The joys of obscurity

‘Society,’ wrote Oscar Wilde, ‘often forgives a criminal; it never forgives a dreamer.’ To live the artistic life is to shun what is sensible, for the promise of what is possible. When you reject people’s ideals of success, they resent you. They take it personally. They love to celebrate artists by making them rich, turning them into one of them. being an unknown bohemian, however, is not just scorned, it is actively hated. It’s a threat.

Artists have always risked poverty and uncertainty to pursue their work. Today, in the age of democratised distribution, the artist risks something more terrifying and ignoble than poverty: obscurity.

Most artists are driven by some need to communicate, whether it is to an immediate circle, as with John Donne and his celebrated love poems, or to stadiums of global fans, as with the songs of Bruce Springsteen.

The demand for creative work, entertainment and new ideas has been undoubtedly helped by the internet. The need for beauty, as much as the ability to distribute it, is a welcome feature of our world’s global connectedness.

However, as much as this demand is ever increasing, there remains a widening gap between the supply and the demand. In short, supply is far greater than demand. And even if demand were to increase with every advance in technology, that demand would, as always, converge on established artists, or on new work filtered through friends, favourite websites and the imperishable voices of criticism.

The democratisation of internet means it is easier than it ever has been to become unknown. As a result, on top of the prohibitive odds artists have always faced in poverty and uncertainty, the almost guaranteed prospect of obscurity means choosing this life is not just impractical, it’s almost ridiculous. The idea that you can expect to make a living, never mind become rich, from living a creative life, is, at least on paper, fantastical.

Thankfully, ‘the odds’ have never persuaded the dedicated artist about anything, and today’s overwhelming odds are unlikely to convince a true creative soul that they should become an accountant instead. But the brutal facts about the unlikeliness of success are an welcome addition to the worries and neurosis of the creative mind.

In a TV interview in 1987, Bob Dylan said that fame was not what he, or anyone he knew who was successful, had ever set out to achieve. The desire communicate, to build an audience of like-minds, is not, despite their frequent conflation, the same as a desire for fame.

Fame for an artist is often just as bad as being ignored. Both involve being misunderstood, and both have little to do with the quality of your actual work.

Remembering his mentor and friend John Lennon, David Bowie once said that he and Lennon had bonded over the trials of fame. Both agreed that you spend the first half of your life trying to get it, and the second half trying to undo it.

All the while, your art gets lost in the noise. The very thing you set out to do, is obscured, whether by lack of interest, or too much interest in the wrong direction. The goal of living an authentic life, being true to who you are and the spirit of your sense of purpose, becomes irrelevant, in fame as much as in obscurity.

‘Businessmen, they drink my wine, ploughmen dig my earth/None of them along the line, know what any of it is worth.’ Dylan’s line is as true for the hounded rockstar as it is for the painter sharing her work to the world only to get three likes on Instagram.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that forgetting the fruits of his work is the route to God. The spiritual path does not require renunciation, and neither does it come from earthly glory.

He says: ‘You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself – without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat.’

It is difficult for the modern mind to see beyond the opposites here. Surely, forgetting about rewards and results is a form of renunciation? Why would I work for no reward? What is the point in doing one’s duty if the consequences of that duty are irrelevant?

We are here to do good work. The fruits of our efforts are none of our business, just as the origin of the inspiration is none of our business.

Samurai warriors, confronted with the inevitable death and the terror of war, realised the only way to face their fate was to manifest the highest virtue in the performance of each movement, each cut of the blade. Winning or losing became irrelevant, the only thing they knew they could control was right action. In doing so, they manifested self-transcendence, they turned the degradation of man’s inhumanity to man, into the highest form of devotion.

The artist is here to do justice to the fire inside of her. The idea that people may or may not pay attention to that fire is a depressing distraction from the task at hand. History abounds with examples of poets and artists who received no acclaim in their own lifetime. The fact that they kept going regardless of their isolation and obscurity, adds a spiritual power to the legacies of their scorned genius.

Think of Robert Johnson taking a selfie in a Mississippi photo booth, only for it to become the Platonic form for every future album cover in rock and roll. Think of Keats, spluttering blood on his pillow in Rome in a small, hot and dank little room by the Spanish Steps. He was convinced his name would be ‘writ on water’, but it is now irrevocably etched on the face of literature alongside Shakespeare.

That said, obscurity is painful. Van Gogh, writing to his brother, who was also his patron, bemoaned the suffering of being dedicated but unknown.

