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Élan Vital

From: Ecotone
Volume 6, Number 1, Fall 2010
pp. ix-xi | 10.1353/ect.2010.0029

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

ix Where did we come from? Where are we going? These questions are like an itch between the shoulder blades, near enough to scratch at yet unreachable no matter how far you stretch. While we don’t know the answers in the profound sense we yearn for, we do know them in the most basic sense. Apart from test-tube babies, we all have our origins in a particular sex act, and we’re all headed for the dirt. Philip Roth, the American writer who brings sex and death together most often and most credibly, reminds us in his novel The Dying Animal that sex is “based in your physical being, in the flesh that is born and the flesh that dies.” What is the result? “Only when you fuck,” he says, “is everything that you dislike in life and everything by which you are defeated in life purely, if momentarily, revenged. Only then are you most cleanly alive and most cleanly yourself.” He grants that the power of sex is limited and counsels us never to forget death. But far from being “just friction and shallow fun,” sex, for Roth, is “the revenge on death.” Sex is the middle finger to death. “Tell me,” he insists, “what power is greater?” As usual, Roth is pretty convincing. But what interests me most is the provenance of our indomitable drive, not just for sex but for all manner of creative acts. Because when we say, for instance, that we’re putting together here an issue about sex and death, we might as well say we’re putting together an issue about life and death. What is the source of that drive? The explanation with the most staying power for me is that thing the philosopher Henri Bergson called “élan vital.” Put crudely, Bergson’s elegant theory goes like this: from the very beginning of matter, there’s been a vital force—a life impulse—immanent in all organisms, and this élan vital, which is responsible for evolution, spurs us forward in a never-ending fashion. “The animate forms that first appeared,” Bergson writes in Creative Evolution, were “possessed of the tremendous internal push that was to raise them even to the highest from the editor Élan Vital x ecotone forms of life.” Explosif is a word he’s fond of. And Bergson reminds us that “the direction of this action is not predetermined; hence the unforeseeable variety of forms which life, in evolving, sows along its path.” That description of élan vital works for the majority of artists I know, too. In keeping with Bergson’s “unforeseeable variety of forms,” most writers would say that they, like nature, don’t know where they’re heading when they start out, either. They’re following an impulse. But if art itself is endlessly varied, our ideas about what it’s for haven’t necessarily changed all that much over time. More than two millennia ago, Aristotle told us that if art was to produce a catharsis, which he considered its highest aim, then it had to incite two things: pity and fear. We haven’t departed from that model a whole lot. Pity, you’ll remember, is aroused by a person’s unmerited misfortune ; fear, by the misfortune of a person like ourselves. When a piece of art gives us both, that’s when we’re decimated in nourishing ways. The best work still seeks to fulfill this ancient sense of catharsis. In this issue, for instance, Terry Tempest Williams addresses what it means to deal with a cavernoma on her brain that if operated on could result in her loss of language comprehension, but that if left alone could end her life at any time. John Rybicki laments the loss of his wife, Julie, in three poems that scour the heart. She survived seventeen years of cancer , including seven relapses and two bone marrow transplants, before she succumbed in 2008. In the aftermath of her death, John lost their home, due to the crushing debt that had piled up in the many years of unpayable medical bills. Am I to give thanks for human suffering, he once wrote, when out of it...