Resonance/Inspiration

I’ve spent a great deal of time over the last few years thinking about why some things are better than others, particularly art. There’s a common view that if the purpose of art is to appeal to humans, the “best” art is that which appeals to the greatest number. I hold the view that popularity is not necessarily a measure of quality, but a bias.

When my girlfriend and I recently visited Arundel we came across Kim’s Books, with tens of thousands of titles on its shelves. I found myself gravitating only towards the authors I’d heard of and there simply wouldn’t have been enough time to discover something new (not that either of us had come with any particular titles in mind). The impression the experience gave me was that not all works are timeless; likely most will be forgotten about in time. For how long will people continue to read novels?

I feel a couple of ideas coming together. Long have I been preoccupied with quality but there are many books, movies and songs that I like that aren’t considerd critically-speaking “good”. Not by critics, not by anyone. I like them because they resonate with me, on an emotional or intellectual level. I don’t mean to say that “all art is subjective” which the majority seem to believe these days, because I don’t think the subjective/objective model is the be all and end all; there are “better” forms of art than others and the right answer is probably a bit more nuanced; I’ve skirted around what I think this is in various blog posts here. I’m starting to feel that to create something that resonates with at least one other person (someone you know even) is just as much the mark of “success” as anything that resonates with many people, but I do fully-well appreciate that “great” works are usually popular.

I’ve been writing poems for the last three or so months. I always thought poetry was for hacks, but I’ve never really had the patience for long fiction and I find writing fun little verses accessible (at least on the surface). In this sense, writing poems feels like what photography is to painting: both involve the study of light but the former is at least in this day and age easier to get started with. But I say “only on the surface” because like many of the arts, to create something truly resonant takes time and patience.

Sometimes I find writing poems difficult when I’ve been listening to a lot of music by a single artist, as I often do (I almost never skip around). It influences me so greatly I find it impossible to write anything not in the style of, or to the beat of the music I’ve been listening to. In fact the other day I wrote an entire poem only to realise it had the exact same rhythmn as John Prine’s “One Red Rose” (though I prefer the Iris DeMent version).

Pirsig wrote about something similar. After the publication of “Zen…” he said:

”…there’s an adage to remember, ‘Reading is the enemy of writing.’ I remember telling that to Kay Sexton at B. Dalton who threw up her hands and said, ‘Don’t say that! You’ll put us out of business!’ But it’s true. Any time I did read a book during the years of writing ZMM and Lila it would stop the writing for as much as a week while memories of what I just read or heard gradually faded. That was also true of movies, TV, and parties.”

What is inspiration if not emotional resonance? Artists are inspired by other artists, probably more indirectly than we think, since to read Seneca is not to understand Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations”. The latter is inspired by the ideas of the former but after all when the dust settles, they are separate works by separate authors.

Embracing the heterodox

At the denouement of the 2018 film “Under the Silver Lake” a character staring into the eyes of the protagonist delivers the following monologue with great conviction.

“This isn’t a world that anyone with much sense stays in or spends much time worrying about. You’re living in a carnival, throwing plastic rings at oversized pop bottles, hoping to win a prize. What are you going to win? A two-week vacation? New car? A little money to retire on? It’s all just a shitty, sawdust-filled rabbit. The things you care about are useless when we’re gone.”

Often when a character delivers their “master plan” monologue we’re suppose to write them off as delusional, but I think the director had other ideas. I’m sure there are lots of us who would likely share this character’s cynicism - many people today describe themselves as “realists” but the divide is increasingly narrow when the world feels so depraved; the news seems to only show us stories of death, corruption, greed, injustice etc.

I think it’s important to separate “the world” from “my world”. The former is how I perceive wars in foreign countries I’ve never been to, the election of the next prime minister, generalised ideas of human behaviour etc. I experience almost all of these things through television and the internet and by-in-large my actions have very little effect on them (more on this later). The latter is my personal, direct experience: things I see, taste, hear, people I have conversations with, my family, friends, colleagues. What should be more important, the former or the latter?

One of the attitudes that I feel is most prevalent in the West is “those things are happening the other side of the world and so don’t affect me”. While our news sites do sometimes cover stories about atrocities in other parts of the world these are quickly forgotten about as journalists and news outlets choose other things to draw our attention to. But mostly these events are not likely to influence how we live our lives (as deeply saddening as they are) because we don’t think anything like them is ever going to happen to us.

At the beginning of Covid-19 pandemic, many of us thought there was no likelihood of the virus (that was at the time infecting thousands of Chinese citizens) ever reaching our shores. For one of the first times in my life I saw first-hand an intersection between “my world” and “the world”.

I think it’s becoming increasingly easy to accept ideas outside of the box of rationality and correctness most of us live in. That’s not just because when things feel so bleak we naturally look for alternatives, but being right all the time and believing everyone else to be wrong is also tiresome; it’s freeing to not feel the need to scrutinise every belief that falls outside of what you consider “true”. What also seemed to quickly emerge during the Covid pandemic was the need to live our lives by the empirical and undeniable Truth. It was what scientists told us about the virus that influenced how we behaved, except the message wasn’t always singular and clear and there were people in our lives who seemed to be more in-the-know than the rest of us - who we gave a voice (and a sense of self-importance) to. In the end there was really no single truth, only our many varied individual truths.

