The baseline of improvisers and dreamers

–When the self comes as a version of the carver, Michelangelo famously put the task as liberating form from stone. The real self is the revealed form that already exists, when you chip away the surplusage.

Adrian Stokes, art critic, took the distinction and extended it. For Stokes and in contrast to the carver, the modeler fashions the self. The modeler of clay has the more labile enterprise of molding, where the form is “not uncovered but created.” “The modeler realizes his design with clay. Unlike the carver, he does not envisage that the conception is enclosed in his raw material.” In comparison to stone, “the plastic material has no ‘rights’ of its own. . .Modeling is a much more ‘free’ activity than carving”. (Think of “modeling” not as computer simulation but as Stokes did, molding).

–Adam Phillips, the essayist and therapist, returns to Stokes’s distinction as two distinct approaches to an individual’s selfhood and experience: “It is as though there are things that are always already there which we may or may not find; and there are things which we make, which we put there and by so doing add something to the world that wasn’t there previously”.

What interests Phillips is that “[e]ach of these two versions involves us in telling a different kind of story about the self”. The modeler “uses his art to expose, to extend, to fashion himself”, while the carver abstains from promoting the self in favor of responding to the otherness of the object. Yet in both, a version of the self is operating—“the carver forgets himself…the modeler endorses himself”.

–The difficulty with the carver is that, in seeing herself as deferring to what is already there, she renders herself oddly immune to criticism by a world that responds nevertheless; it is as if she submerges her own egotism in the name of making what is revealed wholly visible as its own, regardless.

The difficulty with the molder (our modeler) is the reverse. It is her hubris, her own truth that is imposed upon a seemingly labile reality. She acts as if reality knows it’s worse off for not having this truth.

–What works better, carving or modeling?

It’s not one or the other; rather it is, “yes, but” or “yes, and.” It is premature to choose between the two versions of self when other selves exist from which to (s)elect. To carving stone and modeling clay, we must at least add improvising the self from what is at hand, which involves something different—good enough but in ways that matter better still than stone, clay and such, if you will.

What Phillips calls “the contingent self” is one who makes use of luck, accident, and coincidence that befall him or her. S/he improvises a life within a network of others that improvises him/her. (This, of course, is also a weak-spot of the contingent self who is always, if you will, being prepped for more surgery.)

–The carving, modeling, and now, improvising self: What other self/selves are we missing?

I can think of several candidates, but here focus on the “dreaming self.” This self, as I see it, differs from carver, modeler and improviser. It is not about having strong internal control, while external factors do or do not control either. When one dreams, one’s selfhood “holds fast” without really seeming to try or having “control” at all.

–So what? I suggest carvers or modelers are seeking something better-than-just good enough when it comes to their selves–at least compared to improvisers and dreamers. An analogy helps with understanding what just good enough is instead when it comes to the self.

Think of the self as that magic animal skin, which in the process of realizing each new wish, shrinks smaller and smaller—until nothing is left to realize what is wished for.

Each enacted wish—each dream-in-action—could turn against you, waylay and maroon you on the shoals of simplification or the overly complex, requiring all kinds of subsequent corrective wishes—and before you know it, you’ve run out of options.

But that’s the point. To mindlessly lose options is: Just. Not. Good. Enough.

Principal sources

Phillips, A. (1994). On Flirtation: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Uncommitted Life. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.

————– (2004). On not making it up, Or the varieties of creative experience. Salmagundi, no. 143 (Summer): 56-75.

Stokes, A.  (1978). The Critical Writings of Adrian Stokes, Volume I: 1930-1937, Thames and Hudson: GB.

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