CHANGE YOUR NAME: On not knowing who we are or what we are doing

More and more I notice the way that my writing my other creative endeavours seem to have a life of their own, if I will only let them be, let them breathe and allow them to ‘write’ and to make.

My generation grew up strongly influenced by (or might we say, ‘acknowledging the relevance of’) Roland Barthes small but brilliant and beautiful essay ‘The Death of The Author’ (1967). Among many of the gracefully accumulating profundities therein, one line famously reads:

Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.”

Like many artists I occasionally find a work or a piece of writing, made at some earlier time, and find myself puzzled by the question of how it came to be made or written. Some younger self, in a state of inspired activity, and probably in a rush -as we seem to be all of the time – flashed out a few sentences or created some images that can now be seen to have aged well.

However, perhaps we should not be surprised as in truth we know that we have trained ourselves, during the slow, painstakingly conscientious progress of a lifetime, to make our best work in a semi-conscious condition. As Barthes’ sentence above suggests, the body and mind are not clearly connected at the moment of creativity (writing, making), nor are body and pen, brush, keyboard etc. And nor is the pen, keyboard or brush clearly connected to the page, screen, paint, canvas etc. Rather, we have cultivated a series or sequence of dis-connections, insisting upon a fluid, tentative assemblage out of which something unknowable and unexpected is able to emerge.

Nor does the work arising from this procedure bear immediate scrutiny or judgement, but calls to be set aside, as rapidly as possible, lest our conscious judgements prove less well-developed than our semi-conscious utterances.

Hence time too becomes a tool that we have learned to wield in the making of anything of value and beauty and worthy of preservation. Time, whose shadow often falls upon us as a form of progress only to be feared, also becomes, in the artist’s hands, a means of cheating and even reversing that same time’s apparently merciless march.

Nevertheless, this strange creative activity, accurately described in a few words by Barthes, leaves us unusually vulnerable. As artists we spend our lives attuned, not to the sensible accumulation of securities – thus ensuring we are housed and comfortable in youth, maturity, retirement and dotage –  but to the twists and turns, rise and fall of a mysterious path whose aspect often appears inauspicious, all-too-risky, and which can lead us to contemplate despair only to take a sudden turn in the direction of achievement, recognition, reward and success – or of something at least that looks deceptively like these things.

In this way it is not only our author that is ‘dead’ (in the most positive sense and according to Barthes’ terminology); not only our grip on our pen and our grasp on our intention that ‘slips away’; and not only is it just in the moment of writing or making that we loosen our ties to our self, but, as Barthes might be seen to imply, it is our very subject”, that through and throughout a life in art becomes a “negative where all identity is lost”.

I have often thought it important that artists should each and all change our given birth names and choose our own as soon as we have recognised in ourselves the conviction to spend our life as an artist. Nevertheless, and regrettably, I have only once managed to do this, and for a relatively short period, in a way that convinced both myself and my audience.

We all know of many artists of all kinds, including writers, performers, singers who have liberated themselves from their familial identity by changing their names and thereby given a new and special freedom to each and every subsequent creative gesture, which is henceforth made by someone that the artist has invented for themselves and who has not been foisted upon them by relative strangers (our parents, their priests, local or national tradition etc.) But even for those of us who lack the audacity and panache to take an artist’s name, or who feel it is perhaps too late in our more or less successful ‘career’ to do so, it is well to recall Barthes’ idea and to acknowledge that he too, in the very moment of inscribing those influential and enduring words, did not know who he was nor what, exactly, he was doing.







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