The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.
That’s a quote from Albert Einstein’s book The World As I See It.
I’m John Fanning and this is the Create with John Fanning podcast.
How’s it goin out there. Hope all is well.
This is Episode 27 of my series of episodes on the Imagination, based around my book Create.
Last time I spoke about Acceptance and Change, but today I want to get into talking about emotions, feelings and emotional memory.
Emotions exist inside my body. I feel them coming up inside of me. We all know this, but are we aware of how emotional a creation we don’t even think about can make us on a daily basis.
An example. There was an old woman in our village in France. She was ninety-three at the time. Anyway, one winter morning we were talking about the lavoir in our village. A lavoir is a stone shed with a slate roof and a stream going through it in a village, where she and the other women of the village used to have to wash their clothes. She told me how the washing machine was a “benediction” when it appeared. Her face lit up when she talked about it, sighing. The thing about it that though is she never knew Alva J. Fisher, the man from Chicago who invented it. But I’m sure she would have kissed him. With tears in her eyes she told me how the washing machine changed life for women like her. She no longer had to haul her dirty washing to the “lavoir” where the women knelt in snow and sun to hand scrub their clothes clean. She described how she used to have to break the ice in winter to clean her clothes. To her, many decades later, this man Fisher’s creation was a very emotional thing, a miracle. So, when we create, we have to remember that when we put something out into the world that we will not always know the kind of emotional effects it’s having on other people. This is a good thing to remember the next time you’re frustrated with a lack of recognition for what you do. In that moment somebody could be experiencing positive emotions because of what you created without you ever knowing it.
So, it’s important to understand this idea: that when we create we give emotional resonance to what we create. We affect people out in the world emotionally, a lot of the time without ever having met them.
I think that’s pretty beautiful.
But even before that there’s our own emotional perspective. Because when you get a feeling or feelings about something, inside you, and these feelings evolve into an emotion, which combined with action and inspiration then we make a new creation.
Emotions can be the enemy too though. If you allow them to be. P.D. James once said that all fiction is largely autobiographical and that much autobiography is fiction. Creative material can come from your own life, the facts, the observations, suffering you feel and see around you. Tennessee Williams makes this even clearer, saying what we create should be “emotionally autobiographical.” It’s the feeling of what we’ve experienced which is important, not the exact visual memory of it, which should inspire us.
When I look at a van Gogh, a Picasso, I feel something. When I went to see Michelangelo’s “David”, I felt something. I wasn’t simply looking at a piece of art, I was experiencing it. Why is that? Because the creator infused feeling into their work. I don’t like Picasso’s work, it makes me feel uncomfortable. That’s just me. Other people love him. The point though: he makes you feel something. Again, how is that?
There’s a cliché in art and writing that goes something like this: “No tears in the writing, no tears in the reading.” Substitute the word “writing” with any creative act. “No tears in the painting, no tears in the looking/seeing” — what happened when I went to see/feel those artworks I mentioned above, for the first time. There’s an emotional resonance in the work, what creators mean when they say they “put themselves into the work”.
It can take years to create something, but the dedication eventually pays off if we stick with it. The emotion comes when someone’s life is effected by using your cure, by enjoying your building, by using your machine, by loving your words. People who create life-saving cures, sustainable architecture, evolving technology, books draw from almost the same emotional recall. They remember a family member or friend who died from an illness, a house that was unlivable, washing clothes in a stream, having no access to books. This inspires them to create a solution. Which then benefits others.
I’m not saying you have to go into these emotional memories and relive them all the time, but what I am saying is they’re useful when trying to understand what it is that inspires you to create. By relaxing, meditating on these emotional memories, we can feel what part of life inspires us, and whatever inspires us nearly always helps us to create.
I never completely understood this until I went away on a retreat to write a novel. I was walking on the beach to clear myself out after writing all morning, when it suddenly came to me that one of the characters was going to die. The realization made me stop. I looked out to sea, and without realizing it at first, tears started to roll down my face. No, I thought, she can’t die, how sad. It was then that I realized, I’m crying. This is what I mean by emotional memory. I had put myself in the place of the character so much, that when she was about to die, it was as if it was someone I really knew was dying.
The Russian theater practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski used this in his work, or “system”, with actors when they worked to create roles. He called it “affective memory”. This became more famous when further developed by Lee Strasberg, with Method acting. They both believed actors needed to bring their personality, their emotions, to the stage when creating characters. Creators can use this in their work by using what Strasberg called “emotional recall” or “sense memory”.
