(for Mike Powell)In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
I have thought for what
feels like years now that one of the sufficient but not necessary components of great art is a particular feeling of shock. Not the tedious obscenities that ruffle our mores and feathers but the shock of coming around a corner and suddenly seeing yourself, that intense feeling of denial and unreality and estrangement that only deepens as the appearance of the other sinks into your eyes and it becomes more and more apparent that you were not mistaken, that it is yourself
in front of you; but just as that last clause does not, cannot make any sense so the shock doesn't lessen but spreads throughout your body and thickens like cold.
There are three basic varieties of this strange recognition: the first, least powerful and most common variety consists of seeing your words come from another, without quotation. The line separating trivial examples of this from those that make you pause for a second is watery and shifting constantly; this is the sort of thing that makes people faux-bond at parties over drinks. Maybe it's about something unimportant, like politics or sports teams or the weather. Usually there is very little to give you pause, your reaction is more "hey, that's what I think!" than "...what the hell?"
The second consists of hearing your own thoughts (not words) reflected back by another, but perfected; maybe it's something you yourself were struggling to articulate, piecemeal, suddenly emerging fully formed and beaming from the pen of another. It's easier to spot in writing than in talking, and when you do spot it the world tilts on its axis for a moment. It's a (mostly) pleasant sensation, one of the strongest you're likely to feel just by reading something; the statement in question just feels right
, ineffably so, something that you yourself believe to your very core. But it's not coming from your mind. You exist for a brief interval outside of your body, where we all assume we're located (Damien Hirst: "I remember once getting really terrified that I could only see out of my eyes. Two little fucking holes. I got really terrified by it."), and the vertigo is deafening. It's not actually so weird when you think about it for someone else to have the same opinion as you do, but this phenomenon is more than that, or at least feels that way. Sometimes it is
something you might have eventually said yourself, sometimes something you probably wouldn't have been able to articulate this way, for whatever reason. In either case, you no longer feel like just a person. I've had this happen a number of times with other Stylus writers, one of many reasons I'm glad I write there and not elsewhere; in their reviews or on the message board the other staff consistently make me feel like someone's
sharing my mind.
Some superstitious part of me feels that when I stumble onto something that affects me so powerfully, that takes me out of myself and only lets me back in with the knowledge that someone else out there is existing at least partially the same way I do (the central tragedy of solipsism: Every human being at some point forgets that someone else has felt the exact way they do), that surely the other party can feel... something. Someone "walking over their grave", or anything. Which I'm sure isn't true, but the thought keeps creeping in. Whether or not this ever happens, the fact is that this kind of great art reminds us that the notion of a self is an illusion (thank you Bhagavad Gita
, thank you Parmenides, thank you always Spinoza, thank you Schopenhauer, thank you eternally recurring Nietzsche, thank you Borges!), much as another kind of great art reminds us of and consoles us with our mortality. People tend to find this kind of anti-solipsism either terrifying or blissful, but the fact is that every time you read or hear someone completing your thoughts this way, that vertigo you feel is accompanied by the eternal presence of unity and that shock is partly at the way Being intrudes into our existence.
Great art often leaves you gasping; like a gut-punch, like a kiss, like a stiff wind. The kind of art that knocks us out of ourselves, no matter how transiently, can leave you feeling weak and fetal and breathing for the first time, lungs still damp with amniotic fluid. But the third kind of this branch of great art is even more powerful, and one I've only really experienced once: Again, our thoughts are articulated and perfected by others, but this time it's a thought you did not have, did not realise you could
have, until you saw it elsewhere.
All of this may sound a bit over-serious to discuss what is, ultimately, Mike Powell talking about his conflicted feelings about loving the Clipse
. But what he did there, completely without knowing he was doing it or meaning to do it, was to say something true about me that I didn't know was true until he said it, something I wasn't even beginning to fumble towards, something that sets my own thoughts about the topic (how do I reconcile my love for some rap with the contents of the music?) on a completely different path. It was as if Mike and I had sat down over a couple of beers and he had intently and adroitly drawn out of me a long conversation on the topic, circumspectly gathering information on how I actually felt, aware of it or not, only to finally spring his trap and say "aha, this is why you feel this way!" Only we never had that conversation.
The impact of this sort of art, then, is just the same as the second, only it is coupled with an epiphany (An epiphany: When you have an intellectual revelation and an emotional revelation about the same thing at the same time.). Mike and I come at music from wholly different contexts, we have broadly different tastes, and yet there is something about our loves which is unified enough that he can unwittingly divine a hidden quality in myself as well as in himself this easily:I want to palm the nut without art or nuance; I want to crack the nut without remorse. I watch
Scarface and like it fine, but why did it take me so long to realize that enjoying
We Got it 4 Cheap is basically the same thing? Am I dense? Do I really have that much faith in music? Why does music polarize me on moral grounds before I can always let the art of it seep in?
My question shouldn't, can't be "why do I hold rap to a higher moral standard than rock?" (especially since I've never been convinced I do), but rather "why do I hold music to a higher standard than movies, or literature?", and I almost certainly would have never realised that without Mike or someone like him coming along. It always takes you aback when someone sees deeply into you and, seemingly ex nihilo, says something that sums up a piece of your self; when someone does it accidentally while talking about their
self, the jolt is intensified and multiplied in on itself.
There is the same trauma of estrangement from your self here that there was with the second type of art discussed here, but coupled with it is a shift in your mind once you return and begin tentatively trusting in your individuality again. This type of writing manages to combine, for you (because really, you can't expect this sort of thing to be repeatable), the revelation and seismic change that occurs when someone else spurs your mind into a new angle with the bodiless shock of recognizing yourself in the other, and so recognizing (however fleetingly) the falsity of the self and the other. On the one hand, it again makes sense that someone else would happen to write something that has this effect on you, but on the other the human lust for miracles arises again, insists that coincidence alone cannot supply this kind of power, this kind of revelation (GK Chesterton: "Coincidences are spiritual puns"). But that first sad, sober assessment which would deny the power of these moments neglects to notice that whether the impact of this kind of art is down to coincidence or not, it exists
. It exists, and that is enough; enough to read and experience everything you can to catch it again, enough to forever remember that moment at work when you clicked on what was just another link and the truth hit your eyes from miles and minds away.This felicitous supposition declared that there is only one Individual, and that this indivisible Individual is every one of the separate beings in the universe, and that these beings are the instruments and masks of divinity itself.
Jorge Luis Borges, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"A comprehended God is not God.
John ChrysostomAs I regained consciousness I felt so sorry I had a body and a mind suddenly realizing I didn't even have a body and a mind and nothing had ever happened and everything is alright forever and forever and forever, O thank you thank you thank you.
Jack Kerouac, The Scripture Of The Golden Eternity