My everyday soul plays like the wind in litter and noise. Am I soul-less? Maybe so.
I was asked on Friday afternoon: 'Are you an artist or a bureaucrat?' I have to say that, by this stage of a rather long day, wearing outwardly my bureaucrat's hat, I was rather tired of sitting in an auditorium listening to the usual shots at my day job, beloved of hack journalists in this country (who can forget the 'fat cats' line, flogged around many years ago now) and those more interested in deferral and distant academic pontification. So I replied, rather tartly I must confess, 'I'm both. Is that a problem?'
My interrogator, someone I did not know, took a deep breath (I said I was very tart by this stage) and then came out with questions along the line of, what happens to your, and I quote, 'artistic soul' - in other words, you couldn't possibly work as a bureaucrat and be an artist as it would damage your art, irreparably, I was to suppose. My next tart response was: 'I don't believe in an artistic soul.' He blanched as I continued. 'It's a rather romantic notion, don't you think.'
He appeared to concede rather than agree and then, grasping at some kind of straw, he suggested that a far older notion, the Greek Muse, was what he meant. Again, you can guess what I said. He then said something along the lines of, 'So how do you write if you have no soul?'. Now, that wasn't what I had denied (nor confirmed, for that matter), as he had been talking of an 'artistic soul' or 'the muse' not 'the soul' or the 'git it' kinda soul, but as I was about to tell him what, as a writer, I did do, my phone rang and the conversation terminated.
I walked by later and overheard the same man speaking animatedly to another man who, from the conversation, appeared to be an artist from an Indonesian background. They were speaking of art and Islam and then I heard the word 'Jesus' mentioned. Had I escaped a god-botherer, or are there people out there who seriously do believe in an 'artistic soul'? I was curious and repeated the conversation to a few people I know, people from writing, theatre and visual arts practices. Most of them softly laughed or grimaced, as though they too had not heard such a notion for a long time.
So, I was not alone, but am I soul-less? I'm not worried if I am, as the absence of this 'soul' hasn't stopped me making work which has got there to some effect. I have language, emotion, and thought (though there's a tricky notion) and the material physical wherewithal to write and type. There it is - poems happen through work, they happen in the world. I have my own thoughts on 'spirit' which I keep to myself, though they have nothing to do with Muses and everything to do with being in the world (errgh, that has a resonance I don't really intend, but I'll let it stand). What I am worrying at, like a cat worrying at paper, is that someone would ask such a question. I don't think I am affronted, I think I am genuinely perplexed.
And now, I have just alighted on this page, from an essay Italo Calvino wrote in 1967:
"Various aesthetic theories maintained that poetry was a matter of inspiration descending from I don't know what lofty place, or welling up from I know not what great depths ... or the Voice of the Times with which the Spirit of the World choose to speak to the poet ... or at any rate something intuitive, immediate, authentic, and all-embracing that springs up who knows how, something equivalent and homologous to something else, and symbolic of it. But in these theories there always remained a void that no one knew how to fill, a zone of darkness between cause and effect: how does one arrive at the written page? ... Literature as I knew it was a constant series of attempts to make one word stay put after another by following certain definite rules; or, more often, rules that were neither definite nor definable, but that might be extracted from a series of examples, or rules made up for the occasion - that is to say, derived from the rules followed by other writers. ... The so-called personality of the writer exists within the very act of writing: it is the product and the instrument of the writing process ... Writers, as they have always been up to now, are already writing machines; or at least they are when things are going well. What Romantic terminology called genius or talent or inspiration or intuition is nothing other than finding the right road empirically, following one's nose, taking short cuts, whereas the machine [the current and future state of cybernetics Calvino was speaking of] would follow a systematic and conscientious route while being extremely rapid and multiple at the same time."
Calvino, of course, goes on to prefigure Barthes' famous 'death of the author' (of 1968), by saying:
"The author: that anachronistic personage, the bearer of messages, the director of consciences, the giver of lectures to cultural bodies. The rite we are celebrating at this moment would be absurd if we were unable to give it the sense of a funeral service, seeing the author off to the Nether Regions and celebrating the constant resurrection of the work of literature; if we were unable to introduce into this meeting of ours something of the gaiety of those funeral feasts at which the ancients reestablished their contact with living things.
"And so the author vanishes-that spoiled child of ignorance - to give place to a more thoughtful person, a person who will know that the author is a machine, and will know how this machine works."
And I have this other feeling worrying at me, that whatever way one uses to talk about or fill in that 'zone of darkness between cause and effect' will consist of something out of the symbolic, whether it is genius or soul, or merely the journey that Calvino describes. But journeying, finding the way, is at least something we do, physically everyday, even as our eyes open (if we can see) or our legs move (if we can walk) or, indeed, the heart beats in changefulness as the different states of consciousness register from sleep to wakefulness. That is, getting on with it.
[quotes from Calvino, 'Cybernetics and Ghosts' in The Literature Machine, pp 14-16, Vintage, 1997, trans Patrick Creagh]