For example, what were your physical sensations during emotional events in your life? You can use these to infuse into characters in plays or novels, or document in non-fiction, or to inspire you to change things, to create things that solve problems, like the man who created the washing machine. Maybe it was his mother kneeling down in the winter to crack the ice to wash the clothes that inspired him later on to create the washing machine? Who knows? But a lot of the time this is the cause, the inspiration, to be of service to others, to help create something that helps us to suffer less in some way.
You don’t have to get lost in the emotions, simply recall the events so you can understand your characters, your story, your subject in a painting, the thing you need to create, from sadness, frustration, anger or love, compassion and joy. Creators do this every day when they create. Empathy can be drawn upon, to be drawn.
I quoted Ray Bradbury when I was talking about education in episode 6 and I want to quote him again now when he said, “If there is no feeling, there cannot be great art.” And to add to this Renoir, the painter, not his son the filmmaker when he said: “Art is about emotion; if art needs to be explained it is no longer art.” So great art comes from emotion, from feeling, something ineffable, but there because we feel it, and that’s why we look at an amazing painting, as Renoir once said, because it makes you want to walk into it, because it makes you feel so much.
Towards the end of his life Tolstoy wrote his text What is Art? where he famously got into ripping into Shakespeare and while he was at it, Beethoven too, when he was going on about “good art”. He gets into the same thing I’ve been talking about, at base, empathy, not just some confection to enjoyed, more an important fundamental of life, of living. Without it we lose one of the most important forms of communication. In chapter five of his What is Art? He dives into feeling
The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it. To take the simplest example; one man laughs, and another who hears becomes merry; or a man weeps, and another who hears feels sorrow. A man is excited or irritated, and another man seeing him comes to a similar state of mind. By his movements or by the sounds of his voice, a man expresses courage and determination or sadness and calmness, and this state of mind passes on to others… And it is upon this capacity of man to receive another man’s expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based.
And then later on in chapter 15 he has this to say:
The chief peculiarity of this feeling is that the receiver of a true artistic impression is so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own and not someone else’s – as if what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express. A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist – not that alone, but also between himself and all whose minds receive this work of art. In this freeing of our personality from its separation and isolation, in this uniting of it with others, lies the chief characteristic and the great attractive force of art.
We enter into a world where the creator infects the viewer, the reader, the creative. It’s this infectiousness that enters into us when we witness a great work of art, why we want to walk into the canvas as Renoir put it. And Tolstoy is against many understandings of what art’s activity is. Union. He prefers to call it a union among humans. They’re joined together by the same feelings. And this communion is fundamental helping us all evolve in a healthy way. It’s a way of connecting back to the past, to past lives, worlds, cultures, so that it’s a kind immortal connection, or sharing. He says we transmit all we’ve experienced but also all we’ve felt from others down the millenia. As he says back in chapter 5:
Thanks to man’s capacity to be infected with the feelings of others by means of art, all that is being lived through by his contemporaries is accessible to him, as well as the feelings experienced by men thousands of years ago, and he has also the possibility of transmitting his own feelings to others. If people lacked this capacity to receive the thoughts conceived by the men who preceded them and to pass on to others their own thoughts, men would be like wild beasts…
Tolstoy talks about three conditions of infectiousness in art but in the end it’s the last one he talked about, sincerity, as the most important feeling to feel when trying to express oneself in art. He says vanity or covetousness is why “upper class-art” has no power. Because it lacks this feeling of sincerity. Quality, he says, comes from sincerity, no matter what the subject matter.
So, if we’re to listen to people like Tolstoy, or Bradbury, or Renoir, then we have to go inside, to where sincerity rests, to shed, like an onion, the outer skin, the facade, to go further in with each layer, and observe the tears come with the release whether standing on a beach with a character, or in front of an easel with a paintbrush.
We have to let the words, the lines, the sounds transpose our emotional experience into something. Is it visual, audible? Words are not important. It’s the feelings you feel as you write, draw, sing. What are the feelings inside you? Transport them onto the page, the chords you’re plucking, the dance you’re dancing. It could be a doodle, a few words. What matters is that you put it down, to communicate how you’re feeling. This is where catharsis comes in, you release the feeling, the emotions, repressed or on the surface, into your creation. The drama, and the drama of our own lives and others effects the body, cleansing it of emotions which can lead to a feeling of renewal, restoration. The Greek word katharsis actually means “purification” or “cleansing” or “clarification”.
So thanks for listening. I started with a quote from a scientist, but as always I’m going to end this episode with an Irish proverb. Literally, this one means:
The people encounter one another, but the hills never meet (nor the mountains).
Castar na daoine ar a chéile, ach ní chastar na cnoic ná na sléibhte
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Slán libh agus go n-éirí an bóthar libh.