On Artistic Passion
July 1, 2007
Jul 1, 2007
20 Min read time
In September 2003 I had the privilege of delivering a lecture on the craft of writing on Bainbridge Island, Washington, for an organization called Field’s End. During the question-and-answer session that followed, I said something about the importance of finding one’s passion—about how one’s passion always claims a greater place in one’s life than one’s profession or various occupations, how it demands a special kind of cultural and spiritual faith, and how artistic passion in particular, if properly understood, will lead a person to imaginative and intellectual realms that he never in his wildest dreams thought he would visit. I may have even quoted one of my favorite statements by the late Eknath Easwaran, a great meditation teacher from India who was also an English professor, Sanskrit scholar, and prolific writer and translator. I discovered Easwaren’s work in 1981, and for the last 26 years I have had his words taped to my desk: “A well-spent life is one that rounds out what it has begun. The life of a great artist or scientist is usually shaped by a single desire, carried through to the very end.”
Afterward, a very nice middle-aged black man pulled me aside. He said, “Dr. Johnson, how do I find my passion? I’ve been looking all my life, and I don’t know what it is.” I think I replied too hastily and too incompletely by saying, “Your passion is something that finds you. It is something you surrender to, something you embrace because you have no choice.” Looking back, I wish I had had more time to discuss the question of lifelong passion in the career of an artist or scholar, especially if he or she is a black American—how it is forged in the crucible of its particular historical moment and how it can transcend that moment and reach for the universal.
In the 1950s, when I attended elementary school in Evanston, Illinois, I was not the best student in all my classes. This was because there was only one activity I was truly passionate about, and that was drawing. Art class was where I got all my best grades and praise from my teachers. As a child, I would often retreat into drawing as a refuge. In my preteens, there was something magical to me about bringing forth images that hitherto existed only in my head where no one could see them. I remember spending whole afternoons blissfully seated before a three-legged blackboard my parents got me for Christmas, drawing and erasing until my knees and the kitchen floor beneath me were covered with layers of chalk and the piece in my hand was reduced to a sliver.
Inevitably, by the time I was 13 or so, the passion for drawing led me to consider a career as a professional artist, which I became when I was 17 and published my first illustrations for a company in Chicago. Over the next seven years, between 1965 and 1972, I published well over 1,000 illustrations and drawings, two books of political cartoons, and I taught people how to draw in an early PBS series, “Charlie’s Pad,” which was first broadcast in 1970. While drawing was my passion, I also enjoyed writing. From the age of 12, I filled up diaries; in college, I’d write long essays to myself, grappling with ideas, feelings, and cultural questions that I needed to express on the page as a way of freeing myself from them. But the visual arts were for me primary.
From the Evanston Public Library I lugged home every book on drawing, painting, and cartooning, and pored over them, because for me it seemed that each canvas, each drawing, each image was a portal into a slightly changed way of perceiving and imagining the world. The work of others fed my own passion to create, because the ultimate way to respond to a work that one has received as a gift and loves is by answering it with a creative gift of one’s own, one offered in the spirit of what a Buddhist calls dana, or giving—one of the ten paramitas, or virtues.
The gift of art—like the experience of meditation—is always an invitation for the mind to slow down and pay attention. Listening without the ego in the way is always an act of love. The novelist and critic Albert Murray says that fine art is distinguished by its “range, precision, profundity and the idiomatic subtlety of the rendition.” When we find ourselves in a gallery, or in a theater, or in the transcendental space created by a novel or poem, we are gently invited to cast aside our presuppositions, to let go for just a moment our conditioned ways of seeing the world, and all our explanatory models for experience. Each powerful encounter with art gestures toward the goal of the philosophical method known as phenomenology, which was never about creating new knowledge but instead promised to deepen our perception of what we think we already know. This method reminds me of the Buddhist teacher Bhikku Bodhi’s description of the important practice of right mindfulness. He said, “The task of right mindfulness is to clear up the cognitive field. Mindfulness brings to light experience in its pure immediacy. It reveals the object as it is before it has been plastered over with conceptual paint, overlaid with interpretations.”
That experience of being shocked into new ways of seeing and knowing—of having the pedestrian replaced by a feeling of mystery and wonder, or having mystery and wonder revealed in the pedestrian—was something I hungered for as a child. I longed to be transported beyond the limitations of my young life in a Chicago suburb—beyond the parochial to new worlds, new ideas, new ways of feeling and imagining my own possibilities; this felt as necessary for my spiritual and emotional and intellectual life as food was for my body. Therefore, I took in everything my teachers placed before me. But this was the 1950s and early 1960s, and works by black authors—and other artists of color—were nowhere to be found in the curriculum of the integrated colleges, secondary, or elementary schools I attended. Black-studies courses did not exist until 1968 and 1969; I was privileged to participate in the establishing of one when I was an undergraduate. Even in the early 1970s, it was rare for the work of a black author to be accepted by a major publisher. In the universe of American education, these works were “dark matter,” invisible to the eye and unknown. And, yes, I was sometimes tempted to condemn my white teachers and professors for not placing this history, this art, this literature before me. But I realize now that they had not been taught or exposed to any of this, and therefore had nothing of this sort to transmit to the children of color who filled their classes after Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954. So in the 1960s and earlier, a black student had to be an autodidact, someone who became skillful at doing research on his own and teaching himself what the schools did not offer.
