The Auto-Pygmalion and the New Creation
Our reaction to pain defines us. It tells us who we are. Do we suffer it in silence, or lash back? Do we endure it, seek it out, or scramble madly through life trying to avoid it? Is pain a good, a bad, or a morally neutral sensation?
From a purely physical standpoint, this is a relatively easy question to answer. Pain is the body’s warning that something isn’t right; that if you will insist on kicking that table in a fit of temper, you might end up with a broken foot. It’s something you evade, unless there’s a good reason to endure it, like a vaccination at the doctor’s. But emotional pain… that’s an entirely different kettle of fish. One cannot avoid it by living in a community, and one cannot exempt oneself by living outside of that community.
I don’t know what this pain is for, or whether it has the evolutionary advantage of physical pain. But like physical pain, our emotional response to pain, to grief, and to evil and loneliness delineates us, and allows us to carve out our own moral identity.
So, what are we? What does pain tell us about ourselves – and must we listen to it?
This is one of the central questions in the ongoing dialogue between science and religion – especially that argument that deals with the ethical cause and effects of pain. If God exists and created such unhappiness, why would he do so? Is he not supposed to be a loving parent? And if God does not exist, how can we find meaning and fairness in a world that is both directionless and unjust?
How we answer this question defines our approach to the world around us. What are we? Are we Galatea, or are we Pygmalion? The two answers are fundamentally different, and they encompass, in a mythological nutshell, the theist and atheist understanding of pain – and all the evil, and grief, and loneliness that pain entails.
Fittingly, both Galatea and Pygmalion come from the same story, and stand as opposites within that narrative. One creates, the other is created. Pygmalion is a legendary Cypriot figure – one of the finest sculptors that the world has ever seen, but a man who had never been in love. When he began his masterwork, a woman sculpted out of ivory, he created something so beautiful and so realistic that, for the first time, he fell in love with another being – he dresses her, brings her presents, and wishes with all his heart that she were real. He names her Galatea; but Galatea is unresponsive – a cold and empty image of a living woman. Desperate, Pygmalion prays to Venus, the goddess of love. Taking pity on him, Venus brings the statue to life – and every curve that Pygmalion has cut, every rounded plane that he has chiselled and sanded out of chill ivory breathes and lives and laughs – and cries.
C.S. Lewis used the Galatea solution in his approach to the problem of pain. He argued – in his own agony after the death of his wife – that the vivisection-feeling of pain and grief is the stroke of God’s chisel, and that we are the statues of his marvellous creation. That which pains us, horrifies and frightens us, is that which will make us perfect. Should Pygmalion cease to carve because in his uncovering he might hurt the ivory, knowing as he does the glory that ivory contains?
If we are Galatea then that pain is necessary, and will serve to make us extraordinary. What an image! To go through life slowly being uncovered; freed from a lesser substance, until finally we transcend the simple materials of our body and, through love, become something far greater than we were before. It’s a comforting idea, if you can make yourself believe in the ability and motives of the Sculptor. There is simply no other way to be Galatea – the statue cannot uncover itself. It is trapped, buried within a greater matrix, and needs outside intervention to emerge. As Galatea we can inflict pain upon ourselves, carve our own flesh, pare down to the bone – but that is not giving meaning to the existence of pain. It is only wallowing in sensation, and doesn’t serve to extricate us from that pain – it can only anchor us more firmly in it. As Galatea, we need a Pygmalion to give meaning to the experience.
But what of Pygmalion? Could we not be him instead, and create rather than be created? If so, what is it that substance we act upon?
To be Pygmalion is the atheist solution, and it hinges upon natural rather than directed creation – the evolutionist rather than the creationist, the self-portrait rather than the watchmaker. Pygmalion creates because he cannot help himself – he does not intend the life that is Galatea, but he exudes her because to do so is for him as natural as breathing. He must create.
If we shift Pygmalion into the natural world rather than the studio, and focus on that instinct to exude rather than to orchestrate, we can identify a very different picture. This Pygmalion, like Galatea, has no separate matrix with which to work. As atheists we cannot make men from clay or women from ivory, no matter how many gods and goddesses we pray to. The Pygmalion must use his own body to exude, as Galatea cannot to extricate. Instead of uncovering a body within a sculpted material, Pygmalion creates that material by exuding himself – but this time he does not need Venus as an intermediary. Instead of a human sculptor, we can see Pygmalion as the promise of sculpture, the original material.
Deep in the ocean, we can find deposits of chalk and limestone. Sea level change and tectonic effects may see these deposits become landlocked, where they are used, amongst other things, for art and architecture – including sculpture. These substances are made from the accumulation of billions of tiny plates of calcium carbonate. The plates are exuded by single-celled planktonic organisms; an infinity of tiny Pygmalions who, in the waters about Cyprus as elsewhere, produce sculptures so delicate and elaborate and strong that they last for millennia. The function of these plates – called coccoliths – is not yet completely known. They may be a defence against grazing and infection, a buoyancy mechanism, an ultraviolet filter… There are many theories for their existence, just as there are many theories explaining the artist’s need to create.
If this is the kind of sculptor that Pygmalion really is, then his experience of pain or evil is reflected in what he creates, in the body he exudes. What for the plankton might be changes in water temperature that dissolve the calcium they exude, or the presence of continental sediments that swamp the coccoliths and prevent them from accreting into chalk or limestone, or the collisions with other objects that break or damage their delicate spires, is for Pygmalion the hard knocks of life that affect the sculpture of the self. Perhaps this sculpture will be crushed into pieces, and left to sink into the depths where neither sunlight nor humanity can reach. Or perhaps this sculpture can avoid the existence of pain long enough to become perfect, a sterile, symmetrical shape more like the ivory of Galatea than the vessel of a living body. And perhaps… perhaps the flaws and imperfections of a sculpture that accepts the necessary pain of life and incorporates it – along with the concomitant joys and wonder of existence – will form a figure so human, and so glorious, that it will continue to exist, a memoriam to Pygmalion, for millennia after the statue of Galatea has weathered away.
For this enduring Pygmalion, the atheist Pygmalion, the auto-Pygmalion who has no salty Mediterranean goddess to call upon, the problem of pain is that of transforming a natural, inescapable sensation into a sculptured self-portrait, instead of being the willing material of another whose methods and motivations cannot be explored. For the auto-Pygmalion, pain is what you make of it. For Galatea, you are what pain makes of you.
For the auto-Pygmalion, pain is an essential part of art. For Galatea, pain is the tool of the Artist, but the end product does not include it. There may be more comfort to be gained by trusting the Artist, but I would argue that there is more dignity, more self-respect, and more creativity in trusting to self. If Pygmalion produces Galatea, then his other self, the auto-Pygmalion, produces the cathedrals that she sits in, her amphitheatres, her monuments… and her cemeteries.
Read more of Eva’s posts at her blog.