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Our duty to art, pitfalls of creative terror and the benefits of a Socratic education. A Dolansphere reflection on experience
Dolansphere Volume 2) Experience
What you might ask would a 23 year old have to say on experience? Well readers, I think it might be a tad unfair to immediately victimise my youthfulness. Firstly it is a naïve to assume that the broadness of life experience carries a great deal more wisdom than a somewhat narrower one. Furthermore this idea is exemplified in the works of our greatest thinkers. Friedrich Nietzsche was a syphilitic crazed shut-in his later days, Proust bed-bound most of his adult life and Sartre somewhat wryly declared that “Hell is other people”. These remarkable individuals despite a seeming deficiency in what I shall call “worldliness” had something to say about how we live our lives. The resonance of their works has arguably the greatest contribution of any intellectual endeavour- it has changed how we think about the world and painted a course on how we might live happier lives. I’m not denouncing living a rich and varied life, there is fantastic joy to be garnered from both the most carnal desires to the most selfless acts. But these people drew their value from the approach they took at examining their own meagre existence and simply by offering up their worldview, however small and however subjective gave something precious to us- an insight into the human condition.
One of our biggest failures as human beings is to declare these people as different to ourselves, if asked to mimic these individuals in attempting to answer to life’s big questions people will quickly protest their own incompetence “But they were more educated than myself” “Their understanding of suffering is far better than my own” “Their personal experience gave them insight I could never have” I feel here, people are too quick to sell themselves short. I’ve learnt valuable life lessons from the most unlikely of places, coked up London socialites, strict Mormon fathers and TV given me accurate advice directly or indirectly on how I might live better. I think the key to unlocking their worth is in the attitude by which we choose to understand their lifestyle. I think perhaps the biggest tragedy here is that as valuable a source as these people might be for guidance, very little record is kept on the life experience they wield.
So readers, I would feel somewhat hypocritical if I didn’t, at this point, reflect on the importance of our experiences and how we might go about shaping them to into a cohesive life-enriching philosophy. I will not recant my personal experiences directly here, but I would invite you to speculate on what exactly has effected me so personally to reflect on the very nature of experience. As always the mazy subject of human experience will require some guidance to prevent us getting bogged down in tangent or to wander aimlessly along the misty moors of knowledge.
Firstly I wish to talk on the importance of self reflection and how Socrates may teach us not only how to ascertain truth in our lives but how we may use it to further our personal happiness. Then I might make a suggestion how an increased appreciation of art might actually give us a more lucid insight into better ways of living our lives. Finally I will petition you the readers not to let fear cripple your creative expression for this is the most critical and perhaps the most effective way in which we can communicate the lessons of our existence to one another.
The image of Socrates is one that immediately paints an image in our mind of a wise, sagely character in flowing white robes lecturing in a Parthenon. This is an absolutely false portrait of the man, who never washed his clothes and used to wander aimlessly in the markets of Athens in the dirty rags of crazed tramp. In his wanderings he would ask people the big questions “How can one be happy?” “How should we ascertain justice?” “What is our purpose in life?” He gained his education simply by asking others regardless of class, education or background how they lived their lives. This sort of attitude toward thinking I think carries with it with a great deal of maturity. Firstly he never judged that a beggar would have nothing to say about living the good life compared to say a rich merchant and he never assumed to be a scholar one must only study scholars. Socrates recognised the commonality of human suffering, passion and happiness. That set him free to study life in its entirety and began setting about unifying his ideas so that he might condense them into universally applicable philosophies. I was initially massively bored by his findings, he thought somewhat blandly “Happiness is important to people” but his genius lay in how he said we might go about the business of happiness. His approach, again, initially bored me suffering from the usual suspects of happiness being friends, food, clothes but then he dropped this bombshell
“The unexamined life isn’t worth living”
I immediately debunked this preposterous idea knowing many people who reflect little, if at all, on the nature of their lives and themselves live incredibly happy lives free of any misery. Conversely and perhaps more strikingly is that I know many people who reflect regularly on the life they have lived and their lives are awash with despair. One such fellow remarked to me “To examine my life itself actually furthers my depression not lessens it.” So, I, thought using the basics of Socrates falsification theory, I myself have disproved Socrates thesis. Take that philosophy, I thought.
