Art, humanity and the ‘fourth hunger’
Half-awakened, humans are constantly engaged in a battle to make sense of the world and our experiences within it. And a great work of art, especially music, helps us to do just that.
What follows is not going be an authoritative discussion of aesthetic theory. In some respects, it is more of an interim report from an increasingly acrimonious domestic dispute with myself, in which many harsh words have been exchanged and much crockery thrown. I say ‘interim’ report because my views are still evolving. I shall focus less on what art has been or has meant hitherto than what it might be or might mean in the future.
Of course, my personal vision of the future of art will be informed by and inspired by its past; otherwise I would not be justified in using the word ‘art’. Focusing on the future means that I can dodge the problem that, in the past, art has served a multitude of purposes and has been inextricably tangled up with many other things. The distinction between art and crafts, for example, is not hard and fast. Art has rarely been ‘for art’s sake’. And what we now call literature has been used for rather more mundane purposes than pure aesthetic delight and the transformation of consciousness: for practical instruction, for the transmission of information, for moral edification, and as political, cultural and religious propaganda.
I am going to make some fairly elevated claims for art. Those of you who recall how often art has been used merely to glorify, pleasure or divert those who commission or pay for it may be rather cynical. Artists know they must follow the full dinner pail or they will end up dead next to an empty one. But the most impressive and moving thing about great artists is that they have produced works that are many times more beautiful, profound and complex than their contract required, sometimes at appalling cost to themselves. Beethoven could have made a very comfortable living, and probably pulled more women, if he had devoted himself to tafelmusik instead of writing, for example, those soul-freezingly beautiful late quartets that were deemed unplayable and incompetent at the time. The luminous intelligence, the miraculously suggestive and subtle imagery, the ravishing music of Shakespeare’s dramatic verse is astonishing, even heartbreaking, when one thinks of the malodorous, noisy philistines who placed their unwiped Elizabethan bums on the seats.
This tells us something about artists – and perhaps about humanity. It points to a hunger, experienced most intensely by artists, which, however, I feel is common to all of us, whether we know it or not. This hunger will lie at the centre of this essay.
A couple more caveats. The term ‘art’ encompasses many arts; a range of very disparate activities and products – ballet, sculpture, architecture, poetry, music. For me, the central arts are music (did not Nietzsche say that ‘without music life would be a mistake’?) and literature (and I have spent much time struggling to produce a philosophical poetic prose in which poetry, fiction and the essay are fused). Even so I shall speak of art as if it were one – which is clearly unsatisfactory (1). Nevertheless, while I am conscious of fundamental differences between arts, I envisage a point at which they converge in addressing a fundamental aim of human life.
In summary, in what follows, I will use the notion of art in a very general sense, almost as a ‘placeholder’ for something that answers to a fundamental need of humanity; though this essay will be saved from circularity by the fact that the notion of art is rooted in what art has been in the past.
Some framework observations
Let me now make some general observations about our lives. We are enclosed in some large facts. The most important of these is that we are going to die. We are accidents waiting to unhappen. Even so, though many of us are not desperately uncomfortable for much of the time (indeed we are often pretty comfortable), we do not value our lives as much as we might be expected to do. We fear death, of course – and its ante-rooms (injury, illness and so on); but we are not thrilled by our Saturdays, even less by our Tuesdays. One might expect that, given that our existence is a brief, highly unusual, not to say privileged, state, we would be in a condition of ecstasy and wonder at the multi-layered, multi-dimensional mystery of our lives. In fact we do not for much of the time value our comfortable days. We are often, even usually, unhappy or dully low-spirited. The nation’s brain serotonin levels are falling even as I write this.
Of course, much of the time we are busy and often rightly so. The business of caring for others who are dependent on us, and/or being engaged in work that not only pays the bills but also involves serious, sometimes harrowing, responsibilities, and may even make the world less unpleasant, threatening or impoverished for others – all of that occupies a large proportion of the life and consciousness of anyone who is not a self-protective, selfish scumbag. We are obliged to live in what we might call the Kingdom of Means and here metaphysical ecstasy is not easily achieved. My concern right now, however, is with the Kingdom of Ends; with what we do with a normal Tuesday when we have secured it for ourselves and discharged whatever we consider our duty towards helping others achieve the same.
This is of increasing relevance in affluent societies where, for many, work of all kinds is occupying less and less of their time, especially for those with an underdeveloped social conscience. What shall we do with the extra 130,000 hours of work-free time the average Briton enjoys compared with her predecessors in 1870? (2) This may look like a question narrowly about the uses of leisure; in fact it is about the point of living and how we might live a truly rich life. There will not be a fixed answer to this because we do not have a fixed essence: we are individually self-defining within broad, evolving collective self-definitions. I will therefore offer only some very general indications and hope that they will ring a bell. If they turn out to be merely autobiographical, then so be it.
