Willpower and art

17 08 2011

A few days ago, I finally finished reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift. It’s heavy going at times – Mr. Hyde spends a lot of time on Walt Whitman and his work, which isn’t that interesting unless you’re a graduate student of English and Whitman is part of your thesis topic. But he has some interesting things to say about the relationship between creation and willpower (as part of a discussion of Ezra Pound). Here’s one relevant quotation:

There are at least two phases in the completion of a work of art, one in which the will is suspended, and another in which it is active. The suspension is primary. It is when the will is slack that we feel moved or we are struck by an event, intuition or image. The materia must begin to flow before it can be worked, and not only is the will powerless to initiate that flow, but it actually seems to interfere, for artists have traditionally used devices – drugs, fasting, trances, sleep deprivation, dancing – to suspend the will so that something “other” will come forward.

In the same paragraph, Hyde points out that the will has a useful role in the creative process:

When the material finally appears, it is usually in a jumble, personally moving, perhaps, but not much use to someone else – not, at any rate, a work of art. […] The will does not create the “germinating image” of a work, nor does it give the work its form, but it does provide the energy and the directed attention called for by a dialogue with the imagination.

Here’s still more on the role of the will in the creative process:

A writer with greater trust in the will works the text, turning the plasm of the moment into more durable gems. Such work has the virtues that come of revision – precision, restraint, intellectual consistency, density of images, and so forth.

Almost any guide that provides advice to writers on how to write points out the necessity of separating the writing and editing phases of the creative process. Editing relies on the use of the will; writing does not. Trying to simultaneously write and edit is like trying to use the accelerator and the brake at the same time – you’re not going to get anywhere.

Several pages later, Hyde warns of the dangers of over-reliance on the will:

At times when the will should be suspended, whether it is good or bad is irrelevant. […] For when the will dominates, there is no gap through which grace may enter, no break in the ordered stride for error to escape, no way by which a barren prince may receive the virtu of his people, and for an artist, no moment of receptiveness when the engendering images may come forward.

Any artist who develops the will risks its hegemony. […] for when the will works in isolation, it turns of necessity to dictionary studies, syntactical tricks, intellectual formulae, memory, history, and convention – any source of material, that is, which can imitate the fruits of imagination without actually allowing them to emerge. […] The will knows about survival and endurance; it can direct attention and energy; it can finish things. But we cannot remember a tune or a dream on willpower. […] The will by itself cannot heal the soul. And it cannot create.

Of course, there’s also the danger of under-reliance on the will – of assuming that the output generated by a burst of imagination is better than it actually is. Lately, I may have fallen into this trap a few times (as well as into the trap of trying to bring creative material into the world through sheer force of will).

On an unrelated topic, here’s a good song for a summer day – Jamaican reggae artists Chaka Demus and Pliers covering Elvis’s “Don’t Be Cruel”:

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