You know it’s going to be a good book when you’re making notes in the Foreword.
As part of the ongoing adventures of my two-person book club, we started reading Aldous Huxley’s, Brave New World. The goal being to examine the ways science fiction explores philosophical ideas. If I’m being totally honest, the book has never really been on my radar and I was indifferent towards starting it.
While I relish works within the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genres, I tend to shy away from those of a dystopian nature, not because they seem unlikely or far-fetched but because all too often they feel all too probable, all too much of time. I look to books to help soften the sting of the things I need to see, but I also need them to help me escape, at least temporarily, from the harsh reality of what appears to be our impending doom.
And yet, within the opening paragraph of Huxley’s prefatory remarks, my scribbling was already filling up the margins. Huxley is candid regarding the shortcomings of Brave New World. He says that “It’s defects as a work of art are considerable.” He says it lacks “a philosophical completeness” and demonstrates a “vast and obvious failure of foresight”. But, he notes, correcting it would mean rewriting it. And, this would not only rid the story of its faults, but also its merits. Instead, Huxley chooses to resist “the temptation to wallow in artistic remorse…to leave both well and ill alone and to think about something else.”
He says that “To pore over the literary shortcomings…to attempt to patch a faulty work into the perfection it missed at its first execution…trying to mend the artistic sins committed…is surely vain and futile.” A writer instantiates a commitment to truth. A commitment to the pursuit of truth, to truth-telling. Truths that include the bitter, the banal, and the benevolent. It is the slow and dependable process of carefully stacking brick upon brick building a tower of “trust”. Trust in the work. Trust in the process. Trust in one’s self. Trust given, trust received, and trust exchanged. Without it everything falls.
Part of that trust includes the truth that every work is a work that fails and falls short. Art, after all, is failure perfected. Work that is flailing and infirmed creates the conditions for something beautiful and true. A creation, broken and misshapen unearths unseen parts of ourselves that we never knew.
The best way to seek penance for the faults and failings of previous work is to turn the page. Sharpen your pencil. Take up your pen and begin again. Move on to the work of what comes next. Try to do it better and try to see it through. “The next great inspiration will come along,” says Chuck Palahniuk, “but until it does, clean up your desk…Make room for the new arrival in your head.”
But, turning the page, doesn’t mean tearing it out. Clearing your desk doesn’t mean setting it on fire. Starting again doesn’t always mean cleaning the slate. Sometimes it just means learning to work in the wait.
Rollo May says that “the creative act arises out of the struggle of human beings with and against that which limits them.” Sometimes progress is what we create, sometimes its what we remove. An artist is equal parts vulture and visionary. We aim to make something new, but we do so by circling dead things looking for what can still be consumed. Trust in your commitment, trust in the truth, and don’t be afraid to pick at the bones.