Tuesday, 18 January 2011

What have I got under my wooly hat? Part 2

Not long after finishing my last but one post, I found myself reading George's excellent blog, Transit Notes. He was quoting Henry Miller. The emphasis is mine:
When you put your mind to such a simple, innocent thing, for example, as making a water color, you lose some of the anguish which derives from being a member of a world gone mad. ... You desist from improving the world or even yourself. You learn to see not what your want to see but what is. And what is is usually a thousand times better than what might be or ought to be.

If we could stop tampering with the universe we might find it a better world than we think it to be. After all, we've only occupied it a few hundred million years, which is to say that we are just beginning to get acquainted with it. And if we continue another billion years there is nothing to assure us that we will eventually know it. In the beginning as in the end, it remains a mystery. And the mystery exists or thrives in every smallest part of the universe. It has nothing to do with size or distance, with grandeur or remoteness. Everything hinges upon how you look at things.

In my mind, as I read it, this quote resonated with what I'd been thinking about when reading A History of the World in 100 Objects. What did Henry Miller say? "When you put your mind to such a simple, innocent thing, for example, as making a water color, you lose some of the anguish which derives from being a member of a world gone mad." Well, it immediately took me back to some things I'd said in the previous post:

Something happened to the human brain between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago. We started to be creative: we started to make patterns and decorate things.

And, from the book itself:

According to [social anthropologists], we're all trying to cope with modern big-city life equipped only with a Stone Age social brain.

What occurred to me was that, whatever the initial reason for us exploring our creativity all those years ago, when we make art today, perhaps we are trying to put ourselves at ease and reconnect with the ancient parts of our own minds - the people who we are, and who we know so little about.

Am I going back far enough? When we first became creative all those millenia ago were we trying to reclaim something then, too? Is that when people started to feel a sense of detachment from what they had been in the past? Did people consider themselves, then, (as Henry Miller put it, above) to be inhabiting "a world gone mad"? Quite possibly. The human brain might have changed slightly, but also:

"Ice Age conditions were critical... it was a very challenging time for people living in harsh, long winters - the need to build up really intense social bonds, the need for ritual, the need for religion, all these related to this flowering of creative art at the time."
Prof. Steven Mithen, University of Reading, quoted in A History of the World in 100 Objects.

So, I suppose,  for "making a water colour" we can read carving a piece of ivory, or painting a cave. Speculation - but obvious, in a way.


Elisabeth said...

This s a fantastic quote, Domininc.

I'm forever trying to make sense of the nature of creativity and this post helps. How to make sense of our potential to create rather than to destroy, both exist side by side, but one is infinitely preferable.

Kat Mortensen said...

Can we add gardening to that? I think many people escape the 'world gone mad" by burying themselves in their gardens (pun intended).


George said...

A very interesting post, Dominic, and I'm delighted that the Henry Miller quote resonated with you so much. In addition to being a fine writer, Miller was a passionate watercolorist as well. For him, life and art were inseparable.

Thanks also for the lovely comments about my blog. Deeply appreciated.

This subject of why we create art is endlessly fascinating to me. I agree with you entirely that there is something in the process that is atavistic; we are trying at some level to connect with our deeper, older selves in order to avoid being overcome by the din and distractions of modern life. In a couple of days, I plan to publish a little piece that you might find interesting as an artist and a musician. It will be entitled: "Art: Where We Speak of Holy Things." For the most part, it will be a long quote from a writer I admire about the common threads that underpin writing, painting, and other artistic expressions.

Have a good week.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I am not sure that everyone was creative are you? Certainly now some people cannot live without being creative while others find it unnecessary for survival.
We have to ask ourselves what are we creating things for - I certainly do creative work for myself and for nobody else - but now I have written that I realise that is not true of my poetry writing only of my 'handwork' - the problem deepens and needs a lot of thinking about.

Rachel Fenton said...

The very act of creating a human is one of creativity, or so our language suggests - metaphors, even in these comments alone, talk of "threads" and "underpinnings"; our very existences are a creative endeavour. Social tappestry.

Fascinating post, Dominic.

A Cuban In London said...

This is one of those 'save for later, and read thoroughly', posts, but since I am in lunch hour, I'll offer my twopence worth.

I think that our creativity is innate, but it has been affected and influenced by a world that is changing at such speed that we can hardly keep up with it. Between the invention of the telephone, the computer and the Walkman (to name but three), several decades elapsed. Yet, only a few years separate the invention of a mobile phone that allows you to access the internet (computer function) and on which you can listen to music (your personal Walkman, if you wish). Can our brains keep up with that? Is this mad rush for the next big thing killing our creativity?

All in all, it was a beautiful post. I haven't read Henry Miller since my uni days. Time to revisit the old geezer. :-)

Greetings from London.

Anonymous said...

It's good to be reminded of Henry Miller as a man of wisdom and judgement rather than the misogynistic iconoclast that tends to be the contemporary representation.

Alan Burnett said...

Maybe what happened all those years ago when art was first created (or gardens were first planted with flowers rather than vegetables) was that we discovered that enjoyment could be more than a full stomach and dry clothing.

Jinksy said...

Well, that was a bright spot on a dull Saturday eveing! Perhaps creativity is worth more than we give it credit for...