The Cult of Self-Expression

Perhaps nothing has been less fruitful, less artistic, less interesting than the cult of self-expression in the arts. The arts are not and have never been about self-expression. Unfortunately, most people believe that art is almost exclusively about self-expression. But to the extent that an artist or writer believes this, that person is not engaged in an aesthetic enterprise. Their work is anti-artistic, and the degree to which they are engaging in self-expression actually undermines the work as a work of art.

What does it mean to “engage in self-expression”? I’ve seen its most extreme version in creative writing classes with students who would say things like, “I don’t read poetry because I don’t want to be influenced by anyone else in the way I write or what I write about.” The funny thing is that every single poem by every single person who ever said something like this all sounded exactly the same. Somehow, the “self” they were all trying to “express” was identical in nature.

Your pure, unadulterated “self” is pretty much identical to everyone else’s. In other words, you’re not all that interesting or even unique. To become interesting and unique, you have to have experiences with other people, which includes reading a great deal of poetry if you plan to be a poet. Your poetic voice will never emerge by avoiding poetry any more than your actual voice will ever emerge without hearing anyone speak. Your poetic voice can only ever emerge if you immerse yourself in poetry, read poetry obsessively, try to emulate your favorite poets, adopt forms and styles, write in meter and use rhyme, consonance, assonance, and other poetic elements.

The choices forced on you by meter and rhyme, for example, force you to make different choices than what you would have made “naturally.” More often, better and more interesting choices. The choices you would have made without the restrictions of meter and rhyme are your “self-expression,” and most of the time they aren’t as interesting as the forced choices. Now, to what degree can “forced choices” be “self-expression” if they have been imposed from the outside?

If you read about the great artists, you won’t find a lot about their self-expression. What you will find is a great deal about whatever artistic problems they were trying to solve. The Renaissance artists were interested in solving artistic problems around the emergent idea of point perspective. The Impressionists were trying to solve problems with capturing light in different ways. The cubists too were trying to solve artistic problems in trying to capture movement and in trying to render unseen portions as seen in a 2D painting.

Shakespeare wasn’t trying to express himself (thank God!) in his plays, or even in his series of sonnets (there was an artistic problem he was trying to solve in creating a coherent set of sonnets without a narrative holding them together). Shakespeare to varying degrees expressed his society, culture, etc. in his plays, transforming works by Roman playwrights into Elizabethan stories, and sometimes Shakespeare reinforced that world view, and sometimes he challenged that world view, but he always did so through the portrayal of his characters, who spoke with their own voices, who only expressed themselves rather than being avatars for Shakespeare.

Today’s movies are very popular in no small part because the massively collaborative nature of film making makes self-expression nearly impossible. We can always tell when a film has self-expression, because we tend not to like them for being so self-indulgent. And that’s what everyone says about your work when you engage in self-expression: they say that it’s self-indulgent. And self-indulgent work is egotistical and boring.

Of course, much poetry especially is egotistical and boring. Poetry is especially prone to this because there are few market forces working to keep poets honest. Nobody’s paying for poetry anyway, so why not drivel on about your boring self? If nobody is paying, nobody cares, right? But that’s not necessarily true. People are paying–in time. When you write a poem, you are supposed to be trying to communicate with that person. Have you ever had to sit with someone who droned on and on and on about themselves and nothing else? If your poetry reads like that, don’t be surprised if nobody wants to read it. Probably nobody wants to sit with you, either.

I’m certainly not saying I haven’t written poems about myself. I have. Most poets have. But hopefully I’m trying to communicate something to you that goes well beyond self-expression, and in fact has nothing whatsoever to do with self-expression. I’m trying to communicate my experiences in a way that they are universal and universalized in their particularity. My very best poems have been those where I have avoided self-expression entirely. If I have communicated to you beauty, that’s enough. If I have made you think, contemplate, meditate, or want to turn a line or two into a mantra or a koan, all the better. If I have helped you see something you’ve never seen before, or something you have seen before in a new way, I’ve done my job as an artist. But none of those things require self-expression. More, self-expression is the surest way to get in the way of accomplishing these things.

Matt Ridley has recently talked about “ideas having sex.” A true artist’s brain is the bed where these ideas are having sex. For a poet, all of the poems you have read, all of the ideas you have read, all of the facts filling your head are having sex and reproducing in the form of new poems. Your artwork will have the DNA of all the forms, ideas, and so on of everything you have read, experienced, and seen. Self-expression, on the other hand, involves only yourself–and its outcome is sterile and only of interest to the person involved in that self-expression. Art, like sex, is only interesting to others if more than yourself is involved.

The best thing that could happen to the arts would be for everyone to do away with the self-indulgent cult of self-expression. Go out and solve some artistic problems. That’s the one and only way to be any kind of artist at all.

