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Art and Desire and Largeness and Everything Else

by Tim Garvin | Oct 16, 2019 | Essay 

I began thinking about how art works and got lost in thought. Art led to desire which led to what we really want which continued on until I was elsewhere in a hurry. Still, I’m starting with art, and I’ll get back to it. Which is a bit like raising a toast at a party, “To art!” Then Jesus walks in, and you continue, “And to Jesus too!” Anyway, here’s how I got happily lost:

Forty years ago I saw the movie My Dinner with Andre. Years later, as I told a friend about it, I said that it largely took place at a table over dinner, now and then cutting away, with the Andre character’s voiceover, to various exterior scenes to relieve restaurant claustrophobia—for instance a scene on a moonlit moor as people carried a coffin. Then I saw the movie again and saw that it was shot entirely at the restaurant without any cutaway scenes on the moor or anywhere else.

I had received such a vivid impression from Andre’s narration that what he described imprinted itself on my mind as scene.

This power of the human mind to form vivid impressions is a key to understanding how art—in my case fiction—works. My sister once commented that my scenes were quite visual, which is to say, as she read, she experienced the action in her interior theater in a way that resembled a movie, which is to say, in the mysterious way of internal imagination, she felt the characters move and grimace and speak. And yet, I seldom spend many words on description. I might write that the sun was high, and you could see a glint of ocean across a barrier island—and I might luck across a metaphor now and then—but that’s about it. It was vivid somewhere within my sister though. How does that happen?

It clearly doesn’t happen through description. If you go to the grocery, you see it in full visual detail, but it is not normally vivid and usually quickly forgotten. Trips to the grocery are mostly tedious. But if a novelist takes you to the grocery it better not be tedious. He or she better not report that here were the carrots, and there was the fish, and these were the colors and shapes. If a writer takes you to the grocery, it had better be to commit or witness a murder, or a theft, or to have a first encounter with a future mate. Even if your hero attacks someone with a carrot, you needn’t report the carrot’s color. (A uniquely large carrot might be worth some mention.) In any case, if you accompany a novelist to the grocery, and it’s done well, you’ll see the carrots and fish without much description, or any.

That observation contains an inviting vastness of secrets, but the main one is that the human mind is art’s best friend. It really does most of the work of creation—provided the artist offers what the mind is hungry for.

In the end, it is hunger in the audience that creates. Another term for hunger is desire, which some hold is the primordial-most impulse in consciousness. I think that too. It is desire that wakes us, desire that puts us to bed, that gets us married and divorced, that feeds us and clothes us. It is desire alone that lures us along the forking paths of life.

Desire is a big subject. It leads to thinking about what we want—the objects of our desire—and to thinking about the worth of those objects. We’ve been arguing about that, about what we can and should want, for centuries. We generally agree that some desires are better than others, but we rouse armies of argument when we get specific. Should we kill the Armenians? Yes, because they are not like us. No, because they’re people. Should we hit on girls in bars? Yes, because how else can they know we’re interested? No, because it’s an imposition. Should we throw the railroad switch, so the trolley car kills one person instead of five? Every important discussion has to do with the grading of desire.

We normally don’t bother much with discussion, of course, because first, desire is slippery and invisible, and second, we don’t want our desires challenged. Before the battle, the Melian elders met the Athenian generals who besieged their city to protest that what Athens did was wrong. The generals replied, “Do not speak to us of right and wrong, for you know as well as we that in war, the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must.” Then the Athenians captured the city, killed the men, and sold the women and children into slavery.

But had the generals hesitated, had they opened themselves (been able to) to the full range of their understanding of life, meaning the full body of their desire and experience, might they have desisted? Would a full interior discussion, integrating their highest desires, have made them realize that besieging, slaughtering, and enslaving the people of Melos was not in keeping with their humanity?

This seems like a question about good and evil—is there, however elusive, some anti-slaughtering goodness in everyone, or are some people like tigers and snakes from whom we expect no quarter? Even the most introspective snake, we imagine, will search its conscience in vain for compassion.

This good and evil business, though, this is-compassion-latent-in-all question, can be misleading, because it suggests (at least to the unwary) we might be wondering about right and wrong.

And ideas about right and wrong, called morality, are notoriously paltry, almost useless, in controlling the desire-maddened heart of man. The Athenian generals had an unanswerable response to the Melian elders—the sword. The frailty of thought we call morality was created because the experience of the higher feelings and desires toward which it points was too great a trip for most, so priests and politicians began helplessly to repeat, and sometimes violently to enforce, that we must be kind and loving and obedient to religion (where the violence often comes in). Today it’s mostly a bother to report the well-known offenses of religion, how it became, with a maddening sleight of hand, the ally of its supposed enemy, the will to power, and formed a nearly impermeable wall between our inmost being and outer minds. Also bothersome might be to recount—and depend on for truth—the inmost experience of others, the saints, for instance, or prophets, who claim to have plumbed those depths. Because if we haven’t plumbed them ourselves, their testimony can have no more force than opinion. What they say is said in pale words which can only reflect experience and not embody it. Anyway, morality and testimony often emit the stink of egoism, of proud religious, idle philosophical, and narrow cultural claims.