Actually, no student, black or white, can hold our schools responsible for the depth and richness of his or her intellectual life. Colleges and universities can only provide a broad foundation and feed the passion for a life devoted to inquiry. Thus, for eight generations the American secondary-school curriculum has wisely included the expansive vision of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who in one of his letters of 1840 wrote, “Every history in the world is my history. I can as readily find myself in the tragedy of the Atrides as the Saxon Chronicle, in the Vedas as in the New Testament, in Aesop as in the Cambridge Platform or the Declaration of Independence.” And the America that Emerson envisioned so long ago was also, he wrote in his journal in 1845, “an asylum of all nations, the energy of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles, & Cossacks, & all the European tribes,—of the Africans, & of the Polynesians, [who] will construct a new race, a new religion, a new State, a new literature, which will be as vigorous as the new Europe which came out of the smelting pot of the Dark Ages.” Emerson saw no one as a stranger, and nothing in the human experience as alien or foreign to him. Everywhere in his transcendentalist writings and speeches, we come across his absolute certainty that he is the other—that the divisions we have erected between races, sexes, religions, and classes are simply, as Francis Bacon would say, idols of the tribe.
If Emerson begins our cultural discussion of self and other in the 19th century, a writer named after him, Ralph Waldo Ellison, advances and deepens that project in the 20th. Ellison writes that in the 1940s, when he was working on his masterpiece, Invisible Man, he discovered that “by a trick of fate (and our racial problems notwithstanding), the human imagination is integrative—and the same is true of the centrifugal force that inspirits the democratic process.” The African philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who was trained at Cambridge and taught at Harvard, has his own way of expressing this most fundamental of truths. In his important book In My Father’s House Appiah writes, “We are all already contaminated by each other.”
This mutual contamination, cross-fertilization, or creolization is something Ellison and Appiah and all people of color in white-majority societies are obliged to learn quite early in childhood. In school, it is incumbent upon them to know the white humanities curriculum as well as the white students in class beside them, approaching with openness and humility all those works composed by whites for whites, with people of color never part of the author–audience equation. They learn to momentarily identify with the themes, figures, and tropes of the racial other; to absorb the products of the Greek and the Judaic, the Roman, the French, and the British; to empathize and project themselves behind the eyes of whites as diverse as Homer and the Beowulf poet, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Dostoyevsky, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath.
For children of color, this act of empathy and understanding has always been a matter of survival. They had to know how to carefully and critically read American society from at least two perspectives: from the perspective of how these products are given to whites by whites, and also from the perspective, marginalized and often invisible, of black history and experience. A Czech proverb captures this nicely: “You live a new life for every language you learn.” So does a saying by Charlemagne: “To know another language is to have a second soul.” Substitute “culture” for “language” (which is one of the defining constituents of culture), and it is clear that every immigrant of color understands what it means to live this dual, profoundly integrationist position in a Eurocentric society, whether he is living in Los Angeles, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, or Brussels.
For want of a better phrase, I call this way of perceiving the world an “aleph consciousness.” I borrowed the term, at the suggestion of the Seattle writer Kathleen Alcala, from a short story by Jorge Luis Borges called “The Aleph,” in which he describes the aleph as “the place where … all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist.” It is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and of its shape Borges says that it “is that of a man pointing to the sky and the earth, to indicate that the lower world is the map and mirror of the higher.” From its vantage point, Borges says, one can see “simultaneous night and day.” Historically, black, Asian, and Hispanic Americans had to develop this epistemic skill, and doing so required a lot of work for an entire lifetime.
