The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is a short book on what Pressfield believes to be behind being an artist and how to work to achieve that goal. It’s split into three sections which each detail Resistance (which Pressfield describes as the force that creates fear and creative blockages), how to combat Resistance, and how to use what you have at your disposal to go beyond Resistance.
I’ll start with what I liked (because there are far more things I disliked and sometimes baulked at). It’s a straightforward read, one that is short, and its language/structure is concise. It has a matter-of-fact tone that is convincing enough if I didn’t already have a strong understanding of craft/artistry. And finally, Pressfield’s prestige gives an air of authority that some people would find appealing.
However, the thesis and supporting arguments for Pressfield’s ideas on Resistance are framed and contextualized in bad taste. The title, The War of Art, frames the idea of creation and artistry as of a way to defeat/destroy/annihilate this unknowable force he calls Resistance. Personally, I dislike this idea because it places the reader in a mindset that to become a great artist, one must have a warlike attitude. It’s a very macho-esque and toxic view on how art is made. Its tone reads as if there is a winner and a loser, a war between good and evil, and gives no nuances. The way it’s written though makes sense because of his background in religion and his time in the Marines. Neither of those identities on their own merit rejection of his word, but it’s his synthesis of sin and Angels paralleling the writer and writer’s block, which leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t think art should be approached in an aggressive/combative mindset (it reminds me of the grindset tech bros and gym rats).
The first section of the book is focused on defining what Resistance is which still unsettles me. Pressfield explains that Resistance is the object that prevents us from producing art (I’m fine with that part) “…is the most toxic force on the planet.” and is itself worse than “…poverty, disease, and erectile disfunction.” (Literally what is he talking about?—and I won’t even approach the disingenuous way he groups those three ailments together). Later in the book he discusses that many times he goes about implying that even illness and cancer can be conquered (sometimes blaming companies of making up diseases, and other times describing cancer going into remission just because a woman decides to do what she loves). It’s a deceptive and icky tactic to try and give credit to the idea that it’s all about mindset and not about situation, poverty, disease, genetics, location, family, or any other factor that occurs in someone’s life. I am also deeply unconvinced of his logic when he says, “…it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.” If that were the case, then wouldn’t we have millions of current day Hitlers now as well? Also, I don’t think it's mutually exclusive for a person to either be an artist or someone who creates genocide.
The latter half of the book is written is a way to seem deep—to compel the reader to be an artist—and what is stopping them is Resistance and themselves. It’s the same thing that generic inspirational speakers and rat-tail Shia LaBeouf would say, which is to just do it. There’s discussion of Muses and God giving the gift of being creative, but at that point in the book I already knew it wasn’t worth putting weight behind Pressfield’s words. The one redeeming quality of the book is that it’s so short I don’t have to spend any more time thinking about his nonsense.
Final Rating: 1/5
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a novel set in the antebellum era about a black girl, Cora, who escapes from a plantation in Georgia and continues to run north toward freedom. Along the way, she meets people who work the Underground Railroad (a metaphor turned physical), abolitionists, slave patrollers, and hunters. Cora is victim to and watches the horrors of slavery, hangings, torture, and the worst of people as she tries to survive. It is a brutal and horrifying account, which feels like only a fraction of how terrible slavery was. As with any runaway slave, Cora is subjected to the unrelenting onslaught of a brutal slave catcher, Ridgeway, tasked with finding Cora. At every reprieve in South Carolina, Mr. Fletcher’s attic, the farm in Indiana, Cora is lulled into thinking she is safe, but she isn’t. She never is. The story ends with Cora finally killing Ridgeway and exiting a railroad tunnel, which acts as a physical embodiment of her freedom.
Whitehead intersperses Cora’s narrative with some of the people she meets along the way, such as Ridgeway, Caesar, Ethel, and her mother Mabel. Each one shows the depths of how gruesome their lives are and the never-ending way they are tied to slavery. It is a novel that doesn’t shy away from terror in how it describes moments like the torture of a man whose genitals are cut off and stuffed in his mouth. The novel is devastating, compelling, and powerful, but above everything else, terribly sad.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness by Kenzaburō Ōe is a collection of 4 novella length stories detailing strange occurrences and of people going mad. The first, ‘The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away’, is about a man who believes he has liver cancer and is describing to the nurse about his father (who died from bladder cancer), his grieving mother, the emperor, and his brother who was killed during the war. It is a fascinating and sometimes confusing story where the man used to look up to his father but has difficulties understanding his place in the world. The second story, ‘Prize Stock’, is about a boy in a village that has captured an American pilot who crash landed in the forest. The boy is apprehensive and curious about the American while they begin to get along. However, when the American is about to be given over to the Japanese military, the American holds the boy hostage, which ends in the killing of the American by the boy’s father. I was drawn in by the way the boy sees and interacts with the American and how he digests his father’s actions. The third story, ‘Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness’, is about a father whose son has a disability and is fierce in trying to protect the boy’s innocence. Though, at a zoo, the father feels helpless in trying to protect his son, and it starts cracking his understanding of himself. This particular story was based on Ōe’s own experiences with his disabled son. And finally, the last story, ‘Aghwee the Sky Monster’, is about a young man who helps out a composer haunted by his dead son in the sky. The young man helps the composer right his wrongs, destroy his work, and say goodbye to the places he loved before the composer attempts to kill himself by walking in front of a truck.
Each story is beautiful, haunting, and powerful in how death, grief, and terrible life circumstances affect and change the outlooks of the characters. It is painful to see how each character’s “madness” reveals itself and what they must do to right their wrongs. It is a collection of what it means to be a father, a son, and what happens when the world between the two falls apart.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
After the Banquet by Yukio Mishima is a novel about Kazu, a business owner of a restaurant in Japan, trying to get her husband, Noguchi, a retired politician, back into politics. Kazu meets Noguchi when one of Noguchi’s close friends collapses in her restaurant. The two seem unlikely, since Kazu is described as a more outgoing and talkative type, while Noguchi is a quiet older man. Kazu falls in love with Noguchi partially because of his demeanor and partially because she wants to be in a respectable grave like his family’s when she dies. Kazu, throughout Noguchi’s campaign, is seen as the mastermind and the one to sway people’s votes. Though, once the opposing party distributes pamphlets describing Kazu’s scandalous and predatory actions, Noguchi’s campaign loses. Arguments, and divorce ensue, with the final part of the novel ending where each character started: Kazu tending to her restaurant and Noguchi living in obscurity.
I loved how the novel worked to show the dynamic between not only Kazu and Noguchi, but also Kazu and her campaign partner, and finally Kazu and her old friend. As the novel went on, Kazu not only got more and more desperate, but also her endearing façade quickly crumbled. From the news of her early illegal campaigning to her past lovers, Kazu was always in a stew of controversy. Overall, the politics and the character dynamics were entertaining to watch unfold.
Final Rating: 4/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.