23rd February 2013
Trust the Germans to come up with as an apt a word as Zeitgeist. German is the leggo language, where you can snap off one word and stick it to another to create a whole new concept. Zeitgeist is one of those words, from Zeit, meaning Time, and Geist, meaning Spirit. Dasein is another good German leggo-word, from Da, meaning There, and Sein, meaning Being. Zeitgeist translates as "the spirit of an age," and Dasein as "The art of being," or being present, being a silent witness, just Being There.
In a way, being in touch with the Zeitgeist requires a certain Dasein. I bring this up, because I have been thinking this week about the role of the artist in society, and I think it has to do with both of these German conundrums. In our age of hyper-individualism, we have to some extent lost sight of the role of art as anything but sheer self-expression. These days, if I stand in front of a piece of visual art or sit down to read a new author, I am only being asked to see the relationship between the psyche of the artist and the piece of art. The larger context, to some degree, has been lost.
Traditionally, however, the artist played the role of the chorus in Greek drama. He/she was a mirror reflecting back the action, the simple Dasein held up to the Zeitgeist of that particular drama. If you think about the writers that have endured, you will find this quality about them. They are witnesses of their particular Zeitgeist, reflecting it back to the general population. Dickens, The Brontes, Orwell, Hesse, Steinbeck, to name but a few, belong here.
But, just as a mirror only reflects what is there, the Zeitgeist resists manipulation. It is what it is and must find its own way to expression, which it does inevitably. In other words, the artist shouldn't set out to be a bearer of the Zeitgeist. The artist can only be the silent witness, and that requires a level of unconsciousness. This is why, though a part of me wants to regale against a book like "Fifty Shades of Grey," or even "Harry Potter," the better part of me knows that it is an expression of the times.
The focus of the writer (let's steer away from the more controversial visual arts) should just be the writing. Whatever else comes through will be a function of the writer himself or herself , and that has to do with his or her quality of Dasein. (Don't you wish we could just plunk for the German here and talk about himself/herself as one thing - the neutral, "One.")
Now, I read early Barbara Kingsolver with relish. "The Bean Trees," and "Animal Dreams," were very good books. But along the way, she veered off into the land of social conscience. On the face of it, it would seem that social conscience would go right along with the concept of Zeitgeist, but in a way it is its opposite. In the arts, that is. Zeitgeist is a mirror, it's not a vehicle for anything other than itself. By the time Kingsolver was writing "Prodigal Summer," she was hanging decorations on the outside of the Zeitgeist mirror. It's a hard thing to do, but the writer has to trust that what they have to say will come out in the writing without them trying to say what they have to say.
Which all comes down to Being There (Dasein.) To being present. It is the voice of the author that is the vehicle, not the issues. It is the silence within which the artist finds himself/herself (Wo man sich findet.) It is the silence that speaks the loudest.