Okay, stay with me here. I promise this contains some practical advice on being a better artist.
Have you ever read The Neverending Story? You’ve probably seen the movie, which is a watered down version of the first half of the book, and you might have seen the sequel which is a pathetic pastiche of the second half of the book. But the actual book is a surreal, frightening and epic fable with far more depth than either movie suggests. While a lot happens in the book, it’s basically about Bastian’s struggle with two devils. They manifest themselves in many of the challenges Bastian faces, but their most concrete forms are found in the werewolf, G’mork and the witch, Xayide. Each using unique and drastically different tactics to destroy Bastian.
While researching more info on the author of TNES, Michael Ende, I discovered his connection to a quasi-religious, philosophical school of thought called Anthroposophy . One of its basic tenets is that there is a reality beyond what we can see with our regular senses that can only be accessed through spiritual insight and imagination. (Fantastica anyone?)
I don’t know enough about Anthroposophy to be more than curious about it, but some of the teachings of the founder, Rudolph Steiner, offer some valuable metaphors for life. I was particularly fascinated by the metaphor of Lucifer and Ahriman. From Wikipedia:
Lucifer and his counterpart Ahriman figure in anthroposophy as two polar, generally evil influences on world and human evolution. Steiner described both positive and negative aspects of both figures, however: Lucifer as the light spirit which “plays on human pride and offers the delusion of divinity”, but also motivates creativity and spirituality; Ahriman as the dark spirit which tempts human beings to “deny [their] link with divinity and to live entirely on the material plane“, but also stimulates intellectuality and technology. Both figures exert a negative effect on humanity when their influence becomes misplaced or one-sided, yet their influences are necessary for human freedom to unfold.
G’mork and Xayide are basically Ende’s embodiment of Ahriman and Lucifer respectively. G’mork seeks to destroy Fantastica and Bastian through despair, discouragement and self-hatred. One of the fascinating revelations in the book, that is never mentioned in the movie, is that the inhabitants of Fantastica aren’t destroyed by the Nothing, but are transported to the physical world where they become lies. G’mork seeks to deceive Bastian into believing that there is nothing but that which is in front of him, and it isn’t until Bastian takes the creative act of naming the Childlike Empress, that G’mork is truly conquered (although technically he dies earlier in the book).
Xayide, on the other hand tempts Bastian to use the limitless power of Auryn to make himself Emperor of Fantastica; to revel so much in his own creativity and greatness that he slowly destroys his own identity, and alienates all of his friends. It isn’t until Bastian gives up everything, including Fantastica, that he regains his true self.
So what does this have to do with art? Every artist is constantly under the influence of Ahriman and Lucifer, or if you prefer, G’mork and Xayide. The Art and Story Crew discussed this recently in The Big Ego episode of their podcast. Either an artist will never create anything because they lack faith in themselves, or spend their hours reveling in the aroma of their own flatulence because they’ve had a smidgeon of success.
True artistic salvation can only be found on the middle road. What religious types like to call “the straight and narrow”. A true artist has to be like the warrior who knows that he can kill, but knows that he is also made of flesh and blood.
Now for the prescriptive stuff. So, you want to avoid falling off the straight and narrow into the hell of Lucifer and the hell of Ahriman, right? Here’s how you do it: Work.
Steven Pressfield describes how to do it here: Having a Practice
Pay particular attention to his point on the hierarchical orientation vs. the territorial orientation. You’ll find your satisfaction in the life at the drawing table, not at the complaint desk nor at the awards banquet. And if you ever find yourself slipping off the straight and narrow, thinking, “who am I to do this” or “they sure broke the mold when they made me” then shut up, sit down and get to work. Ahriman and Lucifer will still visit you, but they’ll be transformed. When the two forces are balanced they become muses, offering creativity and insight beyond what your lowly flesh was capable of before. In short, you’ll basically become the artist version of this:
It doesn’t take greatness to do this, it just takes the wisdom to clear away every other distraction in your life out the way and to get to work.