Let me give you an example of how someone develops a nuanced, polyvalent aleph consciousness. In Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius, the literary critic Lawrence Jackson relates an incident at Tuskegee Institute that proved to be crucial for Ellison’s development:
[Ellison’s] most significant literary discovery of 1935 was T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” . . . With a prodigious expenditure of energy, Ellison stepped up his reading in order to nail down the poem’s meaning. He looked up Eliot’s seven pages of references, with [Professor] Sprague’s collegial advice informing his search, and began to unpack the layers of the poem . . . . In short order, the library explorations took him into the new territories of geography and anthropology. Ellison began with Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, Eliot’s recommended sourcebook, to “elucidate the difficulties of the poem.” Weston revealed the Arthurian legend and fisher king myths directly behind Eliot’s poem. George Frazer’s multi-volumed The Golden Bough provided him with an overview of human ritual and culture. Ellison revived his dusty Latin skills, drilled into him at Douglass [High School, in Oklahoma], in order to understand a generous Ovid quote that Eliot found indispensable; and he made use of the smattering of French that he’d learned in the fall. The exhausting research netted him intimacy with many of the major canonical Western classics not staples in the Tuskegee curriculum, such as Virgil, Ovid, Saint Augustine, Dante, Spenser, Milton, and Shakespeare. In the weeks following this historical education in literature and anthropology, he came to the works of Ford Madox Ford, Sherwood Anderson, and Gertrude Stein, and more Hemingway.
In other words, Ellison’s education demanded of him that he intimately know jazz and the sources for all the references in Eliot’s poem; black history and St. Augustine’s Confessions; the works of the Harlem Renaissance and Sherwood Anderson—what a Eurocentric curriculum provided and what it deliberately censored at the time. This required a certain generosity of spirit. But Ellison understood, as Emerson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did, that everything in life and culture is interrelated and interconnected—the black, the white, the Western, the Eastern—connected, as King writes, “in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” This idea of creolization is also central to Buddhist thought and is expressed as the truth of dependent origination (pratitya samutpada), which says that nothing comes into existence independently and that all things in this universe depend on all other things for their being.
When a young black artist in the 1960s (or for a hundred years before that) fully realized just how much of the history and experience of his family and ancestors had been erased, elided, or rendered invisible by the dominant society, he also came to understand, on the deepest levels of his life, that as an artist he had an important, personal duty to fulfill: to make visible the invisible in his work. To disclose in his creations all those things that had been deliberately concealed in our schools, in our popular entertainment, and in the national consciousness—for example, the experience of the slave trade, what exactly it was like to be on those ships that sailed with black cargo for 300 years. In my era, a young black artist or scholar discovered that a crucial part of his work would be to restore meaning lost in American history and to adventurously pursue new meaning after the era of segregation ended.
I wanted to explain to the nice man I met on Bainbridge Island that such a project—a passion—is not something the artist chooses. It chooses him the moment he picks up a brush or pen. At that moment he understands that his art can never have the luxury of being just entertainment or escape. It must be a probing of reality, because art has a phenomenological duty to perform, the duty of disclosure—and not just for black Americans, but for all humankind. Such a personal passion, once discovered, electrifies the imagination and stimulates the artist or scholar’s interest in almost every field known to man. He is driven to find the remnants of himself and his ancestors, who are hidden just off to one side of the official historical record; he finds himself in the sciences, for example, in the work of geneticists who, when they add up the tiny genetic variations that make one person different from the next, discover there are more differences within so-called races than between them. In other words, he finds himself, his possibilities, in all the arts and sciences.
To think of the arts and sciences properly, then, is to understand that all our perspectives, all the disciplines we pursue, take us directly to a common situation, a common history from which all meanings evolve. As the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes in Adventures of the Dialectic:
My own field of thought and action is made up of “imperfect meanings, badly defined and interrupted.” They are completed over there, in the others who hold the key to them because they see sides of things that I do not see, as well as, one might say, my social back, my social body. Likewise, I am the only one capable of tallying the balance sheet of their lives, for their meanings are also incomplete and are opening onto something that I alone am able to see. I do not have to search very far for others: I find them in my experience, lodged in the hollows that show what they see and what I fail to see. Our experiences thus have lateral relationships of truth: all together, each possessing what is secret to the other, in our combined functionings we form a totality which moves toward enlightenment and completion. . . . We are never locked in ourselves.
I like to believe that this is what novelist John Fowles meant when he coined the phrase “whole sight.” When confronted by art, we can never be “locked in ourselves.” Art is the bridge from one subjectivity to another, and so the experience of art is, if not universal, then at least intersubjective—and that is the best we can hope for in either the arts or the sciences.
The artist who practices whole sight, the one haunted by the “single desire” that Easwaran spoke of—an overwhelming love—will learn from the conventions of his particular moment in cultural history. But he will go beyond that—specifically, he will, like an archaeologist, look toward the past as he contemplates the future. If he is a writer of novels or short stories, his love of these forms naturally drives him to analyze and take apart the major works of the genre, as Ellison did with Eliot, and to study the biographies of the men and women who produced stories and novels that advanced the evolution of these forms over the centuries. In other words, the love of fiction drives the artist to understand as deeply as he can the theory and practice of his predecessors so that he can know, at his own moment in history, what new works are called for to promote the evolution of his craft.