As you will have guessed my victory was somewhat short lived, it kept bugging me, How could there be truth in this statement? I think the answer is there is some truth in what Socrates is trying to say. His task was a hard one given how different we are and different people have different needs so path to happiness is a varied one. So when attempting to find out what makes us happy he looked at the far more universal attitude we take towards embracing happiness and avoiding hardship. The variables that can effect our lives is almost infinite but we can attempt to plan for them. The only way in which we can plan for these, is the life experience of ourselves and learning the lessons others have to offer on the common themes of human existence. To get any clarity on these issues any of these we must ascertain the truth and relevance of any advice given to us and this obviously requires some thought.
I think this style of self-analysis is something we do already conscious or unconsciously, we all have career aspirations, ambitions for the future all of which requires some degree of self reflection. So Socrates was right! Well sort of, self reflection is not the key to happiness but an examined life certain paves the way to happier one because it allow us to better understand how to be happy. Unfortunately that unpredictable jester of chance may indeed conspire to doom us to misery or perhaps unmitigated joy but the examined life allow us to better deal with life’s sorrows and develop strategies to better guide us toward the shores of elation. Allow me to explain my little thesis using the awesome power of math.
Food + clothes + friends + examined life = Happiness
Food + clothes + friends + examined life > happiness or happiness more likely
Food + clothes+ friends- examined life < happiness or happiness less likely
If we already embrace self-reflection why is it a problem? I have two problems firstly we don’t do it enough and secondly we often do it for the wrong reasons. Self reflection commonly takes off often around the onset of grief. Death is the awful wake up call that makes us muse on the problems of our mortality. Self reflection doesn’t have to be bastard child of tragedy.
If you will appreciate it as facilitator of happiness then I would invite you to give a greater importance to self reflection in your life so you might make more informed decisions on how you might be happier. I also hope that we will also embrace a more Socratic attitude toward education, remembering that everybody is an expert in being alive. Its nothing more than worst form of intellectual snobbery to assume that some people have nothing to offer us in leading better lives simply because they are a different race/class/religion/education than from ourselves and yet I see people doing it all the time. I laugh to myself a little now because in a roundabout way they are, in essence, denying themselves happiness. Almost Karmic isn’t it?
Now that Socrates has given us some advice on the advantages of musing on the complexities of life we must look how we might better equip ourselves to philosophise a little better. I think one way we might gain some insight into living better would be to look at other peoples records of how they choose to live or how they suggested we might live. Luckily we are surrounded by these records, they take the form of the very basis of art. We all drink a little from the fountain of artistic knowledge, all of you will listen to some music, read some literature or even admire some paintings. We all too often put up artificial barriers between us and “high art” (a term I find disgusting) believing somewhat naively that these books are too hard for us to understand, paintings have too much depth or that philosophy is something only discussed by the intellectual elite. One thing I feel we tend to lack is the motivation to engage with art considering it something that belongs to other people or something beyond our capacity to understand. I don’t know when we became so afraid of art or became so inadequate with ourselves but here we are many of us are in the height of the information age never observing or discussing art. Marcel Proust had this to say on the importance of art, unfortunately his Opus in search of lost time is 3,700 pages long and he didn’t care much for short sentences-
By art alone we are able to get outside ourselves, to know what another sees of this universe which for him is not ours, the landscapes of which would remain as unknown to us as those of the moon. Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world, our own, we see it multiplied and as many original artists as there are, so many worlds are at our disposal, differing more widely from each other than those which roll round the infinite and which, whether their name be Rembrandt or Ver Meer, send us their unique rays many centuries after the hearth from which they emanate is extinguished.
