Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Express your what?

If repression is the problem, is expression the solution?

Many people still believe that we suffer because we repress our feelings and impulses. This means that self-expression is the solution. Much of the therapy culture is built on the idea that expressing what we have inside is fundamentally a good thing... in terms of mental hygiene.

If you express affection, then that will bring you closer to others... unless, of course, they don't feel the same way about you. And if you express too much, you might well embarrass yourself... which would not make you feel good at all.

But if you express negative emotions, like anger, you will get them out of your system. Since anger is a toxic mental substance, getting it out will supposedly make you feel better.

True enough, when you let your pent up anger fly, you might feel a momentary sense of relief. Yet,if you express the wrong emotion at the wrong time to the wrong person under the wrong circumstances you will, upon reflection, feel like you have made a fool of yourself.

If your anger has no place in the conversation, it will merely reflect badly on you.

How did we come to believe in the palliative value of self-expression? It did not just spring forth from Freud's overheated brain.

In fact, we probably learned it from Romantic artists. Didn't they argue that art is the highest form of self-expression? And didn't they claim that art was the cure for adolescent angst?

Presumably, they held the adolescent belief that they were anguished because the world was refusing to listen to all that they had to say. And we all know that adolescents have a great deal to say. If only they could get it all out, they would be liberated and the world would be saved.

The trouble was: art becomes art when it moves other people, when it speaks to them. Art becomes art when it speaks to people who do not live in the neighborhood. Art must communicate with a variety of people from a variety of cultures at different times and places. You don't really believe that your personal feelings automatically interest anyone beyond your immediate circle of friends, do you?

A now-forgotten literary critic, I. A. Richards, once said that the key to producing a painting is the moment when the artist steps back from the canvas to look at his work with a different set of eyes. If he cannot do that,he can never overcome the illusion that the value of his work lies in how he felt when he was painting it.

More succinctly: if you can't edit you can't write.

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