The Mind of the Artist

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On a long plane ride to Atlanta, I finally found time to catch up on a writing reference I’ve been trying to finish. In preparation for the novel contest in November, I’ve been studying the basics on plot, characters, dialogue, and point of view. One of my favorite aspects of studying writing is the many top-notch authors that the books sample. In one fell swoop, I can discover new authors and remember why I appreciate the ones I already know.

On the point-of-view chapter, William Faulkner was referenced, of course. As anybody would know from reading this blog, I’m a pretty big fan of the king of Southern Gothic. In particular, the book talked about his novel “The Sound and the Fury,” but my mind instantly brought up another great one, “As I Lay Dying.” Faulkner’s mastery of point-of-view techniques in that latter book has always struck me because its power revolved around a disturbingly quizzical character, Darl Bundren. Not only is he responsible for the majority of the narrative, but he also represents the mind of an artist, a writer, in particular.

I had been thinking about this a great deal, especially after a recent discovery of John Milton’s “Il Penseroso.” I’ve even written about it on this blog several times. Our culture has a deep and long-lasting trope on the image of the Romantic artist. They are usually eccentric, isolated, dressed in dark clothes, roaming the woods at night, and scribbling furiously into notebooks or drawing pads. And let’s not forget the most important and perhaps most dangerous characteristic…they are usually melancholy at best, outright psychologically disturbed at worse. (For the first part, you can sometimes substitute mathematical or scientific genius, which would satisfy most people’s preconceptions, but the second half almost exclusively belongs to writers, painters, musicians, actors). Artists carry the burden of their culture’s emotions and experiences, and boy, do they show it. As the story goes, it wears on them until they goes completely insane or end their lives. Before they get there, though, they are also horrendous company at the dinner table.

Of course, they would rather be loitering under the stars somewhere, waiting for inspiration to strike, trying to make sense of it all, trying to solve a specific human problem that plagues them and ultimately has no solution.

This is the Darl Bundren of the novel. He’s a character every reader trusts because he is an objective point of view. He sees and hears everything, even things he shouldn’t technically be aware of. Yet, in the world of the novel, he is known for being quiet and even shiftlessly lazy about the place, which leads to the discomfort of the people around him. They think he’s strange because he sees through everyone and everything, but without actively participating in any of it, which makes him a great narrator but a poor social being (i.e. inadequate brother/son/productive member of society). Although he is a failure as a human being, he’s a great writer; a critic attributes to him the mind of an artist because of his poetic ability to paint scenes and understand their deeper significance.

Of course, he “goes crazy” at the end, and we realize that his superb narrator brain was simply a elaborate mask covering deep layers of emotional and psychological pain, suppressed feelings of abandonment, anger, jealousy, and obvious grief from his mother’s rejection of him and her death.

The theme here seems to be that poetic genius stems from psychological conflict, or that damage somehow makes an artist more observant, more intuitive, more perceptive. It’s a cultural trope, so it must be correct, right?

Who knows?

I think I’ve been an unconscious member of the melancholy poet club. I’ve had enough irritating reminders from work colleagues to smile more in the middle of a lunch-time rush when I’m lost in thought, trying to figure out a huge existential issue. Perhaps I’m pondering over serious aspects of our daily lives and I carry an air of pensive sadness, but am I unhappy when I rush away at the first moment to write down what I’ve seen and heard, what I’ve learned? I can be a fulfilled person without smiling all of the time. But to be completely honest, the necessity of psychological trauma, depression, or mania is not a prerequisite to art either.

Artists share their unique sensory experiences of the world (their unique minds). Perhaps it seems more romantic if their genius is accompanied by some fantastical story of their poor, poor lives. What do you think? Do you believe that severe circumstances not only influences how writers think (i.e. differently from the rest of the population), but also produces good art?

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