[Editor’s Note: Reflecting on his creative process during the Covid pandemic, author Jonathan Selstad asks why we expend time and energy making art. Through comparing himself to Tolkien’s painter Niggle, Jonathan describes his dedication to the fictional world and language he has conceived and affirms his commitment to realising this world in literary form. Despite the pressing demands on his time and attention, he still finds ‘joy’ in the process of writing, which he describes as ‘bringing into life a sub-creation in my soul that longs to grow’.]
līanisa menōilvensu ksinkāz menōilvensa līanivu
Why make art? For some people, that question might pose enough of a challenge, given the priorities of everyday life. Why write, after such a long day of work? Why draw when I have chores to do? Why write, when I could watch YouTube or Netflix, or play a videogame? Better yet, why not go for a walk, or read a book, or volunteer? Our society is saturated with so many creations, we could spend our entire lives consuming art without exhausting the content that already exists. Sure, that might be a waste, but it is possible—and this is after sifting through what isn’t worthwhile. Besides, one could live a happy and fulfilling life without attempting to make art at all. Indeed, many do. Wouldn’t it be better to invest your time in more important manners?
This is but a small snippet of the maelstrom of questions that whirl in my head at times, all pointing to the same question: is it practical to make art? Sometimes, I find it hard to believe that dedicating time and energy to art is worthwhile. Maybe I can answer this challenge with the allure of a successful future—making art to make money, or to influence the world. But blessed are they who live solely through their art! More than likely, a work of art will attract nothing more than a small audience whose influence is minimal, at least, such is the doubt that pervades my mind; I cannot escape the image of the starving artist slaving away in their studio with intense fervour as they try to express…. what exactly? Is that a way to live? It is often what we imagine the ideal artist to be, in our romantic longing for fame and fortune. Yet it rings false.
Perhaps, instead of seeing the artist as the romantic who sells their life and soul to their work in hopes of ‘making it’—whatever that means—we should see the artist as someone who chips away at their craft slowly, as much as life allows them. Perhaps art is not the end-all-be-all of life, but a joy free from the demands of success?
Indeed, Tolkien imagined as much when he conceived the story for Leaf by Niggle. Niggle is an artist who struggles to paint the tree he imagines, hindered by the demands of his daily life. He works as time allows him, faithfully keeping to the vision he has in his mind of a tree of beautiful leaves. As much as he wishes to gain recognition and escape responsibilities, especially towards his neighbour Parish, he begrudgingly meets these demands and sets aside his art time and again. One day he might finish his painting, but catastrophe strikes when Niggle dies before his work is complete, leaving the canvas destroyed as he begins his journey into the afterlife. And because he never prepared for this journey beforehand, he enters a purgatory-like hospital, where he labours endlessly and almost forgets the life he had before him, his art far from his mind. But after this labour transforms him into a man who accepts his labour without grumbling, he is entered into a sort of medical review board where he is deemed fit for a ‘gentle treatment’. Afterward, he is sent on a train to a meadow beneath a mountain range, where suddenly he finds a hill—on top of which stands the tree he was trying to paint in his previous life.
While the art died, so to speak, Niggle’s imagination was redeemed in eucatastrophe, a sudden unlooked-for joy that breaks into life after the hardest of sorrows. For, through his imagination, he captured a reality that was deeper than what is visible in this world: one that remained in eternity.
Of course, this is a myth, invented by a man who had struggled with realizing his own imaginations—as Tolkien wrote this short story, he despaired of ever completing The Lord of the Rings. But it is this myth that has kept me writing among all other commitments. And this is fitting: like Tolkien and Niggle, I am dedicated to every leaf in the tree I have imagined, even to the point of creating a language for my universe. True, the progress hasn’t been as consistent as I would have liked. When the Covid pandemic hit, I imagined there would be more free time to work on my story and language. But at the end of the day, I found myself so exhausted that I had to relax with a book or game or movie with my fiancé. Still, I have not given up on the task I set, even building my language when I should be working on annotated bibliographies.
I love what I see because I see love.
Indeed, there is something that I have seen, something that I take joy in bringing into life: a sub-creation in my soul that longs to grow. Maybe it will never grow to its full potential, but the world I see in my mind is one that fills me with wonder, even fear, as I dread its ramifications. Possibly, it is all in my head and few others will come to love the world as I have loved it. But I do not sub-create for others to see or to make a living. There is a saying in Kajenid, my invented language which is used by the followers of the king named Kazrilna, which I feel is appropriate here: ‘līanisa menōilvensu ksinkāz menōilvensa līanivu’, I love what I see because I see love. For this love is not merely rooted in my emotions or my willpower. No. This love is rooted in some deeper reality that has grasped my soul, the reality whose roots are Christ: the only one in whom I can find redemption of my life and redemption of my art. The one who brings truth to myth, who dwells in the mountain beyond the tree.
Banner photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash.
Illustration of the interior of Kazdrem, flagship of the king’s armada. Provided by Amy Bucher (amycbucher.com).