Book Review: “A Circle of Quiet” by Madeleine L’Engle (pt. 2)
(originally published 15 November 2004)
On the other hand, I did admire the courage of someone willing to continue doggedly to write, even when she sold nothing whatsoever for an entire decade. I don’t know if I’d have that kind of determination.
Also, some of her speculations on the nature of concentration rang true to me. I’ve often felt the focus of a child at play closely approximated the focus of an artist (or other unselfconscious adult) at work. Perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to lose yourself in activities you love — you’re actually playing, not really working per se. As she notes:
The concentration of a small child at play is analogous to the concentration of the artist of any discipline. In real play, which is real concentration, the child is not only outside time, he is outside himself. He has thrown himself completely into whatever it is that he is doing. A child playing a game, … is completely in what he is doing. His self-consciousness is gone; his consciousness is wholly focused outside himself.
When we are self-conscious, we cannot be wholly aware; we must throw ourselves out first. This throwing ourselves away is the act of creativity. So, when we wholly concentrate, like a child in play, or an artist at work, then we share in the act of creating. We not only escape time, we also escape our self-conscious selves. [italics hers]
As someone who throws herself whole-heartedly into play and projects I really enjoy, I could certainly empathize with this. It would be interesting to see if any brain studies had been done on the centers of self-awareness for children and adults at play or at work they love. I’ve often felt really good computer programmers have this sort of fugue, or unselfconscious focus, for example.
I’m not sure, however, I entirely agree with her even here. She mentions when receiving “an overdose of praise, my conscious mind is at first startled, jolted, and then it simply swats the words away, like a fly, a biting fly: it knows such words are dangerous.”
Up to here I’m with her, even though I know this self-effacement is a cultural construct taught to women in general and some artists in particular. As she herself states, it’s who you are which truly makes an impression, far more than simply what you or someone else says of you.
However, when she asserts a complete lack of self is absolutely necessary to creation… she loses me. How can she say this, yet state later a lack of positive self-image is detrimental to a child? Her example is particularly sad to me, having been there myself — a teacher who simply assumes you’re not bright enough to produce the work you’ve produced.
And yet even here she half jars you out of sympathy, and half resonates. Like her, it has been my experience also that the most compassionate, most real people are those who can transcend hubris, who understand individuality doesn’t equate to self-absorption.
Yet still: if there truly is no Self whatsoever in creation, then wouldn’t it logically follow the greatest works of creativity should be formed by the most selfless — for example, children at play? -and in fact, all works should be of equal value as long as they were created without Self being involved?
Further, I’m shocked at her dismissal of intellect as completely disassociated with love and art. I couldn’t create without thought, even if I usually let my Self go while creating. I’m not sure she really does either, to be honest, especially after her little fictional story based on her reality.
My Self may be elsewhere during the joy of creation, but I fall back on both emotion and intellect — feeling and training — in order to create. Further, she herself states the artist must have detachment and involvement, both linked by compassion. I’ve always found compassion to be an intellectual exercise best expressed through emotion. To favor one over the other is to cripple the whole individual — hysterical over-emotionality is as warped and dangerous as a logic stifled of all humanity.
To state intellect is useless to creation is an assertion I find unconscionable — I’ve no desire to trade the beauty of truth (whether intellectually or emotionally understood) for a comforting lie, no matter how cold the truth may initially seem. Is it not, for example, simply emotional hubris to assume the universe is all about God, and God is all about me? And how is it she can deny Self in creation on the one hand, then insist creators are responsible for the effects their creations have on others?
Life, the universe, and everything
Still, it feels like her heart is in the right place. As she herself notes, “an eagerness to believe ill of others in order to feel virtuous oneself is to some extent in all of us.” I may disagree with her on some subjects, but that doesn’t make me (or her) right. I’d love to have a long discussion with her, to find out if I’m misinterpreting her writings.
Furthermore, I think she puts her finger right on the essence of starting a good story or myth: “In a good story we find out very quickly about the hero the things we want to know about ourselves.” Admittedly, she doesn’t really do that in this book, but there are indeed gems there to find.
For example, I agree parenthood is a responsibility which cannot be abdicated simply due to fear of being disliked by one’s offspring, or the desire for simple, ‘feel-good’ solutions to complex issues. I have emphatic agreement also regarding abandonment of the dying lessening the still-living, and how death is as much a fearful terror as a wondrous, great adventure.
Like her, I also try to live my life embodying the belief in the small, unremembered acts of kindness being more important than impersonal, generalized, public charities. Harder still is the attempt she mentions to not exclude those who’ve hurt me. To be honest, I don’t think I’m as loving about that as she seems to be.