the second naïveté: notes about the artist who retreats

Below is a painting by Syd Barrett (1946-2006), a founding member of the English band Pink Floyd who left the group when he was young, and who lived quietly for the last thirty years of his life.

The painting is untitled (as far as I could determine) but its subject is clear; it evokes a sort of child-like fear by depicting primal and inexplicable violence.  Though its setting is historical, its style is hallucinogenic; its goal is not to achieve the sort of ‘perfect’ mimesis we might associate with realist paintings – an important fact in that it means we are invited to stray from literal interpretations.  We might interpret the painting literally, but we might also ask questions of it like, “Who is the crowd, and what do the lions represent?”

I want to speculate for a moment about this crowd, and these lions, in the context of Barrett’s personal history.  There is always a risk, when speculating, that what you impart to the object of your speculation will be a projection of your own imagination, rather than actualities.  But there is also value in speculation, provided that it springs from a sincere impulse (even a sincerely ironic impulse), and that it relies on arguments about which the arguer does not feel sentimental.  In any case, speculation is necessary if one wants to discuss a subject about which few facts are known.

I.

Pink Floyd is famous, but Syd Barrett is less famous.  That is, while his fame is cult-like, the band’s fame is more mainstream.  I mention this only to put Barrett in perspective.  Because what I want to say about him – and about the painting, in particular – can’t be understood except through his relationship to fame.

It would be simplistic to say Barrett left Pink Floyd for any one reason, but there is little question he disliked stardom.  He quit the band in 1968, after only four years, despite the fact that he was the primary reason for the band’s initial success.  It is generally stated that mental illness, exacerbated by the use of LSD, contributed to his departure, but this explanation, while relevant, has been criticized.  According to his sister, who was the only person to have regular contact with him after he quit the band, neither medication nor formal therapy were deemed appropriate for him, even after he saw a psychiatrist.  He was never institutionalized.  He led a normal life, making acquaintances with people in the town in which he lived.  This isn’t to suggest he was entirely sane, but rather that he seems to have chosen the conditions by which people would judge him insane.  In other words, his behavior was more inexplicable than abnormal.  After his death in 2006, his sister told the Sunday Times, “[He] may have been a bit selfish — or rather self-absorbed — but when people called him a recluse they were really only projecting their own disappointment.  He knew what they wanted but he wasn’t willing to give it to them.”

It’s in light of this view of Barrett that we might reconsider the painting – in particular, the crowd and the lions.  Because it is the crowd that can represent the “people” Barrett’s sister mentions, and the lions that can represent fame.  Together they oppress the artist, symbolized here by the children, who retreat toward the mother (or the mother figure).  The artist is thus endangered, rather than glorified; fame is a killer, and crowds are only interested in spectacle; they would call a “recluse” he who retreats.  Seen this way, Barrett’s departure from Pink Floyd has less to do with mental illness, or with drug use, than with the need to survive.

II.

Barrett is one of those figures (like J.D. Salinger) whose withdrawal from society contributed to (rather than diminished) his fame.  Below are two pictures of him, young and old.  Notice the shaved head, which first appeared after he left the band, and which was maintained for the rest of his life.

Like Salinger, Barrett broke with society in a way that suggested a sort of religious asceticism.  Whether the break was in fact religious is beyond speculation, but insofar as the pattern of his life suggests certain religious archetypes, it may be useful to discuss the possibility of it as such.  For instance, consider how his departure from the band occurred.  There were no histrionics, instances of violence, or even drama.  He simply became disinterested in playing.  Stories are told about how, during lives shows, he would strum one chord, repeatedly, or would put down his instrument mid-song, and quietly leave the stage.  This didn’t sit well with his bandmates, but for the most part they were sympathetic, because Barrett wasn’t impolite or self-righteous, and because he appeared to be suffering.  There doesn’t seem to have been that typical moment of confrontation, when he quit, or was asked to quit.  No one quite knew what was wrong with him.  One day, on the way to a gig, the band simply decided not to pick him up.  In this way, Barrett’s departure had the inevitability of a vocation.  After hanging around London for several years, and having run out of money, he walked back to Cambridge (a distance of 50 miles), where he’d grown up, and where he remained until his death, devoting himself to painting and gardening.

This isn’t to say Barrett had no options.  More than once he was offered recording contracts, but he turned them down.  He changed his name back to his given name, Roger (Syd was his stage name).  And the royalties he continued to receive from his Pink Floyd days accrued largely without being spent, so that by the time of his death his estate was worth £1.7 million.  In this way – in his apparent willingness to make do with little – his indifference seemed less that of the burned-out rock star than that of the contemplative monk.

