As I begin to write my second fantasy novel, I find myself thinking about the definition of art in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and one aspect in particular which I agree with. The philosopher describes art as an imitation of reality that helps us understand reality better, even (perhaps, especially) when reality is disagreeable. It attempts to reach past an external thing to represent deeper meaning contained within it – it does not simply copy the object it sees, but fills in gaps, so to speak, to make sense of how that object fits into a larger picture.
Fiction is like that. Characters and places, dialogue and theme, show us a type and shadow of everyday life. However, a fiction author has room – the whole world, in fact – to play around with the circumstances in order to expose the currents of thought and feeling flowing beneath what is outwardly said and done. Plus, since the reader is sufficiently removed from fiction, he is better able to understand those currents than he would be from observing his own day-to-day life.
Anyway, I say all that as a foundation for saying that I don’t always agree with what I portray. As a Christian, I feel the tension (particularly in treatment of sex and profanity) that drives some Christians/writers to become Christian writers – that is, writers who stick to explicitly Christian fiction, that neither expects nor tolerates things like fornication or profanity. However, because these things are part of our world, and because I am a “secular” author, I choose to use them from time to time.
This is not to say that I sanction the pornographic or gratuitous use of either sex or (potentially) offensive language. There is a balance, I believe, between creating a realistically “rough” world and creating rough-toned art. I am also not beyond the idea of secular art without sex or profanity – how can we forget the masterpieces of J.R.R. Tolkien? – though that kind of storytelling lends itself better to particular genres and styles.
What do you think? Does this bring to mind anything you’ve recently read or written? Do you hate what I’ve just said and think it’s bunk, or do you agree? Give me a shout-out, dear reader!
The essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” was commended to me by a poet friend of mine and concerns poetry (and since it was written by TS Eliot, I guess that makes sense). However, I think there are principles in essays and books on any type of written art that are applicable across the board – take Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, for example, which was arguably the most transformative book for my writing to date – and so I was eager to read and glean from it.
Eliot posits that the best poet does not strive to convey the emotion of a single experience. Rather, the poet has a mind trained to store up experiences, and therefore synthesizes experiences into a new whole when the time and medium (if you will) is ripe. In this way, the poet may be able to write about or involve an emotion or experience she has never actually had.
How does a poet/writer acquire “a mind trained to store up experiences,” then? She must understand that humanity’s collective ability to do art never improves, but changes according to humanity’s current way of thinking about the past. Thus, the present and the past interact with one another, and the poet’s mind must be eminently sensitive to this interplay if she wants her work to last. This sensitivity will yield the perspective that each new piece of art as has a shifting, perhaps even transformative effect on the linear progression of past art.
In sum, Eliot sees poetry as a living, breathing whole, and a thing separate from the poet, in the end – a termination of personality, as he puts it. It is with this statement that I primarily disagree. While I am intrigued with the idea of the artistic past and present shaping and changing each other, and even agree that lasting written works transcend the realm of emotion as experienced by the writer only, I’m not sure it’s beneficial or even possible to divorce personality from the pen.
Certainly, poetry is a different beast than the novel, and maybe therein lies my confusion. I can say concerning storytelling, however, that a book separated from personality is just one thing: dead.