What is the nature of great art? Take, for example, the art of writing. Commonsense tells us that writing in general is the sharing of thoughts and that both thinking and writing are uses of language to get at the truth or to achieve some other practical aim. Nonfiction writers put sentences together in meaningful ways to model some reality, while fiction writers tell stories to explore ideas and psychological hypotheses. Rational writers put together arguments while emotional writers try to manipulate the reader’s attitude. Whereas thinking is private and speaking is a very limited way of making thoughts public, writing can produce a permanent record. All of which assumes that a writer should be concerned mainly with such mundane tasks as choosing the right words and tone of rhetoric, following an argument’s logic and avoiding fallacies, and so forth. Indeed, these are necessary skills if you want to write well, but the essence of arguably the most influential kind of writing is nowhere to be found in this account. So I’ll try to explain here the function of great art in general, although I’ll focus on what I’ll call prophetic writings, which include the philosophical, religious, and literary kinds.
Artistic Inspiration as Daemonic Possession
First, though, here’s how I think the commonsense view came about. In the ancient world, writing was relatively rare, because writing was done by hand and there was no mass-produced paper. Much Bronze Age writing was controlled by the government, as in ancient Egypt in which only an upper class of scribes was taught to read and write. There were mainly three kinds of ancient writing: records were kept for business purposes, engravings and the ancient equivalents of signs were used to maintain the power of the ruling elite, and stories were told and arguments were made in the service of prophetic or religious ideas. The third kind of writing is quite different from the other two, more mundane kinds. After the printing press and the computer, writing has become so commonplace that most people think all writing is utilitarian. This is because most people have no prophetic or religious aptitude: all they can do is record daily events or use writing to achieve some short-term goal, as with the grocery list; apply the rules of rationality to persuade the reader that certain statements are reliable; or use rhetoric as a tool in power games. People have thus lost sight of the most important kind of writing, because writing as a medium has been cheapened by its overuse. More specifically, we’ve forgotten the nature of what I’ll call prophetic writing and have even trivialized scripture by literalizing it, as though the alleged truth of a myth like one in the Bible were of the same type as that of a record of some commonplace business transaction.
We can get a sense of what’s been lost if we analyze certain words that described the sort of charismatic figure that used to inspire prophetic writing, beginning with the very word “inspiration.” According to Dictionary.com, that word originally meant “the immediate influence of God or a god.” The word “genius” referred to the “guardian deity or spirit which watches over each person from birth.” A prophet was one who had the “gift of interpreting the will of the gods.” A vision was “something seen in the imagination or in the supernatural.” Before the word was generalized after the Puritans’ influence, “enthusiasm” meant “inspired, possessed by a god.”
The common thread here is the idea of being possessed by a higher power and turned into a messenger, so that what I’m calling prophetic writing, which as we’ll see encompasses philosophical, religious, and artistic or fictional writing, is revelatory. The multigenre author Dan Simmons makes much of this higher kind of writing, although he pompously takes the myths associated with prophecy rather literally. The key idea for him, as he says in his fourteenth installment on how to write, is that a great writer must find her daemon that dwells perpetually in what Yeats calls a condition of fire. “Daemon” is the original Greek word for “muse.” Christians demonized the daemon and replaced the daemon, that is, the external entity that’s supposed to possess and inspire a great writer, with the tamer source of inspiration, the muse or guardian angel.
In either case, the possessor is an intermediary between the supernatural and natural worlds. In Plato’s “Symposium,” for example, love itself is one such intermediary daemon. For Dan Simmons, this means that the great writer must suffer, because she must cooperate with the daemon, which entails submitting to the daemon’s alien practices. Moreover, inspiration comes and goes, some writers never find their daemon or find themselves possessed for only a short while, and most importantly, being possessed is a terrifying ordeal: because the daemon resides in fire, the writer must land herself in that same condition if she’s to submit to this outer source of creativity. Of course, the condition of fire is just a symbol of artistic obsessiveness, of the all-consuming feeling of inspiration that produces great art while often making the artist’s life a shambles. Simmons lists some great American writers who suffered greatly for their art, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson.