III.

My intent is not to romanticize Barrett, or mental illness, but rather to suggest the possibility that his path, and the paths of similar artists, are progressive rather than regressive, or that his particular brand of regression was, in fact, a kind of progression.  Consider the ‘second naïveté,’ a theological concept derived from the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur.  It refers to a stage of belief that, in contrast to the ‘first naïveté’ (characterized by uncritical, childlike acceptance), can only be achieved after passing through an intensely rational or critical stage.  So that three distinct stages can appear – the first naïveté, the critical distance, and the second naïveté (a sort of return to, and maturation of, the first).

The trajectory of Barrett’s life can be described by these stages.  Consider his name.  In the first stage, as a child, he was known as Roger.  In the second stage, as a young adult, he went by Syd.  And in the third stage, he returned to Roger, though not without absorbing the consequences of the first two stages.  This adaptation of Ricoeur’s concepts to the changes in Barrett’s name might seem simplistic, but more so because it represents a simple, archetypal pattern, as opposed to a disregard for complexity.  The name Roger has a conventional quality that the young adult tends to rebel against.  Thus, Barret’s assumption of the name Syd (which he appropriated from another artist) suggests a departure from conventionality and innocence, a need for the ‘critical distance’ that, in Barrett’s case, was exemplified by his early days in Pink Floyd.  It’s important to note that this ‘critical distance,’ in Ricoeur’s view, is neither objectionable nor unnecessary, but rather something a person must process in order to advance to the second naïveté.  Thus, Barrett’s return to the name of Roger can signify a progression rather than a regression.  So can the shaving of his head, and the return to his hometown, both of which have the outward appearance of regression, but which, in the context of Ricoeur’s stages, suggest a reconciliation of faith and skepticism.

It’s possible to understand Barrett outside of this context; and insofar as the second naïveté is characterized by a revaluing of intellectualism, to dwell on it might seem absurd.  Yet still there is some value in doing so.

Many lives can be described in stages, but the lives of the mad, the saintly, and peculiar kinds of artists, bear a striking resemblance to the stages defined by Ricouer.  In such lives, there is an emphasis on unlearning, dispassion, and the creation of art for art’s sake.  Like Salinger, who is said to have continued writing following his withdrawal from society, Barrett continued to paint without selling or exhibiting his work.  He burned most of his paintings when he’d completed them, not because of bitterness or regret, but simply because he was involved in art primarily for the process.  He took photographs of them for mementos.  Through this sort of non-ambitious ethic, he recalls not only Salinger, but one of Salinger’s most important characters, Seymour Glass, who advised his younger brother to shine his shoes, even if no one is looking.

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19 thoughts on “the second naïveté: notes about the artist who retreats

  1. he did have a couple of solo albums after pink floyd.

    the ricouer idea sounds a lot like w. blake’s radical innocence.

    as a kid i would have nightnmares about lions. they would just be in the house, waiting, and rarely would they actually attack anyone. but that waiting around of them was terrible.

  2. what a wonderful, thoughtful, insightful post.

    the idea of first and second naivete is a new one to me, one i am very excited to explore.

    thank you for this, edward.

  3. I’ve been feeling this second naivete stage coming on, but I never knew there was a name for it. I think it’s been brought about by a need to rethink what’s really necessary, and not expend energy uselessly as I would have in my early 20s railing against conventions, because I just don’t have that energy anymore. It’s actually a similar stage as that rebellious one, though, I think. It’s about reducing waste. But it seems like in this stage, the reduction occurs with a positive tone, while in the younger phase, the reduction/rejection was tinged with negatives.

  4. What a great painting and a great post. I will say Syd breaks my heart, though. Not because he withdrew from society- that I can totally relate to and think some reclusive writers handle it well, like Ann Tyler or Pynchon–but because he seemed to be suffering. I worked with the mentally ill- so many of them really suffer on a profound lever. Which made me think of Sparklehorse’s recent suicide-

  5. Learned some things about an artist whose work I’ve always loved, but this is also a provocative essay on the more general theme it picks out.

    Also like the painting.

  6. Hi Edward,
    We think your words are beautiful. You really opened a generous alternative to a made up history. Thank you.

  7. Good deal Edward. His solo albums are really funky.

    I believe Robert Frank had a similiar about face. Though he still did films (which I think were pretty uneven), he hardly took pictures anymore. The Americans were just too popular.

  8. Excellent, Edward. I wonder if we could identify other artists that have entered their second naivete and created work that is publicly available (maybe Barrett is included in this group). In other words, second naivete without shunning a public presence.

