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The Artist’s Quest: A Reflection

by | Essays and Reflections, Keeping It Current | 5 comments

A reflection on what I’m terming the artist’s quest, the futile task of capturing the beauty of the world in words, a testament to the power and persistence of the human imagination. 

I call it the artist’s quest. But I guess you could call it the artist’s obsession. Or an obsession, period.

Since my adolescence, when I began to truly notice the beauty of the world around me — especially the natural worlds — I’ve been obsessed with the idea that I, through words, can capture some of that beauty on the page, carry it, transplant it into another person’s mind.

I used to think to myself, If I could capture an ounce of the world’s beauty, I’d have it good. I’d be made. 

Or maybe I’d have gone crazy in the process. Who knows? Capturing the world’s beauty outside of a moment is, after all, a sisyphean task. Yes, I had to look up the spelling of that one. I could just say futile, but in some ways I think that futile gives the wrong idea. When someone calls a task futile, there’s an assumption that one might as well give up. But when you call a task sisyphean, there’s an assumption that no matter how futile that task might be, you won’t give it up. Because you can’t give it up. Because you’ve been called to it, compelled by it or by some force outside your control. And that’s how it is for me, the artist’s quest, this constant struggle to capture and harness beauty. 

Keats once wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

And by this, to capture the world’s truth is also to capture its beauty. Unfortunately, capturing truth is no easier than capturing beauty. Different, for sure. But no less complex. 

I recently wrote a poem titled “Despondence” in which I embedded the only part of Ezra Pound’s Cantos that I liked: a little fragment at the end in which he seems to repent, literally repent, for the monstrosity he’s created. Not to call the Cantos a monstrosity, but even he himself called them “botched.” And though he was on a quest to write a “paradiso terrestre,” an earthly paradise, he managed only to create something that bamboozled his audience, and still bamboozles audiences to this day. Did he capture some beauty? For sure. Did he capture some truth? For sure. Did he produce anything more than a pale reflection of the world, the truest earthly paradise we know? No. Do we fault him? No. We recognize that to capture anything more than a fraction of what we see and experience day to day takes more than human talent and human ingenuity.

It might well take something that I’ll call a divine spark, for lack of a better term. Not to say that it arrives from God or the gods or whatever higher power you may or may not believe in, but that it appears to come from some outward influence, inexplicably drawn into a single person, and on the back of that power that person creates something beautiful, truthful, and meaningful. Perhaps this means tapping into the currents of societal change or culture or a historical moment. Perhaps it means stumbling upon a timely impetus. I think that it comes from the world itself, or from others and, of course, from the artist him or herself or itself. When we make art, after all, we lose part of our own meaning. We become, in many ways, faceless and nameless, a disembodied voice relating lines that will outlive us, a clown, a fool. We lose ourselves. 

We may not suffer for our art, but we endure for it, through our journey, through the artist’s quest. Luckily, as we feed art, it feeds us — if we’re doing it the right way. 

If art sucks the life and soul out of you, don’t create, for the world’s sake. Or find a way you can create without draining yourself of your lifeblood. That is not the point of art. Repeat after me. That is not the point of art. The point of art is to bolster oneself and bolster others, edify oneself and edify others, elucidate oneself and elucidate others. 

I began reflecting on this because I asked my fellow writers a simple question. “Why do you write?” I asked. And they responded.

They responded in force, something I suppose I should’ve expected. But I hadn’t expected it, this outpouring of words about words and what words meant to them and what writing meant to them and why they’d begun to write and why they’d kept writing and why they were writing to this day. How writing had made them who they were. How they wouldn’t be where they are today without writing. How writing, for them, was the only way they could make sense of the world. How writing had saved them and was still saving them each and every day. 

I had known that my reasons to write weren’t simple. In fact, I think I’d have to write volumes to express all the reasons I write. But seeing many of my most important reasons reflected back at me, I realized that writing has a human draw. It draws humans, like trout are drawn back upstream from whence they came, for a variety of reasons.