My essay hinges on an assumption to which I have already alluded: that art addresses a fundamental human hunger – and one that comes to prominence when other hungers are not continuously gnawing at us; when we have leisure on the scale I have referred to. For humans have a multitude of hungers. Three are obvious: for survival; for pleasure (with or without chosen pain); and for positive acknowledgement by real or imaginary others. This third hunger is the most complex. It is internalised as self-esteem at being loved, hungered after, or envied; in thinking of one’s self, or knowing that one is thought of, as successful, worthy, attractive, desirable, useful and not a shit.
It was this third hunger that Hegel focused on in The Phenomenology of Mind. He connected it with a fundamental difference between humans and all other animals: uniquely, we are self-conscious creatures that, in addition to appetites, have desires which can be satisfied only by other self-consciousnesses.
Art in different ways touches on all of these hungers. But it is a fourth hunger – one that arises out of the profound anomalies of the human condition – which I believe that the art of the future may address more exclusively, at any rate more directly and explicitly, than it has in the past. What is this hunger? Where does it come from?
The fourth hunger
Like the third hunger, the fourth hunger arises from our curious condition of being animals that have woken to a greater or lesser extent out of the state of an organism. Half-awakened, we are constantly engaged in making explicit sense of the world and of our fellow humans. This sense remains tantalisingly incomplete and stubbornly local. With it comes the feeling that we have not fully realised our own existence, not fully realised that we exist, not fully realised the scale and scope of what we are and of the world we live in. It is a kind of existential numbness.
This numbness may present itself in different ways but it is most evident when we seek out experience for its own sake. Then it is felt as a mismatch between experience and the idea we had of it when we sought it out. At the very simplest level, experience does not measure up to expectation, though things are more complex than that. We do not seem to experience our experiences. In addition, our experiences seem insufficiently connected: they do not add up, as we move from one thing to another, in increasing haste. We may characterise this lack of connectedness in different ways: that we are always small-sampling our lives and our worlds; that we have no overview on ourselves; that we are condemned to live in ‘The Dominion of And’ or ‘The Kingdom of And Then, And Then’, in which we pass on from one thing to another, without ever being fully at any of them. I have characterised this in an over-long essay as ‘The Difficulty of Arrival’ and I’ll come back to that (3). At any rate, we go to our deaths never having been fully there or never having fully grasped our being there because we cannot close the gap between what we are and what we know, between our ideas and our experiences, our experiences and the life and world of which they are a part.
There are many people – most human beings throughout most of history, including the present era – who would wish for such problems. For them, the fourth hunger is not an issue. The starving, the oppressed, the frightened, the aching, the itchy, the bullied, the humiliated, and the bereaved find the local, unchosen meanings that they have to contend with quite sufficient. Affluence, born of technological advance, however, has resulted in increasing numbers of people for whom economic survival is a less continuously pressing concern, who are in good health, who are not oppressed, and who are selfish enough not to be overly concerned with the needs of those who remain in need. They have sufficient leisure to think beyond The Kingdom of Means to The Kingdom of Ultimate Ends. For them, the incompleteness of the sense of the world, the vacuum in the present moment, may be an issue.
The commonest response to this sense that something is amiss is increasingly frenzied activity, usually involving consumption of goods, substances, entertainment and one another. Motor cars, Bargain Breaks, Stella Artois, orgasms etc are thrown into the hole in sense. These, while excellent in themselves, do not palliate the fourth hunger: for a life more connected, for a more intense consciousness, for joyful experiences that are experienced with the solidity and intensity of the pain, starvation and terror from which we have been delivered. I’ll come back to Stella and orgasms later; but for the present note that they seem to be a second and third hunger solution to a fourth hunger problem.
Indeed, they may actually make things worse. ‘Phun’-obsessed individuals increasingly approximate to the condition of ‘Humean beings’. Recall David Hume’s frustrated attempt to find his self. When he looked inside, he could see only a succession of sensations, or – to use his lovely phrase – ‘fugitive impressions’. Well, we are not really Humean beings and he was looking in the wrong place – in sensations rather than a life narrative informed by an Existential Intuition (4). For the present, we note that a common outcome of unremitting hedonism is the sense that we are passing through our lives, or our lives are passing through us, like water through dry sand, as the pints of Stella pass through us leaving as their only solid reality an ever advancing state of kegnancy, like an alluvial deposit.
The billions of person-hours spent in moronic gawping at plasma screens projecting yet another crucial, vital – that is to say pointless – sporting event leave even less of a memorial. The hollowing of presence by e-sense – and the inability to sit still without endlessly reaching out towards, and receiving input from, an electronic elsewhere – is a striking symptom of the existential consequences of the inflamed state of consumerism in which many of us live. This e-ttenuated state – in which airhead meets voidaphone – sharpens rather than assuages the fourth hunger.
Frenzied consumption, what is more, breeds more frenzy: inflation affects experiences as surely as it does money.
