Today I was mulling over the hows and whys of this chase I’m on, hunting down the cashmere coat. Because surely it is silly to spend two months designing a coat, and a full month sewing muslins. As valuable as the finished piece might be, there is nothing in it to justify that kind of care. So the value must be somewhere in the process. Where is it?
After racking my brains for awhile, I remembered an essay by Walker Percy titled “The Loss of the Creature”, from his book The Message in the Bottle. I read this essay in my sophomore year of college, as part of a creative writing class, and it has influenced me ever since. (I sometimes think that if I got nothing more out of four years of college than this essay, it would have been enough.) Unfortunately, my copy of the book is packed, but fortunately, someone seems to have posted it on the Internet here, so I was able to refresh my memory. (I highly recommend reading it: it is a far better and more complex essay than the small areas I’ll be able to quote here.)
At any rate, here is what Walker Percy has to say on the subject, brutally abbreviated:
Every explorer names his island Formosa, beautiful. To him it is beautiful because, being first, he has access to it and can see it for what it is. But to no one else is it ever as beautiful – except the rare man who manages to recover it, who knows that it has to be recovered.
Garcia Lopez de Cardenas discovered the Grand Canyon and was amazed at the sight. It can be imagined: One crosses miles of desert, breaks through the mesquite, and there it is at one’s feet. Later the government set the place aside as a national park, hoping to pass along to millions the experience of Cardenas. Does one not see the same sight from the Bright Angel Lodge that Cardenas saw?
…Why is it almost impossible to gaze directly at the Grand Canyon [while on a guided tour] and see it for what it is – as one picks up a strange object from one’s back yard and gazes directly at it? It is almost impossible because the Grand Canyon, the thing as it is, has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind….The thing is no longer the thing as it confronted the Spaniard; it is rather that which has already been formulated – by picture postcard, geography book, tourist folders, and the words Grand Canyon. As a result of this preformulation, the source of the sightseer’s pleasure undergoes a shift. Where the wonder and delight of the Spaniard arose from his penetration of the thing itself, from a progressive discovery of depths, patterns, colors, shadows, etc., now the sightseer measures his satisfaction by the degree to which the canyon conforms to the preformed complex. If it does so, if it looks just like the postcard, he is pleased; he might even say, “Why, it is every bit as beautiful as a picture postcard!” He feels he has not been cheated. But if it does not conform, if the colors are somber, he will not be able to see it directly; he will only be conscious of the disparity between what it is and what it is supposed to be.
I remember once, in college, I set about duplicating a recipe from a restaurant. I fiddled with ingredients, tried new things here and there, all with the intent of producing something identical to the restaurant’s dish. Needless to say, I never quite succeeded, and was very frustrated despite the assurances from my friends that the dish tasted fine, and, in fact, better than the restaurant’s product. I had, in some way, given up sovereignty over the dish to the “experts” (the restaurant), and as a result could not see the dish for what it actually was – a very tasty stir-fry that my friends all raved about.
In a similar vein, I feel that setting out to duplicate a scarf in, say, Handwoven, following the instructions precisely, leads to an equivalent alienation of experience. The objective is to duplicate something that already exists, and the measure of success is how much it looks like the project in the photo. I did this early on in my weaving career, with pretty results, but I never quite felt like I “owned” the finished product, no matter how many people assured me it was beautiful. It wasn’t my product; it was an attempt to duplicate, and I never quite felt right about the ways in which it differed from the “authoritative” version, the scarf in the photo.
By getting “off the beaten track” – by striking out on my own rather than following the path that is already laid out – I free myself from that alienation. Because my pieces are uniquely my own, I don’t live with the specter of whether it looks like the “real” thing, the authoritative version. The only authority is my own, and I am the expert on what I am making. (Not to be mistaken for an expert in the technique – I am still a beginning weaver in many ways – but in this one piece, I am the sole authority.)
Of course there are disadvantages to this method. Striking out into the wilderness can lead to long hours of getting lost, even if you have a map and books to guide you. (Am I really on my ninth muslin?) Cardenas may have gotten an “authentic” view of the Grand Canyon, but let us not forget that he spent weeks thrashing around in the bushes, hot, sweaty, and tired, before breaking through the brush and seeing the great vista.
But I also feel that the difficulty enhances the moment of breakthrough, that the degree of challenge is reflected in the satisfaction with the finished product. To do something simple and easy produces a moment of satisfaction, but to struggle on over many challenges produces a lifetime of pride in the completion of the finished work, and an engagement with it – and with the craft – that is worthwhile in itself.
There is also the matter of seizing experience for oneself, rather than in the context of a “proper” situation:
…One remembers the scene in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter where the girl hides in the bushes to hear the Capehart in the big house play Beethoven. Perhaps she was the lucky one after all. Think of the unhappy souls inside, who see the record, worry about scratches, and most of all worry about whether they are “getting it”, whether they are bona fide music lovers. What is the best way to hear Beethoven: sitting in a proper silence around the Capehart or eavesdropping from an azalea bush?
However it may come about, we notice two traits of the second situation: (1) an openness of the thing before one – instead of being an exercise to be learned according to an approved mode, it is a garden of delights which beckons to one; (2) a sovereignty of the knower – instead of being a consumer of a prepared experience, I am a sovereign wayfarer, a wanderer in the neighborhood of being who stumbles into the garden.
It is precisely this difference between “being a consumer of a prepared experience” and “being a sovereign wayfarer” that concerns me, both as a human and as a fiber artist. I wrote an essay on this during college (if you print it it should be easier to read). But to me the essence is a desire to be a sovereign wayfarer, to claim my own experiences rather than to follow the path prepared by “experts”. There is nothing wrong with gaining wisdom from those who have vast experience (it would be foolish not to); I have gained much from talking to people with greater insight than mine. That’s not what it’s about. But by engaging myself in the piece, in designing my own rather than meekly following instructions en route to a destination laid out by experts, I deepen my own experience. It is not just about the end product; it is something that reflects my passion, that deepens my connection with life.
And it is this, more than anything, that sends me off into the wilderness.
One more muslin!
Peg in South Carolina says
I really really like this sentence: ” But by engaging myself in the piece, in designing my own rather than meekly following instructions en route to a destination laid out by experts, I deepen my own experience.”
Thanks for reminding me of this article. I have been undergoing a shift in my consciousness of my life, and this is another stepping stone in my awareness.
Ironic that in my own journeys so different than yours, somehow the right teaching for me appears at the right moment — so totally unplanned by any one of us. Somehow, that fits perfectly with the sentiment of Percy.
Holy cow, Tien, that is an amazing essay. Thanks for posting the link. It’s going to take me a while to sort out that one.