Part of why I write, I know, revolves around my emotions. On the very rare occasions when I try to talk about my emotions with friends, it’s pretty common for someone to snort and laugh it off and say, “I didn’t think you had emotions.” And it’s true, I’m not an overtly emotional person. I almost never share my emotions. And I almost never take actions according to my emotions. Both of these facts combine to make people think I have no emotions. But this isn’t true. I’m not comfortable with my emotions. I don’t like talking about them. But I do like writing about them. Which is how, on paper, I can almost come across as a romantic, whereas if you met me in person you would realize that I am cynical and distrusting and very closed off, in a practical sense, from the feelings that go flitting through my head, day in and day out. I never talk about my heart. I always say, “I think,” instead of, “I feel.”

But in writing, it’s okay to feel. And it’s necessary to feel. Because truth is both long thought-on and deeply felt. Any truth that is only one or the other is a one-sided, incomplete truth. It may still seem beautiful. But it will not seem as beautiful as a truth that has been pondered over, handled by the heart and the head until it’s weathered as a river stone and known, deeply known, and believed.

Truth takes belief. Beauty takes belief. And belief, when you boil it down, can only come from a combination of thought and feeling. People who only think or only feel their beliefs seem shallow. Only if you had a great conviction, formed out of the convergence of thought and feeling, innate intuition and empirical observation, could you create something beautiful and true to yourself and to the world. The artist’s quest is the quest for that convergence. So I believe.

I read an article this morning on Aristotle that answered all of my questions about him, once and for all.

Having studied and written about Alexander the Great at great length, I’ve also studied and written about his famous tutor Aristotle, who put his mark on Western philosophy for the ages.

But there was one thing about Aristotle and his beliefs that I could never understand and could never reconcile. The man was clearly an educated, intelligent person. Yet he held this belief that certain people were “meant” to be slaves. That there were no essential human protections, that there was no spark that made humans “human.” That many humans were akin to animals, and therefore it was in fact better for them that they be subjugated and put to work by the powers that be. 

The man said that women weren’t capable of higher decision-making. Yet he loved his wife dearly. She was a biologist. Yes, a female biologist all the way back in the 300s B.C. For their honeymoon, they went to Mytilene to collect specimens together. I could not believe that the same man who so clearly loved the natural world and its beauty couldn’t recognize the intrinsic value of humanity, that his philosophy could be, in some respects and some areas, so one-sided.

It peeved me. It lowered my opinion of him. I found it impossible to believe that a highly intelligent person could hold the beliefs he held. (And, no, they can’t be explained away by his time. Not these ones. The Greeks might have had a lowered opinion of the Persians, but most Greeks didn’t think that Persians were animals. And we do know that Alexander quarreled incessantly with Aristotle over this point — it eventually led to a fracture in their relationship.)

But this article from the New York Times laid it out in a way that I could understand. The article has the stupid title of “Should We Cancel Aristotle?” which almost made me neglect to click on it. But I’m glad I did. Aristotle’s philosophy, the writer writes, is based solely on the power of empirical observation. He made observations of the world around him and observed that everywhere in his world, many men were slaves. He then sought to create a fact out of this: many men were meant to be slaves. An utterly observational look at the world. 

This is the kind of truth you’ll stumble upon if you use only one side of your head or your heart to write your truths. Capturing the beauty and the truth of the world is a sisyphean task, to return to that word. It’s a task we return to. It’s a task we’re called to. The artist’s quest: to capture the world as we know it and believe it — the things we see and feel, think and intuit, in words. In this quest, there is no true success, and no proven path to small success. But by thinking and feeling deeply and by defining your truths and your core beliefs, I would argue that you increase the odds of small success. You increase the odds of capturing an ounce of the world’s beauty and truth in words. You increase the odds of fulfilling some small portion of the artist’s quest.

a glass ball showing a reflection of the world

Thank you for reading this reflection on the artist’s quest! I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I suppose you could say it’s a bit of my philosophy. I urge you to continue onward in the artist’s quest if you’ve already begun, or to begin if you’ve yet to begin. There is little more we could hope to do for the world than to leave some of the truth and beauty we saw behind when we’re gone.

In the comments, tell me how you define the artist’s quest. Tell me about why you write (it’s not too late to become one of the voices in my upcoming article on why people write!). Tell me anything.

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