Many things interest me. That’s why my image here is of what the Germans call a Wünderkammer, a cabinet of curiosity and wonder. The image suggests my guiding vision: that the wonder and strangeness, the “uncanniness” of being alive is what art strives to evoke.
Poet Garcia Lorca described the artist’s project of art as an attempt to embody the Duende: The Duende, he said, is “whatever has black sounds” and “these black sounds are the mystery, the roots that probe through the mire that we all know of, and do not understand, but which furnishes us with whatever is sustaining in art.” In a similar vein Virginia Woolf thought of her artistic project as the presentation of what she called “moments of being.” For Joseph Conrad, following Keats, that project was about “truth,” by which he meant artistic truth, not the philosopher’s or logician’s truth. The artist’s truth, Conrad said, “speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation — and to the subtle but invincible, conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts.” Hemingway put it: “I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across—not just to depict life—or criticize it—but to actually make it alive.” My photography master Paul Caponigro describes his own deep artistic objective as simply the project to find in the world and then evoke in the viewer an experience of “presence.”
My Wonder Cabinet also suggests that the way to truth or moments of being for the artist involves a juxtaposition, a dissonance of images or tones that elicits our recognition of the paradoxical similarities and differences among all things. Metaphor and its homologues in the other arts has long been a particular obsession of mine, the subject of my Ph.D. work in psychology and aesthetics. Oddly enough, metaphor led me to Quantum Mechanics and Chaos Theory on the realization that the dynamic structure of art is not, in the end, dissimilar from the structure of nature. Creative works of art, like creative works of nature, are put together so that while each is particular and unique to itself, it mirrors the whole.
As a young man with no special natural creative gifts I endeavored to write fiction and poetry. With the poetry I hoped to sway my girlfriend (but never quite did). With fiction I hoped to solidify the world. The result has been quite the opposite. Eventually, after years of effort, I have understood that my project was what I’ve described above and that, like everyone else, I could only hope to accomplish it (or come anywhere near to that) in my own peculiar way. That way is my work: fictions, photographs, essays, writings about aesthetics and science.
My way includes my fascination with dreams (especially my wife Joanna’s great dreams), with tricksters, shamans and the Paleolithic mind, with what W.H. Auden called “sensuous abstractions,” and with writers who have spoken deeply to me, like Kafka, Musil, Woolf, Conrad, Borges, Faulkner, Stevens, O’Brien, Oliver, and many others (an odd alchemic mixture of authors, I would say). Many I have had the privilege of reading and rereading numerous times in order to “teach” them to students. The painters, photographers, film directors, and composers, musicians, dancers and so many other artists who have provided “moments of being” have also become strangely fused into “my way,” as have the works and insights of my dear colleagues of Between Lines Books & Arts. Inspiration and guidance has never been in short supply. How it all comes together at any moment is, of course, a mystery. That mystery has convinced me that what we consider normal and everyday is in fact a confection made of the strange, the unreal, the surreal, and the impossible all glued together into a familiarity that disguises its true nature. Every now and then that true nature dwelling within the normal springs forth, and I feel it is my artist’s project to convey it. Or at least try.
As I said, many things interest me, too many for my own good I suspect. I suppose the summary statement of my artistic project would be that it is my effort to show how all these many things that interest me are one.
Fictions (nonstories) and Shaman notpoems currently on the web
- “When I Died” in Drunken Boat
- “Getting Ready to Go” in Cafe Irreal
- “My Brother’s a Spider” and three other fictions in Cafe Irreal
- Shaman on the Ocean at Eunoia Review
- 5 Shamans at About Place
Available Publications by John Briggs
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