Communication and Self-Expression: Definition

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      Communication to the Artist is irrelevant or at least a minor issue: What he is making is something which is beautiful in itself or satisfying to him personally. Literature is a vital record of the writer’s experiences and impressions of life. As such, we demand two things of him: that his experience be valuable to us; that his expression be adequate, so that he is able to recreate the original experience or vision for us.

      As long as poetry was a communal art, the poet was closely bound up with the society, and he recognized the need for an audience and its intelligent appreciation for his very survival. But the printed page has made the link between the poet and his public invisible. Even so, the link is there and ought always to be. For as long as literature gets written, we must suppose that it gets read. Literature, therefore, presupposes a reader as well as a writer. So we may view its functions from either end or from both ends at once.

      As long as literature is a social activity, and as long as the poet uses language, which is a social product, and publishes his work, the functions of literature may be defined with reference to society. These are: to please, delight, amuse or entertain; second, to instruct, and to instruct through entertainment.

      Now, entertainment may range, as Walter Allen says in Reading A Novel, ‘from having one’s ribs tickled to being purged by pity and fear’. And instruction should not be taken in a narrow moralistic sense. Art is didactic in the most liberal sense of the word. It seeks to illuminate our understanding of life, not try to preach a moral directly and plainly not try to save souls but to make souls worth saving. Literature is not the handmaid of religion or any propagandist ideology.

      But to be able to perform both these functions, the work of art, as we posited before, must have two things: it must have something valuable to communicate; and it must achieve adequate expression. Without the latter, the experience, however valuable in itself and to the poet, does not achieve value and significance for the reader. It does not give pleasure either, because it is not adequately expressed, or, in other words, it is not beautiful.

      When these twin demands are made on the writer, and he apparently fails to fulfill them, he is apt to answer: “I am free to create what I like. If people fail to appreciate my creation, it is not my fault. It is not for everybody, it is only for the ‘passionate few’. If not in this generation, at least in the next it will be found to be valuable.’ So a bold experimenter in technique and ideas, who is far too ahead of his time or more than somewhat difficult, may justify himself in this way. He may even go a step further and declare: “The work has value only for myself. I wrote it to please myself. If it does not please you or seem to have any meaning for you, it is none of my concern”.

      So the artist or poet may withdraw into an ivory tower, adopt a supercilious ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ attitude, and thus alienate himself from the reading public. He may have only a few for his audience, but if it is ‘the passionate few’, he is more than satisfied. Though he may have to depend on the patronage of the reading public, it is not an artistic need, but a sad economic necessity, of which he would like to be rid, if he could.

      The ultra-Romantic writer has taken exactly this stand, in his successive attempts to free himself from dependence on the public. When beauty and morality have been demanded of his work, he has said that ‘Form, form is all’ and that ‘Art is neither moral nor immoral. It is a moral. (And the stand was embodied in the Aesthetes’ slogan excluded). Again, what the poet thinks to be of value to himself is bound to prove of value to us as well, if he succeeds in expression. For poetry is an effort to objectify the subjective. As Eliot says, literature is not an expression of personality; it is an escape from personality. The personal becomes impersonal, the private becomes public. The poet is at liberty to experiment with technique; he may as well use a new idiom from time to time. But the balance must always be held even between self-expression and communication. So literature, we may say in conclusion, is born with the desire for communication as well as self-expression.

      I. A. Richards tracks the problem of communication to its very roots in the human subconscious. For hundreds of thousands of years, man has evolved as a social being with the need to communicate with others. A large part of the structure of our minds has been formed through the racial experience of communication. When an experience registers on our mind, it largely takes the form it would if it were meant for communication. “No doubt an experience has to be formed before it is communicated, but it takes the form it does largely because it may have to be communicated”. Hence, though for the artist the primary problem is that of self-expression, the end of communication is implicit in his mind, deep down in his subconscious, even without his knowing it. If you ask an artist whether communication was his object, he might say that his sole preoccupation was to express himself; that what he was trying to make was something beautiful in itself, or satisfying to him personally, or something wholly personal and private. If he is a little modest, he might say that he created the work merely to amuse himself.

      The artist is justified when he say’s so, contends Richards. For the artist is not, as a rule, or consciously and deliberately concerned with communication. Such an avowed aim on the part of the artist, or his pre­occupation with the communicative aspect of his work, may have disastrous consequences for the quality of the work produced; for it may result in second-rate work.

      It is best that the artist is unconscious, at the time of creation, of the problem of communication. But, happily, for him and us, there exists a correspondence between self-expression and communication. In so far as the artist succeeds in self-expression (“the process of getting the work right”, as Richards terms it) he will have succeeded in communication, too. For communication, though not a conscious aim with the artist, is nevertheless present in his subconscious. And what he creates primarily for himself will, in so far as the artist is a normal person, necessarily have ‘communicative efficacy’. (To be normal is not to be average but a standard. Though individual differences will be there between the artist and his readers, in point of the possible gaps between the artist’s (creative)impulse and the reader’s (interactive) impulse, these are easily bridged by imagination.)

      The artist may be reluctant to admit communication to be even an unconscious motive, but there it is. The result at any rate is that when he creates something satisfying to himself the work is as successful from the communication point of view as it is from that of self-expression.

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