42 On art (poiesis) and the search for meaning in my life.

[I started writing this at 4:30 this morning. I don’t usually get up before 7:30, but my chemo meds keep me awake sometimes. I’m on a dexamethasone high. In other words I’m stoned. Let’s see how well this comes out. Well, I’m no longer stoned. It’s now 6 PM, and looking it over, I. think it’s fine, but I’ll let you be the final judge of that. It’s only a coincidence that this is the 42nd blog post in this series.]

Over the past few months, since I was diagnosed with cancer I have been on a search for the meaning of my life. I haven’t always recognized that in myself or acknowledged to myself that that’s what I was actually doing, but that is in fact what I have been doing pointedly and with urgency. There is probably nothing more capable of focussing the mind than facing a firing squad or a hearing a physician’s determination that one has an incurable cancer. The problem with the firing squad scenario is that there is no time for any reflection on the meaning of life before the bullets put an end to all reflection. At least with a cancer diagnosis, there is time for reflection. I have limited time left as a human expression in the biosphere, so I intend to use that time fully as a mortal in reflection on the meaning in my life, but more importantly as a generator of art, what Plato called poiesis.

In my life I was able to go to university and a get important post-graduate degrees in Sociology. Those years of study and reflection were exciting, stressful and tinged with contradiction at every turn and I got through them in spite of the system and not because of it, as I was fond of telling my students repeatedly over the years. I was able to learn many ‘things’ but the most important result of all of those years was my license to teach, to engage in an important aspect of my art.

Licenses are important. They are society’s way of legitimizing and concretizing in a title the fact that in the past one has acquired sufficient knowledge and capacity in a field of study or work to pass it on to others, operate equipment or on people, fix our plumbing and in a myriad of other situations. Over the years, my teaching was my art, although it was also my way of making a living and that contradiction was a constant source of irritation for me, and for people around me too, especially my long-suffering loved ones, Carolyn and the kids. During that time, though, I also engaged in the ‘plastic’ arts, in drawing, painting, and eventually in sculpture and printmaking. For most of my life I considered those latter pursuits the artistic part of my life. However, more recently, with my new sharpened mind engendered by my cancer diagnosis, I have been able to look back on my life and conclude that I was always an artist. I may have been born that way, but I think it was more an inadvertent result of my upbringing and the circumstances surrounding my birth and early years. I know now that my parents were also artists in their own ways. I know for a fact, because I worked with him at times, that my father struggled his whole working life with the contradictions he had to face every day having to earn a living doing things that were averse if not actually an insult to his inherent creativity. My father was a master craftsman, inventor, blacksmith and planerman. He was functionally illiterate too. My mother had a grade eight education and could read and write quite well. She had ten children, all still alive and kicking. Can we question her creativity? Definitely not her biological creativity, but she was creative in other ways too. She could sew up a storm and knit, cook like a pro and bake. Mygawd, could she bake! Later in life, after all the kids could look after themselves she took over my father’s workshop and started building all kinds of things out of wood. I still have a table by my bed that she built. It means a lot to me. Then, my father decided to sell the house and move into an apartment. That was the end of woodworking for my mother. She pretty much lost interest after that and it wasn’t long after she got Alzheimer’s dementia and that was that.

I feel I really need to explore in writing what my parents must have gone through during the time I was born and for some time after, and how that shaped who I became and am becoming still. I feel this exploration, my writing here, is part of my legacy, part of what I leave behind for you to learn from or simple contemplate as you would a painting on the wall in your living room, if you are fortunate enough to have a living room that is. My aim is that it engenders creativity in you, its beholders.✿

In any case, I was born on January 4th, 1947, which means I was conceived sometime in April of 1946. My parents were married on January 28th 1946. My father’s first wife, Yvonne Gaucher, died on June 22nd, 1945, seven months before my mother and father married. She died in childbirth after having five daughters. The baby, if it had survived, was to be called Roger, and I would not be. As the fates have it, he died and I was born 19 months later and they named me Roger. Can you imagine the stress my father was under? And my mother? My father had five daughters to look after. He made a call to my mother’s family in Alberta and my mother agreed to come help, look after the children and do all the domestic work. My mother and father had known each other in Alberta before he moved here with his family in 1937. Apparently my mother and dad’s first wife knew each other quite well. A short time later they were married. I can’t imagine what he was going through and we never talked about it.

Of course I was treated like a little prince. Not only was I the first boy in the family, but I had survived childbirth and so had my mother. I don’t really know what to make of my early days, not really. My mother soon had more children so my special status was soon eroded, but not much because my mother then proceeded to have four daughters in a row right after me leaving me the only boy with nine sisters. She had three more sons, interspersed with a couple more daughters.

