Thursday, 7 March 2013

If only life were like Art by Bill Kirton


For this blog to make sense I need first of all to set out my religious beliefs. But don’t worry, I don't have any. I care about people but I have no time for the artificial systems they’ve created to promote the self-interest of a particular caste or segment of society. I'm not knocking any specific religion but hierarchies which peddle the idea of delayed gratification to the people they’ve subjugated make me angry. When people are suffering in this life, why make it even worse by promising that the next one will be better? I don’t expect many of the people reading this will share what seems a bleak perception and they probably won’t even have read this far. But, however it appears, it's not my intention to alienate them or get into religious debate. I recognize their right to their own opinions, and that their beliefs are as valid as my absence of belief. This is just the background for the main point I want to make.

For me life is absurd – hugely enjoyable but absurd. It has no purpose, point, direction. This ‘now’ in which I'm tapping these words out on these keys, has no link with the ‘now’ when you're reading them. Like the elements of every other ‘now’, they’re contingent, self-contained. There are those who find such a position impossible; they need to feel that they’re following a path and that there’s a destination. They assume that life without meaning is unbearable, empty. On the contrary, for me it’s liberating. It means I see just how precious it is, how lucky I am to have benefited from the accident of birth and how I intend to make the most of it. A melody or a sunset or a kiss doesn’t have to have meaning to make it pleasurable.

But activities such as games, sports or the arts do have meaning. They follow their own rules, have conclusions, resolutions – they have the good, old-fashioned beginnings, middles and endings. Each match, symphony, play, novel sets out its themes, its contrasts, then plays them out against or with one another. And, of them all, it’s the written word which brings it all closest to ‘reality’. (This isn’t comparing and contrasting the different art forms – it’s just that words are so definite and relate specifically to our everyday world in a way that musical notes or brush strokes don’t.) And, thanks to that, they give us the illusion of structure, meaning.

Depending on your own position on all this, it may seem self-evident (or crap). I’m only bothering to say it all because, in the course of writing five novels about a particular detective (Don’t worry, this isn’t a promo), I’ve become aware of things that may have been there subconsciously all along but which have become more evident as I start thinking about the sixth. You see, I now know that this one will be the last in the series – not because I’m tired of the characters, but because it seems to me that there’s an obvious consistency and progression through the sequence which will lead to an inevitable conclusion. I’m not making any great claims to have created a modern Comédie Humaine but we all, to a greater or lesser degree, do use our fictions to impose structure on the void. In this particular case, the cumulative effect of the main character’s experiences will lead to him making a choice that’s logical but simultaneously incompatible with his function. Basically, he’s had enough and can’t reconcile himself to the hypocrisy and falsity of the public morality which the law (and he, as its representative), is supposed to uphold.

The beauty (or curse) of not believing in anything, of course, is that these present words may bite me on the bum when the sequence doesn’t turn out as I’m anticipating it will. That’s the nature of absurdity. My main point, though, is that when we’re creating our fictions we’re taking a time-out from arbitrariness and contingency and, in a corny way, cheating them. We’re making a wee universe in which rules are obeyed, sins are punished (or not) and the final full stop comes where (God-like) we choose to put it, not at some arbitrary point as we’re crossing the road or eating a pretzel or lying oblivious to the probings of the surgeon’s scalpel. Taken to its logical conclusion, this implies that our best reality is the fictions we enjoy as readers and writers. What a pity that life doesn’t imitate art.

15 comments:

Lee said...

Well, I'll come down on the 'crap' side, Bill. There's no such thing as not believing in anything. A belief system may be religious or secular, conscious or not, but it exists and underlies most if not all the choices a person makes.

Chris Longmuir said...

Always knew you were a bit of a philosopher, Bill!

Reb MacRath said...

Bill, you're headed for an exquisite, and absurd, disappointment: just as you put Paid to this series, it will catch on in a big way with readers--and you'll have no say in the matter, you'll simply have to write five more.

Bill Kirton said...

I strongly suspect that you're in the majority, Lee.
And Chris, what do you mean 'a bit of'?

Bill Kirton said...

Reb, just to confirm the absurdity of my position, if they pay me enough, I will.

Dennis Hamley said...