What I have written is desperately simplifying and I haven’t even begun to address the role of long-term projects which have their roots in hungers one to three but may incidentally speak to the fourth hunger to live in a more connected way. I am thinking of some of the doctors and biological scientists I have known in my years as a physician, individuals who have lived deeply satisfying, if at times unbearably tense, lives. For them, any pangs of the fourth hunger seem to be met by a narrative that arises out of the satisfaction of devoting large parts of their lives to external activities which will help others. Taking on a job heavy with responsibility; being always available to the needs of others; trying to find new ways of improving the lot of their fellow men; and the sometimes terrifying, and always consuming, joys of child-rearing. And thank God for people for whom this is utterly fulfilling: they are actually the difference between a world that is brutal and uncaring and one that is bearable. Alas, they are becoming fewer as altruism is being displaced by a hedonism that increasingly focuses on the second hunger.
And this touches on the most unpleasant part of the quarrel with myself that I have alluded to. I may as well address it now. Anyone who takes the fourth hunger seriously must take the other hungers, especially as they are suffered by others, less seriously. This is something that has preoccupied artists since Keats’ muse told him that they alone are true poets for whom ‘the miseries of the world / Are misery, and will not let them rest’ (5). Kunstlerschuld, or artist guilt, was one of the most striking features of great writers of the twentieth century: Rilke made pathetic attempts to persuade himself that his poetry would be of practical use; and Cesar Vallejo – in the opinion of some, the greatest poet of the twentieth century – was utterly screwed up by the impotence of poetry to relieve ordinary agonies of most ordinary lives. Surely those of us, a tiny minority in the history of humanity, who live in a glade of health and affluence, unmolested, untyrannised, have a responsibility to bring hope to the children of the dust.
The Difficulty of Arrival
In my essay ‘The Difficulty of Arrival’ I examined the problems that arise when we look beyond the Kingdom of Means. I subjected to sympathetic but critical examination the most sustained attempt to dwell in the Kingdom of Ends that most of us undertake: the annual summer holiday when we are liberated for a uniquely long period of time from the productive process in order to seek experience for its own sake. The difficulties that attend this secular haj tell us a lot about human consciousness and why it needs art. It was in this essay that I advanced an even more primitive version of the position I am developing in this paper and I argued that our need for art is rooted in the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of arrival in the Kingdom of Ends and there experiencing our experiences. If it is better to journey hopefully than to arrive, it is because arrival is not actually possible.
For every moment that promises to be one of arrival dissolves into more journeying.
There isn’t space to repeat the partly tongue-in-cheek story I tell in that essay, only to reiterate its conclusion: that we journey towards ideas of experience that no experience can realise. That is why the moment of arrival, after which we would have remained arrived, in journeyless continuation, seems to elude us – and systematically. Every candidate point of arrival exhibits a tendency to turn into a piece of en route, to be porous with further journeying. Journeys end only in more journeys, macro and micro journeys constituting the activity one had arrived at or for, taking one past the point of arrival. And so it goes – until it is time for departure and the journeys that lead all the way home and back to the Kingdom of Means.
The ideas of experience, that haunt actual experiences and find them wanting, are derived either from anticipation shaped by words and pictures or, when it is a case of re-visiting, from those postcards of the mind that have developed in our memory. Ideas differ from any possible experience in two rather fundamental ways: firstly, sense experience is baggy, obese with contingencies (my conception of the cliff walk or the two-hour surf in the sea did not include any of the very particular items of which it is composed – that particular missed wave, that seagull flying overhead, that shower of rain); and, secondly, the idea is given all at once in an instant of anticipation or recall, while the experience unfolds over time. The idea has a clear form which the experience lacks. Experience is thus riddled by a sense of insufficiency: we feel that we are not quite experiencing it. Hence the difficulty of arrival which, I argued, is not accidental but quite systematic. It is rooted in the divided nature of our half-awakened consciousness, what I have characterised in a recent book (6) as Propositional Awareness. Let me briefly allude to this.
Why experience sought for its own sake is undermined by the general ideas it fails fully to instantiate goes to the heart of the peculiar condition of the human animal. We make explicit sense of what surrounds us; that explicit sense draws on the past and projects into the future, but it remains incomplete. For it is cast in a form that no sensory experience can realise, or ‘saturate’. It is the product of Propositional Awareness. While this awareness often takes the form of words, articulate consciousness is only one mode of Propositional Awareness. Such awareness posits items in a Space of Possibility. These items are inevitably general, and incomplete. This is our glory and our curse. Because we are creatures who are aware ‘That x is, or is not, or might be, the case’, we are not dissolved into our experiences; we are located in a world that surrounds us with ever-increasing circles of multi-layered general possibilities. We try to live with our senses a life that is always looking beyond our senses.
That is why we become frustrated wherever experience is sought for its own sake; where we are concerned not with means to ends, but with ends in themselves; not with journeying but with arrival. This is true even (or especially) of human relationships.
