Art Is the Path to Liberation

Titian, "Sisyphus,"

Titian, “Sisyphus”

I’ve been reporting on my four senior projects, and today you get Nick Brown’s exploration of how to live a worthwhile life. Not to keep you in suspense, here’s Nick’s conclusion:

My project claims that human freedom is the freedom to treat the world the way that we treat art. It is to view everything with an aesthetic eye, understanding that our nature is one of interpretation. When we interpret, we are not merely making things up. We perform a dialogue in which we seek to understand something that is not reducible to the way that we see it. Art intrinsically compels us to see the way that our perspective is limited—in an instance of expression, we encounter another perspective. This is a loss of self, in a sense, but it is no longer accompanied by a feeling of loss. Instead, we gain an aesthetic reality in which we are able to take part.

In case you hadn’t guessed, Nick is a philosophy as well as an English major, and his project reflects upon a number of different theories and poetic articulations of what makes a life meaningful. Rather than sum up Nick’s ideas (which I tried to do, inadequately, in a February post), I am sharing Nick’s public presentation. It’s well worth reading.

By Nick Brown, Philosophy & English, St. Mary’s College of MD

Part I – Believing the Act

My project is called “The Storied Life: Art as the Practice of Liberation,” and it has incorporated both of my disciplines—English and Philosophy—in a way that makes them inseparable. After four years of undergraduate studies, this project is the most optimistic philosophical position that I could think of. I set out to examine how we create meaning in the world. I wanted to provide a method by which we can live an examined life, able to remain critical of how we see the world without removing ourselves from our activity.

This purpose led me to a familiar metaphor. In Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It, the character Jaques delivers this famous speech:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages…

At first, the image of life as an act does not sound so bad. Playing a variety of parts seems to suggest that we have freedom to adopt different identities. For Jaques, however, these different roles are inflexible. Listing various stereotyped phases of life, he suggests that the characters we play are already determined—thus, it is false to believe that they are a genuine part of our identity. Eventually we are no longer able to trick ourselves with the performance, and we come to see ourselves as we really are. At the end of his speech, he describes the final stage of human life as thus:

Last scene of all,
That ends this strange, eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (2.7.162-5)

Behind the act, we see that there is nothing. The performance, the identity that we find within the world, is only a way of hiding the utter meaninglessness of our lives. As much as we try to avoid this fact, it will make itself known as we crawl towards death.

Macbeth provides the same bleak picture in another famous speech. He observes,

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (5.5.23-7)

All human purposes, Macbeth suggests, will soon be forgotten. In Shakespeare’s time, “shadow” was a synonym for “actor”—so life, viewed as an act, is insubstantial, an imitation, a faint and false version of the real. Reality, on the other hand, appears to be nothing more than the meaningless of the world.

When I sought to use Shakespeare’s metaphor, I wanted to say something a bit more cheerful than this. I wanted to suggest that viewing life as an act could, in fact, enrich our lives. I found myself facing nihilistic perspectives that disagreed with me, and I had to show why they were wrong. Thankfully, I found a character that had already done the work for me.

Unlike Macbeth, Jaques exists within a comedy. His melancholy perspective is ridiculous against the backdrop of As You Like It because everything, without fail, ends well. He acts as a foil for the character of Duke Senior. The Duke, exiled by his brother, has taken up residence with a band of supporters in the Forest of Arden. During the play, he too compares life to an act—in fact, his observations inspire Jaques’ speech. However, the Duke has a different take on the world than Jaques. When he first enters the play, he gives the following speech:

Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The seasons’ difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
‘This is no flattery: these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.’
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything. (2.1.1-17)

The Duke is able to see the way in which human perspectives are limited. Nature tells him that he is subject to material forces that are indifferent to his purposes. This telling, however, is heard with feeling. The Duke encounters a humanized voice within the nothingness that Jaques and Macbeth resign themselves to, and he starts a conversation with it. Nature does not try to deceive him as does the human world, and so he is free to make his own meaning within it. Thus, he “Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, Sermons in stones, and good in everything.” His meaning is an act, imperfect and incomplete, but for precisely this reason it is also an interaction. An affirmation of the limits of his perspective results in a freedom to seek human good with, as opposed to against, the world. He chooses to believe the act, and suddenly the whole world is made human, transformed into art.