I'm 90% on the crap side, Bill: the left-over bit is a sort of insurance policy in case I'm wrong.. There is a structure in art: that's what it's for even if we can't at first see for ourselves what it is. There's a different world with its own laws in music and painting. I hear it in Beethoven and see it when I watch Kay, my partner, paint. But our art-form does it best: makes separate worlds in words, with structure which tries to give order to the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart and give form to the logic, if it is there, of events and character. And yes, we know when our structure is complete - or at least when the time has come to abandon it for the moment. Reb may be right: not only will the money lure you back but your main character may visit you in the night and say 'Hold on, Bill, I'm not finished yet, despite what I told you before.'

Bill Kirton said...

Yes, Dennis, that's what I mean - in their different ways the arts, unlike life, do offer recognisable, meaningful structures. They marshal the knowledge you need to confirm a belief. (NB, not necessarily a belief SYSTEM since the knowledge relates only to the specific circumstances of that particular piece of art.)

And, while it's never occurred to me to think I was a disciple of my main character, I recognise the truth of what you say about his possible nocturnal visit.

Lydia Bennet said...

You may well find the series changes as you write it, just as individual books do, Bill. And of course you can always start a new series, a spin-off perhaps so one of your subsiduary characters gets the limelight! Crime fiction in particular creates the reassurance that here at least, there is a resolution, and bad people get punished or at least found out, which is why attempts by crime writers to be 'edgy' by not ending properly are very annoying (debating this on fb at the mo!)

CallyPhillips said...

The destination is in the journey, Bill. But that may not mean anything to you.
I think, in life as in art, we put the meaning in there. We make the meaning. I quote from 'A beautiful mind' 'Life - activities available, just add meaning'

(Chris, Bill is an existential philosopher - I on the other hand am a fully paid up moral philosopher of more analytical tradition) Thus he says life is absurd and I say, life is absurd but we make it mean something (if we choose) For most people they want the meaning given to them, for some of us we're happy to create our own meaning. Is that life reflecting art?

Bill Kirton said...

Ooops Lydia, better stay clear of my books then. Yes, the crimes get solved but I resist the idea of 'OK that's that then. God's in His heaven, all's right with the world'. In fact the 'arc' (I hate the word) of the character I'm talking about made a definite shift in the 3rd book, which really questioned popular conceptions of right and wrong. I don't do it to be edgy but because neatly tying up all threads seems ... well ... unreal.

Bill Kirton said...

I don't think we're at odds, Cally. I certainly contrive my own meanings and significances from things that happen to me, but they're solipsistic, contingent and temporary and I wouldn't dream of extrapolating from them to suggest they signify anything to anyone else.

And, despite the nature of this posting and my replies, I'm flattered (and terrified) to be given the label 'philosopher'. Yes, I find the existentialists come closest to 'explaining' things in a way that makes sense to me but if I had to stand up and debate these things with you, you'd make mincemeat of me, as would most people with any sort of faith. My own lack of faith isn't nihilistic, I love life and I'm having a great time.

Lydia Bennet said...

I meant crime novels that shirk the resolution of the crime/puzzle to be edgy Bill, not nec a 'happy ending' or whatevs. Donna Tartt's 2nd novel a case in point.

Lee said...

' I certainly contrive my own meanings and significances from things that happen to me, but they're solipsistic, contingent and temporary...'

You contrive your meaning from several thousand years of history - social, moral, political, spiritual etc. To think that you do it on your own is in itself absurd.

CallyPhillips said...

Faith? What faith? Is it an act of faith to say that we create meaning? I don't think so. I don't think I have faith in anything, just a belief that whether there is any external objectivity (or even reality) isn't for me to say. As in Brand Loyalty 'reality is what we choose to believe) but we all do make choices. I choose to make meaning. Philosophy isn't based on faith it's based on reason, or at least an attempt at rational discourse. Faith is for religious people of which I'm definitely not one!

Bill Kirton said...

Glad we're in agreement, Lydia. I'm not a Donna Tartt fan, though, so I can't comment there.

Cally, see what I mean about mincemeat? In contexts such as this I use words too loosely. In fact, despite tagging the 'most people' bit on, I wasn't associating you with any faith, certainly not anything religious.