He wrote: ‘[D]oes what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way. So now what are we to do, keep this fire alive inside, have salt in ourselves, wait patiently, but with how much impatience, await the hour, I say, when whoever wants to, will come and sit down there, will stay there, for all I know?’

If the work is not good for its own sake, it’s not one’s proper work. The hardest job an artist ever has to do is face the doubts that come from living in a world of prudential value. The second hardest job is summoning the courage to reject the sound advice of the sensible.

Obscurity is its own reward, because creativity is its own reward. Being an artist requires faith. The odds are always against you, and that’s part of the fun. The joy of obscurity lies in its freedom. You no longer need to relinquish your creativity to the authority of the group, or the accolades of critics.

Mark Twain famously said, ‘Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. It owes you nothing. It was here before you.’

Musicians are particularly resentful these days about how hard it is to make money doing what they love. They should talk more to journalists, or better, to the poets. Lack of recognition comes with the territory, always has, and is now the very nature of any artistic industry. Those who bitch about this generally seem to be the ones who are not doing their art for the love of it, but for the glory and power it promises them.

The true artists knows there is a flip-side to Twain’s admonition. Just as the world owes you nothing, the artist too owes nothing to the world. And this is the greatest joy of obscurity.

Individual conscience, imagination and morality

Individual conscience is the foundation of a society.

Our society is technologically advanced, but morally narrow. The end result of technological thinking is to treat human individuals as means to ends, to cultivate a nihilistic, mechanised, systems-based way of thinking about ourselves and others. At best the arts, ideas of beauty, the concept of philosophical contemplation, all become simply curiosities, lifestyle choices and distractions for a leisured bourgeoisie.

This kind of thinking robs individuals of their potential, and leaves society resting on an unstable balance of power between fear and security.

Individual conscience is made up of the following:

1. Resilience
2. Imagination
3. Mutual recognition

Resilience

Resilience is the sense that one is capable of confronting difficult challenges, and meeting those challenges.

Psychologists call this the ‘internal locus of control’. The opposite of this is feeling completely beholden to exterior events, and at worst, feeling like a victim of circumstance. A resilient person, however, has experienced enough moments in their life where they have witnessed their own strengths and has enjoyed the feeling of seeing their willpower confirmed as a problem-solving force in the world.

We are not born with an internal locus of control, but personal development is about creating this sense of emotional power. Crucially, none of us has entire control over our circumstances, and none of us is a complete victim of circumstance. Healthy personality is a balance between recognising things out of our control, and recognising our personal strengths.

Undeveloped personalities lack the self-esteem to take on challenges because they have not had the validation of seeing their willpower in successful contest with the world. A child has to be brought along slow, completing small tasks, and expanding the scope of their confidence over time.

Often, people with low self-esteem will try to compensate for their feeling of powerlessness by taking on new, ambitious tasks. This often ends up in driving their personality back into victimhood, because they lack the internal locus of power that will sustain them.

If we are to cultivate individuality, each personality must be treated as unique, and development must be slow, careful and measured. Like athletes, skill and confidence are developed over time. The internal locus of control is a muscle, and it takes training.

If people don’t believe in their own power to affect change in themselves and their environment, they will never be fully functioning individuals. Replacing this agency with state agency is dangerous and is the opposite of human flourishing.

Imagination

Imagination is also a muscle. Rather than being a chance offshoot of evolutionary neurology, it is the vital advantage human beings have over other beings. The ability to penetrate the unknown, the dark realms of uncertainty and powerlessness, by constructing possibilities from experiences, is the very basis of creativity.

This is not a scientific theory, but it is an observable fact. If our survival depends on adaptability, then adaptability depends on our ability to confront many possibilities at once, and to do so in the realm of death and uncertainty.

We cannot rid ourselves of the anxiety of death. We can however, use our imaginations to explore the unseen, the best and the worst of what’s possible, and to anticipate a multitude of outcomes. The cultivation of creative abilities, then, is essential to the fully developed individual.

Through the worlds of myth, theatre and stories, we ritualise our relationship with the unknown, with the darker, more hidden aspects of ourselves as well as the darkness that exists in front of us.

The map may not be the territory, but the imagination kicks in when all we have is the map. The mark of a healthy and sophisticated imagination is the extent to which an individual conscience can review and correct their imaginative map of the unknown as they confront the nothingness of their future.

The artist’s role in society is to do just that for the culture, to push the boundaries of the possible, to confront the darkness of death and infuse it with creative excitement. Without the imagination, human potential collapses. And imagination can only be cultivated through the individual.

