17 August 2009

The Creative Impulse

Near the end of the fourth narrator's story in Wedding Song (1984)* by Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), the pressures of life and love have created a sense of resentment against the still living woman whose death forms part of the center of the reflections by all four of the novel's narrators. Abbas Karam Younis recognizes his creative impulse as a manifestation of evil.
The days passed by, my agony increased, and some satanic power enabled me to give form to my innermost desire: sitting at the typewriter, I was suddenly overcome with a longing for freedom, for my lost humanity, and for dissipated creativity. How could the prisoner break his chains? I pictured a world, a righteous world, with no sin, no bonds, no social obligations; a world throbbing with creativity, innovation, and thought, nothing else; a world of dedicated solitude, without father, mother, wife, or child; a world where a man could travel lightly, immersed in art alone.
Mahfouz, 159-160
The creative drive in Abbas Younis leads him away from the community of others, away from responsibility, yet he struggles to imagine this world as one of righteousness. Of course, this world of fantasy cannot sustain him.

More than a century earlier on another continent in a letter for posterity, rather than in the guise of fiction, we see another community providing distractions that interfere with the impulse to write. In this case, the writing deigns to reflect accurately that community. George Catlin (1796-1872) is best known as a painter of Indians, but his letters remain a treasure trove of first-hand observation. I access them through the paper-bound George Catlin, North American Indians, edited by Peter Matthiessen (1989).
Epistles from such a strange place as this, where I have no desk to write from, or mail to send them by, are hastily scribbled off in my notebook, ... the only place where I can satisfactorily make these entries is in the shade of some sequestered tree, to which I occasionally resort, or more often from my bed (from which I am now writing), enclosed by a sort of curtains made of the skins of elks or buffaloes, completely encompassing me, where I am reclining on a sacking-bottom, made of the buffalo's hide; making my entries and notes of the incidents of the past day, amidst the roar and unintelligible din of savage conviviality that is going on under the same roof, and under my own eye, whenever I feel disposed to apply it to a small aperture which brings at once the whole interior and all its inmates within my view.
Catlin, 193
With the party continuing in Black Moccasin's lodge, where Catlin is a guest, he retreats behind some animal hides for solitude. In this solitude, he records those observations--even those made through a peep-hole--that would become a principal source for historians of the American west.

The scene in Black Moccasin's tipi conjures an image from the cover of a collection of essays, Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus (1986). The cover shows Stephen Tyler at work writing during fieldwork in India in 1963. Editor Clifford highlights some ambiguity in the scene.
The ethnographer is absorbed in writing--taking dictation? fleshing out an interpretation? recording an important observation? dashing off a poem? Hunched over in the heat, he has draped a wet cloth over his glasses. His expression is obscured. An interlocutor looks over his shoulder--with boredom? patience? amusement? In this image the ethnographer hovers at the edge of the frame--faceless, almost extraterrestrial, a hand that writes.
Clifford, "Introduction: Partial Truths," in Writing Culture, 1
In all three scenes--character in a novel, ethnographer or painter in the field--writing demands solitude. In all three, the impulse towards creative work as an individual enterprise is highlighted and rendered problematic. Solitude requires freedom from responsibilities, from society.

Individualism and Nation

Conservatism, we are told, "assumes the existence of an objective moral order." Abbas Karam Younis imagined such a world, but his longing for solitude, for the individualism demanded by his creative impulse, violated his sense of the "objective moral order." His sense of moral order diverges from one offered by Frank S. Meyer (1909-1972) in The Conservative Mainstream (1969).
Within the limits of an objective moral order, the primary reference of conservative political and social thought and action is to the individual person. There may be among some conservatives a greater emphasis upon freedom and rights, as among others a greater emphasis upon duties and responsibilities; but, whichever the emphasis, conservative thought is shot through and through with concern for the person.
Meyer, The Conservative Mainstream, 14.
Meyers asserts that there are "objective standards for human conduct," but these standards lead one to be suspicious of assertions that we bear responsibility for one another. Conservatism "rejects the ideological concept of associations of human beings as collective entities" (15), but it does not reject the concept of the nation. Rather, American conservatives devote themselves to a "firm American patriotism" (15).

In the logical development of ethical commitments first to family, from family to tribe, and from tribe to nation, Meyer's conservatism appears to reject only the tribe. His "objective standards" embrace commitment to family and to nation, but they reject as collectivist the intermediate step. Meyer almost certainly disagreed with Catlin's assessment that North American indigenes are "by nature, a kind and hospitable people" (7), for he saw their tribal orientation as communist.

Does Meyer's prescription for ethical individualism fail as did that of Abbas Younis? At the end of Wedding Song, Abbas has the solitude he craved, and as a consequence, he has lost his creativity.

*First published in Arabic as Afrah al-Qubbah (1981). The English edition was translated by Olive E. Kenny; edited and revised by Mursi Saad El Din and John Rodenbeck.


Mark in Spokane said...

Traditional conservatism does not stand, necessarily, for individualism as much as it stands for subsidiarity. The concepts are significantly different.

James Stripes said...

Mark, your definition may encompass the conservatism of Thomas Jefferson better than it does the conservatism of Frank Meyer, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush. The continuous expansion of the power of the Presidency in the United States by Democrats and Republicans alike (and I think Nixon, Reagan, and G.W. Bush were far more effective in this than Clinton or Carter) is but one way that subsidiarity has all but disapeared from the American system of governance.

The rhetoric of atomistic individualism as nationalism, on the other hand, remains an intellectual problem worth exploring. Having read on the same day Mahfouz, Catlin, and Meyer, I was struck by the convergences and tensions and tried to bring this across. I don't think I succeeded very well, but I'm happy there was enough to provoke the beginnings of an argument.

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