“The perfect expression of art may be in worlds beyond, but it is gratifying one may not need to go so far to seek it,” expounds Anugyan in this essay.
One of my favourite film directors is Michelangelo Antonioni. Though not to everyone’s taste, the trilogy starting with L’avventura is note-perfect to my mind. It was with great interest therefore I managed to get a copy of his earlier film La signora senza camelie (The Lady Without Camelias). It is a really good film, no doubt about it, but I was puzzled by Antonioni’s statement that he never watched it after it was made as he didn’t get the actress he wished for the main part. This didn’t make sense to me, as the actress Lucia Bosè is highly accomplished – until he mentioned that the woman he wanted and knew to be perfect for the role was a young, relatively unknown, actress Sofia Lazzaro, later to be known to the world as Sophia Loren. Then I understood, and knew he was right. It’s like the film was made for her. Now I haven’t been able to watch the film again, knowing what I know, and seeing so clearly what is absent.
Most artists (and those who appreciate them) are haunted by a sense of the perfect expression of their vision and the all-too-real shortcomings of the actuality. Anything may prevent it coming to full fruition: a collaborator such as an actor being unavailable, lack of materials, illness, even death. Sanditon was Jane Austen’s last novel, only part-completed before she died. Many readers mourn this loss, as it showed signs of being a radical new departure for Austen, an exciting journey cut short. Yet this is not the whole picture, as we shall see.
After any major accomplishment, there is nearly always a drop in energy, essentially a much-needed yin after the active yang. Whereas some cultures recognise this, such as Japanese Noh performers blessing the stage after a performance to counter the demanding yin energies, most artists I know struggle with this phase. Some turn to addictive substances to mask the challenging feelings of being confronted with non-doing; others rush straight into another project, their yin ‘down time’ to come much later and more dramatically. Many an accident or illness may be born thus.
By now I am well-aware of this phase, and embrace it as an opportunity for meditation and relaxation. Even so, as a creative person, I too find it challenging. (Right now I’ve finished the third novella in the series I’m working on, and keep fighting the urge to do nothing. Fortunately, another essay was due and I find myself happily working on this.) A few years ago, when I had finished Wrecking Ball, which took about two years between conception and publication, I was definitely in that space. It wasn’t too bad, but a slight depression was coming in, despite the meditation. Then I got an email from one of my readers, saying he really enjoyed the book but was surprised when I described the protagonist Duncan journeying over the Severn Bridge, when I clearly meant the Tamar. This was a shock to me. I checked, and he was right. How could I have been so stupid? Then I discovered a few typos, one of the perils of being one’s own editor and proof-reader. I also realised I’d got a major aspect of railway station protocol wrong when describing that same journey. I was plunged into misery. I’d worked so hard on that book for so long, yet still I had made several errors.
I felt quite helpless after that, regularly consigning myself to my couch. Then on about the third day of this I was lying down, staring at the bookshelves upon which sat my two most recent novels, Secrets and Wrecking Ball. I started noticing their beauty, so much work had gone into even the covers by various talented and kind people. Then I noticed something extraordinary – an energy like a light radiating from them. They were presenting themselves to me on a purely vibrational level, showing their intrinsic value in no uncertain terms. With that light, warmth and energy, I realised the mistakes, typos etc. amounted to nothing in the great scheme of things. With that, I got off the couch and went back to living my life. ¹
During discourse once I heard Osho talking about Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. He described how the protagonist Raskolnikov only thought he had killed the old woman, and suffered so much in inner anguish that he was in prison before they actually put him in prison. This was a puzzling description, as anyone who had read the book knew full well that Raskolnikov had indeed murdered the woman. On the face of it, Osho had made a mistake, but I was aware of this from Lawrence:
When the man in ‘Crime and Punishment’ murders the old woman for sixpence, although it is actual enough, it is never quite real… It is actuality, but it is not ‘life’, in the living sense.
Morality and the Novel, D. H. Lawrence
Lawrence argues that Dostoyevsky was going against life by focusing on realism. Elsewhere, he talks about a man buying a hat also being ‘real’, but not ‘life’ as it is in a novel; unless the man feels a transformation from the purchase, as shown perhaps in him leaving the shop with a jaunt in his step. It is a subtle but profound difference. Once aware of this omission in the novel, one can imagine that it is as if Osho had read the ‘perfect’ Crime and Punishment rather than the actual.
