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Can Art Be War?

A dear friend questioned Steven Pressfield‘s anthropomorphism of Resistance, the mental and emotional pushback we feel when we dare greatly, equating it with fear and wondering whether Steve’s focus might not be ill-conceived or misdirected. Here’s my answer:

Ah, Resistance and fear. Yes, of course, it’s fear. Thing is, most of us never look fear in the eye. It is a vague shape in the dark, which means obviously it’s a monster come to eat us.

I don’t accept that all things in the natural world are good, or healthy. Some things should be fought against. If I don’t remove the weeds and bug and animal pests from my garden, I don’t have as much food. If I don’t fight off some of the bugs within my body I have illness. If I don’t quash certain thoughts, I don’t have mental health.

You have a slightly different perspective from most people I’ve met because you are way way to the right on the “comfortable in your own skin” bell curve. Don’t assume that others can now, or ever, reach that level. I, for one, must constantly question my assumptions and thoughts and actions because I grew up with a load of nonsense in my head about self-worth, the value of work, the value of dreaming, the value of art, the value of money, on and on and on.

An aside: Steve P does not want to be a guru. Refuses the mantle. But he can’t stop helping people ’cause he’s a nice guy. Though try to get him to come speak at your event, fergit it. But people need a Messiah or they don’t know how to find the path. Some of us, though, can look at what Steve or Seth or whoever noticed, notice the same thing, find my own takeaway, and go on to the next thing.

Back to Resistance: We all have things we need to fight, for lack of a better word, every day. Physical health requires abstinence from some things, persistence in others. Mental health. Spiritual health. Avoid some, insist on others.

Our natural state is entropy, not growth. We tend toward being angry selfish lumps on the couch in front of reality TV. It is imperfect human nature, and it is not possible to go the other direction without work. Should we call it “work” or “effort” instead of “fight” or “war”? Okay. It’s terminology. But a spiritual writer I respect more than any person alive today, the apostle Paul, wrote about a “war in his members.” He knew what war and death were, coming from a violent persecutor’s background. He also knew peace, kindness, unselfish principled love, and spent his life until a martyr’s death teaching it and living it. So, if “war” works for him, I don’t argue it.

Am I even coming close to addressing your discomfort with “the war of art” as a term, a concept, whatever? Because I find your question fascinating and well worth discussing.

I highly recommend Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art.

19 thoughts on “Can Art Be War?

  1. Ah-Haaaaa! Joel. I’m so so glad you put this on your blog. What a great little commentary, ripe for discussion among those who follow you faithfully. And I do really want to hear what some of them have to say.

    On the final question: …ah, I don’t know. Believe it or not, I just don’t know. So is this where it all ends — absolute disavowal of any kind of real knowledge whatsoever, something I can say was mine to know?

    Keep me posted!!


    1. While from a purely philosophical perspective none of us truly know anything (see Kathryn Schulz’s wonderful book Being Wrong) I take the stand that behaving as if the things I believe are true is generally going to get the same results as if they were, in fact, Truth in the absolute sense.

      Of course, this doesn’t excuse arrogance nor does it obviate ongoing learning. But if I behave as if Resistance is an actual force attempting to bully me out of creating art, and as a result I accomplish what I intended, I’m simply using that image as a shortcut for something about my own unconscious fears and how they affect my conscious thought.

      Sometimes, it’s easier to adjust the sights and aim at the target than to leave the sights “true” and visually adjust for wind and altitude and distance.

      1. Now THAT is a fine thought, Joel. Very nice, so well-put. Well-thought-out. It requires no further comment on my part.

        But as long as we’re here ;) — in fact, this even clarifies the original in a number of ways as to your thinking on this questionable idea of resistance (sorry, I just cannot give it the respect of a cap). It appears you understand how to use the actor’s tool of the “as if.” Wow. And taking a sly comment by Shakespeare into account, hey now, so this is how one gets through the forest of illusions and contradictions and turns life into that proverbial oyster we all truly want??

        You are so cool, Joel.

        And now, I’m going downstairs to have some wine and celebrate.


  2. Hey Joel…where are all the philosopher types who should be commenting about this post of yours?? C’mon, folks.

    Well, anyway, I thought of something this morning that I’d like to mention, even though you already understand this great mystical idea…

    You say, “if I behave as if Resistance is an actual force…” which tells me you are willing to consider the possibility that it’s Not one :). I was entertaining the thought that this war stuff is resistance itself. If we stop thinking we have to be at war to have a healthy, full, or “correctly executed” life, this whole idea of resistance will be gone. Poof.


