What is an artist? What is his or her role in society? According to the 1994 edition of The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, an artist is “one who practices an art”. And what is art? Art is “the use of skill and imagination in the production of things of beauty [or the] works so produced”. These definitions are proving less than useful. As Socrates pointed out thousands of years ago, beauty cannot be accurately defined, and, in the last century, numerous movements such as pop art, body art, and cubism have been rejecting the notion of art as beauty.
I mentioned in my review of Lady Oracle that Margaret Atwood seems to perceive the artist (for the purposes of that book at any rate) as a reflection of chaos. Margaret Laurence offers a different view in her novel The Diviners, though its main character’s artistic evolution stems from a similar need to escape. As the adopted daughter of a garbage man and an obese woman, Morag is introduced at an early age to the cruel criticisms of the Manawaka townsfolk. She ends up isolating herself from the rest of the world, wearing rejection like a badge: “The teachers hate her. Ha ha. She isn’t a little flower, is why. That will be the day, when she tries to please a living soul.” Morag eventually leaves her hometown in the hopes of eluding the past.
However, unlike Joan form Lady Oracle, Morag doesn’t let pain be the driving force behind her artistic development: “I am deficient in faith, although let’s face it, Catharine, if I didn’t have some I would not write at all.” Her quest for meaning is what motivates her to write. She discovers that people enjoy her novels and stories. This gives her a sense of purpose: “She perceives that not even for Dr. Skelton can she write a story which wasn’t there to be written. A humbling thought, but not daunting. Nothing will ever daunt her again.”
The Diviners follows Morag’s artistic evolution and struggle for independence as she learns more and more about her place in the world. Soon our protagonist begins to understand the relativity of truth. Because the past affects the way we react to the present and our reaction to the present affects how we perceive the past, there are endless ways of telling and remembering a same event: “Am I only interpreting her through my own experience?”
This question, or rather its philosophical implication, drives much of the novel. As she begins to grasp the powerful impact the past has over our lives, Morag begins to learn from her experiences. For example, after her failed marriage with Brooke, she learns to accept her nomadic nature and chooses a companion more suited to her needs: Jules Tonnerre. Because of her growing understanding of the relationship between time, truth, and life, Morag evolves as a person at the same time she develops as a writer, gaining wisdom and perspective, until she can “look ahead into the past, and back into the future, until the silence.”
That, you see, is the role of the artist: to share and define his or her particular view of the world and, in turn, let the world define his or her perception. Morag grows and matures with her work so that both end up carrying with them a unique understanding of subjective truth, the sort that can lead to a centuries-old debate on the definition of art. Anyway, all this to say I should start using another dictionary.