The Devil Speaks That Which Cannot Be Spoken

I think everyone should read Mikhail Bolgakov’s The Master and Margarita — a Soviet-era Faust story. In chapter 1 an editor, Berlioz, and a poet, Bezdomny (the poet’s pseudonym, which is itself telling, since he is writing for an approved literary journal) are discussing the non-existence of Jesus when the Devil appears. The chapter is full of interesting things, but the thing I want to bring out in particular would seem to have nothing to do with theology, even if it starts off with a theological point– a point made immediately after a discussion of the weaknesses of the rational proofs of God’s existence.

The Devil/unknown man/stranger asks: “But this is the question that disturbs me—if there is no God, then who, one wonders, rules the life of man and keeps the world in order?”

‘Man rules himself,’ said Bezdomny angrily in answer to such an obviously absurd question.

‘I beg your pardon,’ retorted the stranger quietly, ‘but to rule one must have a precise plan worked out for some reasonable period ahead. Allow me to enquire how man can control his own affairs when he is not only incapable of compiling a plan for some laughably short term, such as, say, a thousand years, but cannot even predict what will happen to him tomorrow?’

‘In fact,’ here the stranger turned to Berlioz, ‘imagine what would happen if you, for instance, were to start organizing others and yourself, and you developed a taste for it—then suddenly you got . . . he, he . . .’ at this the foreigner smiled sweetly, as though the thought of a heart attack gave him pleasure. . . . ‘Yes, a heart attack,’ he repeated the word sonorously, grinning like a cat, ‘and that’s the end of you as an organizer! No one’s fate except your own interests you any longer. Your relations start lying to you. Sensing that something is amiss you rush to a specialist, then to a charlatan, and even perhaps to a fortune-teller. Each of them is as useless as the other, as you know perfectly well. And it all ends in tragedy: the man who thought he was in charge is suddenly reduced to lying prone and motionless in a wooden box and his fellow men, realising that there is no more sense to be had of him, incinerate him.

‘Sometimes it can be even worse: a man decides to go to Kislovodsk,’—here the stranger stared at Berlioz—‘a trivial matter you may think, but he cannot because for no good reason he suddenly jumps up and falls under a tram! You’re not going to tell me that he arranged to do that himself? Wouldn’t it be nearer the truth to say that someone quite different was directing his fate?’

In this seeming theological discussion of whether or not man is the master of his own fate — or if it is rather God directing all — we have the Devil arguing against the very possibility of economic planning. Note that the Devil specifically uses the terms “plan” and “organizer” — the very things socialists believed, at the time (1938), were possible. Note too that the argument isn’t about whether any particular person can rule him/herself, but rather whether or not man, as a collective, can rule, plan, and organize himself.

But the Devil points out something: in order to plan such that man rules man, man would have to be able to predict with perfect precision everything that will happen, including accidents. Mere accidents throw off the plan, meaning man cannot rule.

More than that, he points out that for all of the rhetoric about organizing for the collective good, all the altruistic organizer has to have happen is a heart attack for him to suddenly become quite concerned about his own personal well-being and to then ignore all of his efforts for his fellow man. More, under stress, the Devil points out that man will not only make rational choices — the doctor — but will even make increasingly irrational choices in order to save his own life. Thus, man is not ruled by reason alone — nor will he ever be. And no man will work for man as a collective when his own individual life is at stake. The fact of self-preservation belies the dream of self-sacrifice for the collective –or of the possibility of the pure rule of reason.

One can imagine the publishing atmosphere in the Soviet Union in 1938, when this novel was finished. Bulgakov had been publishing (not without controversy) for years, and he no doubt expected this novel to be published as well. He thus puts all approved and appropriate views into the mouths of Berlioz and Bezdomny, while criticizing the very foundations on which Soviet rule was made though the mouth of the Devil. The Devil, of course, is the most evil of all evil; the Devil doesn’t even exist, and is proof of the irrationality of man the Soviet Man was overcoming. To put these ideas into the mouth of the Devil was, therefore, safe. One could criticize the ideas on which Soviet central planning was based so long as that criticism was out of the mouth of an irrationally-based, nonexistent metaphor for evil. And more, the Devil is the adversary of God — and if the Adversary is enunciating anti-communist ideas, does that not make him the adversary of the communists? — and does that not suggest Communism has replaced/become God?

Ah, the wonders of literature! The wonders of metaphor — compact or extended! One can say so much, and say so many dangerous things, and pretend innocence of it all. Especially in satire. Just give the Devil the words, and you can communicate them with plausible deniability. If you see the Devil appear in a work of literature, be on the lookout for him to speak what cannot be spoken.

The Father of Lies and His Minions

If the devil is the father of lies, then a few observations need to be made.