If that Emersonian and Ellisonian passion leads the artist to realize that he must also become a literary critic—someone who can take the temperature of art produced in his own time and evaluate the significance of art from the past—then this “single desire” effloresces into an appreciation of Eastern and Western philosophy, especially aesthetics or theories of art. When I was 18 years old, a professional cartoonist and journalism major, I knew nothing of philosophy. But at the college I attended, all journalism majors were required to take two philosophy courses. One was logic, which my wise teachers knew was a good thing for a journalist to know something about. The other was a huge lecture course on the pre-Socratics, taught by a young professor named John Howie. Somehow Dr. Howie was able to sing the 2,000-year-old ethical problems confronting Heraclitus and Parmenides in such a way that I realized for the first time that many of the social issues I was publishing drawings about in the late 1960s were problems that had been debated and discussed with sophistication more than two millennia before the birth of the American republic. Dr. Howie made me see that the questions we ask determine the quality of the answers we get. Sitting in a sea of students in his class, I realized that my passion for art demanded a lifelong passion for philosophy as well.
Everything in the “well-spent” career of an artist flows from one original seed, one passion “carried through to the very end.” That seed is the desire for art. As the seed sprouts, producing new passions and sending the artist’s work forth like shoots into essays, aesthetic manifestos, cultural criticism, screenplays, and appreciations of the artists and scholars on whose shoulders the artist stands, it also produces a love of the English tongue and its manifold possibilities, and, equally, a love of foreign languages.
I never dreamed in my youth that I would now be in my ninth year of Sanskrit study. Foreign languages were never my forte, and I have forgotten almost all the French and Spanish I once knew. But a love of art in general led me in my teens to Eastern art. I studied over and over the “Ten Oxherding Pictures” of the 12th-century Zen artist Kakuan Shien and other Asian artworks as if they were the visual equivalent of a mantra. In Liang K’ai’s 13th-century sketch The Sixth Patriarch Tears Up a Sutra I saw a spontaneity in the brush strokes that seemed analogous to the sudden, instantaneous experience of satori, or spiritual awakening, favored by Zen Buddhists. Ma Yüan’s Landscape in Moonlight (c. 1200) and Kao K’o-kung’s Landscape after Rain (c. 1250–1300) gently nudged me into new ways of seeing. Ephemeral cliffs and mountain peaks were forms briefly manifest in a fecund emptiness (sunyata) that, mysteriously, was also a plenitude of being. Such forms were captured on silk but were ever on the verge of vanishing back into the undifferentiated, the non-dual, leaving no trace of themselves, like waves on water. Landscape in Moonlight and Landscape after Rain were both fine examples of how the beautiful was attained in Buddhist art: by dissolving the false distinction between the beautiful and the ugly.
A passion for art based on the dharma led me to first practice meditation when I was 14 years old; to write the novel “Oxherding Tale” when I was in my 20s; and to embrace the life of a lay Buddhist, an upasaka, in my 30s. And that passion segued into the joy of translating works that have meant so much to me for 40 years—Theravada and Mahayana sutras, large portions of the Bhagavad-Gita and the Advaita Vedanta classic Ashtavakra Samhita—and seeing how many credible translations and interpretations are possible for a single sloka (verse) of four lines, eight syllables each. Just one great love opens one up to the entire vast world of human experience. During this long journey, the aleph consciousness, the soul, becomes enriched and expansive. As Ellison once said, the work of art is “the completion of personality.” The great artists I have been privileged to know—the playwright August Wilson, the novelist John Gardner, and the painters Jacob Lawrence and Gwen Knight—all structured their daily lives around their “single desire.” Lawrence was at his easel the day he passed away; Wilson was planning new plays and a novel in his last years; and Gardner taught himself Greek in middle age, as Tolstoy had done, to provide his students with his own translations of Homer.
What one discovers after a creative and critical passage of decades is just how little we know. The limits of knowing always give us a healthy sense of humility. We see that in the 4.5-billion-year history of the earth, modern humans have only been around for between 100,000 and 200,000 years, the mere blink of an eye in a universe that is about 13.5 billion years old. Cosmologists say that dark matter and dark energy, discovered only nine years ago, make up 96 percent of the universe; what we can see and measure accounts for only four percent.
In other words, we find ourselves living in the midst of a great mystery, so the very idea of whole sight in the arts and sciences can only be an ever-receding ideal, like the horizon—something we strive for while recognizing that our knowledge must be partial, incomplete, and provisional. As Bertrand Russell observed, what we know is always vanishingly small.
Art, then, is a daily reminder of this mystery. Obviously, the mystery is us. After I complete each new story, essay, or lecture, I marvel at and am thankful for the strangeness and beauty of a bottomless passion that leads to work across so many related disciplines. And sometimes, late at night, around 5 a.m., when I am finishing a new piece, I remember the famous Chinese poem by P’ang-yun:
How wonderful, how marvelous!
I fetch wood, I carry water!
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July 01, 2007
20 Min read time