable, the power of the latter infuses the former, and that symbiosis is a hallmark of the Romantic era. The failure of the “romantic project” to fully take hold is our loss. Byron articulated the extraordinary process of turning the temperamental storms into creativity and ennobled humanity with his life’s work. Artists are exemplary in this capacity, and the lessons of their lives are as essential to our understanding of the human condition as their inimitable body of work is to the measure of the value of our existence. The artistic temperament is a volatile compound, a cauldron of transformative potential. It is not for the faint of heart, weak of mind, or compromised of spirit. It asks nothing less than the whole of one’s life in service to the power of art.

Yet, see, he mastereth himself, and makes / His torture tributary to his will. (from Manfred)

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