Swedenborg may shed some light as to what exactly is going on, when describing the chasm between those who merely act religiously and those whose actions are representative of their deeper inward state:
Their thought and intent are their conscience, and they have heaven within themselves. In outward form, the actions of the two kinds look alike, but inwardly they are totally different.
Loving and intending are the same thing, because we love what we intend and intend what we love.
Heaven and Hell, Emanuel Swedenborg
He is putting the emphasis on what is real, other than that which seems.
While our outer or natural memory is still part of us after death, still the merely natural things that are in it are not recreated in the other life, only spiritual things that are connected to the natural ones by correspondence.
This has significance even as to our physical form:
We get our physical face from our parents and our spiritual face from our affection, which it images. Our spirit takes on this face after our physical life is over, when the outer coverings have been removed.
The way I would interpret this in regards to art, is that anything which is built of love, truth and transcendence, survives the physical world to live on in its more perfect form i.e. how it was intended, as long as we did what we could. Part of the creative process is worldly, it being one of the ways in which we hone our skills.
Artists often sense this, like a sculptor who feels/hears a piece of stone that knows what it wants to become. As a writer, I often ‘hear’ what I’m going to write, and I know only too well when I’m not listening properly. Frustration mounts up the less one can hear, but it is the effort to do so that is the crucible of love, and life, out of which something wonderful can be brought into the world. (This paragraph itself was very difficult to hear properly, taking a long time to form, and even now I’m not sure I did it justice. I am often haunted by what could be.)
An inevitable inference here is that, whilst bringing something of this calibre into the world is our job, that thing already exists in its perfect form. In an existence of timelessness, that is quite possible, even likely.
So does Sanditon exist on another level in its entirety? Is there a version of La signora senza camelie starring a young Sophia Loren? Is there an edition of Wrecking Ball where Duncan crosses the Tamar rather than the Severn?
One would like to think all this and more is true. However, there is another, less idealised redemption available for all that seems lost.
Take Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida for example. It is known as one of the ‘problem plays’, a description it shares with Measure for Measure. Yet whilst the latter – not quite a comedy, not quite a tragedy – is widely appreciated as a masterwork (actually a personal favourite of mine), the former, with its relentless disparagement of Greek heroes can seem like a one-note symphony, rather tedious and abstruse. By chance it was the only play of remote interest to me being shown in London one time when I was in the city, and I went to see it performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the Barbican’s Pit. The production was phenomenal, bringing the dirge-like words to new life. Part of the method was to toughen up the stage directions. The characters were always punching each other in the face between words, depicting vividly a battlefield as it really is. Nuances and latent meanings were now present very clearly for all to witness.
Thus, the worldly solution to works of art that may not quite live up to expectations, is to bring other people in, make it a collective effort. Sanditon has been brought to fruition in a number of ways. First, there are a few of Jane Austen’s books that have been completed by modern writers. I haven’t read any so can’t comment, other than to admit a scepticism about any one person managing to replicate genius within the original’s parameters, no matter their own brilliance. Still, I have to accept it as one possible solution. With Sanditon, as observers have noted, a new satirical tone is in evidence, one focused more intently on social inequalities than her previous works. Jane Austen never lived to develop that style, but Charles Dickens did. In that way, there is a continuance of spirit, even if the form is different. Then latterly there are screen adaptations, recently even of a completed Sanditon. I was more interested though in Ang Lee’s version of Sense and Sensibility. Being not as impressed with the book as I was by the later novels, I was astonished how this collection of talent – writers, designers, producers, and director, everyone involved – could take a novel I found so uneven and transform it into something so perfect. Readers may think of other first-rate films made from second-rate books, despite the popular belief that ‘the book is always better’.
Ultimately the perfect expression of art may be in worlds beyond, but it is gratifying one may not need to go so far to seek it. If my own Wrecking Ball has enough inner light in order to survive, it is likely to be published again by someone with the means to do so, in an edition where Duncan crosses the Tamar rather than the Severn; and maybe a television series, where the researchers correct what is wrong with the railway station protocol.
I’m not likely to be around to experience this. Others will. However, I am looking forward to reading the complete Sanditon by Jane Austen one day, and watching Antonioni’s masterpiece starring Sophia Loren.
¹ The experience reminded me of a story I had been told of Osho ‘reading’ books in Lao Tzu library by placing his hand on each page in turn. I only heard this story once, so it remains anecdotal, but it makes perfect sense to me, that one can tune this way into the intrinsic energy of a work of art.