“A certificate tells me that I was born. I repudiate this certificate: I am not a poet, but a poem. A poem that is being written, even if it looks like a subject.”
That’s Lacan on the artist. Is it interesting? Certainly. Pretentious? Maybe. Profound? I don’t know his theory well enough to say. Let’s take a look at it though, as a way into the discussion.
It should be clear enough to everyone (if we avoid the discussion on free will), that anyone can choose to be what they want. It is as valid and easy to choose to be a poet or an artist as it to be a doctor or a hairdresser, or a hobo for that matter. There are no restrictions on building yourself anew whenever you see fit, and to whatever mold takes your liking. In the above quote, Lacan turns this premise on its head, and so if we disregard the previous assumption and take a running leap into Lacan’s, then we come to the question: if the artist is not a poet but a ‘poem’, then who’s doing the writing?
If you’ve been writing (or practicing any form of creativity) for some time, you’re probably familiar with that place we slip into now again, that elusive and thrilling state that is referred to generally as ‘flow’, wherein you get carried away on a kind of river, abandoning the reins of your logical mind to let the words run from some other place, someplace deeper, and that’s when things start to happen on the page, interesting things, things you hadn’t foreseen nor planned nor even conceived of, and they’re suddenly taking your text in new, undiscovered directions. Where does that come from? Most would agree it’s from the unconscious mind, that abyss of submerged memory, of thoughts and desires repressed and suppressed, the place of latent dream and trauma, buried there, seething and festering. If we agree, then, that creativity stems from the well of the Unconscious, we have to ask to what extent the Unconscious may be called ‘ours’, ‘of us’, or ‘mine’. Is my unconscious, as it has spilled onto the page, is it ‘I’? The dreams, the desires, the fears… does the representation of these things in symbolic form represent the author, the artist?
‘To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim’, said Oscar Wilde. Ignoring the circular reasoning in the statement (perhaps there’s something I’m missing), I don’t necessarily agree that art should have an ‘aim’. Much art is political, of that there’s no doubt, but then, mightn’t we argue that such art is something more akin to ‘creative propaganda’? In that respect, we’re judging the art by its intent, rather than by the creative impulse. For example, if Banksy goes and creates a pro-Palestinian mural on an Israeli ‘peace’ wall, is that art or propaganda? Political commentary? Or all three? I’m not making that call, all I’m doing is posing the question. I have no idea what Banksy has to say on the matter either, and I have no problem with what he calls his work – he’s entitled to call it whatever he likes.
That’s a clear-cut example of where the personal views or politics of the author inform the work, and I have no doubt that if you look closely enough at any piece of art or writing or poetry, you can find the personal politics, or the critique, of the artist within. But let’s separate all that (and I think it’s easy enough to do) so that what we have left is the abstract, the symbolism, the arcana. What of this? From where does it come and of whom is it?
In Parts One and Two of the essay, I demonstrated that there are certainly elements of my psychological make-up present in my writing. I think that is unavoidable. Perhaps it is true what they say, that these things decrease with time, that once the artist is done with himself he can move on to explore deeper complexes beyond himself, universal complexes, the questions that all artists pose and have done so for millennia. Because they are always the same questions, aren’t they, posed again and again, and we’re still digging, rooting around with our pens and paintbrushes, rehashing the same old concepts and prototypes, represented in remodelled frames and vehicles, but the same old stories nonetheless. And that’s OK. At this stage, however, it should be clear that there are no answers forthcoming, just the same old questions posed in the same old way. It’s part of the reason I took to literature rather than philosophy, because philosophy was always digging around for the answer, whereas literature (Art) was happy just to ask the question and leave it hanging – it didn’t bother wasting time waiting for the answer. And I can live with that. For me, it’s enough just to stay busy. I don’t need the answers. You might argue that this is mere escapism, and I’d say, Well, yeah. Sanity is underrated. I don’t wanna spend my hours thinking about myself and purpose and meaning. I can live without knowing what the contents of my unconscious mind really mean.
But I still haven’t answered the question, Who is the ‘I’? And by the ‘I’ (perhaps I should have stated in the beginning), I mean the ‘I’ in the art: the representation, the vehicle, the ‘fiction’. Well, we started with Lacan, and we’ll finish with him too:
“The work poses the equivalent of the Unconscious, an equivalent no less real than it, as it forges the Unconscious in its curvature. And for the work, the writer who produces it is no less a forger.”
I’m not gonna try and interpret it, but I’ll only draw your attention to two aspects of the quote (aspects that, naturally, raise only more questions). Note that Lacan, in referring to the ‘Unconscious’, infers a ‘collective’ meaning to the word with his use of capitalisation, creating an implied distance between the artist and the ‘I’, the writer and the source of his writing, and by extension, the right to call it ‘his’. The other linguistic turn of interest is the dual meaning of the word ‘forger’: the artist as creator and counterfeiter both, a peddler of the phony, the sham, the facsimile, the simulacrum. But Christ, let’s not get into Baudrillard.
Who is doing the writing, then, and why does it persist? Perhaps it’s in our DNA. Perhaps the questions are there from the beginning, buried below, mitochondrial-like, crawling around in our cells and our genomes, infecting us from birth. Little fuckers. Why can’t they just leave us alone? And Art, then, is us scratching below the skin, trying to dig out the itch, the itch we were born with and won’t leave us alone, the itch that’ll still be there when we’re on the deathbed praying for the end, because we’re tired of the goddamn questions.
Writing (Art) is a representation of the Unconscious. The writer (or anyone, for that matter) is a product of the same. The artist has no more validity than the art, because both are contrived from the same base material. So who is the ‘I’? Perhaps Lacan is right after all: the artist is a thing in motion, in the process of being created, with no more a concrete reality than the thing he creates, only present in the art because both are of the same genetic make-up.
I’ll come clean. I’m uncertain if this piece has any kind of discernible trajectory whatsoever. You decide. Have I answered any questions? Almost certainly not. Who gives a damn? Tomorrow, next week, and twenty years from now, some other fool will be asking the same questions. That’s why, starting tomorrow, I’m going back to writing fiction. That way, I don’t have to ask them anymore.