“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”
– Bertrand Russell
It is often said that, as a writer, you can write “for the ages” or you can write “for today.” For a writer, such consideration may manifest in making one’s narrative more interesting, personally relatable and easily digestible to a majority of contemporary readers; eschewing complex ideas demanding a high degree of intellectual engagement; or perhaps considering as less important such things as abstraction, timelessness or the aesthetics of language.
In photography, and especially in the day of social media, there is a similar balance to be struck between pursuing generally appealing and obvious eye-candy aesthetics and recognizable subjects, and such things as expressive intent, compositional complexity, subtlety and nuance, the use of visual metaphors, or extending the visual story beyond a single image.
Novice writers are often admonished to not attempt to write “for the ages” before accomplishing a degree of maturity, experience, insight and skill… or at all. Keen audiences and critics in any discipline likely are familiar with the phenomenon of budding creators trying too hard—and too obviously—to mimic, compete with, or rise to the level of more experienced “masters” possessing greater expressive powers and command of their medium.
Although many of us undoubtedly benefit from works of genius whose relevance outlasted their creators, it is not clear to me that such an outcome is a result of deliberate intent, nor that a significant portion of these creators even cared about the ages when pursuing their work. Certainly some did, but I feel safe in saying that such intent is not a universal common denominator. What likely is shared among all, or at least a majority, of these creators, is that they approached their work with seriousness and reverence, as a personal calling, as something meaningful and worthwhile, whether they pursued it for self-interest, popularity, profit, altruism or vanity. And I am confident in saying that without such seriousness, and the inner rewards of doing meaningful work, it is unlikely that such work would become worthy of the ages.
Whether one decides at a point in time to create work for today or for the ages, my advice may be a rather odd one: when you feel sufficiently confident in your work, forget about such considerations altogether. Instead, create the kind of work that is calling to you, and that is interesting and meaningful to you, and without regard to whether it is well received in your time or in the future, or ever. This is because either approach ultimately means creating with the intent of being judged by others, rather aiming to maximize inner reward.
The products of creative work indeed may be emotionally rewarding when they are well received, and certainly may be rewarding in a material sense if they generate a profit, however I believe that there are much different and more profound rewards to be found in the work itself and in the ways it affects the creator’s character and living experience.
As I write these words I am listening to the calls of various birds and insects scattered in the landscape around me. I spent the last three days camped in a forest clearing by the edge of an alpine lake on top of a lofty volcanic plateau high above the sandstone desert. Around me, a forest of fir and spruce trees still harbors patches of snow in its darker recesses. The meadow I’m in is dotted with new blooms: buttercups and dandelions, penstemons and columbines, sky pilot and prairie smoke, and many others. Butterflies hover among the flowers, on occasion a fish jumps out of the little lake, and a chorus of coyotes offered their song on each of the preceding evenings.
I am surrounded by the products of times and forces far exceeding what I know or can imagine, let alone can relate to from personal experience. It just so happens that I get to witness this scene at a time in the planet’s history marked by the dominion of intelligent apes, one of which I happen to be.
This volcanic plateau was formed a few million years ago, quite a bit earlier than my particular species of ape—the only, and likely last, surviving member of its genus—has been in existence, yet still a fairly short blip in the immense span of geologic time. On such scale, this volcanic plateau that I stand on will soon wash away into the Pacific Ocean in just another blink of the geologic eye.
After it is gone, and likely for several hundred million years after the last of the apes have departed, new life forms will continue to evolve that are beyond my ability to envision. A couple of billion years later, this planet and the star whose light now illuminates my day will also be no more. This will come to pass with as much certainty as anything we know, and what may come after we can so far only speculate. All our stories and dramas, politics and beliefs, cultures and empires, sciences and arts, indeed our very existence as living beings and as arrangements of particles, will some day be erased beyond recall and there is not a thing we can do to change that.
