The Context of Culture

In a filmed interview, Federico Fellini once recounted a dream he had had about meeting Picasso.

"In a moment of deep depression," he began, "at the start of a film I didn't want to make anymore, I dreamed that I was invited to a small hut where Picasso lived. He welcomed me, made me an omelette with 12 eggs, cooked it himself, then he told me to be seated. Gave me a napkin so I wouldn't stain myself. He said, 'Never make any stains!' Then we shared this delicious omelette. I remember that in the dream, all night long, he talked to me without stopping, as if to an old friend. It happened twice. The second time," Fellini continued on, wagging his finger at the camera, "there was no omelette... I've never felt that I was influenced, or even tried to insert, a 'Picassian' vision into my films. I don't think so. But Picasso, as a source of creativity, radiating strength, stimulating, urging me on, encouraging me..."

I guess it goes without saying that we are all, in some way, a byproduct of our environments. This too goes for cultural heritage. All writers, artists, creators of any kind, operate under a level of realization that they continue, in some manner, a cultural heritage, many various strains of cultural heritage, that have been set down before them- an inheritance (tax free?) of sorts. That we are not alone in continuing this cultural heritage, and that we are oftentimes working in conjunction with, in the presence of, or at the very least in the wake of greatness, as well as smallness.

Harold Bloom, when considering this sense of awareness and hyper-self-consciousness within the specific context of poetry, called it the "Anxiety of Influence." It has been my experience that most writers, authors, etc, consider themselves to be particularly influenced by other authors. A lot of times it seems as though that claim to influence is, interestingly enough, more of a product of wishful thinking than of anything else. How can we know who we are influenced by?

Proust seems to be an advocate of the opinion that the best way to know who we are as artists, and who we have thus been influenced by, is by knowing who we have NOT been influenced by. He's certainly not the first person to have suggested such a thought, and he definitely won't be the last, but I'm just taking him as an example of this notion- this notion that we can only strive to know who we are by knowing who we want to be, and we can only know who we want to be by knowing whom we have not, at least consciously, sought to emulate.

In seeking to understand the origins of our own individual context of culture, it is oftentimes more helpful to attain an understanding of who, or perhaps what, represents, in our own opinion, an epitome of contrast and juxtaposition. Maybe I can say it's like seeing negative of a photograph, or of a roll of photographs, before one is actually developed.

While this was perhaps all just wishful thinking on Proust's part to try and solidly establish himself outside of a Bergsonian, neoplatonic tradition, it is thought-provoking to me nonetheless. I'm thinking about this on both an artistic and pragmatic level, although the two need not be mutually exclusive. How, in fact, do we ever "know" ourselves? Casting aside the complicated discipline of identity (to the wolves I cast you!), it is clear that, living in a concrete world, we learn and know concrete things, about ourselves and about others, through processes of the scientific method: hypothesis and experiment- trial and error. Why should not the same process apply to attaining an understanding of our own cultural inheritance? While in the end, it could still come down to a kind of "wishful thinking" that I earlier derided, doesn't it seem intuitive that a deductive mode of inquiry into cultural inheritance would make at least a slightly larger dent in our comprehension than an inductive mode, starting randomly in a point in the infinite abyss? And yet that very inductive mode is what Fellini speaks of- Picasso as a source of creativity, a point of reference from which emanates the energy and strength that he himself, Fellini, felt a part of... These are convoluted questions I am presenting, and I don't know the answers.

Wouldn't it just be easier for me to say that I think this hazy cloud of references and quotations offers a rather pretty background (a point of reference? a source of creativity?) at least, to the short story I just wrote.

Take it, thus, as my wishful thinking (my omelette?), my having seen James Joyce as a wellspring of creativity, a source for others such as myself to ponder.

1 comment:

David said...

"Anxiety of influence" is apropos. I usually think of creative influence as a burden, and understand myself best by reflecting on the influences I most resent. Maybe this isn't universal, but I resent and try to obfuscate influences that are so personal that they make even my private thoughts feel inauthentic, vicarious.