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The Myth of the Isolated Artist

by Joyce Carol Oates

Originally published in Psychology Today, May 1973

The most exhilarating feature of our present era is its energetic reassessment of its own traditional preoccupations, and the methodologies——usually the mechanism of the "rational-conscious" mind——by which we seek to comprehend and promote these preoccupations. Long-cherished, sacred myths are now being explored; the collective mind of our world is making a supreme effort to transcend itself.

One of the holiest of our myths always has been the unique, proud, isolated entity of a "self": perhaps it is through an exploration of this phenomenon that our other myths will be exposed, devaluated or given a new value, absorbed into the consciousness of a new world.

It is my conviction that all human beings "create" personality. Some do so passively, helplessly, and are in a sense created by others, whom they come to fear or hate; others create their personalities half-consciously, and are therefore half-pleased with their creations, though they suspect something is missing; a few human beings, gifted with the ability to "see" themselves as "other," and not overly intoxicated with the selfness of the self, actually devise works of art that are autobiographical statements of a hypothetical, reality-testing nature, which they submit with varying degrees of confidence to the judgment of their culture.

In other words, while the great majority of people are content to "create" their personalities through ordinary conversations, casual letters, and behavior, the more curious or energetic attempt to formalize the process. But, when it is formalized into a great work of are, like Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, it is erroneously taken to be a permanent statement. The greatness of a work of art usually blinds us to the fact that it is a hypothetical statement about reality——a kind of massive, joyful experiment done with words, and submitted to one's peers for judgment. Even if the work is not released for publication, as in the case of Kafka's uncompleted novels, it is still, in my opinion, a form of inquiry, a testing of certain propositions by the author.

Thus, while the usual reader/critic response to an important work like Sartre's is Sartre states that humanity, like nature, is contingent and without meaning, the legitimate response should be The author asks us whether he is correct in believing that humanity and nature are both contingent in the universe, and therefore meaningless. And published work, especially a vast body of work, is created by the author with an intelligent and responsible public in mind——if he is extremely ambitious, it can be an entire era. But when the conception of "self" is one of a fiercely individualistic, private, and "original" nature, the relationship between an author and his culture will always be misunderstood.

The differences between the "artist" and the "scientist" are minimal, psychologically; but we have inherited a tradition that insists upon separating them, and upon assigning to the artist a certain conglomeration of traits that are, in fact, illusory. Just as Theodore R. Sarbin traces the origins of the term "schizophrenia" and shows how mythical it really is, one can trace the terms "art," "artist" and "artisan" to show how the original conception is simply one of an apparent anti- or nonnatural activity [see "Schizophrenia Is a Myth, Born of Metaphor, Meaningless," PT, June 1972]. "Artifact" is "any object made or modified by man," and the entire activity of human civilization is, of course, an artwork, a cooperative artifact created by both the traditional men of art and men of science, and everyone else. The exclusion of the artist from a general community is mythical.

I am saying not simply that every scientist is an artist but that everyone is an artist: he is involved in the effort of creating artifacts of one kind or another which, ultimately, add up to civilization. Conversely, the artist is a perfectly normal and socially functioning individual, though the romantic tradition would have him as tragically eccentric.

However, since the myth of the isolated artist is a very real one, and since individuals tend to believe the myths told about them, it is important for us to realize how difficult, and in some cases how destructive, this fantasy is.

Scientists have always known and acknowledged their dependence upon one another. Norman Mailer, in Of A Fire On The Moon, expressed the typical author astonishment at the "ego-less" Space Program, which seemed to be like the moon itself——without an atmosphere. The complex theories and facts that goes by the term science is a vast, collective venture, running parallel with civilization itself, and not even a maddened scientist would imagine that he, alone, had achieved anything significant. Immense bibliographies are appended to all books of a nonfiction type, in which the author acknowledges his dependence upon everyone. Works of fiction never contain bibliographies: they would be too lengthy, perhaps, but most of all they are just not traditional. The creative artist is told that he is original, highly individual, solitary, and that his successes and his failures are totally his own.

