Can a child be raised to be creative, to have the courage to take risks, and to be experimental? Or can children only acquire these qualities on their own? How much does upbringing matter? Does “the muse” affect only some people, not others? Is the creative process fueled by desire and ambition? Skill? Luck? DNA? Or a combination of these and other factors, in varying proportions? The word "experiment" comes from the Old French esperment, meaning "practical knowledge, cunning, enchantment, magic spell." What motivations cause one to explore like a shaman?
Jane (Wodening) Brakhage's 2015 book, Brakhage's Childhood
(http://www.granarybooks.com/book/1181/Jane_Wodening_Brakhage+Brakhages_Childhood/) is a fascinating look into these questions and more. The book is the culmination of many years of interviews between the author and her husband, experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage (1933-2003), about his early life. As the editor and organizer of the stories he told, she writes, "This is a biography of a child, taken from the memory of that child grown up. . . . Stan and I worked a lot in his medium. This time, we worked together in my medium." The result is a provocative study of the roots of creativity.
When Marshall McLuhan was asked, "How to study media?" he responded, "Study language." Many artists link their early memories of creativity with the development of language. For example, Randy Newman's father saw his son's “strange, bitter lyrics” as a response in language to “the ophthalmic problems he suffered in his youth" (Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, Financial Times, October 28, 2015). And the avant-garde jazz trombonist Rosewell Rudd recalls a childhood memory: “It was a spontaneous thing. Suddenly a clarinet player shows up. Then a guy’s playing piano. My father’s on the drums over there. People start dancing, you hear laughter bursting out, and all kinds of conversation. That sound is what is still in me, and it seems to be inexhaustible” (New York Times, November 13, 2015). Stan Brakhage would have appreciated these associations, linking his own genius for experimentation back to an early fascination with the word. "Language is wonderful,” he wrote. “I mean, I'm a frustrated poet myself. That's what I wanted to be since I was nine years old."
Brakhage was clearly interested in the way that other artists have translated their early experiences into language. Discussing the poem "A Dream within a Dream" by Edgar Allen Poe, Brakhage said on his radio show,
There's a story behind this poem. It's embedded within the poem and it has to do with young Edgar Allen Poe, about three years old, watching the death of his mother from tuberculosis, in a terrible slum dwelling, basement dwelling, where she had no chance to beat the disease. She was a theatrical person, an actress in fact, and always dressing herself up in ways to be other people, to entertain the children, as that's the only entertainment young Poe and his sister had. And her death, then watching her being carried away, had upon him an extraordinarily different sense than death does hardly at all for children today from whom it is hidden. One, it was clear, her death, her being gone; two, what was she that had gone? Here's stanza two [quoting Poe]: 'I stand amid the roar of a surf-tormented shore, and I hold within my hand grains of the golden sand. How few yet how they creep through my fingers to the deep, while I weep, while I weep! O God, can I not grasp them with a tighter clasp? O God, can I not save one from the pitiless wave? Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?' [end quote]. Everything has a story behind it, like we say, but also within it. (Transcribed by Fred Camper).
Through this appreciation of Poe’s poem, Brakhage suggests that for the creative person, art becomes a way of getting at that story behind and within the story—a means of understanding and capturing powerful emotions, beginning with early memories. And he further seems to be saying that to give our careful, thoughtful attention to a work of art deepens our own creativity and returns us to a state of childlike receptiveness. In a similar way that Pauline Kael proclaimed, "I am still a child before a moving image," and then proceeded to write about movies at length and in detail, Stan Brakhage would say, “Let the work speak for itself,” and then talk for two hours about it.
Brakhage discussed hypnagogic (closed eye) vision as being like a child seeing the world for the very first time—disorientated, but in awe. In this approach, he was influenced by Rimbaud, who attained poetical transcendence or visionary power through a "long, intimidating, immense and rational derangement of all the senses. The sufferings are enormous, but one must be strong, be born a poet, and I have recognized myself as a poet." Rimbaud wrote at length on this topic of what it takes to be a visionary:
I'm now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I'm working at turning myself into a seer. You won't understand any of this, and I'm almost incapable of explaining it to you. The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet. It's really not my fault. . . . I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessences. This is an unspeakable torture during which he needs all his faith and superhuman strength, and during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed–and the great learned one!–among men.–For he arrives at the unknown! Because he has cultivated his own soul– which was rich to begin with–more than any other man! He reaches the unknown; and even if, crazed, he ends up by losing the understanding of his visions, at least he has seen them! Let him die charging through those unutterable, unnameable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed!
