A Strange Necessity: Rebecca West, James Joyce & the artistic impulse
Why does Art matter? What is this strange necessity?
…the closer you try to approach the facts through history, the deeper you sink into fiction. The greater the care with which you explain a fact, the more nonsensical a fable you fish out of chaos. – Halldór Laxness, Under the Glacier
In her book length essay The Strange Necessity, philosopher-author Rebecca West observed how the creative act can be thought of as a completely holistic and natural force in the world. In the act of creating, the artist becomes a part of nature, at one with it, fused and connected to the natural world. West’s metaphor of the natural artist is ; “determined and exclusive as the tree’s intention of becoming a tree, and by passing all his material through his imagination and there experiencing it, he achieves the same identity with what he makes as the growing tree does.”[i]
Strange Necessity claims the actions of an artist, in the process of creation, comes out of a biological necessity, an unstoppable urge bound up with natural primal desires. The artist can never be in total control of the process of creating, but is only fulfilling a natural process bound up within life. The necessity that West explored can also be simplified as the “spiritual impulse”, an intuitive connection with a higher realm, beyond thought or emotion that resides in the creative act. West further identifies a fundamental unity between all art and experience. The creation of artwork is an act of engagement with life, a process that’s transcendent, connected with a spiritual purpose.
The Strange Necessity is a moving portrait on the motivations of an artist. In her concluding chapters, West shifts to the exaltation and spiritual function a work of art performs on the individual. It is a relationship to art that borders on the sexual: “I have…this crystalline concentration of glory, this deep and serene and intense emotion that I feel before the greatest works of art… It overflows the confines of the mind and becomes an important physical event…Is this exaltation the orgasm, as it were, of the artistic instinct, stimulated to its height by a work of art…”[ii]
This spiritual and orgasmic manifestation of art is noted in the sublime landscapes of Frederic Church and J.M.W. Turner, the firework abstractions of Kandinsky, the musical genius of J.S. Bach and Mozart and the of writings of Melville, Poe and Joyce; works that commune with the soul on a metaphysical landscape. This pull toward the spiritual sublime and orgasmic was fundamental to modernism especially the 20th century impulse of improvisation found in of jazz, rock n roll, film and writing -the same attributes and release of the divine mind found within West’s exaltation of the orgasm.
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West used the example of a single day of city life to investigate the novel as a creative act and the moving effect of art on her own life. An intensive study of Joyce’s Ulysses takes place inside a single day of West’s life within her home in the city of Paris. This doubling of art and life was itself at the very center of Ulysses, which also takes place in a single ordinary day in the life of James Joyce. This entwined reflection of art and life between Paris and Dublin is like a movie inside a movie, a hallway of infinite mirrors between art and life the authors walk us through.
Joyce never made public his notice of West’s criticism, however he wrote a scathing but cloaked put-down parody of Strange Necessity within his novel Finnegan’s Wake. West takes the example of Joyce as a motivating pendulum in all the arts. The passage of a spiritual or natural transformation from one artist to the next often occurs between written and visual worlds. That improvised and spontaneous fractured time within Joyce can also be seen reflected in cubist paintings, comic books, a Bach concerto and jazz riffs.
The way art is expressed through society, the way it’s supported, taught, encouraged and critiqued, is often based on the relationship between artist and patron and the political mechanics of the time. During times of wealth and industry (the Renaissance is the most obvious example), this relationship can be developed fruitfully and become a concentrated force.
The relationship of funding and material support in the arts is illustrated in Ezra Pound’s comment that, “Great art does not depend on the support of riches, but without such aid it will be individual, separate, and spasmodic: it will not group and become a great period… a great age is brought about only with the aid of wealth, because a great age means the deliberate fostering of genius, the gathering-in and grouping and encouragement of artists.”[iii] This careful balance and support of the arts is often shaken and disposed of in times of great social upheaval and despair, yet this “strange necessity” is present in all eras, and should be viewed as a constant interior force.
