The following essay, "Art in the Light of Conscience" by Russian poet Maria Tsvetaeva is from the book of the same name and the student who handed this one out left off the author attribution (we all later wrote it onto our copies) and of the 19 pages, part of the right-hand text has been cut off by a bad photocopying job. So reading this was a challenge, then and now.
This is not the type of essay I tend to like, being a bit esoteric and vague at the same time. I spent time re-reading sentences to no avail.
Sentences like this: "Genius: the highest degree of subjection to the visitation -- one; control of the visitation -- two. The highest degree of being mentally pulled to pieces, and the highest of being -- collected. The highest of passivity, and the highest of activity."
This actually makes sense after reading the full essay and coming back to it. Her idiosyncratic punctuation takes some getting used to. And I have to say, at first these musings seemed utterly random, but re-reading them a second (now third) time, they seem to have a structural logic.
In this essay, Tsvetaeva is trying to mark out the a religious parameters of talent and at the start, she addresses those who "consciously affirm the holiness of art." "For the atheist, there can be no question of the holiness of art: he will speak either of art's usefulness or of art's beauty."
Tsvetaeva believes art is like nature, it follows its own laws, not the self-will of the artist..."just as much born and not made."
And she questions whether art is truly "For the glory of God?...I don't know for the glory of whom, and I think the question here is not of glory but of power."
In comparing art to nature she asks, "Is nature holy?...why do we ask something of a poem but not of a tree?...Because earth, the birth-giving, is irresponsible, while man, the creating, is responsible...he has to answer for the work...[which is] supposed to be illuminated by the light of reason and conscience."
She then goes on to talk about ecstasy or intoxication in art (something "outside goodness"). She ruminates on what genius is, like a visitation, how things "came upon" Pushkin. Genius she says is both being subject to a visitation and having control over that visitation. Being pulled apart (passively) and being collected (actively). She says there is human will involved but will can only exist after the visitation.
She then uses Pushkin and Walsingham as examples, how Pushkin could not have planned everything, for "one can only plan a work backwards from the last step taken to the first, retracing with one's eyes open the path one had walked blindly."
She's full of delicious melodrama: "So long as you are a poet, you shall not perish in the elemental, for everything returns you to the element of elements: the word....The poet perishes when he renounces the elemental. He might as well cut his wrists without ado."
What does this mean for language and experimental poets? They have not yet acceded to the elemental or slit their wrists.
She then goes on to talk about the difficulty of teaching art: "What does art teach? Goodness? No. Commonsense? No. It cannot teach even itself, for it is -- given. There is no thing which is not taught by art; there is no thing the reverse of that, which is not taught by art; and there is no thing which is the only thing taught by art. All the lessons we derive from art, we put into it. A series of answers to which there are no questions. All art is the sole giveness of the answer."
Oy. Hard to wrap your head around, but it's possible if you keep re-reading it.
She then wonders how culpable the artist is: "One reads Werther and shoots himself, another reads Werther and because Werther shoots himself, decides to live. One behaves like Werther, the other like Goethe. A lesson in self-extermination? A lesson in self-defense?...Is Goethe guilty of all the subsequent deaths?...no, Otherwise we wouldn't dare say a single word, for who can calculate the effect of any one word?"
I can't quite agree with that. We can calculate the effect of propaganda and misinformation. We can calculate the effect on persuasion with pretty accurate statistical margins. This is why marketing and political propaganda work, not on everybody, but on many. We are responsible when we say the word 'fire' in a crowded theater.
But then she qualifies that idea: "Artistic creation is in some cases a sort of atrophy of conscience--more than that: a necessary atrophy of conscience, the moral flaw without which art cannot exist. In order to be good (not to lead into temptation the little ones of this world), art would have to renounce a fair half of its whole self. The only way to be wittingly good is -- not to be. It will end with the life of the planet."
She then talks about Tolstoy's exception, his "clumsy, extra-aesthetic challenge to art" but then humorously notices that "In Tolstoy's crusade against art, we are seduced again -- by art."
Then she talks about "Art without artifice" in which she means a kind of art without affectation or ambitiousness. Of course I loved this part because it has everything to do with our cultural systems of talent hierarchies.
"...there are works that make you say: 'This is not art any more. It's more than art.' Everyone has known works of this sort. Their sign is the effectiveness despite their inadequacy of means, an inadequacy which nothing in the world would make us exchange for any adequacies and abundances, and which we only call to mind when we try to establish: how was it done? An essentially futile approach, for in every born work the ends are hidden. Not yet art, but already more than art. Such works often come from the pens of women, children, self-taught people - the little ones of this world....Art without artifice." Later she says, "A sign of such works is their unevenness." I would add their wabi-sabi.
Tsvetaeva then tries to make sense of the hierarchies of major poet, great poet, lofty poet, genius and here she comes back to the idea that the "poet's whole labour amounts to a fulfillment, the physical fulfilment of a spiritual task (not assigned by himself)...(No such thing as individual creative will.)...Every poet is, in one way or another, the servant of ideas or of elements."
She talks about God and prayer: "What can we say about God? Nothing. What can we say to God? Everything. Poems to God are prayer. And if there are no prayers nowadays...it is because we don't have anything to say to God....Loss of trust."
She is full of almost contradictions. Art is a visitation, but not by God. Art is a sinful, seduction. Art is elemental and natural. The poet is responsible...or not.
She tells a compelling story about how her mother could set the hands on a clock face in the dark without being able to see "the absolute time" and how her hand knew what time it truly was, like a blind visionary.
She talks about the "condition of creation" and how "Things always chose me by the mark of my power, and often I wrote them almost against my will...obeying an unknown necessity."
"I don't want anything that isn't wholly mine, wittingly mine, most mine...I won't die for Pugachov--that means he is not mine."
One of her last sections is Intoxiques (poisoned people). "When I speak of the possessed condition of people of art, I certainly don't mean they are possessed by art." She talks about the stuck artist: "Art does not pay its victims. It doesn't even know them....Shyness of the artist before the object. He forgets that it is not himself writing."
The cure? "To forget oneself is, above all, to forget one's weakness."
"Not without reason does each of us say at the end: 'How marvelously my work has come out!' and never: 'How marvelously well I've don't it!' And not: 'It's come out marvelously!,' but it's come out by a marvel, always a miracle; it's always a blessing, even if sent not by God."
"And the amount of will in this?...lines I got by hard work, that is, by dint of listening. And listening is what my will is, not to tire of listening until something is heard...Creative will is patience."
Her conclusion: "There is no approach to art, for it is a seizure. (While you are still approaching, it has already seized you.)"
"If you wish to serve God or man, if in general you wish to serve, to work for the good, then join the Salvation Army or something of that sort--and give up poetry."
I can't imagine our teacher Suzanne Gardiner agreed wholly with this idea or would Adrienne Rich and some very effective activist poets from recent history.
"...if your gift of song is indestructible, don't flatter yourself with the hope that you serve....It is only your gift of song that has served you: tomorrow you will serve it--that is, you'll be hurled by it thrice-nine kingdoms or heavens away from the goal you have set."
She admits those who serve are more important "because it is more needed, the doctor and the priest where they are at the deathbed. "And knowing this, having put my signature to this while of sound mind and in full possession of my faculties, I assert...that I would not exchange my work for any other. Knowing the greater, I do the lesser. This is why there is no forgiveness for me..."
I went from not liking this essay to not liking it again to finally coming around.