When we dismount from function, when we leave the Kingdom of Means and enter the Kingdom of Ends, we are haunted by a sense of not being quite there; of not being able fully to experience our experiences in a way that connects with our wider self, our wider world, our life as a whole. This is a feeling that has been widely explored in literature, glancingly and ironically in the early fiction of Thomas Mann, in wonderful and passionate and intelligent depth in Proust’s A la Recherche de Temps Perdu, and is evident in the exquisite despair of Stendhal, Baudelaire, Leopardi, Lermontov, Flaubert and innumerable other writers. It lies, I believe, behind the creative energies of the artist – of which more presently.
Attempts to arrive
There are less upmarket strategies than the creation of art to deal with the problem, particularly as it is encountered on holiday. Consider Camcorder Man who devotes most of his vacation to recording what he cannot experience, in the deluded belief that when he plays back his movies the experience will happen. There are those for whom holidays are redeemed by their therapeutic significance: re-charging batteries, doing one good or even doing one ‘a power of good’. Or for whom they are a chance to catch up on something – the garden, reading, cataloguing the butterfly collection.
Some people turn holidays into a series of tasks that mimic the seriousness of work: think of those hiking holiday with miles to be got through before the pub; the 10-country tour with great distances on the clock and towns ticked off; the terrible ordeal of the orienteering holiday at the end of which there is something called ‘satisfaction’ or something else called ‘achievement’. This somewhat misses the point, of course: a failure to experience experiences can only be concealed but not healed by replicating in the Kingdom of Ends a simulation of the seriousness of the Kingdom of Means. Alternately, there is risk-taking behaviour – about which, as a recovered rock-climber (and subsequent coward), I can speak with some authority. Expeditions in which terror and suffering are requisitioned in order to ensure immersion, to occlude any space outside of the experience in which ideas can live to critique experience. But this does not address the problem of disconnectedness; of ‘just one (damn’d) experience after another’.
For some, sex and drugs is the answer and I have already nodded to orgasms and Stella Artois. Sex is a big topic but I mention it because sexual activity and sexual fantasy seem to be increasingly occupying public as well as private consciousness so that Catherine MacKinnon’s claim that the world is increasingly defined by pornography seems less of an exaggeration than it seemed when she first made it. Even if one set aside paranoia, unwanted pregnancy, emotional hurt, jealousy, violence, asymmetrical power relations and even the spectre of true love, there are problems in a life in which the search for an answer to the fourth hunger takes the form of a sexual odyssey.
Admittedly, it is difficult to imagine a more direct realisation of arrival than the sexual climax. However, sexual experience that is pure sensation, totally onanistic, is disconnected from the rest of life, belonging to the Dominion of And. Once it goes beyond this – and if it is going to be any good it really has to involve someone else – and, to enhance the sense of adventure and privilege it clutches at the slightest lingerie of personal interaction, and wraps rutting in an intersection of life stories, then new difficulties arise. The narratives of the participants may not be compatible or even reality-checked; and physical intimacy may be confused with personal intimacy and personal intimacy with genuine care and the sense that one is cared for and special. Indeed, much of the excitement of consumer sex comes from the danger that it might get personal and a trans-physical intimacy may arise which parasitizes the signs and symbols of a caring relationship. Much heartbreak and misunderstanding then ensues, as the fragments of narrative are stitched into different parts of different lives, rooted in different things and envisaging different destinations.
So, unless both parties are equally committed onanists, or indeed solipsists, then there is always the danger that one may start to harbour the idea of a longer narrative of a caring relationship which becomes mired in the Kingdom of Means. The very phrase ‘a caring relationship’ strikes terror in the heart of all committed hedonists. For they must shrink from the notion of, as Forster so wonderfully put it, connecting the prose and the passion. No wonder it is so common that those who come together shortly after come apart.
At any rate, you cannot assuage the fourth hunger by throwing more numerous, more interesting, more varied and more prolonged orgasms at it; for all that they provide much nourishment for the second and third hungers – for pleasure and chosen pain, and for self-esteem. The more completely it delivers an immersion in physical experience, the more it fails on connectedness; and the more it is connected through narrative and an enduring sense of the specialness of the other sustained over time, the more the spell of immersion is broken. Doubtless, sooner or later, someone will claim that this is a direct consequence of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.
So much for the sexual fix. What about other fixes? The case for drugs – dilating and transforming awareness – as an answer to the hungers in the Kingdom of Ends, though superficially more compelling, for their direct widening of consciousness, is even weaker. Drugs’ ecstasies are episodic and disconnected from surrounding reality. The destructive powers of drug addiction are not accidental – not merely the result of poor quality control of the supply or criminalisation.