Part II – The Absurd

I sought to justify Duke Senior’s way of viewing the world. To do this, I turned to some new characters. In his Greek myth, Sisyphus is forced to roll a boulder up a mountain in an attempt to reach the top. Each time, the boulder ultimately rolls back down the mountain, and Sisyphus must restart his task. He is unable to fulfill that to which the whole labor of his life is dedicated.

With Albert Camus, the rock of Sisyphus becomes a model for the way that people go about their lives in the modern world. We think that our labors are contributing to some greater purpose, but we eventually realize that we cannot reach the top of the mountain. When we recognize that the meaning we desire the world to have is not inherent to the world, it disturbs us—our rock rolls away, and the world feels like an absurd play.

Unlike Jaques and Macbeth, however, Camus gives us a response to nihilism. Explaining his version of Sisyphus, Camus writes in “The Myth of Sisyphus,”

His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up… Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

By his torture, Sisyphus is made to be lucidly aware that his activity does not have a lasting purpose, even as he desires to have one. Camus believes there can be power, and even happiness, in recognizing that our desire cannot be fulfilled. Only by refusing to succumb to expectations of meaning can we free ourselves from the false images we place upon the world. By refusing to play the actor, we are able to become ourselves.

But this is not what Duke Senior does. The Duke is not afraid to find his meaning in the world, or to paint a human picture of nature. According to Camus, he must be a Sisyphus that has not realized that his task is impossible. He must be deceiving himself. When we look at the Duke, however, his act does not seem to be deception.

So we turn to our next character. Soren Kierkegaard, writing under a pseudonym, describes a seemingly average man walking home one evening:

On his way he reflects that his wife has surely a special little warm dish prepared for him… As it happens, he hasn’t four pence to his name, and yet he fully and firmly believes that his wife has that dainty dish for him… If she had it, it would then be an invidious sight for superior people and an inspiring one for the plain man, to see him eat; for his appetite is greater than Esau’s. His wife hasn’t it—strangely enough, it is quite the same to him. (Fear and Trembling)

Not having his meal is “quite the same to him” as having it. This sounds like an obvious contradiction, an act of self-deception, an attempt to convince himself that the rock can reach the peak. And yet this man does not forget that his meal will not be tasted. Kierkegaard calls this man a knight of faith and tells us that he is a prodigy. It is not that he ignores the real world, but that he experiences the real world as his own. Each time he rolls the rock up the mountain, it feels as though he has just set foot upon the peak. He consciously chooses to encounter a world that has been given life by his imagination. Duke Senior, I believe, similarly acts as a knight of faith when he chooses to believe the act.

Part III – A Human Universe

I wanted to account for why the choice made by the knight of faith is not merely self-deception or contradiction. The most compelling defense of the choice that I found came from the Zen Buddhist teacher Dōgen. Dōgen tells us that when we examine our experience closely, we see that the way we encounter the world is based upon habit. We see identities and purposes and meanings, but these things are merely learned—they do not belong to the world beyond our perspective.

Dōgen uses the metaphor of “flowers in the sky” to describe how humans see a world of illusions. Our eyes are clouded because they present to our consciousness a world of things that are not actually there. Dōgen notes many think that, upon recognizing illusions, we must stop seeing them. This is the approach that Camus takes with his idea of the absurd. Dōgen, however, disagrees with this perspective. He writes,

Those of little learning and little insight do not know what the colors, luster, leaves and blossoms of the flowers in the sky are like—they only hear of them as nonexistent flowers. (Shōbōgenzō: Zen Essays

Although the flowers are illusory, it does not follow that they do not exist. On the contrary, he writes,

The Buddhas, enlightened ones, cultivating these flowers in the sky… attain enlightenment and realize its fruition.

We are told that it is delusion to think that there is something that exists beyond the flowers in the sky. The illusions are an expression of the true nature of reality—the lack of inherent essence of the universe, as it is experienced subjectively.

