The Myth of Mnemosyne
Last year I took our foster lab to the vet to get neutered.
It was dark and early in the morning, well before I am usually coherent, and the waiting room had a couple other dogs anxiously pacing and barking on leashes. There was one tiny dog, some chihuahua breed, that just had it in for my lab. He was barking up a storm and trying to escape his handlers, and probably making them pretty happy that his procedure was finally happening. My dog, who was about 70 pounds by then, was terrified of this chihuahua and was trying to crawl underneath my legs for protection. Little did he know what he was actually there for…I don’t think he would have been as trusting.
The funny thing is, there were a number of ladies there with cages that had large towels and blankets draped over them. I didn’t know if they were catching raccoons or beavers or what at that hour, but it looked like they all had been tromping around in the dirt before they got here. One lady had wild blond hair, rolled up faded, turquoise sweatpants, old running shoes and an open flannel button down shirt over a dingy white tshirt. She had 3 traps with feral cats she had caught that morning down by the old sugar plant. From what she told some other woman in the waiting room, she had been doing this for over 20 years now; catching cats in fields and bringing them in to the vet.
Another woman in the room had one cat in her carrier, and it looked more like she was there to have her pet neutered as well. I struck up a conversation with her…and it was interesting. She was concerned with saving these feral cats, and had a bunch of plans on how to make this her mission in life. It was interesting because we were in a vets office in the middle of the San Joaquin valley of California, surrounded by farm fields, dairies and orchards. She was commuting out here for her mission from her townhouse in Berkeley. I didn’t really understand why exactly she was driving over an hour to come out to farmlands to catch cats, but I figured the exotic is more fun than the familiar. Catching cats in an abandoned sugar plant is certainly more exciting than finding cats in your garbage can next to your townhouse.
Anyway, she named the feral cat, which I think kind of goes against the nature of feral cats. But it was her new mission, and she was excited, so she named the cat “Camus.”
I have no idea who Camus is, but she certainly did. She said, “Camus wrote ’The Stranger,’ obviously, so I named him ‘Camus,’ since he was a stranger to me.”
So, off I went to Wikipedia to figure out who Camus was.
Turns out he, “was a French Nobel Prize winning author, journalist, and philosopher. His views contributed to the rise of the philosophy known as absurdism. He wrote in his essay “The Rebel” that his whole life was devoted to opposing the philosophy of nihilism while still delving deeply into individual freedom . (Wikipedia)“ “The Stranger” was a book he wrote in 1946. (link)
Camus said, “I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.’ I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.“
This is what interests me: the person who does not play the game. The game of life that fits the square pegs into square holes. The game of idealized expectations from society: The behaviors and goals that are normally expected from people in a culture, and the expected judgement onto them when they fail to meet the expectations. The person who does not have a 9-5 job with benefits. The person who chooses something different. The person who chooses a life of “else.” Not a retail job, what else? Not a career in a factory, what else? Not a person who eats at chain restaurants…what else?
When I was in college I worked at an art gallery for a few years. I was the assistant curator, and I loved that job. I loved seeing the artwork coming in, I loved meeting the artists, I loved seeing the good work and the bad work…and then finding out the meaning behind the bad work, and having my mind blown. Art is a mysterious field with mysterious people. The artists I worked with ranged from women dressed in silk scarves with impeccable hair and expensive perfume, to very angry bald potters wearing flannel and jeans. You really can’t tell artists out of the crowd, because there are so many artists out there. Not just the crazy performance artists who plague Berkeley or Greenwich Village, but deep-rooted artists who see the world as an Artist.
||The Artist sees the light through the tea reflecting the flowers in the backyard. They will show you the extraordinary emotions of your heart through the ordinary.
||The Artist sees the shadows of memories reflecting the legacy of the land. They will remind you of your father who once showed you how to whittle a stick properly; your distant uncle who came to visit once when you were young and took you for a ride through the country on his Victory motorcycle.
||The Artist will wonder what is in the unseen at the end of the road…but it is unlikely they will go to see. They will, instead, create the dragon from whose cave the mists creep.
||And a lot of times…most of the time…the Artist is on a very lonely journey, traveling up the Mountain of Creativity. Because for an Artist and a Creative, they are seeing the world through a very particular set of eyes that have been calved and hewn differently. The Artist and Creative will feel the world through different filters…and it is through the filtering process that we get their best, and worst, work. From the ordinary, we see “what else” there might be…
This is The Artist. They are the “Else” in society which makes life so beautiful.
