The Self-Creative Act
Ironically enough, despite speaking favorably on self-imposition when discussing my "Experimental Poem", the lateness of this post comes from a failure to enforce one: consistent blogging. It's funny that I failed on a larger-scale implementation of the principle that constraining yourself can be good. There was something liberating in sinking over an hour and a half into writing the poem. There was something profoundly insightful about sinking nearly three hours into discussing it (albeit among other things) with an acquaintance. There was only something onerous about settling on writing this post, though now that I've actually begun writing the feeling has dissipated. Therein lies what I'd like to explore here.
For Others: Self-Denial
I once knew a performance artist who counseled me on my failure to "sell" my performance to an audience. Now, don't let that insinuate more than it should; by "performance" he and I were both referring to the motion of everyday life far more than a sweeping monologue on some stage. Furthermore, an "audience", by virtue of being any group of people present for a performance (which, as I've said, can be practically anything), could be composed of people in the line at a convenience store, or passers-by on the street, etc.
Let me interject for a moment: this story sounds super fake, even to me. Just know that it's real, or at least I believe it's real enough to justify bringing up.
Anyway, he used an exact phrase I still remember to this day: "decentralization of the ego". Now, he's always been very precise compared to many dramatic types, so I knew it was unlikely he had pulled the phrase from some seminal work on "authenticity". Rather, he truly held the belief that performance requires self-abrogation. As an ardent individualist and only slightly less ardent failure of a socialite, I found that hard to stomach, so I thanked him and continued about my business. Despite this outward appearance, what he said has truly made an impact on me—perhaps not in terms of internalizing his message, but more grappling with what it means. I think I found out in the wake of writing and posting here my poem.
What motivates a person to create something? I've had discussions with people (mostly libertarians) in the past who defend increasing intrusion of the profit motive into the artistic sphere by dismissing the idea that people create things without expecting returns. In a sense, I agree; however, I would say the depth of my agreement goes beyond the one-sided monetary definition of "return" or "profit" so many people peddle nowadays. Rather, the returns people who create things expect are almost always deeper than financial gain.
Do non-commercial artists put the selling of their work first? Of course not; that makes no sense, since no selling is being done. The same goes for authors, poets, performance artists (to return to my friend), etc. ad infinitum. The vast, vast majority of human art has remained and will remain distinct from the market economy at large, at most circulating on the market of interpersonal acquaintance. The people who traffic there each have a thing in common: they derive enjoyment from their art. Self-fulfillment is the ultimate aim of their enterprise.
So is this to say that art is, for most people, self-creative? Yes, but there are types of self-creative activity which are separate from one another. A person who shares their work, not for material gain but for social or reputational purposes, is concerned with the end product insofar as it's presentable. I would argue the act of interacting with other people imparts an indelible influence on people's behavior; I'm guilty of altering the presentation of my work even among my closest and most trusted friends, with whom you might imagine I could be fully honest. But no, I follow the human tradition in attempting to eliminate imperfection and failing.
For Myself: Self-Creation
Contrarily, a person who creates for themself only embodies what I hope to: the humility to let things lie. In some ways, my poem was a way of striving towards that state of being. The value of the poem, for me, was in the process of producing it. In the moment, I think I learned something important about balancing the value of a piece for one's self and for others. While that did me a lot of good, immediately after I finished writing the poem, I succumbed to the desire to show it off to someone and beg them to deliver an appraisal. It was only by good fortune that I ended up inadvertently extending the creative process by falling into an hours-long philosophical dialogue.
Part of the problem, my interlocutor told me, was the futility of writing something about the worthlessness (or meaninglessness, or whatever -lessness one could choose) of the world. If you don't personally make some claim or take some stance, they said, then whatever you do is dead on arrival. Suffice it to say I found that idea odd. Why should we as humans like works whose authors used them, however heavyhandedly, to assert or opine? Is it because we like to be exposed to different points of view? Somehow I find that doubtful. Maybe the opposite strategy, "fence-sitting" or countenancing any and all views of your audience, feels too cowardly or patronizing. It's a topic for another post, at any rate.
I had some ideas for circumventing the problem: why not complicate the poetic structure further, concatenating more meters, throwing together more rhyme schemes, and working in increasingly obscure references? But even I knew that to be pointless. Everything has been done before, and what hasn't is so prohibitively complicated it would either 1) not be worth reading or 2) lack its intended effect. Besides, structure for its own sake is suffocating. As I've said, its benefit is largely in providing a challenge without completely blocking the creative process. Had I attempted too much at once, the whole project would have turned into an assignment, I'd have lost enthusiasm, and this blog might still be empty.
The Problem of Value
All of this ties back to the theory of balance I developed while writing the poem and codified during my discussion about it. The idea is this: self-creation can appeal to other people, but if you want to make a concerted effort for it to, you're missing the point. The only real path to balancing the two is incidence: trying a new poetic structure, or having fun with nonsense ("abknowed"), or reveling in "the meaning in life". No one should feel beholden to other people when expressing themselves, yet many, if not all, do. I'm no exception even at my best. Thus, the Problem of Value is hitting those notes without breaking your instrument.
One of the few climaxes of my discussion about the poem came when I was asked what I think has meaning in the world. "All things are nothing to me," I responded in an ironically dutiful way, and that's true, however much I cringe at my saying so. The only thing I was attempting to honor with my poem was myself, namely some thoughts I had had recently while marveling at the beautiful disorder of komorebi. I wasn't out for others' approval—yet there I was, asking if my poem was "good". And good it was—for a "nihilist poem". I wanted to divorce myself from that label, but it seemed impossible, certain as I am that only ambiguity underlies the universe.
I could improve my poem, I was told, by finding meaning in the world. I'm loath to do that. But as an unintended consequence of interrogating the idea, I now understand how hypocritical it is for me, a person known to harp on about suspension of judgment, to be so certain in anything besides the basic Pyrrhonian skepticism whose entire philosophical legacy is a refutation of the "but how come you're not skeptical about skepticism?" meme. Before I get further off track, let me just reiterate what I found the ideal of my project to be: treating myself in two senses. The first, the sense in which "to treat" means "to bring enjoyment to". The second, the sense in which "to treat" means "to produce a treatment of".
Overall, I don't think I've gotten more in touch with my perspective, on a broad swath of issues, in a long time. And yet that perspective is anathema to anyone who values something more than themself in the world. Maybe any endeavor rooted in radical individualism will turn away most other people by nature. That's fine by me. But the questions remain: in writing this post, as another example of creation, have I done something for myself? For others? And to attempt to introduce some finality: what value can be derived from this entire project, and my reflections thereon, if truly "to live is emptiness and also dancing"?
- 6 toasts