If by “trauma” you mean this, this right here, the this which is happening at this moment; if you mean the inability to transgress the body and escape the mind; or the compulsion for false security; or that we remain when others die—and this is the big one because “trauma” is not death, it’s an anti-death, present only in the living mind that begins to confront its proximity to death—if this helplessness is what you mean then perhaps you too can be saved by the mad knight; or at least the fact of his visions.
Drugs are good because they tend to work. There’s a comfort in knowing there’s a button you can press. The button is called “agency” and you know that pushing it will change your envelope. But eventually the button sticks, so you peck your way through the whole board, through fevers of entertainment, sex, food, exercise, experience. And one by one the buttons stick and you move on. In the end, the only kind of agency that a person is entirely entitled to—call it an unalienable right—is the agency of their own imagination.
What’s the point of having an imagination? It’s clearly a mixed blessing. For every cool metaphor braided through a dream-catcher there are 30 preachers who’ve glimpsed the galloping horses. The superiority of art over religion lies in art’s willingness to ironize the fissure between metaphor and experience and in so doing be willfully obscure, ridiculous, roundabout; and not overtly spiritually useful. All art is quite useless, right? Is anybody who truly cares about looking at and making pictures willing to forgo the (admittedly faith-based) premise of art for art’s sake? For what? The evolutionist’s premise that art is mainly about virility and status, that it all boils down to the birds fucking beneath the collage of purple leaves? Clearly people (and institutions) do and are content to instrumentalize art as an agent of propaganda, humanism, or post-industrial economic revitalization. But what exactly does “useless” in this case mean? A distinction might be drawn between an assertion that art is useless vis-à-vis the effort to politicize or monetize it versus a renewed possibility that art is subversively useful after all. The Chinese knew their philosopher stones were useful in that—like readymades—they were occasions for us to exercise our agency as sentient beings who produce, project, and affix meanings to the stuff of the world, not because the world is helpless and waiting for our rationalizations of it (nature doesn’t have any patience or use for interpretation) but because producing meaning is what we as humans do to counter the trauma of our own helplessness. In the epoch of psychology it might be called “coping.” How else can we expect a person to not merely endure but to redeem such manifestly meaningless experiences as a horrible job, a dead kid, old age, the unfathomable alienation of being a woman or a man or neither, etc., if not for the solacing effect of curious creativity. The windmill hallucinations saved Don Quixote. It’s not that they were clear sighted, but they were rousing. They moved him along and made the case—if only to him—that to envision is to be engaged. And in so doing they enacted the drama that was his life.
Before we succumb to the sentimental weeping that is humanism, it’s important to acknowledge the limits of what art can accomplish. Paintings won’t eliminate poverty tomorrow or ever. Poetry will not snuff out corruption tomorrow or ever. As Bolaño wrote when he was about to die, “Literature + Illness = Illness.” Let’s not pretend that redemption is ever complete or even likely. Death gulps everyone up into a place without cultural centers, HBO, or the Great Books. Art is about here in the present and not eternity. Like Kenneth Burke said, it’s equipment for living. I always like to remind myself that in the end Don Quixote sold out his visions. Or more accurately he used them until he didn’t need them anymore. Then he recanted them on his deathbed.
ContributorJames English Leary
JAMES ENGLISH LEARY is a painter and movie producer based in New York City.