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How Art Grows Our Souls

Blog

How Art Grows Our Souls

Robbie Swale

I love art. And there are some moments, some particular moments of experiencing art which I love the most.

In those moments, this is what happens: there’s a tingle in my nose, my eyes moisten as tears rise. There’s a feeling in my heart, which doesn’t come often in my life. I open up. I can feel myself physically open up; it’s in my chest, in my heart. I am so vulnerable. Almost more open and vulnerable than at any other time in my life. And it’s wonderful. Wonderful.

I didn’t always know this, but in my adult life, the ability to open me up like this is the common thread through all the art I love the most. What do the works of David Gemmell, Frank Turner, Edgar Degat, Danny McNamara, Alan Ball and Noel Gallagher have in common? The ability to bring tears to my eyes at the sheer beauty and tragedy of humanity.

Once, years ago, I described this feeling to myself as the feeling of my soul growing. That was just what it felt like. All these years later, here is why I think I was right. 

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Douglas Hofstadter’s book, I Am A Strange Loop, was recommended to me by a psychotherapist, Stefan Walters, who was buying me a coffee and telling me about his life and profession. I was considering whether that profession was right for me, and although I decided in the end it wasn’t, we shared a wonderful discussion of life and humanity. Stefan found out I had studied Maths at university and recommended Hofstadter’s book pretty much thus: “It’s a great book, and you will probably get the impenetrable maths bit in the middle, too!” I didn’t, really, but it was still a great book.

Over a pint, I can try and explain that maths bit to you, if you insist. It’s probably not worth it. It's about Godel and self-referential formulas. It’s hard. But you don't need the maths bit for this article. Hofstadter’s hypothesis is essentially this: I, each of our ‘I’s, our selves, our consciousnesses, our souls, is a feedback loop. It is a sum of all the experience we have. Linked together, looped together, into the unique blend that is at the root of each of us, of each human. It starts with your first experience, and the knowledge of that experience informs your second, until you have a vast loop of interlocking experience, which is the self, the consciousness. The I reading this piece.

And if this doesn’t sound very inspiring – if you think this doesn’t do the depth of the human psyche justice, if you think this is too cold, and not romantic enough, I challenge you to read Hofstadter’s account of the death of his wife and maintain that view. Dougie and his wife parented incredibly collaboratively and incredibly closely. Until her sudden death before her time left him parenting alone. Except, as he parented, he realised that he wasn’t alone. She was still with him. Not just in memory; she was there in the things he said. He knew what she would say in each circumstance. He was able to stand there and say what she would have said. It was in him, but it wasn’t: it was her voice. It was almost separate to him, it was her, still there, speaking and parenting through him. He had so much and so close an experience of his wife that a part of her feedback loop, her consciousness, her soul, was in his. And not a small part. She really did live on in the things he did, and said. She was with him.

It was through this tragedy, and the struggles and writing that he used to deal with it, that Hofstadter came to appreciate this unique way in which the human self develops, and then lives, and then sometimes lives on - even after death - in others.

And that story has stayed with me: it’s powerful. I read the book more than five years ago and don’t need to pick it up to check any of this.

Here’s another of Dougie’s stories. It’s about music. I think you’ll be able to identify. Dougie says music is a powerful way to test how similar our selves, our souls, are to other people’s. He tells a story of a friend, and a discussion on classical music. I can’t remember the piece, but the feeling is familiar: you know it, too. It’s when you find out that someone you speak to loves a piece of music that you love. This is an almost unique feeling. Often it’s accompanied by beer or wine, but there is really very little like sitting across the table from someone, excitedly exclaiming together about exactly how a certain piece of music is truly, genuinely brilliant. And Hofstadter doesn’t say this, but this experience is true for most art. In fact, beyond the feeling described at the start of this piece, I’d say this is perhaps the most wonderful thing about art. That feeling of sharing a love of a piece of art with someone else.

But that’s not the end of Dougie’s story. Because his friend - who he now feels incredibly close to, who after their shared love for the same piece of music now feels a kindred spirit - then shares another piece of music with him. “You know that piece we talked about last week. This is just like that.” But it isn’t. From Dougie’s point of view, it’s dull. It’s uninspiring. He doesn’t like it. And suddenly that connection, that sharing, is gone. They are kindred spirits no more. Hofstadter’s points here and throughout the book are many, but the one I want to draw out of this particular story is that art – and perhaps music in particular – tells us something about the similarities or differences between our spirits, our selves, our souls. Art includes an incredibly complex set of influences – conscious and unconscious – as it is created, developed and shared, and somehow this tells us something stark and clear about the self, the soul, of the person who has created it. And how much we like it, how much we feel it, depends on the closeness and the commonality between us, and the person or people who created it.

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I’ve written elsewhere about how the primary function of – and societal imperative for – art is that it expands our perspectives on the world. It develops us as we consume and take part in it. Here, what I am saying is that in fact it is this expansion of our perspective that is what we feel as we consume or take part in art. It is what we enjoy about art.

Here’s where we are: the ‘I’ in each of us, our consciousness, our soul, is essentially a loop of all our experiences, added together over our lives. We can hold in our selves the souls of others through experiencing their souls and their consciousnesses in our life, especially through knowing them intimately. Art is a direct and complex way of comparing, linking and understanding the feedback loops, the souls, of other people, of sensing commonalities and differences. In this way we learn about the souls of others who share (or don't) our love of a particular piece of art, and about the souls of the artists who created it.

So here is what is happening when I read the tragic heroism in the climax of Ravenheart by David Gemmell. Here is what is happening when I see David and Nate battling through their relationship as brothers, and their loss of their father in Six Feet Under. Here is what is happening when, in the midst of break-up hell, I finally – after almost 20 years of listening to it – realise that Talk Tonight is about lost love. Here is what is happening: my perspective is growing. I am learning about people, about heroism and courage in impossible circumstances, about relationships and brotherly love, about loss, about love lost. I am absorbing the perspective, the courage, the love, the loss, and the lost love that the artists have poured into the work. I am absorbing the experiences and perspectives of Gemmell, of Ball, of Gallagher. I am taking some of their consciousness, their selves, and absorbing it into mine.

And that feeling, the tingling in my nose, the moisture in my eyes, the openness and the vulnerability. That feeling is there. And it turns out I was right. It is the feeling of my perspective growing, my feedback loop expanding, my soul growing.

And isn’t that a wonderful thing?