Knowing the worst, something wonderful

I once read Franz Kafka’s 267-word micro story ‘Resolutions’ a hundred times and was absolutely certain that I could write a whole PhD thesis on it, rather than the 5,000-word essay* I was tasked with during my Masters Degree. Having just read Marion Milner’s On Not Being Able to Paint, I’m almost certain I could spend the next ten years exploring its text, rather than simply referencing it in the PhD chapter I’m about to write. But good. That is what an object of study is meant to do: fascinate, bewilder, absorb.

Last night I created another found poem. It’s the largest yet, 40cm x 50cm, made up of four roughly A4 pictures and two articles, one from the London Review of Books on an architect from the 1930s and her work and life in Paris, and one from the New Scientist on physiognomy and recognising character in faces.

layout all

The process was a long one but worth it. After cutting the two articles into segments, which took a few hours, I then laid them all out, which took about another hour, so I could then begin to assemble the poems. I did this one at a time, looking for the pieces that would go together. This disassembling and then reassembling differently really teaches me a lot about language, phrases, emphasis, and the found nature of language, and also of its essential construction. As a writer, I find it an incredibly invaluable task. At the end, for the last poem, there weren’t many words or phrases left, or not that many that gave much ‘depth’ – rather, just very sparse words or phrases. And I had to construct from these. That I could still do so taught me about what I had left to work with, and the power of individual words together. The poems become, strangely, much deeper the less ‘depth’ or pre-built in meaning the cut out phrases held.

I set to work on it after an awful day of frustration and indecisiveness. Sometimes, about every two or three weeks, it feels like, the wheels fall off the cart. It was unexpected, in that the day before I had milked everything I could out of the day: meditation, writing, PhD, allotment, friends, running to aqua running and running home, social media time, reading. I went to bed and slept well. Then: indecision. Frustration about where to work, what to work on, energy levels. It feels that each time this happens the basic fundamentals of life are thrown right back into chaos. Eating, sleeping, energy, working, home—nothing is sorted, fixed, reliable. I got up, tried working from home, went back to bed, got up again, went out, tried working, too tired, and the list of things I wanted/needed to do got longer and the things I actually did totted up as a list of failures (allotment, running, writing, etc.)

A list of possible reasons that took the blame:

  1. the heavy, oppressive thundery weather
  2. reading too much psychoanalysis ends up as self-analysis
  3. too many competing goals and commitments, with new ones (allotment) added
  4. falling into a comfort zone of planning my way out of a planning problem

I said to a friend that I had no mechanism for getting myself out of the frustration. But there was, and I did. It was to stop everything, stop looking on everything as a commitment that I keep or fail to keep, and step back. Stop all things if there is not enough energy. And so I turned to some artistic practice in which I don’t have my entire self invested for relief. (The first line of Kafka’s Resolutions, by the way: “To lift yourself out of a miserable mood, even if you have to do it by strength of will, should be easy.” Well…!)

I then spent six hours putting the piece together. Not thinking too much about anything, and finding it in myself to put into practice some of the methods that Marion Milner identifies in Paint for the path towards sustaining creative processes.

Milner, as others have, identifies the need to ‘fuse’ the inner vision (imagination, dream, wish, what one loves or hates) and one’s external reality (what one hopes to create and manifest in the world, such as relationships, family, art, career) in a way that brings both together in a careful balance that does not prioritise one too much over the other. Prioritise or live in the inner vision too much, and nothing is ever manifested/made/created for the image remaining in the inner world—often through an attachment to perfection, fear, etc. Live in the external world too much, and nothing of the inner vision makes it out—often through fear of one’s own voice or a lack of developed ability to truly understand or connect with one’s own dreams, wishes, and creative imagination.

As she puts it: “There was one fact which it was very difficult to keep firmly in mind; this was that both the internal dream and the external reality had value in their own right, provided that they were not kept rigidly apart” (108). And that: “Certainly one has to make the distinction between dreams and reality, for instance, or between outside and inside, body and mind, doing and thinking. But having done that it is then necessary to bring the two halves together again, in a complex rhythm of interplay and interchange” (106).

This makes sense, and there is a lot more in her work on how this interplay and exchange works, and why it is often so hard to achieve (why many of us think we ‘cannot’ paint or write or create, even those professionals who have done it many times before). But this was not the lesson I got for myself from creating this new found poem. That was something else.