    1. Let me clarify: the thing we are discussing, which Pressfield calls Resistance, is real. Here’s my best attempt at a purely scientific description:

      When we attempt to do something outside our ordinary path OR outside what others might expect of us, our unconscious reacts vigorously to protect us from risk.

      This is real. As with all emotional responses, some people naturally cope with it more easily than others, and some are completely stumped. But all of us face it to some degree. It’s physiobiology we can’t escape.

      We are hardwired with some shared fears. Two of them are fear of rejection and fear of the unknown or strange. All psychologically healthy human beings have these fears to some extent.

      When we experience fear, even unconsciously, our brain leaps into action, usually to run away from it. (When you see fire, a snake, or a mean person, our first instinct is not, ever, to run toward it.)

      Our fears of rejection and of the unknown are amplified when we’re young in ways in through experiences we cannot possibly be conscious of in our adult life. And yet, it appears our bodies store those memories in unconscious places (some fascinating history and science there) and when we’re exposed to the risk of rejection or the unknown, our unconscious rises up and protects us.

      When we’re trying to create art, the safest path our unconscious mind sees in the short term, because that’s all it knows, is to flee from the risk. Stop writing that poem. Don’t sing in public. If you finish that book, someone won’t like it.

      The resistance [lowercase r] we feel is real. It is a hardwired human response. Problem is, it is often wrong, and yet is inevitable and unavoidable. For me, to not write, to not sing in public, would be death, at least emotionally, maybe physically, but I’m going to feel resistance from my own unconscious mind when I do those things. And so, to create art I must find a way to circumvent the resistance that naturally arises.

      Being human, it’s hard to deal in pure abstractions. It’s why kids honestly learn math better if we let them count on their fingers, let them see that although the symbols 2 + 3 = 5 are pure theory, if the hold up two fingers and then hold up three more fingers, they see five fingers and the abstraction of mathematics makes a little sense.

      Some of us may be able to wake up every morning and say “Though I intend to write the next chapter of my book, my unconscious is going to react negatively and so I must prepare myself to counter the short-term thinking of my unconscious with conscious long-term thinking.”

      Most people do better with a more concrete target.

      I, in fact, talk out loud to my unconscious. I go for a drive or hide in the closet and say, out loud, “I know you’re trying to protect me from something painful, and trust me I appreciate that, but I think I can write this without being hurt, and I promise if things go south, I’ll come back here and we’ll talk again, but for this morning, you go relax and take a nap, and I’ll write for a while, and then we’ll meet again and chat, m’kay?” Personifying the other part of my mind as if it were a separate person gives me easily understandable and accessible tools to perform what is essentially psychoanalysis and mental and emotional therapy on myself.

      And 999 out of 1,000 people will create more art if they see Resistance as a dragon to slay [Steven Pressfield method] and they slay it, or they see Resistance as a bully [Joel D Canfield method] and they make it irrelevant, or see Resistance as an ally [Seth Godin method] and they partner with it.

      1. Joel, this is (what’s new) Great. I so appreciate your thoughts here. I could be wrong — but instead of, as you said, “circumvent” with regard to dealing with our resistance to being great and wonderful, Pressfield wants War. He needs a fight. I understand his military background such that he would be predisposed to thinking everything is truly that way. So it’s trite and again unnecessary for LP to comment viciously. But the fact that he is asking others to go to war with him, believe in the necessity of war, is really difficult for me. That’s all. Yeah, “circumvent” is a perfect word (and I agree, of course, with Cheryl — it’s all just words…), what on earth else do we need to do. If I circumvent something, I construe that as merely stepping around it. How peaceful and forward-moving is that?? That’s beautiful!

  3. Early on when I first started reading Pressfield’s posts about Resistance, they left me stumped. Same with his term of “the muse.” Over time I see what he means by those terms, and really we can call them whatever we want that makes sense to us.
    Muse, divine intervention, the universe, or last night’s fruit salad, they’re words. Just like Resistance, or I think, Seth Godin calls it the lizard brain, or as my life coach calls it, The Gremlin. Just words.
    As Joel said, I think we do have a natural tendency to throw the brakes on or to stall or lollygag instead of create art. Some folks blast right past it and get to work. Some days I can do this myself. Other days I feel like I have to coerce myself into writing or painting. This morning, I was on fire. This afternoon, fizzle. I don’t feel threatened by any conscious risk or anything this afternoon, but I don’t have the energy I had this morning. I’m chalking it up to sleep deprivation for two weeks due to a kooky work schedule, not a dragon.
    The best one-liner Pressfield has said in a post that is forever lodged in my wee brain: You’re messing with dynamite when you type Chapter One. I do agree with that 100% and am considering getting it tattooed on me somewhere. Is creating art an act of war? I don’t know. But there’s dynamite involved, so I’m in! :)

    1. I’m willing to accept the possibility that only some of us face this, or that some folks don’t while the rest do. After all, I love math, which isn’t exactly common.

