For all artists, there has long been a struggle between creative expression and meaning. Particularly for writers, there is a curious difficulty often in ‘choosing the right words’. This is because, as the post-modern critics and theorists like Derrida and Lacan argue, the meaning of words depends on their context. Yet we never understand contexts fully. Consequently, ambiguity reigns. Even our most cherished words – God, love, world, Jesus, hope – are ambiguous.
As we interpret and reinterpret words, we realize no foundational, final, or fixed interpretation is available. Words refer to other words, those refer to other words, and those words refer to still others.
Meaning seems to exist only in relations of matrices. Language is a web without any fixed cables. If we think we have a solid foundation, “things fall apart,” as the poet William Butler Yeats put it, and “the center cannot hold.”
This struggle provides the starting point for one of the most interesting and unique lectures on creative writing available to us today.
Speaking at New York City’s Community Church in 1962, the literary legend James Baldwin emphasises the difficulty of using words to convey meaning that is ‘true’ or ‘real’:
“Words are attempts made by us all to get to something which is real and which lives behind the words […] The terrible thing is that the reality behind all these words depends on choices one has got to make, for ever and ever and ever, every day.”
From this point onward, Baldwin continues his terrific reflection on creativity and art, particularly focusing on some of the core challenges central to any artist.
In one of the many moments during the lecture when Baldwin’s passion for art – and the possibilities art can create – truly comes to life, he considers the role of the artist (of the writer, poet, photographer, painter, and so on ad infinitum) in a world beset by chaos and uncertainty. Though Baldwin was speaking in 1962, his words bear that rare timeless quality that make them all the more pertinent here today, in 2016, particularly as our world faces crises posed by Donald Trump, and the rise of fascism across the developed world:
“I am not interested really in talking to you as an artist. It seems to me that the artist’s struggle for his integrity must be considered as a kind of metaphor for the struggle, which is universal and daily, of all human beings on the face of this globe to get to become human beings. It is not your fault, it is not my fault, that I write. And I never would come before you in the position of a complainant for doing something that I must do… The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets.
[This is] a time … when something awful is happening to a civilization, when it ceases to produce poets, and, what is even more crucial, when it ceases in any way whatever to believe in the report that only the poets can make. Conrad told us a long time ago…: “Woe to that man who does not put his trust in life.” Henry James said, “Live, live all you can. It’s a mistake not to.” And Shakespeare said — and this is what I take to be the truth about everybody’s life all of the time — “Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.” Art is here to prove, and to help one bear, the fact that all safety is an illusion. In this sense, all artists are divorced from and even necessarily opposed to any system whatever.”
Listen to the full audio recording of Baldwin’s stunning lecture via the Youtube video below:
If that hasn’t left you pondering your struggle for your own artistic integrity, why not explore some other fine pieces of worldly advice for creative writers and artists available right here at Nothing in the Rulebook.