On a crowded subway trip, I looked over the shoulder of the hefty gentlemen next to me who was reading the first page of the introduction to the letters of T. E. Lawrence. A nice, older edition. It began
“I say art for my sake… When I feel like writing, I write, when I don’t, I don’t”
Oscar Wilde could hardly have put it better. And what is the “purpose” of art, after all? Art for art’s sake? I don’t think so. No, T. E. had it right: art for our sake.
But not all of us are artists. Well there’s this:
The artist is not a special sort of man: Each man is a special sort of artist. – Jean Gimpel
That is, we all create our worlds in various ways. For many, religion is part of this. For an atheist, that’s not a viable path. Often, religion tries to take science’s role, and makes itself ridiculous, but there is one thing that religion can do that science cannot. Science can explain to us our place in the universe, but religion reconciles us to it.
People we love die, and we never see them again. Earthquakes kill thousands without warning, old, young, good, bad alike. Brutal, vulgar people enjoy riches while good people live lives of hunger and want. Evil exists…and often appears to stalk triumphant! What does science have to offer to calm us, to show us a path through this so that we don’t go out of our minds? Nothing.
But for those who just can’t stomach that God-thing, there’s art, philosophy, poetry, and myth. And since we are all artists after a fashion, personal mythologies are perfectly on-point. As an example of personal mythology, one of the earliest that I cherished, and one that is still a favorite, I cite Thomas De Quincey, telling of his first purchase of opium.
I feel a mystic importance attached to the minutest circumstances connected with the place and the time and the man (if man he was) that first laid open to me the Paradise of Opium-eaters. It was a Sunday afternoon, wet and cheerless:
and a duller spectacle this earth of ours has not to show than a rainy Sunday in London. My road homewards lay through Oxford Street; and near “the stately Pantheon” (as Mr. Wordsworth has obligingly called it) I saw a druggist’s shop. The druggist — unconscious minister of celestial pleasures! — as if in sympathy with the rainy Sunday, looked dull and stupid, just as any mortal druggist might be expected to look on a Sunday; and when I asked for the tincture of opium, he gave it to me as any other man might do, and furthermore, out of my shilling returned me what seemed to be real copper halfpence, taken out of a real wooden drawer. Nevertheless, in spite of such indications of humanity, he has ever since existed in my mind as the beatific vision of an immortal druggist, sent down to earth on a special mission to myself. And it confirms me in this way of considering him, that when I next came up to London I sought him near the stately Pantheon, and found him not; and thus to me, who knew not his name (if indeed he had one), he seemed rather to have vanished from Oxford Street than to have removed in any bodily fashion. The reader may choose to think of him as possibly no more than a sublunary druggist; it may be so, but my faith is better — I believe him to have evanesced, or evaporated. So unwillingly would I connect any mortal remembrances with that hour, and place, and creature, that first brought me acquainted with the celestial drug.
from The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, chapter 3.