Friday, January 02, 2004

On Action and Voice

"Action in its essence, the creative art of a writer of fiction may
be compared to rescue work carried out in darkness against cross
gusts of wind swaying the action of a great multitude. It is
rescue work, this snatching of vanishing phases of turbulence,
disguised in fair words, out of the native obscurity into a light
where the struggling forms may be seen, seized upon, endowed with
the only possible form of permanence in this world of relative
values--the permanence of memory. And the multitude feels it
obscurely too; since the demand of the individual to the artist is,
in effect, the cry, "Take me out of myself!" meaning really, out of
my perishable activity into the light of imperishable
consciousness. But everything is relative, and the light of
consciousness is only enduring, merely the most enduring of the
things of this earth, imperishable only as against the short-lived
work of our industrious hands.

When the last aqueduct shall have crumbled to pieces, the last
airship fallen to the ground, the last blade of grass have died
upon a dying earth, man, indomitable by his training in resistance
to misery and pain, shall set this undiminished light of his eyes
against the feeble glow of the sun. The artistic faculty, of which
each of us has a minute grain, may find its voice in some
individual of that last group, gifted with a power of expression
and courageous enough to interpret the ultimate experience of
mankind in terms of his temperament, in terms of art. I do not
mean to say that he would attempt to beguile the last moments of
humanity by an ingenious tale. It would be too much to expect--
from humanity. I doubt the heroism of the hearers. As to the
heroism of the artist, no doubt is necessary. There would be on
his part no heroism. The artist in his calling of interpreter
creates (the clearest form of demonstration) because he must. He
is so much of a voice that, for him, silence is like death; and the
postulate was, that there is a group alive, clustered on his
threshold to watch the last flicker of light on a black sky, to
hear the last word uttered in the stilled workshop of the earth.
It is safe to affirm that, if anybody, it will be the imaginative
man who would be moved to speak on the eve of that day without to-
morrow--whether in austere exhortation or in a phrase of sardonic
comment, who can guess?"

From "HENRY JAMES--AN APPRECIATION--1905" by Joseph Conrad.