Attempts to control the imagination from the top-down, often require thwarting the individual in order to succeed. The historic crimes of institutional religion are perfect examples of this. Political ideologies are another. The result creates selfishness and narcissism, as the individual struggles to reassert its own experience and faculties onto society. Cultivating the imagination means cultivating the power of the individual. Cultivating the power of the individual, means cultivating responsibility.

Mutual recognition

The term comes from Hegel. Morality starts the moment we recognise the same conscience we know in ourselves, in other people. This is a leap of the imagination, and speaks to the importance of that faculty in social relationships.

The more subtle and sophisticated our own sense of self, the more likely we are to project that same sophistication onto others, and in doing so, the value of human life becomes a keystone of society.

To deny the depth of conscience in another, is to deny it within ourselves. The essential importance of mutual recognition is that it can only occur through the prise of individual conscience. You can’t rationally argue the equal depth and value of other individuals in an abstract way, you have to experience it through your own experience of yourself.

The less sophisticated your individuality, the less sophisticated your idea of other people will be. The fastest way to cultivate a true brotherhood of man, then, is to cultivate the individual.

Selfishness does not arise from individuality, but from the stunted growth of the individual. The subtlety of our self-awareness, our imagination, and our ideas of what we are capable of, turns our experience of ourselves from powerless objects into active forces of moral power.

In this way, we cannot but treat our fellow human beings as moral ends in themselves, rather than as means to ends.

 

There is no perfect state of individual conscience. This is not a utopian argument. Suffice to say that the moral fabric of a society depends on the empowerment each individual, through their conscience, and we cannot do that in a society which actively robs children of their developmental resilience, and which treats individuals as means to an end, rather than as ends in themselves.

Education is the key here, and it must be an education that gives young people, not just the experience of a locus of power within them, but the sense of possibility and sophisticated experience of self, that gives life the meaning and value enough for them to value themselves and others.

The most powerful show of solidarity is dissent

If something is right, it is not right by virtue of consensus. The popularity of a view has nothing to do with the truth of that view. The prejudice of mistaking popularity with goodness, and uniformity with love, is very primal, perhaps having its origins in our tribal roots.

Equally important to tribal unity, however, is the creative power of individual intuition, the ability of the human conscience to break free from the common habits of the flock. In many ways this defines what it is to be human. It proves we are not governed by instinct alone, that we can fight against our biology, and it is that fighting, ironically, that makes us supreme in survival.

Women's March On London

Some might say that solidarity is the chief virtue of the Left, that by dissenting from the collective one risks betraying the cause. This is, among many competitors, the most persistent and dangerous myth of the Left.

Solidarity is the ability find common cause, to see that other people, under wholly different circumstances, have their own struggles for self-realisation. Despite the differences in circumstances, I can empathise with them, because a core sense of human empowerment unites us.

Solidarity is what makes me able to feel invested in the struggles of Kurdish female fighters and working class men in the USA. Solidarity is a leap of the imagination that moves past and through the barriers of time and space.

None of this says that I have a duty to fall into line, and march in unison with anyone that I feel this solidarity for. If anything, the very thing that drives my sympathy and common humanity is the recognition of individual will versus the forces of conformity. Solidarity is a product of individual conscience, not collective thinking.

In many cases, the greatest act of solidarity is dissent. The most important thing is preserving the human ability to act upon personal conscience. Without personal conscience all morality and love is a sham.

Human rights are not the final end of any progressive movement. They are just a convenient approximation of what we need to preserve in order to maintain human dignity.

Human dignity, ultimately, comes from this very ability to conceive truth independently and to act upon our conscience.

Democracy is not good in and of itself, it’s good to the extent that it empowers us to act on our conscience. Human rights are not ends in themselves, they are just as close as we can get to making an institution of liberty of conscience.

The charge of contrarian is a conformist tactic. Perhaps the most insidious one. Dismissing those who insist on arriving at truth on their own terms, as being infantile, and reducing defiant conscience to a kind of adolescent tantrum, is a totalitarian reaction.

People tend to confuse dissent with mass protest. They think that it is progressive to join the march, to “unite” in crowds, show strength in numbers. Sometimes these things are good. One of the more heartening aspects of the women’s march after Trump’s inauguration was the sheer diversity of the women involved. It was just too big to be about one agenda, despite the best efforts of the lunatic organisers and desperate celebrities.

However, too often mass protest gives license to mob tactics. Collective action too easily becomes collective thinking. The many objections to the current state of the progressive Left are not always grounded in a distaste for change. Some reactionaries are jumping on the flaws of the psycho fringe, but most objections come down to a fear of purely ideological thinking.

