The Art of Individuation (2/15/11)

The discipline of the individuation process must be taken up day after day because, like athletic practice or musical performance, it is an activity and an art. Passivity only makes us rusty (or fuzzy) individuals, guitarists, and pole-vaulters. A path is formed by walking on it, as the Taoist says, but just as surely that path ends when we stop moving.[1] And when we stop and take up a new path in a new direction the former one soon becomes carpeted with weeds and wild grass. Our individuality becomes liberated by blazing and following our own path, but at the same time our lives are bound in dutiful service to the path that we have opened. Who else is going to tend to it—or should, for that matter? The manifestation and the experience of our inimitable, unique self is consubstantial with our path.   Because our path reflects and ‘dialogues with’ the surrounding world, it becomes our world only as we bring as much of the outside into us as we can assimilate and ‘digest.’

Shakespeare brings the wit and joviality of humanity into himself and then gives birth to Falstaff. He brings grace and modesty into himself and he gives us Desdemona and Cordelia. He takes in sententiousness and hollow prolixity and gives us Polonius and Paroles. He divines uncompromising existential probity and transforms it in the crucible of his imagination into Hamlet. He ingests evil and metabolizes it into Iago and Edmund. I take the works of Shakespeare into myself and see through their artful and entertaining surface into the process of imaginative transfiguration of ‘world’ into ‘soul stuff.’ It is amusing to hear his biographers tell us, over and over again, that we know next to nothing about the actual man, William Shakespeare, since there are so few recorded facts about his life. This is the mark of the literalist. He simply cannot see what is right in front of him because he is looking for something entirely different, and much less important, than that something which is right in front of him—the meaning-making process (and product) of the supreme poet, or maker. They search wildly through dark pantries and cupboards for the flour, salt, sugar, and eggs instead of beholding and enjoying the cake that has been assembled from these ingredients and baked to perfection by the poet. They will learn much more about cooking on their own by attending to the cake than by searching out the ingredients blended and baked by the genius. Ingredients are always easier to come by than is the art that instinctively knows how to make the highest use of them.

In the careful examination of our own or another person’s life it is perhaps far less fruitful and illuminating to focus upon the biographical ingredients—or raw materials—than it is to concentrate upon the artful use to which these (often commonly-occurring and widely available) ingredients have been put in the making of that life by the person we are studying—or by that person’s genius, his or her daimon, muse, or tutelary spirit. We do better to concentrate our attention on the growth and development of the subject’s distinctive, guiding vision and his understanding of the whole (and of his place in that whole), rather than upon the mundane details of his early upbringing, his teachers and his friendships, and other matters of personal concern. No one will deny that such personal factors and formative conditions play a shaping role in the life and work of our subject, but the more imaginative and genuinely creative he is, the less strictly determining will be these literal, biographical influences. The less powerful the guiding light of individual genius, the more thoroughly shaped and determined that life will be by collective and biographical factors.

For the true genius, such biographical ingredients will often be of little value in and of themselves, however obliged we all are to come to terms with our personal histories. The great artist is distinguished from the generality precisely in his or her ability to create a second—and significantly more interesting, subtle, and enduring—world (of words, images, melodies, deeds) that transcends the crude factual, biographical realm in which most of us remain snugly and more or less contentedly embedded. This transcendence through artful means and the transformative processes of an imaginative nature is not a mere escape from the ‘real’ or factual world of raw ingredients—a misjudgment frequently made by non-artists who have little or no direct experience with this disciplined work of the imagination and with the speculative mind which sees into, through, and beyond the brute facts and biographical data. The artist, rather than escaping from the given, literal world of common experience, selects his material (or ingredients) from that common world and then organizes, distills, and imaginatively transforms that material in order to make meaning, or soul, out of it.

Moreover, the true artist—insofar as he/she is genuine—does not do this chiefly for fame, wealth, or for any other ulterior motive, although the world may choose to ‘reward’ (or tempt) him with these secondary goods that it has to offer. He will make art, meaning, and soul because he must—because she is driven to do so. Once he has tasted of this rare fruit that he, like a gifted horticulturist, has learned over time to cultivate, everything changes. She can never go back to the way things were before—the way, alas, that things always are for many of us most of the time—quotidian, mechanical, repetitive, drab, and ghostlike. The world of mundane preoccupations, the flood of merely titillating, inflaming, and generally distracting information from every direction, the Sisyphean see-saw of hunger and satiety, lust and discharge, excitement and boredom, getting our affairs in order while we wait, stoically or fretfully, for death with the television on—all of this, when compared to those precious moments of genuine creativity strewn here and there throughout his day, cannot but seem like the most God-forsaken, barren desert to the true artist who has diligently followed his muse into a place where water flows and green things grow.


[1] Even balancing our lives involves a continuous kind of movement—a subtle shifting this way and that in order to maintain the desired equilibrium of rivaling pushes and pulls. Even to stay ‘centered,’ then, in a state of relative stillness and quiet requires such delicate and artful movement.


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