Camus was concerned with the foundational “point” of life in the face of the “absurdity” of life. How is it possible to be worried about the life and death of your lawn when in reality, it is absurd to worry about your lawn when you are just going to ultimately die and leave a dead lawn anyway.
“We value our own lives in spite of our mortality and in spite of the universe’s silence. While we can live with a dualism (I can accept periods of unhappiness, because I know I will also experience happiness to come), we cannot live with the paradox (I think my life is of great importance, but I also think it is meaningless).”
And the reason why I bring up absurdity is this:
What is the point of Art? What is the purpose of Creating, when the chances of it being meaningful, successful, or, goodness knows, appreciated, is so slim? Why bother creating art when it is absurd to life an easy life of comfort as an artist? How can the Artist life with the duality of creating meaning in a world of meaninglessness?
I mean this in quite stark and somber realities: the Art programs in all schools are being cut. If asked, the general person would not be able to tell you what you would do with a degree in Art, let alone Art History. The career prospectives for people who desire to be an artist are slim pickings. The idea of being a career artist is a long, lonely, personal journey up the Mountain of Creativity that will happen only if the Artist believes with their guts that they must Create, or they will die.
The purpose of Art and Creativity is within the Artist and the Creative; but each purpose is an idiosyncratic journey.
This topic is the hardest to write for me because it is so personal. I might as well just write about my life and the other artists in my family. So trying to be objective about this is definitely a struggle.
But I believe that in order to raise young Artists and Creatives to believe in themselves, and believe in what they see and feel, their parents must understand what it means to be an Artist and a Creative…and what they can do with their talents, besides get fired from the Public School system.
Camus’ story called, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” said, ”The central concern of The Myth of Sisyphus is what Camus calls “the absurd.” Camus claims that there is a fundamental conflict between what we want from the universe (whether it be meaning, order, or reasons) and what we find in the universe (formless chaos). We will never find in life itself the meaning that we want to find. Either we will discover that meaning through a leap of faith, by placing our hopes in a God beyond this world, or we will conclude that life is meaningless.”
I wonder if the Artist and Creative are “The Myth of Mnemosyne”: The duality paradox of the Artist.
Mnemosyne was the mother of the 9 Muses: Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Euterpe (music), Erato (lyric poetry), Melpomene (tragedy), Polyhumnia (hymns), Tersichore (dance), Thalia (comedy) and Urania (astronomy).
Mnemosyne’s creations embody the spectrum of creativity, and the body of artistic vision.
Perhaps it is the Myth of Mnemosyne where there is a fundamental conflict between what we want from art, which is beauty and an orderly, understandable reflection of life, and what we actually find in art, which is so often mysterious, confusing and even upsetting.
Will we ever find in art, itself, the meaning of what we want to find? Is the purpose of art to placate the audience, or to be an artistic reflection of the audience?
Either we will discover that artistic meaning through a leap of faith, by placing our hopes in the Artist and Creative, or we will conclude that art is meaningless.
And that is the conclusion that so many of us have reached: that the confusing and upsetting art is meaningless, and therefore the Artist and Creative are meaningless in society.
I wonder though…if we cannot stretch our faith to understand the art just a little more. Can we help our young Artists and Creatives create meaningful art, and give meaning to their talent? Or are they stuck on the lonely journey up the mountain by themselves?
As an Artistic and Creative parent, I can tell you that I am very interested in being the Sherpa for my Artistic and Creative children.
I wonder if we could train other Sherpas, as well, for other children?