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Earlier, @iwe wrote on desire and creativity as a holy act, on how humans are called, not to pagan imitation of nature, but to make things entirely new. And yet, for many of us, learning to imitate nature seems a necessary part of artistic discipline. Most conservatives are unlikely to be impressed, to put it mildly, by painters and sketchers without good observational-drawing skills. Music and literature, too, benefit from observant imitation of the natural world. Neither the sound of the sea nor the sight of the Milky Way could be imitated exactly in a song or poem, of course, but an artist may find that the only reason a work of his exists is because he attempted to record these natural features faithfully.
Matsuo Basho wrote a haiku sandwiching an island between the turbulent sea and the River of Heaven – the Milky Way. Music for that haiku might spring from hearing, over and over, the relentless beat of waves in your head, from the desire to imitate that sound, the desire to imitate, sonically, the frosty light of so many stars, to imitate nature’s creation of a beautiful dark thing:
Putting that into music feels like imitation of nature, but of course it is not. It could not be. And yet, preceding as if it were mere imitation of nature produced a thing entirely new. Not entirely new in every way. The music clearly owes a debt to previous composers, as well as to Basho. But new in that nobody could have forecast that that would be the result of the imitative intent that motivated it. The new thing had to be discovered through an attempt at imitation.
Wallace Stevens, in The Idea of Order at Key West, observes that human song in imitation of the sea nonetheless goes “beyond the genius of the sea”, imposes an order upon the sea that the sea by itself could never have. More than one poetess has wished, no doubt, to be the woman described in the poem, so that “when she sang, the sea, / Whatever self it had, became the self / That was her song, for she was the maker.” But perhaps the power to be the maker is not that special, not special because that’s just what human creativity is.
The narrator and his companion find that, after witnessing the song, the everyday lights of civilization, little human lights often overlooked as unremarkable, “Master the night and portion out the sea, / Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles, / Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.” The humble jigsaw of human ownership leaves the night an even more beautiful dark thing. No one who lit those lights intended to deepen the night, it’s just what happens with human lights, just for being human.
Individuality is a prized feature of art – too prized, a lot of conservatives would say. Even so, when we believe that “When someone invests in creating a poem or a piece of music or art, that creator has invested their soul into that object,” of course the result is individualized – how could it not be?
Artists building and curating a brand for themselves obviously must think explicitly of the individuality they’re establishing, but what grabs me is how much our individuality is exposed in work not consciously intended to be anything more than mere imitation of nature. When we strive to imitate the sound of the sea, when our humble, little lights imitate the stars, we leave a human mark on the sea and the night, as if being human means having the power to re-create them into something beyond themselves even by merely imitating them.
The eclipse, that beautiful dark thing, is likely to be grist for many a maker’s mill.
Written on the eve of the 2017 eclipse.