The War Within

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Evan Dahm, from his publication of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, 2017, p.594

I’ve never used a journal entry as a platform for anything new to do with Time Crime 2. Nevertheless, yesterday I was compelled to address an idea there before pasting it into the manuscript which I did without committing to any of it. Which is to say it’s just more first draft stuff to edit. And I don’t know that I’ll have it in me, this business of editing anything more about the Time Crime Tetralogy which at this point, with a quarter of the year left in this wannabe-an-indie-novelist year. Still, after all the work and fussing and time and money spent on this adventure, having so far failed to garner the attention of even a single critic-influencer, I’m feeling as if everything about my dream, my vision, my authorpreneurial adventure remains up in the air, as if I’m still, crazily, waiting for the shoe to drop. Devoted readers will suffer my mixed metaphors because their share my belief, hopefully, that it’s not a crime. To mix metaphors, that is. Do what works, damn the torpedoes.

In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed. They must be for it; they must not do too much of it; and they must have a sense of success in it.[1]

This is John Ruskin, an artist and instructor of drawing and painting at a time, namely, the middle nineteenth century, when there really wasn’t such a thing unless you were an apprentice to a working master. And if you were an apprentice then you weren’t reading about how to draw or paint but rather learning by doing exclusively. So, Ruskin was unique then. But he wouldn’t be read today – his little book, The Elements of Drawing, published in 1857 has been variously reprinted, remarkably, ever since – if what he wrote didn’t transcend mere mechanical instruction or technique and speak to, well, personal mythology as I would refer to it. Or individuation if you’re reading Jung. So that here we see Ruskin anticipating Malcom Gladwell’s suggestion in his popular Outliers (2011) that meaningful work consists of autonomy, complexity and commensurate reward by one-hundred and fifty years. But then truth is timeless.

Take the commonest, closest, most familiar thing, and strive to draw it verily as you see it. Be sure of this last fact, for otherwise you will find yourself continually drawing, not what you see, but what you know.

The best practice to being with is, sitting about three yards from a bookcase (not your own, so that you may know none of the titles of the books), to try to draw the books accurately, with the titles of the backs and patterns on the bindings as you see them. You are not to stir from your place to seek what they are, but to draw them simply as they appear, giving the perfect look of neat lettering; which, nevertheless, must be (as you will find it on most of the books) absolutely illegible. Next, try to draw a piece of  patterned muslin or lace (of which you do not know the pattern), a little way off, and rather in the shade; and be sure you get all the grace and look of the pattern without going a step nearer to see what it is. Then try to draw a bank of grass, with all its blades; or a bush, with all its leaves; and you will soon begin to understand under what a universal law of obscurity we live, and perceive that all distinct drawing must be bad drawing, and that nothing can be right, till it is unintelligible.[2]

My brother the painter and teacher came to this idea intuitively, as Ruskin must have unless he heard it from someone he didn’t feel compelled to reference. No matter where it comes from, if Ruskin is the first to write it down, so be it, again, the truth is what it is and furthermore attainable by all. But my point within the context of personal and cultural mythology (which naturally contains a pedagogical and supporting psychology as one of its four functions) is to suggest that the obviously traumatic encounter with oneself and life as it is versus how we perceive it (and ourselves) to be that seems to occur for many if not all students in an introductory drawing class – an encounter with symbolic forms and fits of tears, literally or figuratively –  is indeed traumatic and not to be taken lightly nor glossed over as an insignificant aberration in either the process or the person. Rather, an introductory drawing class ought to be regarded as the hothouse of personal growth that it is, rife with mostly unhinged transformative energies – that is, with birth, maturation and death – that makes for being truly and properly alive and truly and properly on the adventure.

Seekers invite such experience and perhaps such seeker-students, whether they possess an ability in the visual arts or rather a flair for the psychology of self-work and self-exploration, or both – of regarding or “seeing” themselves and their strengths and weaknesses revealed or reflected, as if within a mirror – may flourish in a drawing classroom. To paraphrase Jung, they may swim in the waters of the unconscious where others may drown. Which is to say a student in an introductory drawing class more or less possesses the tools to cope with, endure, learn and emerge from the experience or they do not.

Can a drowning student be taught to swim? Can someone entering a drawing classroom acquire the psychological tools they may not possess? My brother, I think, would answer Yes and No. In other words, it simply depends upon the psychological (I would say personal mythological) resilience and readiness of the student. Every term, as he has described it, demonstrates the usual mix of game students and those handful, one or two, whom sink to the bottom and need to be hauled from their sea of despair and disorientation as a soggy mess – they drop the class perhaps never to be seen again.

And for those that do not a stronger medicine, so to say, is required to be prescribed than most humble art instructors, prepared as they themselves may or may not be to guide the traumatized through their agonies, ought to be expected to deliver. So that Introductory Drawing or Drawing 101, as it were, ought not to be included amongst the otherwise incidental, mild or spurious electives such as gym, or pottery or basket weaving or music appreciation – classes that are essentially impossible to fail because they are merely crafty and subjective – or, as we used to term them, “blow-off classes.” If we’re not going to retitle drawing classes we ought to at least remodel the prerequisites. Namely, discard the dismissive idea of Drawing 101 and rather offer Introduction to Art Therapy and Self Analysis 301. Open only to college juniors. Or remove the class offering from the category of art-craft entirely and place it within the psychology department. And as a required course for those studying mythology and specifically personal mythology. The Affecting Image 401, for instance.

If I’ve failed to capture the proper academic technicalities it’s because it isn’t my talent as a comparative mythologist, mythographer and sci-fi novelist. But I trust the reader gets my drift; namely, that art class teachers are psychologists and mythologists as much or more than vocational trainers – that someone teaching drawing is thrusting a hot iron into the molten soul of a student, young or old – and they deserve a higher place and commensurate support and compensation within academia. Visual art instructors (hell, include the basket makers) are risking, along with their students, the whole world within and without and precisely for that a greater intensity of care and resources ought to be bestowed and made available on both sides, to both student and teacher. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life – Melville’s sea and the white whale within it – and the mirror unto the self, all and any such powerful, unwieldly, resonant, affecting images that we encounter in the otherwise humble drawing classroom. The war within is the war we all know.

[1] John Ruskin, The Elements of Drawing, (New York: Dover Publications, 1971 [1857]), xi.

[2] Ibid., ix-x.