Friday, February 22, 2013

Über Kunstler or Übermensch?

Artists, writers, musicians are monsters. This is not to say that everyone isn’t a monster. Behind the veneer of civilized behavior, human beings are driven by self-interest. A whole branch of philosophy Utilitarianism—epitomized by the views of Hume, Bentham and Mill and its modern day off-shoot, Consequentialism, argued by Derek Parfit—grapples with this very question. So why signal out the artist, writer, actor or poet no matter how vain or self-serving he or she might be. The answer might lie in the question of consciousness. We admire the artist because he is a latter day seer. “Oh what fools we mortals” would be, if it were not for our modern Tiresias who help us to parse the shadows dancing along the wall of Plato’s cave. We defer to great creative minds the way we once did to priests, albeit substituting illumination for salvation. So it's difficult in reading the biographies of great writers-- whether it’s Norman Cherry on Graham Greene, Patrick French’s biography of the great but apparently disturbed V.S. Naipaul, John Richardson’s Picasso or Fred Kaplan on Dickens--not to marvel at what a dunderhead a great mind can be. How can artists who've had such great insight into the nature of the soul, have so little knowledge of themselves, particularly when it comes to understanding the path of destruction created by their particular brand of noblesse oblige. Perhaps the greatest essay on the nature of the duplicity of the artistic personality is Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, dealing as it does with a successful writer’s inability or deal with his disturbed daughter. If the film is any indicator, Bergman clearly understood this contrariety about himself, but did, at least from what we know about his life, little to challenge his own disposition. He didn’t sacrifice himself so much as his family for his art.

1 comment:

  1. (I wish I could keep up with the reading list that your blogs reference)

    I dislike our need to mythologize other humans; there is something in us that dearly loves belonging to a cult (don't get me started on our latest hero-du-jour, Lincoln). I suspect it is because we fear death, though that may be overly simplistic. To speak ill of our heroes is to desecrate on our own epitaph. We hope that we will be remembered for our good acts and not the shoddy ones.


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