      I wonder if resistance is an experience of a vocal minority. If so, unless the silent majority speaks up, I’ll never know.

      1. I would think that a majority of us do feel it to varying degrees, regardless of what we label our creative inspirations and the things that douse our inspirations, otherwise Pressfield wouldn’t have such a loyal following eager to gobble up his posts and books.

        1. Cheryl, it’s quite completely unnecessary for me to say this, but Pressfield is, although I hear he doesn’t like it, a guru to many people — because people generally believe they need a guru…and he fits the bill so perfectly…

  4. Joel, liking math is like liking Brussels sprouts, which are an atrocity. But to the matter at hand: I’ve read a fair amount of Pressfield’s stuff, and I find his metaphor for the fear, or paranoia, or internal wall building he calls Resistance useful. I think if someone else explained that it’s more Uncle Jake’s Junkyard than Resistance, he’d listen—it’s less the word than the concept, and I think the concept is sound.

    My own nagging, Brussel sprouts voice in my head regularly tells me my work isn’t good enough, won’t make a difference, doesn’t add to the richness of the world, wears too-tight pants and smells of elderberries (thank you, Monty Python). I will wrestle that voice so hard—war of sorts—just to get the first sentence of anything written. The second sentence is usually easier, but not always.

    And when I finish something, the voice always returns with a “So that’s it? That’s your big piece of writing? Why bother?” But I am going to continue bothering, because the only other work I can do is selling plastic bags, and there are a lot in circulation already.

    Pressfield’s work has helped my own, and his naming that boogeyman “Resistance” is good enough for me. (Though he could have named it Brussels sprouts, which to me is more vivid.)

    1. My Brussels sprouts recipe makes an appearance in my brand new song Do You Like Bacon?

      Giving it a name: that’s a big part of the value, I think. Brain scientists do say that when we have a word for something we’re more aware of it. And Imposter Syndrome indeed. Most of my life it was supplied in spades by everyone in my life, so now I have the luxury of choosing which disdainful voice I hear in my head when it says ” . . . and you call yourself a writer . . . “

    2. So there you have it. Haa, this is really cute!

      By the way, I just had sauteed Brussels sprouts the other night with rice, and boy was it good…

  5. I tried to think of something contrary that might question Pressfield’s take on Resistance (not to be contrarian for argument’s sake but as a litmus test of my own belief; it’s good to check in periodically and see if what you believe still serves you, right?) and I find the core argument still holds true.

    Where I fall on the spectrum of the effect of Resistance may be different from where you do, but other than that, it feels pretty damn real to me. For those that don’t, I’d be curious to know if they never felt it, or wished or rationalized it away? Based on age-old discussions, Resistance appears to be a part of the human condition.

    1. Ah, Ritu, may I comment, then? I think “human condition” is a relative term.

      And for me only, the options of never having felt it, wishing it away, or rationalizing it away are only three among the other options. The one I choose is to understand it. And I understand it. So I can have it, I can watch it, I can see it, it’s there just waving at me any time I look its way. And then I move on — because resisting weakens me. I resistance Nothing. It’s the only way I can function.

      1. Perhaps what makes this conversation so foreign to you, Lynelle, is that you are so incredibly rare in this. You know me, know I’m no shirker or fraidy-cat, and yet every time I attempt to create I experience this monumental struggle. It is real, for me and for many others.

        Tom’s Brussels sprouts aside, I know what it’s like to see someone struggle with simple geometry or algebra and wonder how anyone can miss the simplicity, the order, the obvious logic. But I’ve accepted that math is one of my native languages, and to most people it’s gibberish. I accept, even though I can’t understand.

        Your exceptional nature (your nature as an exception?) influences the conversation, I think.

        1. Crud, Joel, yeah, I get that. And every single person here (and there and everywhere) is an exception!…is a rarity…

          I like your math metaphor.

          Everyone commenting here is absolutely rational. I sure hope I don’t sound imperious or rude, THAT’s for darn sure. It’s merely my own part in the script of this conversation. I hope to hear more! But it’s time for me to be quiet and listen. xoxoxo

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