Art in the Light of Conscience: The Great Russian Poet Marina Tsvetaeva on Loving vs. Understanding and the Paradoxical Psychology of Our Resistance to Ideas
“Not to go onwards (in verse, as in everything) means to go backwards — that is, to leave the scene.”
By Maria Popova
“People have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them,” Bob Dylan observed in his 1991 conversation with journalist Paul Zollo about the unconscious mind and the creative process.
More than half a century earlier, the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (October 8, 1892–August 31, 1941) explored the paradoxical psychological machinery of that resistance in one of the eight beautiful pieces in her collection of essays on art and writing, Art in the Light of Conscience (public library) — a discovery embodying my longtime saying that literature is the original internet, for I found a “link” to the book in a footnote in Tsvetaeva’s exquisite correspondence with Pasternak and Rilke, which was in turn “linked” to in Marina Abramović moving memoir.
In a sentiment of equal cultural and political perceptiveness, Tsvetaeva writes:
Not to like a work is, in the first and most important place, not to recognize it: not to find the pre-cognized in it. The first cause of not accepting a work is not being prepared for it… A physical turning away of the head: I see nothing in this picture, therefore I don’t wish to look at it. — But, in order to see, one needs to look; in order to really see, one needs to look really closely. Disappointment of an eye that is used to seeing at first glance, which means used to seeing along its old track, that of others’ eyes… [an eye] used to not an act of cognition, but recognition.
Tsvetaeva considers the only position from which we have the right — intellectual, creative, moral — to reject an idea or a work of art:
The only case worthy of respect, the only legitimate non-acceptance of a work, is non-acceptance of it in full knowledge… No one is obliged to love, but every non-loving person is obliged to know — first, what it is he doesn’t love, and second, why he doesn’t love it.
In a fine complement to her compatriot Leo Tolstoy’s ideas about the paradoxical nature of love, she adds:
Anyone who loves only something, loves nothing.
Although our instinctual reaction to that which we do not understand is to reject it, Tsvetaeva reminds us that such rejection is maladaptive and to the detriment of our evolution — be it in art or in politics or in our private lives. She writes:
Not to go onwards (in verse, as in everything) means to go backwards — that is, to leave the scene.
What we reject most often is that which rebels against and challenges the status quo, but such rejection, Tsvetaeva admonishes, is antithetical to the creative force that propels us forward. Once again, what is true of poetry is true of life itself:
There is no poet who would reject any elemental force, consequently any rebellion.
What doesn’t accept (rejects, even ejects) is the human being: will, reason, conscience.
In this realm the poet can have only one prayer: not to understand the unacceptable — let me not understand, so that I may not be seduced. The sole prayer of the poet is not to hear the voices: let me not hear, so that I may not answer. For to hear, for the poet, is already to answer, and to answer is already to affirm, if only by the passionateness of his denial. The poet’s only prayer is a prayer for deafness.
Complement this particular fragment of Art in the Light of Conscience with Hannah Arendt on thinking vs. knowing and André Gide on art’s vital role as both acceptance of and rebellion against reality.