So I have fourteen siblings in all, one of the older ones dying a few years ago of cancer. The rest of us are all still alive and kicking although a couple of my brothers-in-law have died last year. Many of my siblings are what I would call creative or artistic in work and in play. Five are afflicted with MS or another autoimmune disease. An altogether crazy bunch, but I love them all. What influence they’ve had in my life I can’t really say although they have been supportive when I needed it. And I really needed it when I was in my late teens and early twenties, depressed and suicidal. I could always count on my family. There was always a place for me at the table and a shoulder to cry on. Now I can say that I’m neither depressed, nor suicidal and I haven’t been for some time. Some people might argue that I have a right to be depressed, but I know now what depression is and it’s a waste of time. I don’t need it.

Alright, so what do I make of my life? Well, I’ve made it clear in a number of recent blog posts that I’m not chasing immortality. I’m a happy mortal kind of guy, but that doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to dying. My myeloma is being managed successfully and I may live for another ten years, who knows. When it’s my turn to die, that will be just fine. We all come to the end of the line. Songs have been written about it.

Still, it took a cancer diagnosis and what I thought was imminent death from an incurable cancer to ask the question: What meaning did my life have? What meaning does it have? In the face of death, is there any meaning? These are questions Tolstoy was preoccupied with. As Ernest Becker reports in Escape From Evil: “When Tolstoy came to face death, what he really experienced was anxiety about the meaning of his life. As he lamented in his Confessions: ‘What will come of my whole life…Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?””

My answers to these questions came to me slowly at first over the last few weeks, then more pointedly only in the last few hours. I got answers by reading writers I knew would not fail in helping me answer these questions. The first was Ernest Becker and his book Escape from Evil (1974). Becker always knows the right words to say. He reminded me of the cultural significance of the fear of death and its significance for my personal encounter with death. Norbert Elias I read carefully. His book What is Sociology (1970) reacquainted me with my own discipline in a new, fresh way, a way of locating myself in time and space in a cultural project of criticism which clearly preceded me and will continue without me. But what of my career as a teacher? Recently I picked up a book that had been sitting in my library for thirty years untouched. It’s a book by James P. Carse called Finite and Infinite Games (see the note below). This is the book that triggered my recent reflections on my life as an artist. One section of his book deals specifically with art and culture and the relationships that we have with art as artists. I could have re-read Otto Rank’s Art and Artist but Carse does that for me. Rank’s book is always close to hand but it’s falling apart do to the handling it’s received over the years. Carse argues that the greatest struggle for any society is not with external enemies, but within itself. In society, we strive for titles, recognition for past achievements. But poietai (artists, inventors, storytellers, makers, etcetera according to Plato) are makers of possibilities. He writes (and this is a long quote):

The creativity of culture has no outcome, no conclusion. It does not result in art works, artifacts, products. Creativity is a continuity that engenders itself in others. [quoting Rank] ‘Artists do not create objects, but create by way of objects.’

Art is not art, therefore, except as it leads to an engendering creativity in its beholders. Whoever takes possession of the objects of art has not taken possession of the art.

Since art is never a possession, and always a possibility, nothing possessed can have the status of art. If art cannot become property, property is never art-as property. Property draws attention to titles, points backward toward a finished time. Art is dramatic, opening always forward, beginning something that cannot be finished.

Because it is not conclusive, but engendering, culture has no established catalogue of accepted activities. We are not artists by reason of having mastered certain skills or exercising specified techniques. Art has no scripted roles for its performers. It is precisely because it has none that it is art. Artistry can be found anywhere; indeed, it can only be found anywhere. One must be surprised by it. It cannot be looked for. We do not watch artists to see what they do, but to watch what persons do and discover the artistry in it.

Artists cannot be trained. One does not become an artist by acquiring certain skills or techniques, though one can use any number of skills and techniques in artistic activity. The creative is found in anyone who is prepared for surprise. Such a person cannot go to school to be an artist, but can only go to school as an artist.

Therefore, poets do not “fit” into society, not because a place is denied them but because they do not take their “places” seriously. They openly see its role as theatrical, its styles as poses, its clothing costumes, its rules conventional, its crises arranged, its conflicts performed, and its metaphysics ideological.

So, if my life has been about engendering engendering creativity in the beholder, I think I’ve done that, at least to my satisfaction. Obviously, the best judgments of my impact on people must come from them. Ask my former students and people who contemplate my art embodied in the works I have created and you’ll get varying answers. All I can say is my objectives in my classes and in my paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures have always been to engender a surprise and a new commitment to creativity. Therein lies some of the meaning in my life. I’ve been fortunate to have more. My children, grown women now, are the pride of my life and both creative in boundless ways. I could take credit for that, but Carolyn is largely responsible, I’m afraid, as I was absent a lot as they were growing up. Carolyn, in her own right, is a talented artist. She uses her garden as her main palette, but her skills as a cook are unsurpassed. I can’t take credit for anything they’ve accomplished as individuals, but as a family I think we rock!

That is all.

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✿This concept comes from a book by James P. Carse entitled Finite and Infinite Games, (The Free Press, 1986). Carse is a great inspiration to me, a true artist. I will review his book and its significance for me in a separate blog post soon.