Therefore, while the intelligent scientist knows that "his" findings are not really "his," but that he represents the spearhead of a process of systematic theorizing and truth-finding which may go back for centuries, the artist believes that "his" work is exclusively "his." If I were to suggest, in utter seriousness, that my fiction is the creation of thousands upon thousands of processes of consciousness, synthesized somehow in me, I would be greeted with astonishment or disbelief, or dismissed as being "too modest."

In civilization, no one can be "too modest."

The illusion of originality and isolation can be very destructive to the writer who is, for personal reasons, unstable to begin with. Though a man like Herman Melville did the work of a hundred men——and his parallel in the field of science would be one hundred men, not one——Melville himself felt he bore the burden of his efforts, and believed "himself" a failure. In the physical world, it is never a loss to a man's pride when he cannot overcome an obstacle that would require two men to handle it, but in the imaginative world, it is quite possible for a single individual, attempting the labor of countless individuals, to feel destroyed. The suicides and mental breakdowns of gifted people (see A. Alvarez's The Savage God: A Study of Suicide) are well known, and may in part be traced to a totally erroneous concept of what the "self" and "personality" are.

Because the writer is seen by his readers and critics as totally separate from his culture, as other, his attempts to establish a relationship with this culture are usually frustrated. If a gifted young poet like Sylvia Plath publishes poetry and a novel (The Bell Jar) that are hypothetical statements about reality, she will rarely receive from even her most intelligent critics anything that resembles understanding. Instead, she is praised for being technically proficient or for exploring the agonies of the modern age, without flinching from their implications. There is a pernicious symbiotic relationship between writers and critics, which can result in the destruction of the writer: John Berryman comes immediately to mind. The deathliness of his poetry is praised, along with its technical virtuosity; it is never considered hypothetical, but taken as ultimate wisdom. When the writer believes his critics in such cases, he has no course left but suicide.

Well-meaning critics praise their subjects for the wrong reasons, often; and they condition their subjects to deliver more of the same, and by implication to be the person who delivers this work, in a malevolent downward spiral. A sympathetic English critic, Tony Tanner, City of Words: American Fiction 1950-1970, disapproves of John Updike when he is "positive," but approves of Updike when he is "nihilistic," though the quality of Updike's writing is about the same in both instances. Yet Tanner, while meaning only good, is conditioning Updike to develop his nihilistic side—and, in fact, the critic is conditioning anyone who reads his book to develop his nihilistic side. This is no isolated fact but symptomatic of a general cultural problem.

Science addresses itself to objective reality, but so does art. The "subjectivity-is-truth" of Soren Kierkegaard and others is an outdated existentialism, which fails to see how the consciousness of any man is an objective event in nature; it is not, somehow, mysteriously hidden from nature. It is not the private possession of the individual just as the individual is not "his" own private possession, but belongs to his culture. What is so healthy about science is its commitment to hypotheses-and-verification, and its ability——sometimes sluggish, admittedly——to alter its vision as new truths appear. Once a truth is known it cannot be not known. If there were not a massive cooperative venture among totally unconnected people in this process of establishing truths, all of science would be chaos——simply the expression of isolated individuals, deluded into believing that each is "original" and "creative."

In surrendering one's isolation, one does not surrender his own uniqueness; he only surrenders his isolation. It is time for psychology to take very seriously the propositions advanced by all the great mystics——that the "self" is part of a larger reservoir of energy, call it any name you like. As long as the myth of separate and competitive "selves" endures, we will have a society obsessed with adolescent ideas of being superior, of conquering, of destroying. The pronoun "I" is as much a metaphor as "schizophrenia," and it has undergone the same "metaphor-into-myth" process. Creative work, like scientific work, should be greeted as a communal effort——an attempt by an individual to give voice to many voices, an attempt to synthesize and explore and analyze. All the books published under my name in the past 10 years have been formalized, complex propositions about the nature of personality and its relationship to a specific culture (contemporary America). The propositions are meant to be hypothetical and exploratory, inviting responses that are not simple, thalamic praise/abuse, but some demonstration that there is an audience that participates in the creation of art. Many myths must be exposed and relegated to the past, but he myth of the "isolated self" will be the most difficult to destroy.