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The Paradox of Obscurity Posted on May 28th

From the imagination to…

The hardest I’ve ever laughed is at myself. There have been times when I’ve been alone, or in company, and have laughed so hard at a thought or impression of mine that I become almost unhinged: my eyes tear up, and I throw back my head and cackle to the skies. Sometimes I try to explain what I’ve found funny, but these attempts inevitably turn into broken raving–I can’t speak fast enough to match my thoughts, and there seems no way to make it make sense. The more I try to explain it, the more I realize how impossible it is. My laughter picks up again–I can’t be understood! Ha!

But what do I find so funny? Of course I can’t explain it. A thought or impression I’ve had becomes a true “inside joke,” that is, only a joke I could get, a thought that would make sense if you were me, and knew the whole history of my inner life. This “inside joke” seems to reference the most inward part of me, and reminds me, in a way, that I have a self. Of course, everyone knows they have a self. But most of our lives are directed outward, and most of our thinking about our “selves” is when we are distressed. We think about our self when we need to hammer out some emotional issue or try to fix some problem. How rare it is to actually have a completely inner-looking experience of joy?

What’s really going on when I get into a laughing fit is that I’m accessing the most obscure part of myself. We can think of a person’s s sensibility as being in layers, with the most superficial layers being the most easily communicated and the deepest layers being the most particular to the person and therefore the more obscure. But one of the great paradoxes about obscurity is that the more you can explain, draw out, or otherwise present the most undiluted part of your sensibility, the more resonant your art will be. So the artist must deal with a paradox: he or she must be facing inward (towards the self) while projecting what he or she sees outward. Art might be a little like the old trick of throwing your voice–a sound deep in the self that can be heard elsewhere.

Another way to say it is that to think like an artist is to carry on an idiosyncratic, private, and inexplicable dialogue with your imagination. But to actually be an artist, one must tangibly and deliberately bring forth this dialogue into concrete, comprehensible form. All artists must grapple with the inevitable compromises and losses that come from this transition from the inner to outer. The struggle, although really only a struggle of expression, seems to have an ethical element. There is something that doesn’t feel “right” about the feeling of reduction, of diminishment, that comes the minute we try to commit a fleeting impression to a permanent medium. And of course, there is the inevitable feeling that somehow we have edited out the very thing we hoped to convey in our very mode of expression. In all our thoughts of making good art, of creating something formally strong and recognizably beautiful, we end up fussy and restrained, when the feeling we hoped to covey was anything but.

A line in a recent New Yorker article about a staging of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury speaks to what artists wish for:

Faulkner, as he wrote it, was fully aware that it was the kind of work most writers long to produce: free of editorial constraints, a pure mining of his imagination.

The paradox of art is that while we see a moral good in pure imagination, while we want to preserve it from the indignities and crude practicalities of “getting it out”, we are bound to try to express it for the sheer reason we respect it. There are several Hawthorne stories that stage this very paradox. In The Great Stone Face, Hawthorne describes a man so wonderful, so full of profound sensibility and natural beauty, that he himself does not see what he is. Only we, the readers, can see the pathos and aesthetic power of his very existence. Hawthorne seems to imply that the very consciousness of creativity is a kind of betrayal of it. Being an artist would undercut the art of what he is. On the other hand, the art of his person remains obscure–even lost–because it has no solid expression.

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