“Since time immemorial, stories have been used as a way of transmitting cultural values, ethics, and morality. A bitter pill can be swallowed more easily when it is embedded in a sweet matrix. A straight moral preachment might be dismissed, but guidance and direction become acceptable when embedded in a story that is intriguing, amusing, and interestingly told.” —Sidney Rosen, ‘My Voice Will Go With You’
“It’s easier to tell the truth in stories.”
I was a child when I first said this. Every year it has become more true to me, and I have found more sentiments like Sidney Rosen’s in his book about psychologist Milton J. Erickson that validate that sense. Art of all kinds looks to me like a way of inviting or enticing people, and art with a strong message performs the delicate act of coating a bitter pill with Princess Bride-style chocolate to make it taste better. As someone else (that I did not write down) said, it disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed.
This ‘Art & Soul’ series, originally intended to be YouTube videos, was I think a desire in me to search for those things in myself, to dialogue and puzzle through in writing my feelings about art and soul in general but also to specifically answer for myself the most sleep-destroying question of my life: how do I turn all this pain I carry into satisfying art?
Also in many ways: how do I recover my imagination from the endless repetitive loop of trauma and fear?
What I yearn for is a sort of alchemy. Alchemy appeals to me for a lot of fantastic human reasons. As a science it’s total crap, but as a method for exploring one’s inner worlds it’s heartily endorsed by Carl Jung. The dreamlike imagery of his ‘Red Book’ as well as the traditions and myths of alchemy are deeply appealing to me on an art level, but also as ritualistic ways of drawing out what often resists language and logic like narcissists resist realistic self-knowledge. We respond to rituals and patterns, it’s part of the human condition. (See: Matthew Hutson’s book ‘The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking,’ where he even deconstructs his own delineation of 7 laws as a form of possibly flawed thinking.)
The creation of art can be incredibly ritualistic. It can also be incredibly flippant and shallow. I still haven’t read it yet due to a reading list backed up from here to eternity, but I want to talk about ‘The Screwtape Letters’ despite being ill-informed. Recently I watched Stephen Colbert being interviewed by a Catholic priest on YouTube. Colbert spoke of the four forms of humor described in ‘The Screwtape Letters’ and the fourth was the only one the two demon characters discussing humor focused on as a way to influence ‘clients’ (i.e. the human race) to the dark side of the Force. The first was joy, the second play, the third the joke proper, but all these had the potential to invoke closeness and divinity while the fourth was flippancy, and only created barriers between people and atrophied the intellect.
Listening to this I knew finally how I felt about a long stretch of my early teen years where I wrote poetry. I knew I felt nothing and revealed nothing and invited nothing and risked nothing, and here was an excellent framing for what that was and how I sometimes feel when I experience works of others’ art (or especially my own)—there is nothing at the center of the Tootsie Pop. There’s no passion, no drive, no message, the artist acting almost as a random generator regurgitating forms and stories and diagrams and what seems like what would happen if you deconstructed someone else’s art and swapped out pieces with a clinical air to present something as original.
I hate writing that. Because I feel like this is leveled at a lot of burgeoning artists and shuts them down before they build a capacity for public vulnerability and self-knowledge and confidence with their craft to show up and be what they have to say. Hell, in various nicey-knifer ways I’ve had that done to me so relentlessly it shut me down repeatedly for years, and as soon as I’d build back up it would hit me again in that soft fleshy ‘who do you think you are?’ place. What turns me off is when artists never even discuss this—admittedly for valid reasons because artists love passive-aggressively attacking other artists in general. What turns me off is when artists get comfortable faking it, make it, and start to drink their own Kool-Aid and never grow beyond the titillation of form and pretension.
What turns me off, basically, is my own art, when I think about it too much. I recognize I’m faking it and despair and all those nightmare voices play in a loop, reminding me I do not have what it takes. I’m triggered, I’m too fragile for feedback and criticism, and I know this about myself. It’s only in denial of those things I can do anything at all, including go on living. Because without art, my life has no meaning. No soul.
I have a lot to say that is not at all nice. And it’s bound up in trauma and hate and fear and grief and abuse and I long for an artistic and satisfying way to express it, so it’s both not so jarring for me and something I can share with others, without feeling as though I am abusing them with my compulsive desire to connect with others and share the stories of the traumas I have been through. The problem is that art itself is entangled in a web of shame and traumatic experiences of destructive feedback I cannot just scrape off like a healthy well-grounded well-supported or even well-educated person might. My art and my life are compartmentalized so I wouldn’t be vulnerable in an area where everyone is a critic.
Admittedly everyone is a critic regardless of whether it is art or my personal stories of pain I am sharing. It’s a defense mechanism I think destroys human connection, empathy, and a capacity for emotional resilience. Plus the critics are the most voracious, vocal landsharks that ever did walk; they must continually seek out people and things to criticize. I used to be one. I was raised with them. I had them in place of friends because I never learned how to filter them out. Now they are like slivers embedded so deep they will never emerge from my psyche.
I think validation is important because it’s so vital and rare for me. I don’t think it’s appropriate to blindly validate everything because not everything is valid. For instance, with a bully and a target, the bully’s feelings are not as important as the person they have abused. Their choices are not valid and it’s not appropriate to pressure the victim to listen to the bully’s rationalizations, forgive them, or consider them as important as the complaint of a person who has been genuinely harmed by a bully.
I’ve studied why bullies and abusers do what they do, and for most I have encountered and studied, their level of denial is even greater than those of addicts. They do not get interventions because they lash out when people attempt to curb their behaviors and hurt targets they can without repercussions. People who serially hurt other people, whether through narcissism or harassment or child abuse or any other form of cruelty and preying on those weaker, do not respond to a lot of common-sense approaches. Dr. Phil, on an interview on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, talks about the impossibility of treating narcissists, because they learn the lingo, they learn to game the therapy system to their advantage, and powerfully resist change. Those who learn to turn off empathy are not eager to re-engage it. They are often rewarded far too much for their almost solipsistic selfish behavior.
So validation is not always the right response to everything. That’s all-or-nothing thinking. At the same time, validation is valued far too little, and understood even less. Those who are in the habit of invalidating what they do not like or agree with or ‘get’ are just as defensive and unlikely to change, in my experience, as those who serially bully others. Even though chronic invalidators are usually this way because they were bombarded with invalidation and fear of ‘other.’ When ‘uncomfortable’ equals ‘wrong’ there is a problem. However there is also a problem when people ignore discomfort and just keep enabling bad behavior.
But where is the art in this? Where is the soul? I can talk about what I’ve learned as a result of my experiences, but don’t yet have the capacity to tell the stories of what those experiences were in a way that satisfies me and feels okay to me. It’s too easy to get damaged in this journey. But for me, it’s the only risk worth taking anymore.