Academic journal article Style

Ideas of Order: Artists Describing the Arts

Academic journal article Style

Ideas of Order: Artists Describing the Arts

Article excerpt

Discussing the adaptive functions of human art, Joseph Carroll highlights its role in organizing the capacity of the mind to envision circumstances beyond the immediate. Able to conceptualize future problems and pleasures, to anticipate a multiplicity of outcomes for any event, to speculate about individual motives or group dynamics, and even to foresee their own mortality, humans occupy a mental universe far larger than their actual physical and social environment. "The Brain--is wider than the sky--," as Emily Dickinson observes (Poem 262). The uniquely anticipatory, creatively constructive characteristics of human psychology have proven to be a source of strength for the species, ensuring "behavioral flexibility" in handling "contingent circumstances" (122). At the same time, however, these abilities are the source of "potential chaos" and "psychological exile" for the restlessly hypothesizing individual mind (Wilson 224-25). By ordering and interpreting the welter of interior hopes, fears, and schemes, art counters psychic chaos and isolation: deliberately shaped artifacts--in paint, in music, in words--seek to teach, to console, to cheer, or to inspire.

The ordered completeness of the imagined worlds artists construct is underscored by their recognition of the fragmented, confusing character of human consciousness. Without assistance such as that supplied by art, individuals tend to become lost in the dismaying multiplicity of their own projections, memories, and hypotheses. The sometimes overpowering richness of the external environment is magnified, on a moment-by-moment basis, by an avalanche of interior responses to it. In consequence, as Wallace Stevens points out, "we live in a constellation / Of patches and of pitches, / Not in a single world" ("July Mountain"). No one has described the "thousand odd, disconnected fragments" comprising individual awareness better than Virginia Woolf: "hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting," the contents of the "rag-bag of odds and ends within us" tease and exasperate (Orlando 78). Seeking to understand the self as "nothing but one self," its life's experience as "a single, downright, bluff piece of work," the individual is confronted instead with a hodge-podge of interiority that recklessly overlays sense impressions with the "capricious" effects of memory, apprehension, and desire (310, 78). The result, Woolf avers, is that "nothing [can] ever be seen whole": "body and mind [are] like scraps of torn paper tumbling from a sack" (307). This "chopping up small of body and mind" threatens to annihilate identity: one feels "disassembled" by a myriad of "separate scraps" all simultaneously attempting to define the self and direct its thinking (307). Woolf goes so far as to speculate that consciousness is an amalgam of "many different people ... all having lodgement ... in the human spirit," each manifesting its own eccentric "sympathies, little constitutions and rights" (308). Prufrock, T.S. Eliot's famous antihero, poignantly illustrates the psychologically debilitating problem of the "proliferation of possibilities" Woolf so vividly evokes (122): he finds himself immobilized by his capacity to project negative outcomes. The frenzied activity of his mental operations ("a hundred indecisions ... a hundred visions and revisions" which "a minute will reverse") stands in ironic contrast to his social paralysis: "And how should I presume?" ("The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock").

Artists seek to counteract the chaos within, Carroll points out, by fashioning "an imaginative universe," an alternative "virtual world" in which the plethora of possibilities generated by the mind assumes a satisfyingly cohesive, coherent, and aesthetic form (127). Literary artists have sought repeatedly to articulate this crucial feature of their work: the creation of a compelling parallel universe. They have employed powerful metaphors to describe the fictive realities into which they propel their readers. …

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