The Dark Angel

In my writers group I made a statement that didn’t go over the way I intended.

One writer had made what sounded to me was a pejorative comment about his work. I wanted to address that, only because my work has attracted a few of those, most from me.

It’s a crazy fact, but, built into many creative types I’ve come to know is a voice that assures you that everything you’ve done up to now is awful, worthless and a waste of time. The voice isn’t recognizable as anyone living or dead. One can imagine it as a dark angel on your shoulder, a parental figure trying to stop you from what could be a foolish endeavor or a way of personalizing that paralyzing fear that stops us–or, at least, makes us pause–before attempting anything whose outcome is unknown.

What the voice offers isn’t rational. We can’t possibly know if any creative effort will be good or bad, even when it is completed. The greater world of human achievement looms with examples of works that were thought to be exemplary in their day, and are now denigrated, with more than enough van Gogh’s judged so inferior as to be nearly unsalable (though one art teacher, somewhat annoyed that van Gogh would become the art world’s most revered martyr, reminded us that he did sell at least one painting) that are then seen as insightful harbingers of contemporary taste.

This is easy to grasp historically, especially when you have the biographies of Vincent van Gogh, Columbus, Galileo and so many others that provide a template for cautionary hopes. I say cautionary because, while most of us might tolerate rejection and even ridicule if a dependable fortune-teller insisted that we’d come out famous, affluent and venerated, none of us what to suffer for any meaningful reason. If Nietzsche said, “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” I reply, there’s far more that doesn’t kill you that does no damn good for anyone, or anything. Besides, who wants to gain strength or experience in such an extreme way?

That, and we can all imagine (perhaps some of us have direct experience) with people who really should quit while they’re behind. We see them as targets for ridicule on TV talent shows and so-called “reality” series that celebrate failure as process that identifies and isolates those worthy of reward. We hear of them in arts reviews where an exasperated critic asks, “what were they thinking!” Didn’t anyone in the long process by which art finds its audience speak up that what was about to be foisted on an eager public was, at best, cruel and unusual punishment?

I can’t say what anything was thinking, but I’m pretty sure that some degree of enthusiasm is necessary for creativity to flourish and bring new things into our world. Where and how this enthusiasm is aroused can be ineffable and banal. Any study of those who have made vital contributions to our culture reveals too many embarrassing truths: that great achievement was done by brutal power (one never thinks of the slaves who built the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), a need for money, an urge to impress the opposite sex, a “hey Mom! No hands!” hope to show parents that you really can succeed or, for those who are enraged by naysayers and hostile critics, a conviction that success will provide the possibility of revenge. One “best-selling” writer comes to mind who demanded that his publisher fire an editor who rejected one of his earlier works.

The publisher agreed.

What is one to do with that voice that shouts us down before we begin? Attempts to ban it, or shout it down with positive mantras, don’t work–the result of any battle with self-imposed obstacles is to deplete the energy you need to arise from the dugout, heft your bat and take your position at the plate. Whether you get a home run, or a strike out, cannot be determined. The only thing you can be sure of is that if you’re not at bat, that home run is not going to happen.

So if you’re rational, you know that the first thing you have to master, is getting past whatever it is that stops you before you begin. Putting yourself down, or putting your work down, should be banned.

As soon as I said that, I got a feeling that it was wrong for the group. I have no idea why, and I haven’t been able to shrug my shoulders and “move on.”

I’m left with a notion that I’ve had many times when I hear about, or encounter, those who are in a position of authority. It is possible that these people may use their power for inept or venal reasons. We’ve certainly encountered those who give this impression.

But what about those like the hero of “Lord Jim,” Josef Conrad’s feckless stand-in for those idealistic late-Victorian Brits who are so sure that God intended them to rule the land and subjugate all of nature until they’re tested–and they flunk the test.

Was it the voice telling me “don’t go there,” or my good sense, that compelled me to reply, when I was enrolled in how-to-be-a-teacher courses and told that I should attend a class in “leadership”: “I don’t want to be a leader. ”

And I am grateful that I’m not in any larger position of authority than as a moderator of a writers group whose attendance is voluntary. Nor do I want to be President of the United States, or any of the hundreds of thousands of columnists, talking-heads, political science professors and other “experts” who feel free to become voices–dark angels or otherwise–that tell the President what to do.

It’s enough for me to live with the consequences of my own actions. Far be it for me to accept responsibility for another.

And yet, the Bible tells us that we ARE our brother’s keepers, that is, we share a collective responsibility for those who are suffering, less fortunate and in pain. For them, I must speak.









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