If we are not meant to see with unclouded eyes, then we are free to shape our illusions. If the world we see is made by habit, then our habits can change, and we can train ourselves to construct the world differently. The goal, then, becomes constructing our world both honestly and freely.

But the world often makes this difficult. Karl Marx, like Camus, saw people rolling their rocks—he saw workers in factories hardly making a living. The product of their labor was not something that belonged to them, and thus their labor was merely a means for their survival. They spent their whole lives trying to sustain life, and never had time to use that sustained life for anything other than its own perpetuation.

In other words, their rocks were not something that they could relate to. The world only existed to them in a relationship of necessity. This, for Marx, is an experience of alienation or estrangement, and it is dehumanizing. Marx thought that it is natural for humans to have a relationship to their activity that is not defined by necessity.

Mirroring Dōgen, he suggests that the world exists as part of our consciousness. In some of his early manuscripts, he writes,

Just as plants, animals, stones, air, light, etc., constitute theoretically a part of human consciousness, partly as objects of natural science, partly as objects of art—his spiritual inorganic nature, spiritual nourishment which he must first prepare to make palatable and digestible—so also in the realm of practice they constitute a part of human life and human activity. (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844)

The world that we see is irrevocably related to our sight—it is human life and activity. If we are unable to relate to it on a personal level, it is because we are not viewing it with the freedom inherent in human sight. We see a world that does not define purpose for us, but we cannot help but relate it to ourselves and make it part of us. With a creative awareness, pushing the rock can never be a meaningless act. Our rocks become part of our own story because we realize that we can successfully use them to fulfill human purposes. We find confidence in our world because we know that it is ours.

Part IV – Imagination and Truth

My project claims that human freedom is the freedom to treat the world the way that we treat art. It is to view everything with an aesthetic eye, understanding that our nature is one of interpretation. When we interpret, we are not merely making things up. We perform a dialogue in which we seek to understand something that is not reducible to the way that we see it. Art intrinsically compels us to see the way that our perspective is limited—in an instance of expression, we encounter another perspective. This is a loss of self, in a sense, but it is no longer accompanied by a feeling of loss. Instead, we gain an aesthetic reality in which we are able to take part.

Keats is able to dramatize this experience in “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The speaker is drawn into a state of ecstasy as he tries to make a story of the images on the sides of a Grecian urn. He sees a pastoral paradise, in which youth is immortal and love can never fade. Beneath his image, however, is the hint that there is something false about this version of eternity. The lovers can never kiss, the songs are never heard—without change, there is no experience. They are, like the urn, unliving.

When the speaker sees an image of sacrifice on the other side of the urn, his state of ecstasy is shattered. He imagines that the world beyond the picture has been forever emptied of its inhabitants. He then concludes the final stanza of the poem with the following lines:

         Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
         When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
         “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

At first, the speaker calls the urn a “Cold Pastoral.” Then, in a seemingly dramatic shift, he also calls it an eternal friend to man that speaks that maxim, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” For this to be true, the urn must no longer be cold—it must come alive once more, retelling its story. The speaker realizes that the historical truth of the urn means nothing without the imagination of the human perspective, able to return to it the beauty that it is meant to have. Without imagination, truth is mere silence, lacking all human relevance. The act of telling a human story, however, implicitly gives truth meaning to us.

This, then, is how we must treat the world—both as truth and as potential sites of beauty. We experience the world as forms, but these forms are our creations. Our task is to use form as a creative tool to better understand our own experience, finding within our understandings the particular reality of the world. Great art gives us a glimpse at how this can be done.

This is, in fact, what Duke Senior teaches us when he chooses to see “good in everything.” He humanizes nature, and for this reason, all of life is able to speak to him in friendly terms, honestly reflecting truth in a way that is personal and fulfilling.

We started with the idea that life was an act, and now we see that we are not the act but the actor, able to play many roles and find many meanings, never reducible to a single idea. Living itself becomes an ongoing artistic act of self-creation, with which we create our world. In Dōgen’s terms, flowers infinitely blossom in a vast expanse of sky.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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