In general, stepping up the rate of consumption – of goods and each other – as a proxy for experiencing experiences is not particularly satisfactory, not just because it fails to palliate the fundamental hunger. The rising curve of consumption threatens the future habitability of the planet; and an increasingly consumerist attitude of individuals towards each other – reflected in holidays as genital tourism – imperils the future of civil society. In the end, Baudelaire’s enivrez vous – or get bladdered – cannot be kept up. The ageing body becomes increasingly unwelcome at the orgy; the liver packs up; and even Bargain Breaks may lie beyond one’s means. There is a bitter wakening to solitude when misfortune strikes and the borrowed signs of care prove to be empty symbols.
In short, there are no easy, or easyJet, solutions to the question of how to live life abundantly when material needs have been met. We must look elsewhere for ways of addressing the frustration that arises from the half-awakened state that is the human condition; from the elusiveness of fully experienced experiences; from the lack of connection between our experiences and the consequent Humean sense of ‘And then, and then’ – on to the next thing, and the next thing, and so on until we die.
The Problem Re-Defined
Before I go on to discus the role of art in addressing the fourth hunger arising out of the flaw in human conciousness, let me cite a couple of passages from two contemporaries. The first relates to the ungraspability of the present moment. It is from an essay by the Czech writer Milan Kundera:
There would seem to be nothing more obvious, more tangible and palpable than the present moment. And yet it eludes us completely. All the sadness of life lies in that fact. In the course of a single second, our senses of sight, of hearing, of smell, register (knowingly or not) a swarm of events and a parade of sensations and ideas passes through our head. Each instant represents a little universe, irrevocably forgotten in the next instant. (7)
Actually that is potentially more cheerful than the difficulty of arrival because it points to undiscovered riches in the present moment as well as its elusiveness, and it has in fact prompted a lot of my own writing. But you will get his drift.
The other, unquestionably grim, is from the Polish political philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, about the disconnectedness of the ordinary life of Humean beings, in which what happens does not add up to an integrated whole:
By its nature, daily life is a torment, because no link exists between disparate events. It is an accumulation of individual situations that have in common only the fact that some of them resemble some others in some respects. Because of this we are able to elaborate certain automatisms and habits which select our reactions in a manner that is superficially orderly but actually unthinking and customary… In fact, however, every particle of daily life exhausts itself faster than we can record it and, together with the others, forms that dreadful voice where nothing is real, nothing is really experienced, and everything dissolves into a chaotic mass of details. (8)
That is not how things strike most of us most of the time or some of us any of the time; but it dramatises what lies behind the fourth hunger.
Art as a solution
How, then, does art address the fourth hunger, the problems arising out of our half-awakened state? Two characteristics of art, corresponding to the two concerns I have highlighted, are most directly relevant: form and connectedness. Let me discuss form first.
We may translate the mismatch between experience and the idea of it – as a result of which we somehow do not experience our experiences – as a disconnection between content and form. The content is the actual experience, with all the sense data served up by the accidents of the moment; and the form is the idea of experience. In a truly realised work of art, in contrast with our lives, form and content are in harmony, like the recto and verso of a single sheet of paper.
This is most easily illustrated by music, which, for the present discussion, we may think of as the paradigm art. (As Walter Pater famously said, ‘all art aspires to the condition of music’ (9).) Think of the relationship between sound and idea – or form – in the experience of a melody. Each note is fully present as an actual physical event and yet is manifestly part of a larger whole, of an idea. There is no conflict between the form or idea of the music and its actual instants. Our moments of listening are imbued with a sense of what is to come and what has passed. The form to which the music conforms – that ties what has gone and what is to come with each other and with what is present – shines through its individual moments. There is both movement and stasis; in Aristotelian terms, the unfolding sound realises form as ‘the unmoving moved’.
Of course, the music has its journeys – it manifestly is a journey from a beginning to an end – and in great music we feel as if we have travelled great distances to and through a remote soundscape. But the journeying is never merely a piece of en route: the unfolding of the form fills and fulfils the sensation of the present moment with the past and the future, rather than undermining it with the past and the future. The leitmotif, recurring throughout the music like an involuntary memory, ties together the beginning, the middle and the end, making it all one. The retrospective light it casts on all that has gone before creates the feeling that we have been arriving all the time and that, indeed, we are arrived. Which is why there are moments when, listening to great music, we have the sense of enjoying our own consciousness – its present and its past – in italics.
So much for form and experiencing our experiences. What of the connectedness of experiences and their integration into a greater whole?
Connectedness across occasions – so that any moment reaches into a wider world than is available to it in ordinary life – is best illustrated by what is achieved in narrative fiction. In practice, we are always trying to redeem our sense of being fragmented by means of the stories we recount about ourselves and each other and our world. Most stories we tell aim to put ourselves in a good light, but more important than that they try to put ourselves in any kind of light, to give ourselves sharp edges – thus dimly reflecting our hunger to make things hang together and have a clearer outline than in the fuzzy muddle of real-time experience.
