The Dilemma of an Artistic Self

Bastian Brook’s Bookish Corner | Sebastian Brook | May 2019

Modern society views the self as something vital. While the notion of the ‘artist’ began with Michelangelo in the Renaissance and became inflated in the 19th century by the auras of Beethoven and Liszt, this writer is regrettably less acquainted with the idea of the individual self, the origin of which should be the topic of a separate investigation. However, the point here is that, if the already inflated artistic ideal is coupled with a modern-day inflation of a self-regarding attitude, it might very well destroy what the artistic ideal stands for: when everyone strives to be special, all that is left is the façade and we lose touch of who we really are.

Suppose an artist is a person with something to say to the world: that person will have considerable confidence, or at least enough confidence to think that the world would want to hear what he or she has to say. Yet the world is full of people with things to say but not enough minds who would receive what they have to say, and so artists who regard their message as superior to their colleagues will try all they can to get on top of each other in order to broadcast their message. They try to be unique in order to catch the world’s attention. To appear unique is quite easy: one merely has to go on stage and perform naked. But to attract sustained attention and thereby become successful probably requires some depth, and the irony is, why would people who possess this depth bother to appear unique?

Of all the pianists who left us recordings, Glenn Gould must count as one of the most unique. Was he an attention-seeking artist trying desperately to be heard? This writer was at a certain Bach competition two years ago where one member of the jury remarked, “Does everyone know how Gould decides on an interpretation? He would go and listen to all of the available recordings of a piece, and then pick out something that nobody has tried, for example a super slow tempo, and then he’ll do it, make it his interpretation.” From this point of view, Gould would appear to be the supreme narcissist, seeking out a unique interpretation simply for the sake of satisfying his inflated sense of self, so that he would be different, as if being the special one would make his CDs a hit (and they were indeed) and he would be rich (alas he didn’t live long enough to be rich). Yet if we really listen closely to Gould’s recordings, yes there are a lot of clever details on the surface, but we can also hear him having fun, having emotions—we see more of his mind than of his self. The distinction between the two is a fine one. The esteemed jury member did not like Gould’s music, perhaps because in Gould he could only hear Gould, be it Gould’s mind or Gould’s self, and not Bach. This writer likes Gould’s music, because his mind and his appetite for novelties are overwhelmingly engrossing. The superficiality and pretentiousness were merely a by-product, and not a means to stand out.

It is the obsession with the sense of self that leads to the desire to be acknowledged as different from the others, but trying to stand apart in a room packed of people is surely a futile attempt, just as trying to be unique does not make one unique. A glass of water is simply a glass of water; you cannot will it to be something else, though you can prevent it from being contaminated, or you can wilfully contaminate it whereupon it ceases to be water. But a glass of water won’t know that it is a glass of water: it doesn’t have a sense of itself, and it isn’t plagued by the desire to try and become something else. Humans are not so fortunate in that regard. We seldom know who or what we are, and before we even have a clue about that, society already gives us labels—talented musicians, prodigies, genius, leader, and so on. Perhaps the sense of self originates thus, as an image projected onto us from our surroundings; just as our parents give us our names, society gives us functions and roles and labels, names that we spend our lives trying to live up to. There are a number of fantasy novels such as Earthsea and Eragon that build their world of magic around the art of knowing something’s true name, and by knowing its name one gains dominion over it, as if the name is the thing itself, one that can’t be shaken off even after death. Ursula Le Guin, author of the Earthsea novels, made a translation of the Taoist text Tao Te Ching. Its first sentence reads:

          The way you can go

          isn’t the real way,

          the name you can name

          isn’t the real name.

To give something a name, accepting it as some ‘real’ name and binding it for eternity is a dangerous thing: it consolidates the notion of an individual having a self that is unique from the rest, and this naming system was eventually broken in Earthsea. In another example with names and labels, the University of Hong Kong recently held a series of events called Sounding Architecture, and in their manifesto the American-Japanese composer Ken Ueno wrote that in Ancient Greece “Homer never used the word ‘blue’, and that people who do not know the word blue, don’t see blue as ‘blue’. Something happens in fluency in that having a word and knowing it physically transform how we perceive the world. In some cases, that change manifests as a filtration. Having the word architecture and the word music makes us perceive architecture and music as two separate things. Lacking ‘blue’, Homer’s descriptions of the sky and the sea are richer.”

This resonates with the rest of the first chapter from Tao Te Ching:

          Heaven and earth

          begin in the unnamed:

          name’s the mother

          of the ten thousand things.

          So the unwanting soul

          see what’s hidden,

          and the ever-wanting soul

          see only what it wants.

          Two things, one origin,

          but different in name,

          whose identity is mystery.

          Mystery of all mysteries!

          The door to the hidden.

Labels such as ‘architecture’ and ‘music’ are difficult to un-name; there are plenty of ‘prodigies’ who failed to live up to expectations. Zhuangzi, the other seminal Taoist text, has a story on how a horse trainer sets up a tortuous regime where half of the horses will die in the process and the resulting obedient horses earn the label of being a good horse, and in the process also earning the horse trainer the accolade of being the best.

As one last example, in Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Miss Brodie said in her rebuttal to her headmistress on queries about her educational methods, “The word ‘education’ comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust. Miss Mackay’s method is to thrust a lot of information into the pupil’s head; mine is a leading out of knowledge, and that is true education as is proved by the root meaning. Now Miss Mackay has accused me of putting ideas into my girls’ heads, but in fact that is her practice and mine is quite the opposite. Never let it be said that I put ideas into your heads. What is the meaning of education, Sandy?”

Miss Brodie’s ideal was noble enough, yet in the end she failed quite miserably to live up to her definition of education; she was misled by her own desires, originating from her pride in being in her prime. As a solution, this writer is not suggesting something as radical as to erase the sense of self, or to abandon all the names and labels that we use, but merely to try and keep the desires of the self to a minimum. The point is not in leading out what is already there in our soul, for an active agent (as in Tao Te Ching’s ever-wanting soul) is always affected by the sense of self. Instead, it is the society that must learn to passively observe (like the unwanting soul) the minute differences between each soul and the messages that they carry. A glass of water looks the same as a glass of rice wine, but they smell differently and taste differently. It is the duty of the society to use our observation powers to uncover an individual’s uniqueness, and not for the individual to feign it. Otherwise, what would be the point of expressing if in the process of expression one ends up bending to the customs of society and loses the original meaning of the message?