It follows that for a living being there is no absolute value in anything other than those experiences found within the interval of conscious existence. In determining the best way to invest one’s living moments, one must first confront the overwhelming evidence for the utter unimportance of all things save for subjective experience; and subjective experience is only possible within what is, by any objective measure, a very brief span of time.
Because to the ages, by the only definition of the term that is not arbitrary, none of us means anything. We are part of the cosmic churn, and although we may influence it in some small ways, such influence is ultimately of no consequence to us as individuals.
I find it eminently useful to consider the ages on the scale of cosmic time—the only scale that is not arbitrarily bound—because when translated into practical decisions on how to create, indeed how to live, it leads to profoundly different priorities than those that may ensue from such constrained considerations as popularity, legacy, fame, or even righteousness. What good are these if in the course of their pursuit one ends up spending their all-too-short existence in the throes of bitterness and anxiety, anger and frustration?
In biological terms, our species has accomplished many firsts, perhaps the most notable of which is what we consider to be our high intelligence relative to other life forms. Intelligence can be compared with the sense of sight: both make possible knowledge and perceptions that would not be possible otherwise, and that can be used to great benefit. Indeed the first creatures to evolve a sense of sight had tremendous advantage over other forms of life. Still, our sense of vision today is far and beyond what those first sighted creatures had. It is likely that our intelligence similarly is a first, rather than the ultimate, of its kind. It is quite likely that more evolved versions of intelligence are yet to evolve once we vacate the top spot.
We are a species in transition, beholden to a large degree to our primitive psyche, evolved as to improved the biological fitness of our ancestors, but we are also the first species capable of deriving more value from existence than just satisfying our material needs and passing on our genes.
Put another way: we may well be the first species in a position to consider not only our fitness for the world, but also the world’s fitness for us.
So long as we allow our primitive urges to trump those things we know by intellect to make our living experience more worthy, we are very likely to bring about our own extinction. But that’s ok; evolution likely will correct these mistakes in time, whether in the form of yet more advanced apes or some other. Such is the unrelenting ruthlessness of evolution as it unfolds over the ages. “Mother” nature’s design is to kill all its children, sometimes in horrific ways, so they can be continually replaced with “better” versions. So long as there is room for improvement, evolution will improve; and what rational mind can suggest that there is not room for improvement in the human species?
Among the modes of thought considered as “common sense” is allegiance to some collective—whether a culture, a country, or our species. Many align their sense of goodness and purpose with what’s good for “humanity,” or “life,” cited in the abstract. Admittedly, I do not feel invested in what empire rules the human world a thousand years from now; nor whether, a million years from now, the highest form of life on Earth is an intelligent ape like me or an intelligent (or unintelligent) insect, or some other life form, or whether the Earth harbors any life at all.
There is no rational reason why I should care about, or even consider, the ages in my work. What I do care about are the fates of those living today. But I also do not create explicitly for their benefit, although such benefit is a common and welcome side effect.
This may seem a pessimistic view, but in fact I believe the opposite to be true because it implies that we should free ourselves from the constraints of worrying about things that we have no rational reason to worry about. Also, as it turns out, when one seeks to elevate their individual living experience, he or she often also makes a positive contribution to the enlightenment of humanity, and more directly to the individual experiences of people who find value in the work, ideas, and whatever social changes may ensue from those.
It is important to note that this view is not meant to preach hedonism. Indeed such things as altruism, gratitude, humility, courage, dignity, curiosity, love, and honor are all among the things that may make one’s life meaningful, and at times require great difficulty and sacrifice.
And so, beyond the practicalities of making a living, I believe that the greatest benefit, both inner and outer, of creative endeavors is to be found when one works in the most personal and unconstrained way possible, not beholden to any externally dictated style, fashion, tradition or subject matter, and without regard to whether such work may survive some arbitrary definition of the ages. If it makes the creator’s life meaningful, it already serves a high purpose.
About the author: Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist based in a remote part of Utah. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art. You can see more of his work on his website, blog, Facebook, and Twitter. This article was also published here.