The forces of spirit which effect and drive the arts, is a theme often overlooked and diminished. From the nineteenth century “art reform” to contemporary theorists, metaphysical and spiritual influences continue to be downplayed or ignored. The opening of early nineteenth century America to its vast resources and its “manifest destiny” has been a clear source of our nation’s spiritual tensions and troubles. The drive forever onward instead of inward creates uneasiness and an emphasis on earthbound desires. Conditions of genocide, war, racial divisions and destruction of land and resources can only be reconciled or balanced by spiritual solutions or the transformation of consciousness –conditions that are universal in the art process.
West declared America itself as part of a political necessity; a country of belief and action balanced on a life or death situation. America evolved into existence because of the necessity for freedom, an idea constantly tested and often betrayed by many of America’s leaders. The America founded on the seeds of spiritual freedom and that served as a beacon for other nations has vanished, swallowed by its own greed and widening girth. That noble idea of spiritual freedom has been replaced by a slide into a cesspool of selfishness and technocratic rule. Many artists today are forced into wretched contracts with galleries and create on the same competitive field as Wall Street brokers.
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The idea of spirituality as unbounded space, without restraint, serves the arts and the areas in which art flourishes. New York City came close in the 1930s and 40s as a site where the arts could expand without boundaries. During the development of the ashcan and abstract expressionist schools, modernism rooted deeply there, at least a modernism outside of European influence. It occurred again in the early 1980s with the growth of street art, no-wave and hip-hop. That heroic past has been documented and mythologized, yet, the story of cheap rents, artist garrets and a pioneering spirit is not exclusive and is one we return to again and again, in many sites around the globe.
We see in Detroit now, the same signs, opportunities and conditions as a feral laboratory for the arts. The conditions of unbounded freedom that existed before have returned amid the chaos and “forest clearing” weight of industrial blight and neglect. Small clusters of artistic groups, creative pockets, communal and urban pioneers seem to be sprouting like weeds through the concrete, a city on the verge.
The history of art practice in Detroit has always been connected within small groups of people united in a struggle against outside pressures and lowly political-industrial forces. Surrounded by mighty industrial goliaths (many of them in the process of fading away), art practice became isolated within small radical iconoclastic groups; The Detroit Society for Arts and Crafts in 1906, The Artists Workshop in 1964, Trans-Love Energies in 1967, and the Cass Corridor Movement of the late 60s and 70s were all disparate signs, politicized art movements and protests against society, industry, corrupt education, war or greed, yet too quickly overshadowed and swallowed by mainstream forces. The liquidation of those movements forced many individuals into either larger cities where growth was possible, into further isolation or into the mainstream.
To understand that “lost history” is the process of understanding ourselves as a cultural movement within a larger cultural and spiritual world. Regaining balance and refueling our energies can occur only through spiritual transformation, an inward healing solution. The past is key to understanding the strange necessity of our present condition and for laying the foundations of lasting plans into the future.
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Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them. –David Hume, Essays Moral and Political, 1742
The Eighteenth century philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) remained unpopular and mostly unread until the mid-twentieth century. His idea on beauty was that it existed as fragmented perceptions in the mind. That the mysteries and beauty we seek in art are always “impressions of the mind” –the thoughts and feelings we carry within us through comparisons of experience. Hume said, “power and necessity… are… qualities of perceptions, not of objects… felt by the soul and not perceived externally in bodies”[iv] That fragmented-self idea was later embraced and radicalized by Gilles Deluze and the poststructuralists. We are all parts of a greater whole and the process of art is nothing less then the universe being itself and seeing itself.
The eternal return is woven through the fragmented-mind and its removal of the object of our passion. The feedback loop where art, action and mind are one.
[i] Rebecca West, The Strange Necessity (Doubleday, New York, 1928) p.7
[ii] The Strange Necessity, p. 210-211
[iii] Ezra Pound, Ezra Pound and the Visual Arts, Harriet Zinnes, Ed., (New Directions, 1980) p. 266
[iv] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, (New York: Dover, 2003 edition), p. 168