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Tasks and the Creative Life

Posted by William Fennie at Nov 29, 2014 05:45 AM |

We re-visit my old pal PV

"What is done easily is done without us." - Paul Valéry

Like most quotations taken out of context, this one is open to many interpretations. A dedicated Buddhist, for example, or a Prosperos student, might look at this quotation and think it's a commentary on the ham-handedness of the ego. That would be a meditation worth having.

Valéry, however, was using the words in quite a different way. In a letter "To a Friend" (my guess is André Gide) published in 1926 he writes about the special challenges facing the poet and, by extension, any artist. Here is a bit more context :

"The art of poetry is, happily, not an exact one. At every instance insurmountable problems confront one. A nothing – and a beautiful poem is shipwrecked, achievement compromised, the charm broken. The poet's brain is a sea bottom on which many hulls repose.

"But these desperate plights that all poets know are not always without their uses; it is a question of intelligence. After all, hasn't the observer in us learned something from this defeat? What is done easily is done without us. . . ."

I don't believe that Valéry himself was one of those people for whom hard work is the ultimate value. On the other hand, he recognized clearly, and wrote often, that any worthwhile work derives its value from the self-imposed constraints which the artist chooses for that work. (He also said that the most wonderful thing about the French sonnet form was that you got the first two lines for free.)

The difference between some casual, perhaps inspiring, thoughts laid down on a piece of paper and something like a sonnet, has to do with the constraints imposed by the sonnet form. In this sense, art is born from constraint. Constraint forces the mind to search to find new relationships and, thus, to discover unlooked for meanings and unexpected nuances that turn a decent idea into a moving and powerful experience.

Of course, he makes this case much more powerfully and elegantly than I ever could and does so over and over again during a long and fertile literary career. My point is that it is just there, at the point where we are forced to grapple with something, that consciousness is applied, that the best in us as people comes forth. Bringing this back to the spiritual path for a moment, Thane made the case, and I'm sure other teachers have, that man is not at his best when he reaches a great summit of accomplishment; man is at his best in the middle of a long, hard climb - when he is engaging all his resources and reaching to draw on those he presently cannot cognize.

I have a vanity project on Facebook where I have matched up photographs from my life to lyrics from David Byrne's fabulous song, "Once in a Lifetime". I have to say that it was, pretty much, done "without me." The only constraint I placed upon myself was that all of the photos had to come from my own personal photo library. Maybe someday I will do this project over again, and really apply myself to finding the exact right, perfect picture for each of those lines. This would require the kind of thoughtfulness that I have not had time for in quite a while. I have a feeling that such an effort would yield a great sense of value whereas this one is something that was done "because I could." It was a fun task among all of the required tasks of a certain period of time.

There seems to be enmity between tasks to be performed and genuine thoughtfulness. "Letting the days go by…" - the chorus of Byrnes' song - describes quite vividly the harvest of a task-based existence and the antithesis of Valery's definition of art. Perhaps the reason that the song is so popular is because we realize that most of the time this is exactly what we do - or, rather, what happens to us. We have a sense that there could be so much more, but we just let the days go by.

In his play "Our Town" James Thurber approached this issue from quite a different angle. In the third act the young woman Emily, who has died in childbirth, returns to Earth to experience a single day of her life. She finds that it is very painful to see the people of her life moving through their day doing all of the tasks that come with any day and not realizing the fabulous gift of being alive. She turns to the character of the Stage Manager and says, "They don't understand, do they ?" To which he answers, "No, they don't." Finally, she sums up her experience by saying, "Oh Earth! You are too beautiful for anybody to appreciate you."

There is something miraculous in every moment, no matter what it brings. Don't let them slip away. Don't let tasks run your day. Find a space, a creative space. Take a moment to reflect, to try at any rate to see your world and your life from the perspective of eternity.

I certainly would never say that this is an easy task. But, then again, "That which is done easily is done without us," and it may end up being the one that makes all the difference.