This is greatly elaborated in fiction in that extraordinary device called the plot. Of course both great literature (Tolstoy, Joyce) and ephemeral garbage (authors’ names withheld for the sake of their families) use plots to tie together persons, places, things and themes by means of extended and interconnected stories. Literature, however, realises – makes real and present – the road the story takes; opens views either side of the road; and connects numerous roads with one another. While trash draws a blurred line, faded with familiarity, across an otherwise blank canvas, great novels create microcosms which, by reproducing the multidimensional complexity of the macrocosm, make more of the world mind-portable, and so extend ‘available consciousness’ and possibly even our human sympathy, though that is another story (10).
There is overlap of course between experience transilluminated by form as exemplified by music and the connectedness achieved in fiction. EM Forster’s celebration of the unity achieved in War and Peace as a kind of music flags up this connexion:
[War and Peace] is extended over space as well as time, and the sense of space, until it terrifies us, is exhilarating, and leaves behind it an effect like music. After one has read War and Peace for a while, great chords begin to sound and we cannot say exactly what struck them. They come from the immense area of Russia, over which episodes and characters have been scattered, from the sum-total of bridges and frozen rivers, forests, roads, gardens, fields, which accumulate grandeur and sonority after we have passed them. (11)
‘Grandeur and sonority’, yes! Space, yes! For the great work of art is an inselberg in the plain of everyday life. From its elevated viewpoint, created when so much is brought together between a single cover, our greatly extended view gathers together what we have known, suspected, thought of, imagined, with a consequent mitigation of And; a ‘de-scattering’ of our scattered, tatty, messy, lives, calling back diffuseness to concentration.
At any rate, the artwork of the future will have to combine the special virtues of music and of literature. And the literary work of the future will bring together the strengths of fiction and of lyric poetry, with its ability to encompass a whole world in a small space through implying more than it says, cosmos-straddling metaphors, and unpeeling what it celebrates and achieving as much through verbal music as through verbal meaning – extraordinary condensation, and internal stitching through rhyme, and rhythm. And the strengths also of philosophy.
And so we see in a work of art an ideal life in miniature. As an exemplar it addresses the wound in consciousness; it acknowledges and consoles us for our customary lack of thereness and lack of connectedness. But a great work of art is a lens as well as a jewel, and through it we may continue the process of widening our consciousness. It invites us to view our own lives with the eyes of an artist. It says: this is how the world might be experienced; now go forth and experience it thus.
Rivals: philosophy and religion
I mentioned philosophy. Philosophy originates in the desire to transcend the world of thought and experience in order to arrive at a vantage point from which it can be seen as a whole. At its greatest it combines the toughest, most rigorous sense of reality with the most tingling sense of possibility. It opens dormer windows in our consciousness. And its most fundamental aim – to enlarge and clarify our understanding of the world; even to make the world mind-portable – overlaps with that of art. It, too, strives to bring us closer to rounding out the sense of the world, liberating us from the Dominion of Eternal And, and the endless ‘fugitive impressions’ of Humean being. Indeed, it would like to round off the sense of the world. Like art, it fails to achieve this wholly; but philosophy’s failure is more profound.
For philosophy tends to x-ray rather than see the world, looking straight past or straight through it. It connects experiences together by emptying them. While this is the source of its true greatness – and life without philosophical inquiry driven by wonder, joy, terror and awe is distinctly anencephalic – it is also a profound flaw. It is aseptic and lacks the armpit odour of reality. That is why we have to agree with Nietzsche that ‘the creation of art is the only metaphysical activity to which life still obliges us’. Such a metaphysical activity is one in which we shall truly experience our experiences. Philosophy, however, will make us greater artists, as we apprehend a world transilluminated by ideas and ideas heavy with world.
Some think that religion offers liberation from Humean being. Fortunately, this is increasingly looking like a dead end. The heavens are continuing to empty. There is much theocratic noise but even religious fanatics, especially when they use mobile phones to detonate bombs, cannot help buying into the rationalistic world picture they reject. Their arias of magic thinking are set in a recitative of secular rationalism embodied in wall-to-wall science-based technology. Fundamentalism represents the death throes of religions, which were established when brutality, destitution and ignorance were the norm. At any rate, the evidence-free intellectual muddle, the unaccountable hierarchies and the corrupt power play that are inseparable from institutionalised religion makes it an unattractive direction for humanity to travel.
Religion, however, addresses fundamental human needs, not only by promising a Club Class after life to compensate for our days in steerage but by offering the image of an entity – God – in which the meaning of everything we do and feel converges, so that ‘And then’ comes to an end. It speaks to the fourth hunger. That is why art can and must lay claim to the hole left by the absence of God – if only to diminish the chance of His return and the malign consequences, which do not need spelling out, this would have. Art is not, as was said of Mozart’s music, ‘God’s means of letting himself into his own creation’. Rather it is humankind’s most powerful attempt to shake off what Kant called its ‘self-imposed minority’. It is our path to experiencing, with appropriate awe, the extraordinary world which we have in part found (nature) and in part created (culture). To vary Nietzsche, ‘the creation of art is the only theological activity to which life still obliges us’. That and admiration of the art the wrong-headed ideas of religion have occasioned. The appropriate awestruck response to a cathedral is: ‘How mighty are the works of man, and how wonderful are human beings to have created such monuments to a fantasy of their own making.’ I am inclined to think of art at its height as the child of religious awe uncontaminated by institutions, doctrines, and the promise of an after-life.
