sermons

The creative power of saying no

The writer Aldous Huxley said somewhere that it was not hope of heaven that kept him living the simple life, but rather that he found a life of pleasure intensely boring. For Huxley, who relished even the loss of his personal library to fire (He said he felt “very clean” after it burned), there may have been a connection between abstention and creativity. The less he had to distract him, the more he could focus on his art.


I can’t lay even a ghost of a claim to Huxley’s output, but I can confirm that the less I am distracted by others or my own passing needs for food and amusement, the more quickly I can produce a piece of writing and the more perceptive my mind becomes. With fewer distractions, I gain sufficient temporal bandwidth (to steal a phrase from Thomas Pynchon) to know who I am and what I want or need to say, the freer I am to be haunted by the ghosts of ideas unrealized or feelings unarticulated.


This is one of the arguments behind Wyatt Mason’s latest piece for The New York Times, which severs the link between hedonism and great art. Just because some great artists were drunkards and wildings doesn’t mean that being either is the only path to artistic greatness. To the arguments in Wyatt’s piece I’d add the idea that ours in age uniquely prone to dissipation and distraction. You don’t have to walk from the country to the city anymore to access food, visual variety, entertainment, and sex. You just have to pull out the little screen in your pocket. 


And it isn’t always sex or drugs that can distract you. Most of the time it’s Candy Crush or twenty-four hour new coverage or ambient Internet rage, but it’s all still dissipation, at least for me.


Art, for me, is what happens on the other side of boredom and silence, and asceticism is a path to unusual ways of thinking as sure as any substance. Try fasting for 24-hours and sipping some high grade matcha and you’ll see what I mean. 


Susannah Clarke, author of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell wrote long sections of her book in darkness behind drawn curtains on sunny days, listening to the sound of the thunderstorms from stereo speakers. Magic, for her characters and perhaps herself, is what happens “on the other side of the rain.” 


May we all quiet down enough to hear it.