The reason why a lot of us don’t seem to care very much about climate change is because it too falls victim to the “that’s happening on the other side of the world and doesn’t affect me” mentality, the key difference with Covid-19 being that its effects are not yet obvious and immediate to us where we live. Despite temperatures here in the UK being higher last week than they’ve been for almost fifty years, nobody’s death certificate will have any mention of climate change (but it might say heatstroke).

What I find overwhelmingly sad is the people who truly believe this (whom I so desperately want to be wrong) are in some ways right. The first people to be affected by climate change, to die, to be displaced, to starve aren’t anywhere near the UK. They’re in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the hottest regions of the planet.

It will take a majority of people challenging our notion of what is “correct” for us to figure out how to slow down the effects of climate change, to embrace the heterodox ideas and the moonshots, to remove the carbon already in our atmosphere.

Presence

When my girlfriend and I go on walks in the New Forest we regularly talk about the sense of presence we have.

We note the colour of flowers and the different types of tree. We comment on the smell of sap. We see birds dart across our path and listen for each of their distinct calls. We keep our eyes peeled for deer, taking care not to step on any dry twigs, the crack of which would reverberate through the forest.

I feel the warmth of her hand in mine.

When I am present I’m most receptive to the world immediately around me. While I find it possible to be present in my own thoughts I think I am most present when feel part of the environment I’m in, like a character within a scene in a play.

Being present requires focus; It is almost meditative but not tranquil; Instead of clearing my mind I open it to everything. Sometimes it’s hard to speak at the same time.

The thoughts I have in this state of mind are likely to be only temporary but since I’m observing everything, there’s no need to remember specific events. Some of this I’ll remember and some of it I’ll forget.

I find it impossible to be present under the influence of any substance like alcohol, or even a stimulant like caffeine. To be present I must experience the surrounding environment in my truest form.

My presence is not limited to sight. It is enhanced by touch.

Sometimes when I’m alone in the forest I close my eyes and listen.

If my sense of presence is perceptual then it cannot be measured, but I suspect that it is noticeable to those around me. However it’s a state of mind only I feel and understand.

The benefits I have found to being more present include: remembering things more clearly; stronger relationships with those around me; no longer a desire to be elsewhere or thinking about the next thing; noticing things I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed.

Some Quality Biases

It’s so often that topics like “why film X is better than film Y” come up in conversations with friends. “Better” is an assessment of quality, something I’ve been thinking about ever since reading Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance” a few years ago.

According to Pirsig, quality is a “perceptual experience preceding intellectual thought”. If one’s to believe this, there can be no universal measure for quality; It must be an internal matter.

We often don’t consider our own personal biases when deciding whether something’s good or not (good meaning “high in quality”), but in this post I’ll describe some common ones I’ve encountered.

Complexity

When something has been created in a complex way we often assume it’s because a great deal of thought has gone into its creation. This is especially true in programming where complex code can appear quite impressive. However it’s usually the simplest code that is the highest quality; that has been refactored.

Content

It’s perfectly possible to dislike the themes discussed in a novel but still consider it to be well written. Conversely, it’s possible to like the content and think the writing poor. However this is usually not the case: more often we think of things we like as being well executed and things we don’t like as being bad. The same can be said of most of the arts.

It would be negligent of me to make no mention of “The Last of Us: Part 2”, which I wrote about here when I played it first. I’ve since played it several times and still do not believe that the story choices (as sad as they may be) make this game “bad”. Our feelings about a story make our perceptions about the quality of writing biased.

Popularity

To see that other people liked or disliked something usually influences how we feel about it. In “How Art Can Be Good”, Paul Graham says:

And yet the Mona Lisa is a small, dark painting. If you found people who’d never seen an image of it and sent them to a museum in which it was hanging among other paintings with a tag labelling it as a portrait by an unknown fifteenth century artist, most would walk by without giving it a second look.

Constraint Breeds Creativity

As I grow a little older views I once held collapse like a stack of cards under the gentle prod of criticism. No longer do I think creativity solely occupies the arts; anyone can be creative no matter what (or even in what) they do. It’s only apt that I’ll use one example in this post from another domain.

For some time I’ve held the view that removing creative variables from a creative problem actually encourages creativity. In programming, the simpler solution to a complex problem is usually the best one. Writing code with fewer abstractions in mind (and writing simple tests) can allow programmers to think more creatively.

When we impose constraints (in other words removing the luxury of choice), we’re often required to “think outside the box”; we frame our thinking around these constraints. A first draft of this post included references to lots of other areas where one might exhibit creativity but I think the axiom needs no clarification: constraint breeds creativity. It’s as simple as that.

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