By saying that one “must be a seer, make oneself a seer,” Rimbaud speaks to the question of whether a poet is born or made, by answering, in essence, “both.” In his films, Brakhage pursued this charge into the unknown that Rimbaud described. As Fred Camper wrote, "To the manipulativeness and star worship of mainstream movies, Brakhage counter-offers films that distance one from both affections and objects, that turn the by now ritualized movie-viewing process from an answer back into a question, a question directed at each spectator. And in so doing, he becomes a poet of freedom."
In this extreme visionary mode of art, where freedom is the object, the function of artists becomes inseparable from the way they come to be. Joseph Campbell calls the "artists" of today the equivalent of shamans of past societies. He said, "The new vision of the universe, it must be kept alive. The only people who can keep it alive are artists. His function is the mythologization of the environment and the world." Campbell, too, links this function back to experiences in childhood. He continues, “The shaman is the person who has in his late childhood and early youth (could be male or female) had an overwhelming psychological experience that turns them totally inward. The whole unconscious has opened up and they have fallen into it. And it’s been described many, many times and it occurs all the way from Siberia right through the Americas down to Tierra del Fuego. It’s the kind of schizophrenic-crackup-shaman experience."
Brackhage himself saw the artistic nature of something one was born with, but that exists in all of us. In the thought-provoking 1997 interview by Philip Taaffe, Brakhage talked about DNA encoding:
They had little cut-out silhouettes of hawks and sparrows, and then they had little chicks who never did see their mothers and never were trained, and these chicks with no training were wandering around, and they pass the shadow of the hawk over them, and they all go crazy and start running in all directions. Then they pass the shadow of the sparrow over them, and they go about whatever they were doing, pecking and scratching without worry. And they didn't get this info from mommy, they got it genetically. That's enough proof for me, and there are a lot of other examples. Charles Olson spent the last years of his life trying to understand the outside limits of being human. What we're really sharing at the outside of being human, in the womb as well as now, is a kind of a grid, if you could call it that, and here's where language gets awkward. There is a kind of grid which is lit up, even in the womb. We know fetuses dream. What do they dream of? Something's lit up in there, this dreaming grid which is being shaped, upon which all the imprimatur of their later life will rest—all the ways in which they can imagine or be. And I think that has to be informed by genetics, by DNA. That has to be where we are the most alike.
Taaffe continued, "It’s clear to me that the art we appreciate, the art that we find most overwhelming and compelling, that we pay attention to, is the most dangerous stuff, in terms of the risks it takes."
Ultimately, Brakhage felt, art is inseparable from death, due to this risk-taking component and the metaphysical extremes of experience being captured by the artist. Jane (Wodening) Brakhage tells the story of looking into her dying pet goat's face: “I stopped crying and looked at her face and there it was. Her face, the expression, seemed to contain all of life, birth and death, dance and decay, flying and crawling. But it went beyond life. It was light and darkness. . . . What she showed me was life unseparated from death, from earth, life as energy, energy as the natural essence of being-matter. She seemed to be observing all at once the whole universe, every speck, in some way or another bursting with this energy. Her death was only the end of one story” (http://www.conversations.org/story.php?sid=330). As avant-garde filmmaker and digital art pioneer Hollis Frampton (1936-1984) put it, “Narrative is born among the ‘animal necessities of the spirit’ because we are waiting to die."
Robert Dobbs continues these thoughts: "Objects are unobservable. Only relationships among objects are observable. So if you think that the question, 'Will we ever learn?' implies a goal, a particular point and time we will arrive at, a particular object, we will never know that. Because objects like that do not exist, only relationships among objects exist. It is like asking, 'Will there ever be silence?' It's like, 'Will you ever die?' Well, you'll never know because to be dead is a specific experience that seems to imply isolation which could not be known. Because nothing exists in isolation, you will never experience death. You will only experience those things that involve relationships."
Maybe the artist is the last person to talk to about origins and motives. In his afterword to Brakhage's Childhood, Tony Pipolo writes, “Brakhage avoided personal analysis perhaps for the same reason many artists do: fear that uncovering the source of his anxieties and conflicts would neutralize his creative impulses." In the revealing 1965 Brakhage on Film, Brakhage's own children note that he often said he was driven by "the muse." In a glossary of New American Cinema terms in Film Culture (Spring 1962) magazine, the definition for the word muse was “(see ego).” And the definition for the word ego was “(see muse).” Here are other words used by fellow artists to describe what "the muse" might mean: inspiration, breath, subconscious, god, angels, genie, back brain, friend, poetry, need, and longing. Finally, the muse is likely to be a combination of all these elements, and yes, to be something that can be taught, through a reverence for language.