art opens the mind to its shared and spectral nature

The actor Dustin Hoffman once said that “in acting you try to admit to more than the lesser crime, you want to get down to the deeper crimes of yourself.” Here is what he comments on this inside the actor’s studio:

acting or any art is doing what you are incapable of doing in regular life. I mean we are flawed. That’s the name of the species: we are flawed. We are flawed, flawed, flawed. We are human. If we sit on a radiator and it’s hot we jump off of it. Well, if we sit on something that’s hot or we touch something that’s hot about ourselves that we don’t like on a deep level, not even consciously, we get off of it. We don’t want to know those demons in ourselves, those things about ourselves. And when you are working it’s a way of somehow shaking hands with the devil, I guess.

Art as a chelator, or rather, as an agent of catalysis… Nice lines, these. Why? Because it reminds us of the inherent–ly fundamental and fundamentally inherent–hypocrisy that structures our psyche. The extent to which externalization and reification of (unpleasant) stuff is instant and automatic. The fact that I am but a set of buffers. That my inner self  hides behind its various forms of projections and denials from moment to moment. Or something like that. Evil is within. This is the source of creativity. This is the humanity that we share.

Another craftsman from another niche of culture: William Gass, the writer, says the same thing about a certain form of writing. How so? Well, some texts, well-wrought enough texts, beguile the senses and expose the duplicitous nature of these senses. Some texts, in other words, engineer a felt sense of shared humanity/mind by bringing forth a space of interiority, of intimacy. Here is what he says about his (fascism-ridden) tome the Tunnel, for instance:

I am deliberately taking on a subject that is highly charged—none more so, really—and one which has a lot of referential meaning. The challenge is to disarm that subject, to tame it, to make it purr… Once I get the reader captured in the book, I really want to do things to him. Still, I can entice him in like a whore. And I hope to write about certain kinds of objectionable attitudes and feelings in such a way that the reader will accept them, will have them, while he’s reading. In that sense the book is a progressive indictment of the reader. If it works.

There is a technique to this, Gass says. And art, in essence, is an experimentation with such techniques. Understandably, as a literary guy, Gass talks a lot about rhetoric.

One effective teaching method is the bail-tail trick: you take some set of ideas the student is inclined to accept rather uncritically, and then you steadily pull the consequences out like a magician who begins pulling silk out of his fist and ends with lengths of intestine. By pitting the reasoning processes which the student has been conditioned to follow against his emotional bias, you can either overthrow his intellectual hold on an idea or make him look at his feelings about what led him to say yes to this and no to that. I want to get the reader to say yes to Kohler, although Kohler is a monster. That means that every reader in that moment has admitted to monstrouness.

Which happens indeed; sort of, kind of. And it happens in any form of art; ideally. As I give myself over to the guidance of art and its guiles–mainly melodious in the case of literature–I do something that I am incapable of doing in regular life: I shake hands with the devil inside. In the abstract, art is something that uses certain forms of constraints in order to effect certain forms of openness. I enter into a relationship that is based on intimacy rather than understanding. And that’s the thing: evil is defenseless against openness.

This is the gist of Timothy Morton’s message according to which “we need art that does not make people think, but rather that walks them through an inner space that is hard to traverse.”


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