Dan Simmons speaks of the possessed artist as being tried by kenosis and askesis. Kenosis is an emptying out, in this case an emptying of the old self to make room not just for the daemon but for the daemon’s ability to be anything by way of the imagination. That is, the emptied writer is like a method actor who lives as the characters she plays, so that the actor herself becomes an empty shell. (This stereotype is satirized by the Robert Downey Jr. character in the movie Tropic Thunder.) “Askesis” is at the root of the word ascetic, but for the Greeks the word meant any kind of discipline or practice. With respect to writing, Simmons says the practice in question is the observation of every detail of your experience, so that you’re constantly standing outside yourself and taking notes, asking questions about motivations and so forth. The ancient Greeks were more optimistic about discipline than the Christians, because the Greeks didn’t see the world as a fallen place; they were naturalists whereas Christians are metaphysical dualists. So discipline for the Greeks was a way of achieving self-control and of avoiding the character extremes (vices), for the sake of being a proper citizen, that is, a productive and responsible moral agent.
The dualistic Christians looked down on worldly disciplines because they demonized natural forces, so the only valid discipline was the monk’s spiritual kind, which entailed the renouncing of worldly cares. In Christianity, daemons are evil creatures that live in hell, a place which the Christian traditionally pictures as either a realm of unquenchable flames that serve as supernatural instruments of torture, or as an outer darkness, far from God. Here, we see the demonizing of artistic creativity and of prophetic writing, which is quite convenient for Christians, considering the fact that, judging from the universality of the creative person’s feeling of being possessed, their charismatic leader could have described his divine inspiration in terms of being inflamed along with his daemon. Moreover, regardless of whether Jesus existed as an historical figure, the symbol of Jesus is of the intermediary between the divine and mortal realms, which makes Jesus himself a daemon. In any case, the Christian view only distorts the artistic experience without erasing it altogether. The point is that the creation of art and more specifically of prophetic writing (of philosophy, scripture, or literary fiction) happens through the artist’s suffering. The artist suffers because whatever it is, the daemon acts like an alien creature with its own agenda which likely involves abusing the artist, since the daemon is indifferent to her parochial, earthly needs. The partnership between artist and daemon is hardly an equal one.
Introversion, Horror, and Inspiration
But what exactly is a daemon? I think Jung took an important step when he interpreted this sort of religious idea as having symbolic importance, because the idea expresses some universal aspect of human life. In this respect, the daemon may be an archetypal or primordial image which therefore resonates because it expresses a fundamental human truth, such as that of what it feels like to create with inspiration. But why would the artist feel as if she were in thrall to an inhuman intelligence? My naturalistic answer begins with the fact that the mind is divided into parts, because the mind is a process happening within the brain and the brain evolved in layers and modules, or subsystems. What great artists excel at doing is employing the generic parts of their mind, such as the faculties of imagination, emotion, and even reason. Thus, the great artist is usually introverted, meaning that she’s used to exploring the recesses of her mind. Scrutinizing the external world, including what people wear and how they talk or react is needed to lend prophetic writing verisimilitude. For example, Jesus’s parables picked up on concrete details of his listeners’ daily practices. But great writing consists of more than just a list of such details. The writer needs a theory or at least a hypothesis, conjecture, or speculation to interpret the world she so carefully observes. A great writer offers an original interpretation, which she acquires from interior reflection, brooding, and other introverted pastimes. This is why great artists tend to create in solitude; for example, it’s why Jesus is said to have wondered in the wilderness for a long time—because introverted self-reflection is known to be a prerequisite for inspired art.
This introverted practice of inspecting the regions of your mind builds up the virtue of a certain kind of humility. To be sure, artists can be great egotists and extroverted people can be too busy engaging with things other than themselves to become megalomaniacs. Still, introversion makes for a type of humility, namely for one born from an experience of horror. What happens is that the introvert learns to detach from most of her mental processes and to identify with a more and more rarified version of her, that is, with the introspective observer of her memories, emotions, and logical trains of thought. And so the introvert becomes a pitifully small and fragile thing; no longer is she the same as any part of her mind which can become an object of thought, but she’s an ever more removed and theoretical subject of her self-consciousness. When inspiration strikes, then, the introverted artist experiences her creativity as having an alien origin, because the vision of the finished work flows from those faculties from which she’s learned to disassociate. She becomes alienated from most of her mind and so those objectified faculties become monstrous, alien sources of information for her to analyze.
