The Selective Illusions of Art

“In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger.”—Camus

Continuing our review of Illusions by André Maurois, one notes the importance of order in human activity, including the world of art:

It is impossible to create a masterpiece without submitting to some kind of rule. Leonardo da Vinci taught that strength for an artist is born of constraint and perishes from freedom.

Such structure is evident in poetry and music with their emphasis on predictable patterns and rhythm. And in the works of the great novelists structure plays no less a role in helping the audience to channel feelings in what has been termed by Maurois and others as an “education of the senses.”

In this imaginary world there are conflicts just as in the real world, but these conflicts are not painful, nor are they without cure.

How can we soothe our imagination? By focusing our attention upon scenes which that imagination cannot transform…. This very certainty [in the outcome of the drama] contributes to our serenity and to our happiness.

All art involves choices on the part of the artist. In a novel not every personality, event or place is depicted as it would be in reality. Even the most “naturalistic” presentation involves some degree of simplification and idealization. It is important to be aware of these things in forming our judgment about the quality of a creative work.

In addition to the “wilful illusions” of art Maurois discusses the relationship of sense perception to how we think and feel:

The function of the brain and the nervous system is to eliminate, not to produce. Every human being would seem at any time potentially capable of remembering everything that had ever happened to him….

But all of this information would be ultimately overwhelming and much of it useless. One of the ways that a person can bypass these controls is through drugs. They provide impressions that seem incredibly varied and vivid, partly because they remove our built in filtering processes.

Another way to bypass these filters is seen in the role of technology in communication. Maurois saw the trends in electronic entertainment, nor did he condemn them. He was optimistic about the ability to transmit higher culture to the masses, such as the plays of Shakespeare and the music of Beethoven. (How that has worked out is a topic for another discussion.) Putting aside the quality of the content being transmitted, the means of transmission make us wonder about the potential dangers of the anarchy of words and images which are now ubiquitous in our daily lives.

Is the psychic impact of this multiplicity of mass media (with its sensory overload reminiscent of the brain washing scene in the film The Parallax View) all that different from chemical hallucinogens? Both ethically and technically we see a dearth of the qualities Maurois considers indispensable to art’s therapeutic effects: selectivity, harmony, and disciplined energy.

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