Note, Nietzsche says ‘the creation of art’. So, you may say, ‘What has that got to do with me? I am not an artist.’ However, anyone who seriously engages with a work of art has to recreate it, to marry it with her own self-world. And, while artists are more continuously and explicitly aware of the fourth hunger that is only intermittently felt and often unrecognised by others, that hunger is, I believe, a human universal, though for many it is occluded by the other hungers. Artists differ from the general run of humanity because they experience the human condition as an unbearable personal problem. If they are able to withstand an almost intolerable awareness of the flaw in the human condition – they take it personally – it is because they also experience the intense joy of creation. ‘I paint because I am unhappy’, Picasso said. One suspects that he was (almost) happy to be unhappy, so that he could paint; so that he could experience and express greater wakefulness, ‘thereness’, connectedness, energised by an intense, essentially metaphysical, dissatisfaction. But, as I said before, the work of art is a lens to be looked through as well as a jewel to be looked at. And this is where the artist and the audience are as one.
Final random thoughts
Let me end with some comments of a largely random nature.
First, since art of the future is to address the fourth hunger more directly, it must be content to be useless – like consciousness itself. (Any conceivable practical use for art can be better delivered by other things – journalism, treatises, work chants.) Its sole aim will be to help us towards the full self-presence of a wide-angled consciousness in which ideas, emotions and experiences are congruent and successive experiences are ever more complexly connected with one another. Art is relieved as from now on of the obligation to be of use in the Kingdom of Means.
Surely, someone will argue, art may be of use by widening our sympathies, heightening our sensitivities and may even reduce our appetite for more environmentally polluting forms of consumption. If this were true, it would be an accidental benefit. But an unlikely one. In my experience, people who read a lot are usually more rather than less selfish – they don’t like to be disturbed and make sure they are not – and have just as polluting holidays as other people. I don’t entirely rule out the possibility that art aims at joy and hits morality in the crossfire; that the openness of consciousness it exemplifies is not necessarily hostile to or remote from kindness and generosity of spirit – the supreme virtues. But the empirical evidence is unimpressive. The best one can say is that the consciousness awoken by art may be more open to the reality of other people than the swooning egocentricity of closed-off, uncaring hedonism, with its orgies of consumption and its consumer orgies.
Art is also relieved from now on of the responsibility to instruct in the broader sense and should not be subordinated to cultural, political and religious propaganda. The only role of literature, for example, is to show ordinary daylight as the fabric of a vision and ordinary daysense as a wonderful, and unaccountably robust, collective fabrication. By this means, it may give us a glimpse of a perspicuous understanding in which intellectual joy and physical pleasure are one.
Secondly, we should be very suspicious of state funding for the arts. This usually means state-sponsored mediocrity, noise that blots out the signal of genius; worse, it places art in danger of being institutionalised and instrumentalised. Forget all the nonsense about regenerating communities, making art accessible, inclusiveness, community art, creative writing classes for the uncreative so that they can be pleased with themselves without wakening out of the little parish of their everyday consciousnesses etc. The best Art will be accessible to anyone who feels the hunger it addresses.
Besides, artists should make their own way in the world. It is not good to live solely in the Kingdom of Ends. It brings art too close to psychopathy, shallowness. Only minor artists are not overwhelmed by the sense of duty, by the Kunstlerschuld I referred to above. It is very important to be reminded constantly that the survival of those for whom the fourth hunger is an obsession, depends on those who are not psychopaths, depends on the dependable, on those in the past for whom the miseries of the world are misery and will not let them rest, as Keats said.
Thirdly, notwithstanding the fourth hunger, we have to remember that true artists love bits of the world for their own sake and are not able to say why and may not always be concerned to relate them to other things they love. ‘Caressing the details’ as Nabokov would call it. They also love techniques for their own sake – poets relish the sound of words and enjoy playing with them, beyond the inner stitching that makes their poems more completely whole. Technique and competence may bring intense joy. We will have to put up with these foibles.
Fourthly, there is the danger that works of art may become just more consumer items, so that one series of ‘And thens’ is replaced by another: ‘Stella + Bargain Breaks’ by ‘Symphony + Poem’. We need to live within, live inside, a small number of definitive works of art that will give us a true image of the human world, equal to its variousness, its depth, its mystery and its grandeur. As Gide said, ‘I write not to be read but to be re-read’. There then remains the unsolved problem of picking the needle out of the haystack; of building a personal library of truly great works.