    • Great question, John. I’d be interested to hear what others think.

      I would say Tolstoy entered a second naivete, yet he didn’t avoid the public eye the way Salinger and Barrett did. Maybe this was because he developed an evangelical tendency that compelled him to remain in the public eye, or at least to retain a platform from which to make known his ideas. In this sense, we might divide the second naivete further – into the contemplative and the evangelical. I’m not sure this is a helpful or accurate approach to the subject; certainly it isn’t the only approach. In any case, regarding Tolstoy, many would say that the final stage of his career did not produce his best art. On the other hand, the second naivete is not primarily an artistic designation; ultimately, its goals are spiritual.

      I think also of someone like David Lynch, who hasn’t withdrawn from the public eye, but whose work is so varied that it allows itself to be discussed in terms of stages (though not necessarily chronological stages). Some of his work suggests an affinity for the second naivete, whether or not he thinks of it as such. Consider a few of his characters – John Merrick from ‘The Elephant Man,’ Alvin Straight from ‘The Straight Story,’ and Agent Dale Cooper from ‘Twin Peaks.’ All three characters possess a sort of wizened simplicity. Their enthusiasms are childlike, yet they have the restraint of adults. This isn’t to say they are perfect, but rather that the mistakes they make can be understood as most frequently occurring when they depart from the conduct one might associate with the second naivete. Also notice that a great trauma – either psychological or physical – is involved in the identity of these characters, and has perhaps precipitated the second naivete in them.

      Andy Warhol is another, more recent artist who did not withdraw from the public eye, and who might be relevant to the discussion. I’m thinking of the outward simplicity of his artwork, but also of his persona, which involved a sort of non-argumentative and unfiltered acceptance of all encounters.

      • Thanks for posting this, Edward. Only caught up to it today. It warms my heart to see Paul Ricoeur applied to a (former) rock musician. (I’ve never really listened to Pink Floyd, but your description of Barrett’s work with the band intrigues me.)

        As for Lynch, I think he’s a rather crafty one. A friend and I were just discussing this the other day. My take on the man is that he understands that Americans, by and large, hate intellectuals, so why act like something that people hate? Meanwhile, it amuses them that he comes off as such a weirdo, and Lynch’s life is easier when people find his art weird/amusing rather than off-putting/experimental. I’m not saying it’s an act, and I certainly am not criticizing him—I approve strongly of what he’s gotten away with!—but I do think he’s up to something… As my friend said, Lynch is the most intellectual filmmaker out there who’s for some reason perceived as a non-intellectual… But his work is simply loaded with allusions to other films…but no one ever talks about him the way they do, say, Quentin Tarantino, or Woody Allen. Because Lynch doesn’t point out the dozens and dozens of references he’s making…

        …What brought this on was that my friend and I attended a midnight screening of THE WARRIORS, and the audience seemed to be responding to it as though it were some scruffy independent flick, when in fact it’s a pretty classically made studio B-movie by up-and-coming Hollywood insiders (Walter Hill, Frank Marshall). So we started discussing other filmmakers who are more inside than they give the impression of being, and who use that “outsider” stance to help buy audience appreciation.

        Anyway, thanks again!

        • I don’t know man. Who’s work isn’t loaded with allusions to other films. And I would argue that he has created many many more originals images than Quint. and Woody combined.

          You think it’s an act? I would bet he is closer to Agent Cooper than anything. That’s how he comes across, controlling sure. Superstitous – yes, read the Isabella autobiography. But there is the intuitive side. Watch the Inland Empire documentary. I think even if he is an intellectual I applaud him for not coming across as one in his films, (he’s projects masterfully), unlike say Godard who for all his visual calisthenics and uproar from 1959-1968, does so little for me now. The work , after that period seems a little vapid. Even the early stuff, I never feel the impulse to luxuriate in Breathless, whereas give me L’Avventura, Winter Light and Toyko Story again and again.

          • MULHOLLAND DR., to take but one example, *quotes* THE WIZARD OF OZ, MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON, GILDA, NOTORIOUS, SUNSET BLVD., MON ONCLE, CARNIVAL OF SOULS, LE MEPRIS, SYLVIA, PERSONA, ROSEMARY’S BABY, SANTA SANGRE, TWIN PEAKS, LOST HIGHWAY, and dozens of other films. The difference is that Lynch, unlike Tarantino and Allen, never points these things out in interviews. And as such no one ever really talks about them. But you can go through each of his films—especially his later films—and find dozens of quotes—not “allusions” or “references,” but actual quotes, where Lynch directly copies a character or a scene or a shot, or mentions a film specifically by name.