But ideas of good and evil may be worth wondering about. Those ideas too, like morality, are a grading and ordering of desire, but unlike morality are not a thrust-on-from-the-outside idea-cage. Ideas about good and evil mine for the actual ingredients of consciousness, for the living stuff we are made of. What are we? Toward what should we tend for the happiest life if we mean to tend from our deepest depths? What must we avoid? Only by knowing, and deeply knowing, how it is best to feel and think and behave—in other words, by knowing what is good—can we properly steer our lives. The soldier who had to chop off heads after the siege at Melos had one day, presumably, to return to his wife and children and picnics on the beach. Today, we have the name PTSD for the wrenching opposition between war and civility, but this term offers no more consolation to the modern soldier than it would have to the ancient. Killing has always been in fathomless opposition to picnicking with children. Yet in our hearts, in our inmost being, we find the will to both. We are considering this: which is the deeper will? If we knew that, we might even catch the scent of why that is.

It’s the word inmost that must be opened now, a word that points toward depth, toward essence, but also, most importantly and most necessarily, toward experience. In the end, we are seated together on our porches, peering emptily into the world, even emptily into ourselves, and wondering what is this? how is this? why is this?

But good though. A fine place to start, on the porch, in wonder. Because here’s what wonder sees: it sees that the men and women of every age and culture have felt and declared that there is something desirable in nobility of heart, in honesty, in openness, in kindness, in pretenselessness, in the natural humility of self-forgetting. I could pause here and examine what nobility of heart means, how its ripples, or lack of them, inform our lives, but since you are human you understand this already. Because it is, importantly, not something we must imagine or be taught by morality or religion or saints. We know it in our everyday, walking-around beingness.

We see this nobility of heart, or its absence, in our neighbors and ourselves, and all of us want more of it. It is largeness of being and always good. For that, humanity, however misled by thought, is always hungry. We know that largeness of being will relieve us of the insistent pain of existence. We don’t deduce this, and can’t, since the miasma of existence provides no self-evident premises, but we feel it. Feeling, however much supported by thought, is the conscious portion of desire and guides us through life, now hungry, now lustful, now kindly, now hesitating before the inner belittlement of hatred.

Oh, largeness of being! Oh, nobility of heart! Should we stop and argue? The essence of this, the possibility of that? Some do. All of philosophy, in fact, perhaps most of religion, may be described as a stopping-to-argue. But when we stop argument and begin wonder we come to this simple beginning: it’s good to be large and bad to be small. We sense a ladder within us, built by the ranking and grading of desire. The ladder is lost in the inner clouds no doubt, but it’s headed upward, this desire better than that one. We may want the handholds of theology, or philosophy, or yoga, or long conjecture about the astral world, or the consultation of mediums and gurus, but in the end it’s a private matter, between us and—to go further here is to assert what can only be experienced. It may be encouraging to give it name—God, or the Self, or the Friend—but in the end you have to make the climb.

Well now. I am presently swimming in an ocean of thought. Far away, a dot on the shore, I see the house of art from which I embarked. Now I seat myself and ply the oars for home.

And return, a bit travel-distracted, to the how of art. And find another hint about the value of largeness to humankind. It has always been art that is most prized, both in money and regard, of all our creations, because the fountain of art is largeness of spirit, even if housed in an alcoholic or tormented self. Art is an excursion into the meadow of being and a return with its flowers, however journey-crumbled, and those who do it are prized. That we can prize them, that we spontaneously do, has all to do with the how of art. Because we too, though we may not have entered as deeply into the meadow of being as they, are still that meadow’s citizens, and we recognize instantly the scent of the larger-ness they bring. We receive that larger-ness and recreate it within ourselves in our mysterious inner theater. Art can be confusing, certainly—avantgarde art, ego-infested art, disputes and advocacy—but even among those crumpled flowers something rich can emerge. And in the distillation of time and the receding of competition and cultural bias, the Michelangelos, Bachs, and Yeats remain. And we, who recognize their gifts, are their fellow denizens, their ground and harbor, their brothers and sisters. When we read art, or hear it, or see it, we understand that we too live in the meadow of being, and we long for its depth and expanse.

I think it’s good to know that and good to hear it said.

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