Solidarity, or even love, does not require total compliance. It has become all to common to dismiss people as ‘alt-right’ because they have reservations about certain tactics of protest, and the way a commitment to one cause requires an automatic commitment to a range of other causes.

Too many people are being driven to the centre or the Right by the tendency for automatic thinking on the Left.

It has become too easy to dismiss progressive values now, on the basis of the mob tactics and conformist mentality of a great many protesters.

What will save the Left is dissent. Though Thomas Paine and George Orwell were excommunicated in their own time for showing dissent in the ranks, their legacy was actually to prolong the life of socialism. Without them, it is difficult to imagine what the Left would have been like after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Embracing dissent means putting individual conscience before ‘the movement’. It means placing the individual before ‘the cause’. Why? Because dissent is a far better insurance against delusion and propaganda than consensus.

‘Generation of the thoroughly smug’: How consumerism convinces you you’re clever to keep you stupid

O generation of the thoroughly smug
and thoroughly uncomfortable,
I have seen fishermen picnicking in the sun,
I have seen them with untidy families,
I have seen their smiles full of teeth
and heard ungainly laughter.
And I am happier than you are,
And they were happier than I am;
And the fish swim in the lake
and do not even own clothing.

Ezra Pound

We are still in a Freudian age. It’s so common to engage in a conversation around ‘the underlying reasons’ why such and such said this, or ‘the real motivations’ behind someone’s saying that.

This all stems from a vague, pop-culture approximation of Freudian thought, not Freudian philosophy in reality.

The bombardment of consumerist imagery is easier to get into your subconscious if you think you are too clever to be susceptible to it
The bombardment of consumerist imagery is easier to get into your subconscious if you think you are too clever to be susceptible to it

Paranoia, distrust and suspicion are dressed up in quasi-academic psychobabble, allowing anyone to posture as being intelligent by offering a folk-theory on why a particular event ‘really happened.’

The culture of the hidden agenda is expounded and channelled with the rarely disguised smugness of superiority, as if the presumption of the subconscious adds miraculously insightful dimensions to one’s perspective on the world.

It’s normal to speak to a member of our generation and hear them refer more than once to their unique ability to ‘suss people out’, or ‘have someone pegged’.

The worst, most insidious version of this I ever saw was about ten years ago when Big Brother was still a popular show.

Each contestant was interviewed before hand on how they thought they would fare and how they felt going into ‘the house’.

Each and every one of them congratulated themselves on their penetrative knowledge of human psychology and promised to emerge the winner of the show on the back of their ability ‘wrap people round their little finger.’

The viewers too, would justify themselves and their time-wasting lazy voyeurism by laying claim to participating in a ‘fascinating’ psychological experiment. As if by watching imbeciles bicker for twenty-four hours a day, and maybe have sex, was some kind of achievement in amateur anthropology.

This psychological cant is not just fashionable, it’s a guiding agent in the culture.

Perhaps it has something to do with advertising and consumerism, and the value in keeping people ‘on edge.’ As in the Rolling Stones song Satisfaction, there’s a lot of money to be made out of keeping people in a state of suspicion and paranoia and anxious discomfort. All of these states are non-rational states, and therefore non-rational solutions are likely to elicit mass non-rational responses – such as paying lots of money to buy useless objects.

Consumerism works on the basis of automation. The more automatic a response a product can produce, the more likely that product is to sell. Put bluntly, the less thinking, the more selling
Consumerism works on the basis of automation. The more automatic a response a product can produce, the more likely that product is to sell. Put bluntly, the less thinking, the more selling

It’s far simpler than that, unfortunately. Consumerism works on the basis of automation. The more automatic a response a product can produce, the more likely that product is to sell. Put bluntly, the less thinking, the more selling.

None of this relationship between automatic thinking and consumerism is news to anyone, and it’s not the point.

The point is rather, that we all think we are the ones immune to it, and everyone else is an idiot. And the more we think that, the less likely we are to challenge our own stupidity and gullibility in the face of marketing and consumerist media.

Socrates, we all know, was the wisest man in Athens because he knew was not wise. A knowledge of his own limitations made him less susceptible to the mores and social pressures of his age.

Unfortunately we live in an age when you can’t speak three words to a stranger without having to listen to them illustrate how individual and liberated they are, how much of a free thinker they are. Socrates would laugh.

The historian Daniel Boorstein said it well in a quote that sums up the current generation of part-time Freudians:

“The greatest obstacle to knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.”