Nevertheless, we should recognise that even the purer art of the future will need to entertain, mainly through evoking ordinary human emotions: amusement, gossipy curiosity, sympathy, horror, and so on. Art that does not entertain cannot have any other impact. Entertainment is a necessary condition of art but not a sufficient condition. The art of the future will be at odds with what Philip called the world of Total Entertainment – which he suggested to the Czech writer Ivan Klima might be the dismal successor in his country to totalitarianism (12): down came the Wall and up went the wall-to-wall continuous low-grade distraction and an endless diet of cognitive boiled sweets stuffed into already stuffed brain.
We must also acknowledge that we shall continue to experience art at many other levels than those which touch upon fundamental hungers. ‘Man doth not live by bread alone’ – or by the things of the spirit alone. Curiosity, the need for distraction, to be soothed asleep, love of entertainment, snobbery, the chance of meeting others, the excitement of being at great occasions, the wish to make oneself more interesting or attractive, etc – these are, and will remain, the commonest reasons for engaging with the arts. Just as with religion: for some God is a fire in the head; for most others an occasion to be well-dressed in church. We will not always arrive at a symphony concert on a Saturday night in the grip of a metaphysical hunger and leave with that hunger satisfied.
Even so, that hunger burns at the centre of great art. It is a profoundly human hunger. The artist’s longing to encompass the world by gathering it up in his mind, imposing his own interpretation, his own temperament on it, by creating out of it something that is his own, is a particularly intense manifestation of what we might call the human project: namely to make the world our own thing; to grasp the world that has us in its grasp.
Fifthly, whether or not, given that many in the world are hungry, oppressed, routinely humiliated, and die prematurely, we should pander to the fourth hunger in ourselves is another matter. I hear the return of that domestic dispute I referred to at the outset and a great tureen has just hit the wall.
So be it. Art offers an intermission in the otherwise permanent condition of never having been quite there. Useless and necessary, art – like holidays – is about experience for its own sake but – unlike holidays – such experience perfected. So let there be art, extending and deepening, if not rounding off, the sense of the world, celebrating the wonderful and beautiful uselessness of our half-awakened state.
I have offered you an idea of art that may be regarded as a placeholder, as a regulative idea – like that of a complete and completely coherent and transparent account of the world that is the regulative idea in philosophy, though few philosophers would admit it. The idea of a connectedness – wide open, drawing on the four quarters of consciousness, ending the parochialism of small-sampling one’s own consciousness – is a tantalising asymptote that has tormented and delighted me over the past few decades.
Raymond Tallis is professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Manchester. In addition to several publications in the fields of neurology, he has published fiction, three volumes of poetry and numerous books and articles on the philosophy of the mind, philosophical anthropology, literary theory and cultural criticism.
Note: This essay is based on a lecture given in September 2006 to Philosophy for All. A condensed version was published in Philosophy Now in September 2006.
(1) Anyone who wants to follow this up might look at my essays on ‘The Referents of Music’ and on ‘The Dimensions of Art’ in Theorrhoea and After Macmillan (London), 1999
(2) Nicholas Craft, London School of Economics, personal communication, 2003.
(3) ‘The Difficulty of Arrival’ in Newton’s Sleep. Two Cultures and Two Kingdoms, by Raymond Tallis, Macmillan (London), 1995
(4) This idea is examined at length in I Am: A Philosophical Inquiry into First-Person Being by Raymond Tallis, Edinburgh University Press (Edinburgh), 2004. There is a shorter account in ‘Identity and the Mind’ in Darwin College Lectures on Identity, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge), 2008.
(5) The Fall of Hyperion Canto 1, by John Keats
(6) ‘Aspects of Propositional Awareness’, Chapter 5 of The Knowing Animal. A Philosophical Inquiry into Knowledge and Truth, by Raymond Tallis, Edinburgh University Press (Edinburgh), 2005
(7) The Art of the Novel, by Milan Kundera, translated by Linda Asher (London: Faber, 1988), p.25
(8) ‘Conscience and Social Progress’, by Leszek Kolakowski in Marxism and Beyond, translated by Jane Zielonko Peel, Paladin (London), 1971: p. 156.
(9) ‘The School of Giorgione’, Walter Pater in The Renaissance, Mentor Books (New York): p.95
(10) See ‘Misunderstanding Art: The Freezing Coachman. Reflections on Art and Morality’ in Newton’s Sleep. Two Cultures and Two Kingdoms, by Raymond Tallis, Macmillan (London), 1995
(11) Aspects of the Novel, by E.M. Forster Pelican (London), 1962: p. 170
(12) Philip Roth in conversation with Ivan Klima in ‘Return to Prague’ in The Spirit of Prague and Other Essays, by Ivan Klima, translated by Paul Wilson, Granta Books (London), 1994: p.68
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