            I’m not criticizing Lynch for doing this. I consider originality overrated—and what’s original, anyway? Show me something original, and I’ll show you something that’s most like a reworking of something that that someone else has already been done—few people ever really *invent* anything, whole cloth. Even inventors take their inspiration from other places. It’s a continuity of innovation more than anything. For all Tarantino’s stealing, or Allen’s stealing, their films would never be confused with the things they’re stealing from.

            I’m just surprised that the people who talk about this in Allen’s and Tarantino’s respective films never seem to call Lynch out on it. Or try to explain how this very savvy intertextuality fits with his supposedly more naive/intuitive persona.

            I’m not saying that Lynch is acting, although of course he also is. (Everything’s an act. I’m acting right now.) But for some reason he’s not approached as an intellectual—more as some naive or outsider or intuitive artist. I think that’s partly due to the way he presents himself. For example, he’s claimed never to have seen Maya Deren’s work. Really? (I think he actually said, “I’ve never heard of that filmmaker.”) Despite having gone to art school, and having quoted from her films. Same thing with Jacques Rivette, whom he never acknowledges, and whom he steals from frequently. Unlike Tarantino and Allen, Lynch doesn’t advertise his influences. (He talks instead about how images come to him through meditation. And I believe that they do! He remembers, while meditating, the hundreds and hundreds of films that he’s seen!)

            My point is that, regardless of how Lynch talks about his own work, I don’t see why that has to be the way other people approach his work. Why have people bought his own presentation of himself so wholesale?

            Answer: because he’s charming. And savvy! But it’s a guileless guile—a good trick to learn, either consciously or unconsciously…

            One of the few articles I’ve seen that discusses this aspect of Lynch’s work is this one:

            Cinematic meaning in the work of David Lynch; Revisiting Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive.
            CineAction | June 22, 2005 | Vass, Michael

            The opening of it is online here:
            http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-137399400.html

            As for Godard, I prefer his later films to his earlier ones. On certain days. SAUVE QUI PEUT (LA VIE) has been my favorite of his films for a couple of years now, along with NOUVELLE VAGUE and JLG/JLG. Plus I seem to be the only person on earth who likes HAIL MARY.

            • This is a wonderful interview with Jacques Rivette:
              http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/16/rivette.html

              Like most French film interviews, it’s just someone (Frédéric Bonnaud) asking the subject to talk about various movies. (Not a bad thing!)

              I’ve found Rivette to be one of the most interesting directors who talks about other filmmakers. (And of course, before he was a director, he was a CAHIERS critic.) I don’t always agree with him (I don’t share his opinion of John Woo, for instance), but I always *understand* him, and appreciate his perspective. Better put: Rivette is incredibly *lucid* when discussing other directors—extremely articulate and insightful. (Rivette is also one of the few French directors who still watches and appreciates Hollywood films—and who shows us how to appreciate them. Some of them.)

              It’s such a shame Rivettes’s own great films, made over his incredible 50-year career, aren’t better known in the US. Lynch has stolen endlessly from him (check out CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING—if you can even find it!); more directors should. VA SAVOIR remains one of the greatest films of the 2000s. And OUT 1 is perhaps the greatest “unseen” film ever made. (The screening I attended was, I think, the 20th ever.) That’s a film that is desperately needed on DVD!

              What’s also amazing about Rivette is how the lack of attention paid to his work—plus the lack of distribution—doesn’t seem to faze him. He’s the only New Waver who never became famous (and Rivette is possibly even the greatest New Waver—second, perhaps, only to Godard)—and he doesn’t seem to care. He just keeps working. So many other artists would crumble!

              I’m going to get to see his latest, AROUND A SMALL MOUNTAIN, in two weeks. Very exciting!

              To try to tie this back to the original post: When Rivette’s films are finally seen more widely, they’ll change everything that’s been believed about cinema for the past forty years. (Well, for many people.) Without his work, we are in between naiveties. The French New Wave, for instance, is only partially understood here in the US. PARIS BELONGS TO US is needed to fully explain what it even was. So’s OUT 1.

              • Thanks, Adam, for linking to that article on Lynch, and for pointing the discussion in the direction of some movies, and the interview.

                To diminish the role of Lynch’s intellect in the creation of his films would be, I think, to underestimate the role of the intellect in the creation of art in general. I hope I didn’t do this. Even a naivist knows when and how to use the intellect. There’s intent, or purpose, or order, in all art; without it, we have chaos. I don’t think that what I’m saying is surprising, but I mention it because I want to draw attention to the fact that artists like Lynch (and maybe he isn’t the best example I could have chosen) reconcile intuition and logic in a way that is intensely disciplined. My impression of these artists is that they are less concerned with subject than with some kind of balance between intuition and logic, or faith and reason; the subject they choose just happens to be the vehicle by which they explore this very complex balance. This isn’t to say that subject is unimportant, but rather that their treatment of a subject is consistent with something central in their personality or worldview. I think INLAND EMPIRE is probably the Lynch movie that best represents this idea insofar as the subject of the movie is extremely elusive.

