Reading Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder, which I love, I’m reminded of a realization I had a while ago: pure creativity is closely related to dreams — a mysterious place where new visions are somehow born. You dream, and you see something, and metaphorically speaking — because “dreams” can be taken to represent any information that comes from the unconscious mind — your conscious job as an artist is to reproduce this vision in real life as faithfully as possible.
These “dreams” could take the shape of memories (as they do in the novel) or ideas which suddenly (and perhaps inexplicably) seem important. While reading John Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven earlier this year, I was struck by the fact that the Mormon fundamentalists he writes about seemed to be receiving messages and visions from a source remarkably similar to my own as an artist: they would close their eyes and listen inside. The only major difference is that they attributed this new information to a source outside of themselves: God. To me, because I am merely making art, the source of the message is secondary: what matters is that it’s personal, and that I like it. To them, the identity of the source is paramount: if it’s from God, a murder can be justified; if it’s from the realm of dreams, they are merely delusional killers.
Because a vision that comes from the realm of mystery doesn’t include within itself any information about its source, arguing about that is akin to arguing about what happened before the Big Bang. We will never know. The information is there, it’s new, it exists. And it didn’t before. The important question (and this is the same with the universe) is not where did this come from, but: what do we do with this now?
I like that the vision is portrayed in McCarthy’s book as a memory. Because of the narrator’s accident, he doesn’t know if what he’s seeing has actually happened or not. If feels like a memory to him, and it is richly detailed, but he can’t actually place it — and never does. To him the provenance is secondary: what matters is getting it exactly right. What I like about this is that it portrays the Visions (capitalized now) as inviolate, an ideal and unquestionable goal, which, regardless of whatever meaning or truth may or may not be contained in it, we must work our hardest to bring to life.
A dream doesn’t have to be a mere starting point: it can be a fully fledged destination, making the creative act not so much a question of, say, finding the notes that work best in a particular musical situation, but one of deepening one’s memory of an already extant vision: like the difference between creation and recreation. The creative act itself becomes opaque, a black box.
Take, for example, an idea I’ve had for a composition called “Levels”. It’s more than an idea. It’s a vision, a clear feeling. The question I’ve been asking, and which gets me nowhere, is: how can I express this idea in music? A better question might be: how is this music that I have imagined? How much of it, and how much of its detail, can I remember? I haven’t been digging deep enough into the murky source itself; I’ve only been skimming the surface of it and passing development onto my conscious mind. What if all the answers were already there and all I needed to do was remember them?
Of course this is precisely what Michelangelo said about sculpting: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” The stone already contains the sculpture, the shape, and the artist’s job is merely to chip away the excess. The art itself already exists, inviolate, inviolable. Essence precedes existence. I realize as I write this that Tom McCarthy has drawn the parallel with sculpture nearly explicitly in the book, although he leaves the reader to make the connection, at the top of chapter 6:
In school, when I was maybe twelve, I had to do art. I wasn’t any good at it, but it was part of the syllabus: one hour and twenty minutes each week — a double period. For a few weeks we were taught sculpture. We were given these big blocks of stone, a chisel and a mallet, and we had to turn the blocks into something recognizable — a human figure or a building. The teacher had an effective way of making us understand what we were doing. The finished statue, he explained, was already there in front of us — right in the block that we were chiseling away at. “Your task isn’t to create the sculpture,” he said; “it’s to strip all the other stuff away, get rid of it. The surplus matter.”
Picasso, somewhat questionably it seems, is often reported to have said: “I do not seek, I find”. The idea, as I understand it, is that rather than creating by narrowly seeking a result that we already have in mind (essence preceding existence; or requiring of the physical world that it manifest a concept we’ve already defined in our mind), it may be better to go the other direction: to keep an open mind, allow experience to suggest things to us, and simply pick and choose without preconception, perhaps going solely on how much delight something brings us. (Of course, according to Picasso’s friend and chronicler Hélène Parmelin, it was entirely unclear whether Picasso had actually ever said “I don’t seek, I find”, and the opposite — “I don’t find, I seek” was just as true of his manner of working).
Whatever the case may be, this is a little different: in presenting the Vision as a memory, as McCarthy does, it becomes other from us, a command rather than a recommendation. There’s no longer any choice between seeking or finding; it just is (again, just like the Big Bang). The essence / existence question only comes into play when we decide to manifest this Vision in the physical world, in which case we have to ask ourselves whether its essence occurred first and we will make it exist in such a way as to be as true to its essence as possible, or whether we will, based on some sort of limited hunch, start it into existence and build it dynamically, defining its essence as we go.
Sartre, with his whole “existence precedes essence” thesis, was responding to millennia of God-oriented thinking in which God already had a plan in place for us at the moment of birth: who we were preceded what (in terms of matter) we were. No, he said: first we are matter, then we create who we are through our choices and actions. But that is obviously very tenuous: Schopenhauer’s quote, “A man can very well do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wants” points out that our deepest desires are largely out of our control: we don’t choose or create them. They create us. In fact most theories of so-called self-realization rest on the idea that there is a “self” to realize: that there already is a figure within the block of stone and we have only to get rid of the surplus matter, the “remainder”.
A closing thought: Remainder presents a nice allegory for why improvisation might matter. The narrator’s main obsession is with authenticity: he is drawn to things that have been made without a will, such as grease stains on the floor and actions taken by people without thinking — where the desire to act and acting on that desire are one, without interference from consciousness. It’s striking to observe how similar this is to the ideal expressed in Zen — “sleep when you’re tired, eat when you’re hungry”, without second-guessing yourself.
The narrator’s approach to authenticity is to rehearse an action over and over again, perfecting it until it has attained the appearance of unplanned ease — an approach very similar to that of a classical pianist, for example (there is, not coincidentally I’m sure, a classical pianist in the book). Yet the novel’s denouement reveals to the narrator that real fusion of action and desire for action can only be achieved when something truly unplanned happens: this is when the truth that he is after, the holy grail of authenticity, is revealed at its fullest. And this is improvisation, or at least, this is what improvisation should be: an opportunity to be truly authentic, in a way that acknowledges that no two moments are the same. Authenticity at one moment is not the same as authenticity at another. We can mask this fact with endless rehearsal, or we can embrace it, reveal it, by letting the unknown into our game.
No doubt about it: Lee Konitz does this, quite purposefully, every time the music starts to feel predictable. I’ve seen him do it. To find true authenticity, he might say, we must allow the moment to continuously surprise us, and if it ceases to surprise us (as it can with unimaginative sidemen, an uninspiring audience, or a somnolent self), we must find ways to force surprise back in: by playing something totally unexpected, for example, or — in the extreme scenario of obliviousness — by walking across the stage mid-performance and stomping on the pianist’s foot. Which happened once. To me.