"that strangest and wildest of all creatures: a poet"
I was initially going to write a post about why I am not a political writer; that is, why my stories and poems do not engage in contemporary political or social issues. This seemed a relevant question since there has been a longstanding tension between art that is "political" or "moral" and art that is more purely "aesthetic". Partisans of both sides tend to disparage art of the other kind.
On the one hand, people who believe that art should express a message, whether that message be political, social, ethical, moral, religious, etc., think that "merely" aesthetic art is frivolous, unserious, and ultimately irresponsible.
On the other hand, devotees of "art for art's sake" tend to look down on art that they see as being a mere vehicle for propaganda, rather than first and foremost an expression of beauty and the human spirit.
However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized how my own aesthetic orientation (as opposed to a political or moral orientation) is related to issues that run much deeper than simply an interest (or lack thereof) in treating political themes in my art.
It is not simply that I am disinterested in focusing on politics or morality in my writing. It would be quite misleading to say that I am not interested in these topics, and it would be no more fair than to say that someone who makes politically or socially relevant art is not interested in beauty. These are two abstract poles with much overlap rather than neatly divided camps.
Yet it remains true that I lean more heavily toward the pole of aesthetics than the pole of ethics when it comes to art. I do think of it as a sort of artistic "orientation". The reason for my orientation, I think, has to do with an underlying worldview that "pre-exists" specific political or religious/antireligious ideologies.
Now that I think about it, artists who make art that expresses political or moral themes--what we might loosely call "didactic" art, especially when it seeks to effect change in society through heightened awareness of social problems, etc.--are thinking and writing on the level of ideological specifics: conservative, liberal, or radical; religious, agnostic, or atheist; and so forth.
Since, in the modern era, most politically-oriented writers have tended to come from the ranks of the political left, a common criticism of "aesthetic" writers is that they are, by default, conservative or reactionary. This is a logical fallacy, however, and overlooks the fact that didactic writers of many past eras were highly conservative and traditional, and much of their art has been criticized for being used as a mere vehicle for religious or other educational purposes at the expense of artistic quality and beauty.
The aesthetically-oriented writer, it seems to me, is thinking and working on a level that I would call pre-ideological. I am not interested here in arguing that this approach is superior, but only to attempt to explain to some degree where such writers are "coming from".
That place can perhaps only be described as primordial. I can only speak for myself, rather than for all artists who work on this level, but for me, art is something that expresses, or at least aims to express, the ultimate nature both of ourselves and of reality. Historically, the vehicles by which humanity has expressed the ultimate nature of things have been religion, mythology, and art (including poetry).
To put it plainly, art is by its very nature "religious" and "mythological". I realize this statement may be misinterpreted, so I will need to explain. I certainly do not mean that art must express a religious message or point of view or else it is not "true" art. I mean my statement to apply even to art that is avowedly atheistic and materialistic in its worldview. And even art that is avowedly religious is not necessarily highly "religious" in the sense I am using here.
When I say art is "religious", I just mean that it seeks to illuminate the ultimate nature of reality, including especially of human beings and human existence. I mean that it is "spiritual", in the sense of exploring and expressing the human spirit. And it is "mythological" in the sense of providing symbols and narratives that help us to understand reality and ourselves.
My personal point of view, moreover, is that not just art, but all human discourses, are essentially mythological. I would say that even scientific and political discourse are mythological; in fact, science and politics, I would argue, are the true religions of our time, as they have been since the Enlightenment. I think this is true despite the rather alarmist focus on religious fundamentalism in the contemporary world (which I would agree is often a problem, sometimes a rather serious one, but is not in fact the dominant worldview of the 21st century).
What I am saying is nothing new, and it has already been said by a plethora of leftist postmodernist theorists and philosophers: the notion that scientific and political discourse represent socially constructed "grand narratives", which is another way of saying "myths", by which we understand and structure our view of reality.
To call something a "myth" is not to say that it is false. It is only to say that it is a story we have made to explain reality. In my opinion, postmodernist philosophy's biggest and best contribution has been to show us that all human discourses, even and especially those we consider to be "objective", rational truths, are essentially mythological. Myths are simply the way that human beings explain and understand reality, and there is no getting around it. Our explanatory narratives may be more or less sophisticated, more or less in agreement with reality, but they always remain our partial and imperfect understandings of that reality. Being the finite creatures that we are, we do not, and cannot, have a God's-eye perspective.
In any case, I think of my own writing as coming from a place that is "pre-political". (I should note that I fundamentally and emphatically disagree with the postmodernists' notion that all discourses are necessarily political. I believe that the political emerges from something more foundational... what I have already called the "primordial".) My writing is not so interested in addressing the particulars of contemporary politics as in exploring the eternal verities and universal truths of the human condition. I am of a certain class of writers which is interested in creating new mythologies, rather than works that serve as vehicles for existing mythologies. As such, I expect that many of my fictional and poetic works will be either misunderstood or not understood at all by those who only think in terms of given categories.
When I was writing The Bluebird of Happiness, I mentioned at one point that it is neither right nor left. Even at the time, I felt this was a funny thing to say about it. Not because it isn't true, but because the question almost seems irrelevant. It is probably more accurate to say that it does not even address the left-right question at all.
I fully expect that Bluebird, together with my currently-in-production mini-epic poem, There Go The Gods, as well as most of my other stories, novels, and poems, will appear confusing, contradictory, and inscrutable to many readers, to the extent that they approach these works with standard ideological mindsets.
But that is precisely part of my point. I am not interested, and perhaps am constitutionally incapable, of being a "political" writer if that means writing from a particular existing political viewpoint. I want my art to be much scarier than that. I am digging deeper than arguments between Republicans and Democrats, Christians and atheists. I am exploring subterranean realms where all human beings find common ground in our concrete metaphysical situation of being human--whatever that means--in the universe--whatever that is.
As both a philosopher and a poet, my aim is to explore and, to whatever degree a mere mortal may, illuminate the heights and depths of reality--the ultimate things. This by no means necessitates disagreement with or refutation of any particular scientific, political, or religious narrative, but it does necessitate thinking creatively and imaginatively outside the specific stories, the specific ways of explaining the world and of explaining human life, that I have received, and to use their influence in varying ways to make stories of my own. These stories, like any writer's, will necessarily be a combination of affirmations and criticisms of existing narratives. Literature is, among many other things, humanity's ongoing conversation with itself, its attempt to create knowledge and understanding out of our wild and untamed experience.
My success as a writer therefore has nothing to do with how much money it may earn me, which seems utterly irrelevant to such a project, but rather has everything to do with the power, truth, and beauty that I am capable of uncovering and sharing through my art. I will be successful if my stories or poems trouble my readers' minds and hearts just enough that they might begin to think and feel in new ways, ways they never expected or imagined. To me, that's what art is all about, and what an artist's responsibility to society boils down to. It is about expansion--expansion of the mind, the heart, and of possibility.