The quote is long but the message is simple- art helps us to see things in a different way. We should come to art with a simple objective to see art as a perspective and attempt use that information to inform our world view. As you read and digest the above statement isn’t interesting that art invites us to lead the examined life that Socrates talks about? Isn’t even more stunning that art gets us outside ourselves to find truer more objective truths in our own lives? I didn’t have to do a massive case study on Proust's childhood, artistic motivations or even attempt advanced criticisms of the text to make sense of his ideas. One of the marks of a great artist is that he makes his ideas blissfully simple to understand. I don’t want to take away from the field of academic investigations into art for their work is important in furthering our understanding of artists and artistic movements but it worth noting an artist almost never creates a piece purely for this purpose. They create because they make a record of the life they lived and offer something of that knowledge to us. We would be fools to let that go to waste.
Of course for different people there is different art. We all have preferences in styles or subject matter but would invite people to perhaps be a little more open minded to the different artistic forms. Our most popular art form by far is music but I often find that music is almost too good an art form to be a truly effective one because invites us to feel rather than think. Music’s emotive quality has one massive benefit, the ability to make us feel a certain way creates environment in which we gain a great commonality with the people we experience it with, and would speculate that might be why its been the great social lubricant since the dawn of time. Modern art is often considered so irrelevant and the Turner prize often the butt of many jokes but don’t use that as an excuse to doom 10,000 years of artistic expression to the intellectual graveyard. Search and find and develop an artistic palette, we’ve never existed in a more connected age so finding art that we can relate to has never been easier.
Our duty to art is to attempt to make it relevant to ourselves, we don’t need a university education to do that in the same way Socrates didn’t need a university degree to be philosopher he just reflected on what people had to say and we should experience art in the same capacity- simply as invitation to reflect on how another person has chosen to live their life. Its doesn’t take a genius to work out if their path was successful or not and with this added perspective we might be able to make better, more informed choices in how we choose to live our own lives. Art can be the roadmap to leading a better life, I just wish we spent a little more time learning how to read the map and little less time trying to get to our destinations.
Finally readers, if you’ll permit me I’d like to talk a little about myself for a moment. My attempts at writings for public consumption has been a difficult one for me. Initially I wanted to write about politics but felt massively insecure about everything I did. Every article that made it into my notebook eventually got binned because I felt too stupid to tackle the subject matter or felt it had been said before and said better. It wasn’t until I finished on language I really understood where benefits of having a creative outlet lay. We often get caught up, especially those of you currently being victimised by the university system, with an unhealthy obsession with being judged and graded with everything you produce.
My first article was poorly structured, riddled with grammatical errors and almost certainly has been said before and said better. Yet I got a tremendous buzz from writing it for several reasons. Firstly I wrestled and gained a greater understanding of a topic I knew little about, and also got people I know talking about a topic that was important to me. The real pleasure in being creative doesn’t come from what you produce but what changes and develops within yourself when you create it. Insecurity may seem like the obstacle but perhaps striving for security is what led me to bin those articles. Eve Ensler the worlds foremost activist in women’s rights has a very interesting take on insecurity.
When security is paramount you can’t travel very far or venture too far outside a certain circle. You can’t allow too many conflicting ideas into your mind at one time, as they might confuse you or challenge you. You can’t open yourself to new experiences, new people, and new ways of doing things. They might take you off course.
I’ve learned that anything worth doing will make me feel insecure, maybe the quest now is to keep writing while embracing insecurity. I never thought writing a simple article on language would make me re-evaluate my relationship with insecurity but here we are in article 2 talking about it. I now think if complete security was the greatest objective in our lives it would kill all artistic expression as we know it. So I think my experience of insecurity might actually be one worth relating to you. Don’t let doubt cripple your ability to create a record of your experience. Don’t let security be the goal in your life.
Readers, the time for this reflection is at its end, but I hope I’ve conveyed that a degree of personal examination will arm us for the uncertain times ahead. That the tools for allowing us to do this with finesse surrounds us in the form of art and that art is accessible to all people of all tastes. Finally I hope my personal experience will help inspire you to create, so that like me you can finally make peace with insecurity.