1. It is not lying per se that is forbidden in the Ten Commandments, but “bearing false witness.” This is a legal term, and means that you cannot lie to either harm an innocent or to help a guilty person. In other words, you cannot tell the kinds of likes that harm society. Thus, fictional stories are not covered by this commandment, as fictional stories not only do not harm society, but in fact benefit them by showing the truth and giving moral examples. It is for this reason that bans on works of fiction, especially novels, are often called for –- because the people who call for such bans are afraid of the truth, and are acting immorally. Nietzsche says that “Art tells the truth in the general form of a lie.” And Aristotle prefers fiction to history precisely because history says what did happen, while fiction says what could and ought to have happened.

2. God—Jesus—Satan form a legal system. God is the judge. “Satan” means “adversary” in Hebrew, and an adversary is the person who brings charges against the accused. In the Old Testament, this was the entire system, and we see this system at work in Job. The Adversary brings charges against Job, and God subsequently tries Job. Job is left with no recourse but to bear what happens to him, and even to challenge to God himself the justice of what God is doing. Job gets chastised by God because the error Job makes in questioning God is not in realizing, as Heraclitus did, that “to man some things are just, some unjust. But to God all things are just, good, and beautiful.” Job also did not have the advantage of having a Defender –- which is the role of Jesus, and why he came to earth. Now, when the Adversary brings charges, Jesus defends us.

3. If you support lies, or use lies, then you are in league with the devil –- the father of lies. This puts most churches, especially in the United States, in league with the devil, as most churches preach and support lies of various kinds. It has been said that the greatest trick the devil ever performed was to convince the world he didn’t exist. I disagree. The greatest trick the devil ever performed was to convince people to believe in the “literal interpretation” of the Bible. He must have had a good belly laugh when people accepted this oxymoron. All texts require interpretation –- and all texts have several interpretations. Scientific texts may be written so that they can have very few interpretations –- but even this statement is not entirely accurate, since scientists often argue over the interpretation of data. But most other texts have many more interpretations –- as many as there are people, and readings by each of those people. Which is not to say that those interpretations should not be in context or not have a family resemblance to each other, because they should (or else they will be bad readings). You know you have a bad reading of something if you have to ignore some other part of the overall text for that reading to work.

4. The word “myth” has taken on a negative meaning since the ascension of science as “the” way of knowing about the world. But science can only tell us about the world below the human level of reality. Myth, poetry, art, religion –- these all speak of things above and including the human. We need to stop thinking that a “myth” does not have the same value as science –- this is a prejudice of modern-day scientific thinking. Too many people think science is the only way of knowing about things –- meaning, for them, if the Bible is of any value, it must be scientific as well. But science as we currently understand and use it was developed 1500 years after the last book of the Bible was written. And scientific history (history as we now understand and practice it) was developed at the same time. So, the Bible has been falsely attributed to being a work of science and history in the modern sense. But this takes away from the value and truth of the Bible, as we see from Aristotle’s distinction (Aristotle actually uses the word “myth” in his definition, not fiction –- I too have been guilty here of modernizing things and causing confusion, since fiction too is a modern idea in the era of scientific thinking). Basically, we need to do away with our modern-day prejudices against ways of knowing about the world other than science. And equally, we need to stop using modern-day usages and understandings of words and ideas for texts outside that time-context. The Bible is not science, nor is it history in the modern sense of the term –- though it certainly is history in the ancient sense, as well as mythology in the best sense of the term, meaning it is a source of truth. To Christians the source of the profoundest truths. But truth is different from scientific fact.

5. I am concerned with the lie of the Bible being science and history in the modern sense precisely because this lie has alienated more people from Christianity than anything else. And it is a lie perpetuated and preached from pulpits everywhere. Anyone with the scientific evidence before them will realize that as a work of science, the Bible is one of the least accurate texts ever written. Now, if the Bible is scientifically unfactual (untrue), then its truth must be questioned in other areas –- if scientific truth is how we measure all things. And many people do indeed do this, which is why they end up rejecting the Bible –- and Christianity. And it does not help when defenders of the scientific facticity of the Bible use outright lies to support their position (like saying fossil ages are determined by the geological level they are in, and that geological levels’ ages are determined by the fossils they have –- which is an outright lie). Those who knowingly use lies to support their positions both know their position is weak, and are bearing false witness. They are of the devil’s party, and are helping to drive more people from Christianity.

But if the Bible is myth, it is true –- and it is also not at all in conflict with science, or the truths science uncovers. The devil trembles when I say this, for fear you might understand: there is no conflict between the truth of the Bible and the fact that the universe is 15 billions years old, born in a big bang that gave rise to an earth 4.5 billion years ago, on which life arose 3.5 billion years ago, and which evolved into all the living forms, including humans, through entirely natural means. The meaning and truth of the Bible is not lost if we reject the lies of the sciences of creationism or intelligent design, and accept rather the truth of evolution. In fact, too many people have already been lost to the truth of the Bible because of the lie of creationism. The proponents of creationism and intelligent design are very much of the devil’s party –- perpetuating lies that drive people from the Bible’s truth and meaning. Their master would be proud.