Magic Fire: The Search for Superman
By John Jarvis.
The aesthetically life is the only phenomenon that justifies both existence and ourselves.
— Nietzsche, THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY
In the last 200 years, since the time of Rousseau, artists of all kinds have espoused a common rather than an aristocratic viewpoint. From late 18th century plays on — throught the 19th century Russian novels, the early 20th century writings of Joyce, even to the present day Star Wars — the common man is the hero.
Yet compare that with the writings of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. In Shakespeare the hero was always a king or aristocrat. Even if the hero was a villain, as in Richard III, the main character was a king. For indeed, these people were the only ones considered interesting. A far cry from, say, Dickens, a late19th-century writer in whose writings you will never find an aristocrat, or even an establishment type, who is a main character.
Under the period under examination, the Romantics were a noble exception. The writers of this era attempted to recreate not the aristocracy, but man as superman, to paraphrase Shaw. The reasons are not difficult to find; man had worshiped God during Shakespeare’s day. By the time of the Age of Reason, man was worshipping an ideal government. That worship was converted to action in the French Revolution. But when this ideal failed, man had nowhere to go — except within. God the Creator was dead and so was His creation! And although there were a few, such as Byron, who explored myth for his own psychological problems, there were many and better poets who used myth to reflect society as it was known then.
Sadly, once again man decided the transcendence was in his own culture, and before long we had men identifying God with society, as they had done in pre-Revolutionary France. Some great writers came out of this, as they always do when the passions run high. For the Industrial Revolution made 19th century man forget the lessons of the century before, and with wild abandon he embraced the ideals we now call socialist. Once more, the common man became the hero. And that trend, sadly, has continued to the present day.
Nietzsche – a brilliant, but some would say half-mad, man – maintained that Peace, lack of conflict, made nations and their people lazy and immoral. In recent years, the fall of the Soviet Union has seemingly made us — at least writers — lazy. Our characters are little more than slices of life. They lack purpose, drive, and most of all, greatness.
In short, the fire has gone out. And whether this is good or bad for culture, it is disaster for writers. How do we find it again, how do we re-establish a center? By returning to basics. For although I’m not, like Nietzsche, advocating war, I am advocating a return to a war of sorts, a war that animates our stories. We need a passion — a fire, a transcendence — that will once again animate our very lives, which, after all, is the story we should be telling. And if this fire can be found best by returning to the truths that informed us before we fell down before the altar of Reason, so be it.
Through a Glass Darkly
Religion, Art, and Mythology: Using Words as Symbols – Part I
By Gary Kriss.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part;
but then shall I know even as also I am known.
1 Corinthians 13:12
In their constant search for inspiration, writers often overlook the obvious. Take Saint Paul. Even though he spent most of his life inspiring others, writers tend to neglect him. The situation is more sad than ironic for, in many ways, Paul is an excellent model for writers. For one, he was driven to write religiously no matter how difficult the circumstances. He understood his audience and used good, plain language which, while not lofty, still always managed to elevate. Christian or Jew, Moslem or Atheist, writers can learn a lot from Paul. The above Chapter and Verse is a good case in point.
But there is a deeper, higher reason to study Paul. Too often we writers see the world through a glass, darkly. Like the images that bounced off the brass mirrors produced in Corinth during Paul’s time, our sensate reality is distorted. Yet we put pen to paper and churn it out under the justification that we’re “letting events speak for themselves.” But that’s not writing; it’s graffiti. Writing is about words empowered, not merely listed. And words empowered are not passive representations; they’re active agents that add import to events. Empowering words is hard work, but it’s necessary work if writing is to remain relevant in an age in which the technology used to produce the word threatens ultimately to destroy it.
We should use writing, not to reflect distortions, but to correct them. We should use writing to present, not fleeting impressions, but enduring truths. Instead of recording existence, we should be documenting life. Existence — like that other thing — merely happens; life, however, is created by meaning.
And it’s precisely the creative act of bestowing meaning on experience that makes a writer. The late John Gardner in his perceptive little volume of advice to would-be novelists urged them to study philosophy so that they might better impart clarity. Translate that as “bestow meaning” so that readers can make some sense out of the everyday jumble of experience.
Impart clarity. In Paul’s letter, divine light imparts clarity. Writers are not God (except perhaps in their own minds). However, writers are the guardians of the word, which, in the Bible, is the beginning of all things divine. Indeed, the notion of illumination is a recurrent theme in writing. The Symbolists, for example, talked of the Inner Light that informed writing and thereby transformed the perceptual world.
All writers – good ones at least – utilize an Inner Light. The only thing that varies is the wattage. Take, for example, fictional characters. How often are we told that the difference between a flat and a full character is motivation? Motivation is not meaning, but it is certainly part of it. And the more nearly fundamental the motivation, the better it is at organizing the swelter of experience. This is one reason why myth is so powerful. Myth boils motivation down to its core. Is it any wonder why we’re almost innately drawn to myth? Its basic motivation elements are templates for the raw, often chaotic data of our everyday existence. Myth is a means to meaning.
Before we leave Paul, follow him one section further in 1 Corinthians, to 13:13 where he discusses the importance of faith, hope, and love. Any writer can obviously identify with the having both faith and hope. But in the writer’s life, as in the Epistle, the most important thing is love. Love for the act of creation. Love for the word. Love for reaching out both to our deeper selves and to others. Passionate love, heated by the same deep flame that illuminates. Close your eyes. Think back on a work of fiction that has left an impact on you. Is it dancing there in summary? Then savor it, and appreciate that the glow in your memory is also a byproduct of that powerful and enduring flame.
Now grab a pencil and start kindling!