What makes the creative parts of her mind monstrous? I think the essence of the horror is defined by the hypothesis of the uncanny valley, as found in research on artificial intelligence. The hypothesis is that when something is almost exactly the same as a person, but is nevertheless still slightly yet apparently different, the comparison is revolting. For example, if a robot looks and moves quite like a human, but has jarringly too-perfect skin or hair, the observer is disgusted mainly by the implications that there’s a trick afoot and that human personhood is evidently something capable of being so nearly simulated by that which isn’t, after all, a person. The observer fears unconsciously, at least, that there are no human people after all, that we’re always fooled when we personify each other and ourselves, and that mental qualities are only ever faked. In this way, the uncanny valley generates an existential crisis. And so the introvert who’s learned to objectify her mind, to divide it into observable parts, perceives the observed parts as uncannily like herself. This is because in a more extroverted mood she’d broaden her mind, as it were, identifying with those parts without bothering to over-analyze them. Yet she knows those observed parts are foreign, because here she is, being a mere sliver of self-awareness, a ghostly observer that can never see itself but that can drift from one part of her mind to the next. This is the root of the introvert’s and of the artist’s terrible humility. This sort of person is horrified by the parts of her mind that are objectified through the process of introversion with which she passes the time spent being alone for extended periods. She’s horrified by the knowledge that so much of her mind is apparently not herself, so that she’s left with the fear that maybe she has no self, that there’s just one last subsystem in her brain performing some trick of self-awareness, generating the illusion of an immaterial personal essence. The causes of that fear she experiences as alien and she’s liable to demonize them.
Take the daemon of love, for example. Most people with a healthy dose of extroversion will enjoy the ride of the love hormones, going with the feelings instead of walling herself off in some higher part of her mind and observing the feelings as though they were foreign to her. But introverts with artistic sensibilities—and especially those I’m calling prophetic writers—are never so at home in their skin; instead, they’re always questioning themselves. After an existential awakening to the horror of being alive in nature, the introvert/artist/great writer may experience love as madness, as an affliction that carries the disturbing revelation that we can’t die because we were never alive, that there is no self who loves nor any beloved self, but only processes that generate those illusions.
The inspired artist suffers, then, first from her existential terror which follows from her introversion and mental discipline, and second, from the social effects of her inner discoveries. Just as she feels alienated from most of herself, others feel alienated from anyone who will seem to lack the confidence that comes actually from ignorance, which is to say, from extroversion. She will be anathema, because she won’t easily trust in popular opinion; she’ll doubt conventional wisdom, because she’s been horrified by the possibility that minds and societies are like so many sandcastles that are easily washed away. The brain is a wonderful, sturdy organ, ensconced in the skull and protected by the blood-brain moat, but the hallucinations of the ego and of many commonsense convictions falter as soon as we learn to perform that first ascetic act: renouncing the mind through introspective analysis and identification with the so-called higher self. In the extroverted world, introverts are pariahs and wet blankets, and creative artists are just those that acquire visions through introverted habits. And here we find a likely coincidental but still apt comparison with the Christian’s metaphor of hell as an outer darkness. The introverted artist is indeed left outside the world in no place at all, because she’s dissociated from everything and practically dematerialized, through excessive self-analysis.
Before I turn to prophetic writing more specifically, I want to address one more general question, which has to do with the source of the artist’s creativity. Merely to introspect a lot isn’t the same as being in the grip of inspiration which feels like daemonic possession. No, creativity derives from the objectivity afforded by alienation. Artists are outsiders and so they have fresh perspectives on social behaviour which extroverted insiders take for granted. Artists are forced to stand apart from normal interactions, because their self-loathing makes them off-putting. Yet their being shunned has a silver lining, which is that they can stop and see what others are too busy being immersed in to notice. Great artists have original interpretations because they feel distant from the perceivable world; artists are estranged from themselves and thenceforward from nearly everything else, and so they develop a strange worldview, one that reflects their detached and skewed vantage point. The feeling of being caught up in inspiration begins with the necessity to discover a remedy for the existential trauma, that is, for the horror caused by the inner uncanny valley. The remedy is the creation of some art, some expression of an odd way of looking at the world that’s informed by the artist’s idiosyncratic experiences with which she’s all-too familiar, since she curates a virtual museum housing her mental representations of them.
