the artist and his doubts

In my life I have struggled to come to terms with the role and value of the writer—the creative artist generally—in the world. I’ve always had a strong creative urge that demanded expression, but when I got to be a certain age, probably about 20, I also became concerned with living seriously. I wanted to address myself to the important things in life, if I could discover what those were. I didn’t want to waste my time or waste other people’s time. And as part of this I came to worry that the whole enterprise of storytelling, of “entertainment” in general, was a big waste of time. I worried that I, and most other people, turned to amusements like entertainment in order to avoid the important issues of our lives. This worry created considerable conflict within me and has hampered and compromised my creative efforts; and I can’t say that I’m entirely free of it even today.

One of the messages that has come down the ages though is that when you need spiritual help, it has a way of arriving, and it helps very much to have your eyes open for this. My eyes are much more open now in this respect than they’ve ever been before, but even when they were just barely opening I could feel the nourishing arrival of what I would now call spiritual help. Back in 1980, when this question was causing me much distress, such help arrived in the form of Joseph Campbell’s book Creative Mythology, volume 4 of his Masks of God series. Impatient to get to the end, I bought and read that volume first, and only acquired the other ones later. I only barely understood what I was reading, but it was a pitcher of cool water for my thirst.

Early in 1979, while on a road trip in Europe with my friend Tim, I had discovered Alan Watts’s book The Way of Zen in an English bookstore in Rome under circumstances that felt providential. And when I read that book I gained clarity about my inner conflict: I recognized that my struggle was a specifically spiritual one, and that my feelings of not wanting to waste my life were exactly my desire to live spiritually, whatever that might mean. Watts’s book led me to believe that a spiritual life, for me, must be, in some way, a Buddhist life, since I felt that he showed that the Buddhist path is the one that addresses the problem of meaningfulness most directly. And indeed, I did eventually take refuge and become a Buddhist.

But in 1980 that was still seven years away. At that time it felt like an impossible dream. What was I going to do? Run away to Japan and try to get into a Zen monastery? Did I have that kind of conviction? That kind of courage? No. And what about my creative and artistic aspirations? Wouldn’t those have to be discarded in a life of austerity, meditation, and simple manual chores? I didn’t want to give up that part of myself, which felt central to my being. Was I born to be a frivolous entertainer, providing a few laughs to others involved in more worthwhile pursuits?

The writing of Joseph Campbell was a strong corrective to that way of thinking. Not only did he see creative art as an expression of the spirit in man, but he showed how all the great spiritual traditions—including Buddhism—were themselves, in their expressed form, works of art. We know the teachings of the Buddha and Jesus first of all as stories; to us they are literary characters; and their stories conform to the primordial story of the hero’s journey, which Campbell, adapting a term from James Joyce, called the “monomyth.” The important point is not that religion is “reduced” to storytelling, but that religions, in all their profundity and saving power, are products of the expressive nature of man in the same way that his other works of art are. Before there can be priests there must be poets, and the poet is actually closer to the gods in that he is the one who first makes their presence and their message known. A religion is, in a sense, a story that has been turned into an institution.

I could not have expressed any of these ideas in this way in 1980. All I knew then was that Joseph Campbell’s writing inspired me and made me feel that the adventure of my life, as it was, was important. The question of the relationship of art and spirit was still hard and dark, and it remained for me to struggle with alone, but I had received an inkling that the answers were there for me to find, to work out.

I’m still working them out. But my conviction in the importance of the artist’s role is stronger now than it’s ever been. It is a conviction that has been continually tested in my life, and many times have I stumbled and wavered in my conviction. No doubt I will continue to do so. But I don’t think I will ever feel that in wrestling with this issue that I have wasted my life. Rather, I see my challenge as being one of living that conviction, even if I don’t always feel it 100%.

For a thought has just occurred to me: that a real, living conviction is exactly one that is shot through with doubt. Doubt is the irritant that builds the pearl. The one without doubt is the fanatic, who seeks through extreme, damaging, and irrevocable acts to reassure himself. By contrast, you have nothing to fear from the doubting man, whose very condition schools him to be flexible, humble, and compassionate.

I remember reading, in the Neotraditionalist works, which are intent upon urging us to return to the great traditional religions, the phrase “the corrosive poison of doubt”. But doubt is not something to deplore or fear. It might be our greatest tonic, the Kool-Aid we all need to drink.

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