                • Hi Edward,

                  I’m glad you don’t mind my having gone off on something of a tangent in the comments!

                  I wasn’t trying to criticize your reading of Lynch. I think he presents a real puzzle. He’s of course very intelligent, very well-educated…but then he doesn’t conform to the standard conception we have of the intellectual. I think he’s rather a refreshing blend of intuition and intellect. In that regard I definitely agree with you.

                  Although I do also suspect him, to some degree. Out of all the artists I know, the craftiest ones are often those who have studied at art academies. They often learn there, I think—they’ve been learning this since Warhol—and I think they learn this more by osmosis than by conscious instruction—the value in selling oneself as an outsider, a weirdo, anything other than an intellectual/hyper-educated art student. And I think Lynch knows this as well as any of my art student friends do.

                  INLAND EMPIRE presents a fantastic example of this, and what I’m talking about. I’ve seen that film only once so far, but I was extraordinarily impressed with how fluently Lynch was pulling on all of his influences, yet re-presenting them in a way I’d never seen him do before—indeed, that I’d ever seen anyone do. It’s simultaneously intuitive and erudite. (And why need those two things be in conflict?) Lynch strikes me as someone who has so totally absorbed his education and influences that they can emerge from him in completely new configurations.

                  Consider SUNSET BLVD. (1950). Lynch has said on many occasions that it’s his all-time favorite film; who knows how many times he’s seen it by now? And the subtext of SB is that Gloria Swanson is now being served by Erich von Stroheim, who directed her in QUEEN KELLY (1929). And Swanson became appalled at von Stroheim’s screenplay, in which, halfway through, she was to become a prostitute in Africa. And so she fired him from the project. The film was never really finished, and the debacle wrecked both their careers.

                  Wilder, in a brilliant coup, cast both Swanson and von Stroheim in SUNSET BLVD. Now, von Stroheim was Swanson’s servant. And when Swanson asks von Stroheim to show William Holden something of hers, from her glory days, he projects a scene from QUEEN KELLY (which was unreleased at the time). It’s a very complicated and tortured moment: both Swanson and von Stroheim are reliving their glory days, and asking: “What might have been?” Swanson, on screen, recites the line (in intertitles): “Cast out this wicked dream that has seized my heart.” It’s one of the most powerful moments ever recorded in film.

                  In INLAND EMPIRE, Lynch casts Laura Dern as an actress in a failed film that’s starting over. And the film is, on one hand, about all the things that go on behind the scenes that prevent films from being made. Will this film ever be made? Or will it fall victim to the curse as well? And so on.

                  Later in the film, about halfway through, Dern mysteriously becomes a prostitute working in a foreign country. We don’t know how she got there—although certainly we don’t know how Swanson would have gotten there, either, in von Stroheim’s QUEEN KELLY. (The plot is rather arbitrary—she goes and lives with a dying relative who runs a brothel. It’s just a mere excuse for von Stroheim’s elaborately sensual and decadent mise-en-scene.)

                  And then, in what’s my favorite moment in INLAND EMPIRE, Lynch has “the Lost Girl,” a Polish prostitute, recite (on a TV screen that Dern is watching, if memory serves) Swanson’s line: “Cast out this wicked dream that has seized my heart.” She’s even praying, surrounded by candles, just like Swanson was! And Lynch subtitles it, an ingenious nod toward QUEEN KELLY’s intertitles.

                  There are dozens of other references throughout to SUNSET BLVD. and QUEEN KELLY. For instance, when Dern’s character (one of them) finally “dies,” she runs down…Sunset Blvd. Where of course she doesn’t really die. (No one dies on Sunset Blvd.—not even William Holden, who narrates from beyond the grave.) (I keep meaning to watch all three films in a row. That would be most enlightening!)

                  People often find Lynch’s work confounding, and INLAND EMPIRE is anything but a transparent film, and Lynch is of course rather intuitive, but he draws so heavily on film and film history! Like I said: intutive and yet erudite. His films are amazingly intertextual, and the better one knows his references, the more the films open up, and become richer.

                  The man has been making films about films for decades now, just like Tarantino, just like Allen. He just does it without pointing out his references.

                  Cheers,
                  Adam

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