Prophetic Writing and the Existential Crisis
The above goes some way towards explaining artistic creativity in general. What, then, is prophetic as opposed to utilitarian writing? Prophetic writing is inspired and visionary, because it’s motivated not by mundane interests, but by the need to resolve the existential crisis. Necessity is the mother of invention, so the greater the need, the greater the incentive to create. The word “prophecy” has come to mean merely the trick of predicting the distant future, the trick being that if you issue enough prophecies or if you line up enough prophets, some are bound to get lucky. (Alternatively, there’s the technique that’s based on the game of twenty questions, which is well-satirized in the South Park episode about the charlatan John Edward.) In any case, as I’ve pointed out, the word originally meant the broader gift of interpreting the will of the gods. Prophets, then, were comparable to shamans, who evidently grew bored with the daemons they perceived with their waking mind and so they sought psychedelic states of consciousness, through entheogens, fasting, or rhythmic dancing and chanting. Christians are wont to boast that prophecy ended with their charismatic leader, Jesus of Nazareth, while Muslims hold that Muhammad was the last prophet. Of course, since the theistic interpretation of prophecy is merely a vulgarity in the modern context, prophecy as a psychological and existential phenomenon has continued into our postmodern era.
Visionary artists are the secular prophets. Their prophecy has nothing to do with predicting the future or with contacting supernatural beings. Instead, as I’ve tried to explain, they make the best of their introversion and of their resulting alienation, by construing their analyzed thoughts as alien and distant from their true selves. That uncanny valley horrifies and prompts them to invent a resolution by means of some ingenious interpretation of the world. With respect to the artists who choose to speak or to write their revelations, they’ll likely say that their most satisfying work seems to flow through them, as if they were possessed by a daemon or muse. There is no alien supernatural intelligence responsible for any human art, but there is that part of the artist’s mind that’s experienced as foreign through introspection.
Mind you, any writer can write a stream of consciousness, spilling her thoughts onto the page without editing them, but only a great writer’s barely edited stream of thoughts would be worth reading. The difference is that the great writer’s mind has been broken by introverted self-analysis and rebuilt with a vision that resolves her existential crisis, so that when her mental faculties have their say, their word is likely original and incisive rather than trite and incoherent. Weak artists tell people what they want to hear, because their minds are full of unanalyzed memes and taboos and noble lies that serve the interest mainly of protecting some dominance hierarchy. The modern artist, beginning with the likes of Miguel de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote) and Shakespeare, strives to be a genius with an inner vision she feels compelled to share, because she lives in her head.
Strong artists, then, ignore or doubt received wisdom because they’re led by that ghostly self within which will defer all the less to other people, because that self has already skewered all her own thoughts, feelings, memories, attitudes, and character traits. If the artist has demolished even herself through introspection, she’s not likely to credit the products of other people’s cognitive habits. Weak artists are relatively extroverted: they live in the external world and haven’t met the daemons within or been confronted with existential horror. Thus, no fire has been lit under their creative efforts. They write for money or for fame. By contrast, prophetic writers are possessed by an original vision of what the world is like; moreover, they’re more or less ascetic, because their introversion likely impoverishes them, and so they’ll stay true to their vision since they’ll be met with few distractions from it.
Utilitarian writing, then, is the product of existential inauthenticity, meaning that it’s motivated by something other than the need to address the horror of discovering the self’s insubstantiality. Of course, even great writers can write for humdrum purposes, as long as they’re not constantly afflicted by their vision. Just as most mystics can’t permanently sustain their feeling of everything’s oneness, a prophetic writer will now and again be distracted by comparatively trivial matters, however secluded she may be. But instead of thinking of prophecy as an interpretation of some supernatural will, we should think of it as a sublimation of existential horror, caused by the introverted self’s alienation from the contents of her mind.