The poem / poster was a present for a friend. It was in lieu of a birthday card, which I sort of forgot to get for her, but not really forget. It was that I did not want to write a message in the card. There were things I wanted to say that could not be easily said… but that are, I feel, there in the found poem. The process of creativity, of allowing the inner vision of what I want to say to interplay and exchange with the manifestation of a piece of artwork in the world, of my external reality, found, in its creation, a balance of absorption and of output. It felt, perhaps for the first time, as if I were creating art.

kate moss

But even that is not the lesson from this piece of work. It is about the content, and about what Milner describes as an essential element of making the interchange and interplay happen. That is, being able to know and accept the worst about yourself, and also your feelings about yourself, or by holding yourself in a way that Christopher Bollas might call “the self as object”.

That is, some of the things I wanted to say in my card and in my piece of work were not nice things about myself (that I saw myself as weak, ungovernable, privileged without any sense of humility, a creative and organisational failure… many of the feelings that I had felt through the day of frustration).

As Milner puts it, this disillusion with the self is part of the need to recognise that the inner dream (what one wishes to create in art, for example) and the objective fact (what one actually creates) can never match. And this includes the self. That is, I have an incredibly idealised version of myself (and others) to live up to; one that will always fail to match the ideal with the reality. As Milner says, this is one of the main facts of how people never succeed in fulfilling creative potential, or even simply (simply…) living in creative process. She says:

In fact I saw now that disillusion, opening one’s eyes to what are called the sterns facts of life, meant recognising that the inner dream and the objective fact can never permanently coincide, they can only inter-act. But I saw also that in order to do this one has to reckon not only with one’s hate of the external world, when it fails to live up to one’s expectations, but also hate of oneself when one similarly fails. Thus the same problem of the gap between the ideal and the actual applied within oneself, the gap between what one is and what one would like to be. Certainly I had long been aware that failure to recognise the inevitability of the gap led to much self-deception and fruitless straining.

But what I found now was that, at time, if one could bring oneself to look at the gap, allow oneself to see both the ideal and the failure to live up to it in one moment of vision, and without the urge to interfere and later oneself to fit the ideal, then the ideal and of the fact seemed somehow to entre into relation and produce something quite new, something that had nothing to do with being pleased with oneself for having lived up to an ideal or miserable because of having failed to. In fact it almost seemed that [it] was a way of saying something about a growing belief in a certain watching capacity of the mind; a watching capacity which, when separated from the interfering part, became the light that could meet darkness and redeem the denied greeds and hates and despairs of the bodily life. For it was a watching part which, by being able to see the two opposing differences of standard, or ideal, and actuality, in relation to each other, was by this very act able to bring about an integration, a new way of being which somehow combined the essence of both. (110)

And this watching capacity is what I felt when creating the found poem / piece of art. It was not the anxious absorption I often suffer from when writing, or trying to write. It was also not the too-detached efficiency of self-organisation with which I deaden and drown out my inner voice. It was a new integration. And, as Milner says:

supposing one could strip from it its interfering and destructive aspects, supposing one could accept self-knowledge, with all its implications, then, if I could believe my own experience, an entirely new way of living opened. […] it pointed to an undaunted determination to know the worst about oneself, not in order to wallow in self-punishment and despair, but because in fact something quite surprising happened, like the breaking down of a prison wall. (112)

That’s what I found last night, in the creation of this work. Not planning out my days, but letting the moment form itself form the interplay of inner thought and external reality. And of all images to come back to, and one Kafka knew about intently, was that this creative process did indeed feel like the breaking down of a prison wall, a prison that was built, as the door was in Kafka’s ‘Before the Law’, just for you, but it will only stay erect if you let it.

The first poem, however, is pretty fun and light!

Regard Beginning

Regard end

Much more on Milner, and probably Kafka, to come.

* ‘Franz Kafka: Writer in Residence for UN Security Council Resolutions’ an essay on the troubling nature of language as used/abused for power, analysing UNSR242, the right of return for Palestinians back to 1967 borders. When Western powers such as the US and UK hold up UN Security Council resolutions as ‘law’ and justification for invasions into Afghanistan, Iraq, etc., I wonder why they aren’t so keen to do the same for Resolution 242. Kafka would have put them straight about the ‘absolute’ nature of language.


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