I’d include philosophy, religion, and the fine arts, including literary writing, as potentially prophetic. Granted, modern scientists, too, have been regarded as interpreters of divine revelation, Isaac Newton being the best example. But this view of the scientist as a semi-artistic or religious figure has been rendered quaint by the banishment of teleology or deism from the scientist’s picture of nature. As for philosophy, the academic Western kind is largely uninspired and scholastic, but existential or otherwise possessed philosophers like Nietzsche and Wittgenstein were certainly prophetic in the above respect. Philosophers differ from modern scientists in that philosophers make due with speculations to address important nonscientific questions, especially prescriptive ones which call for some conviction about something’s sacredness, to provide guidance. Typically, the unreflective masses are guided by overt myths, while the cognitive elites take direction from a metaphysical system, or at least from some set of coherent and abstract principles. But a metaphysical system is what postmodernists call a metanarrative, a story with abstract rather than concrete characters that nevertheless serves our childish need to be at home throughout the world. And such a system is mythical in being a preposterous exaggeration of what we can hope to know as factual. This is because the system features speculative generalizations that are simply impudent unless proffered self-consciously as works of art, on the basis of something like the cosmicist insight that life isn’t at all central to the cosmos. So the elites feel at home in the indifferent and utterly inhuman cosmos as long as they have their maps (scientific theories) and their quasi-myths (philosophical metanarratives).
Religious prophecy is closely connected to the philosophical kind, since both deal with stories that cater to our childish longings. Ultimately, all of the great religions’ myths derive from the psychedelic experiences deciphered by ancient shamanic traditions. Shamans were the introverted artists of their day. Modern artists, too, use drugs such as cannabis and alcohol to intensify their estrangement from the world and to further skew their perspective in the hope that they’ll hit on a remedy for their angst. Theists get carried away with their personifications and demonizations, but their myths often have psychological validity, because their underlying cause is just the introversion that leads to the existential crisis and to the search for creative options. In the modern era, religious myths are unfashionable in certain elite circles and so philosophical myths are preferable, because modern philosophy is written in a scientistic language that avoids the grosser fallacies common in theistic religions.
Literary writing, too, is comparable to scripture, the main difference being that the former deals explicitly with profane rather than sacred matters. Literature works out solutions to the existential crisis indirectly by representing the writer’s preoccupations using characters placed in imaginary scenarios. Of course, haughty authors will be the first to protest that no great novel is a mere litany of the author’s more or less disguised opinions, with characters that are no better than puppets. But the main difference between great and mediocre literature is merely that a great author is more skilled at disguising the fact that she’s writing in response to her existential crisis. And so a great author can write well-rounded characters and realistic dialogue, and can handle complex plots and avoid preaching the ideas that make up her vision. But in so far as great art is inspired in the way I’ve laid out, a literary author will have a vision and she’ll write to explore it, if not necessarily to indoctrinate her readers.
So far I’ve tried to show that artists hope that their art can redress their existential suffering, which is the suffering that’s brought on by their knowledge of what we fundamentally are. But art has another, often unintended consequence, which is the subversion of the unenlightened masses’ delusions. In dealing with her traumatic self-discovery, the great artist tells a tale in a jarringly original voice, albeit one that’s hoarse from overuse and from the effects of the artist’s destitution. Art that’s true to the vision seen by eyes that regard nowhere as home won’t likely be reconcilable with the conventions that ignore any such foundational trauma. So the more great art is understood, the more the masses have to worry, although society has numerous defense mechanisms to keep its power hierarchies intact.
One such defense, in effect, is the use of digitization which trivializes art and thus deprives artists of their mystique. Modern technology has the potential to end meaningful art even as the technosphere mass produces the existentially useless sort of art. And yet technology exacerbates the existential crisis, by making us more aware of our materialistic basis and of the world’s impersonality. As I argue elsewhere, the technosphere may ironically be one giant solution to the existential crisis, since postmodern technology seems to make angst impossible for the multitude, by infantilizing the consumer in an artificial world that’s at her beck and call, and thus by fulfilling the mythopoeic dream of a world that intermixes subjects and objects at all levels. Still, the technosphere would then be a colossal work of kitsch, like an endless Dan Brown novel or Justin Bieber song or YouTube video about a cute cat. Great art that addresses the profound truth in an intellectually responsible way may have to go underground as the technosphere re-enchants the world by replacing nature, the cause of existential horror, with mass-produced distractions.