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Essay

Art and the Religious Sense

To say that someone is “only human” is to say two things at once. We mean that person is flawed—and that this condition is no more than we should expect. Yet for all our awareness of human frailty and venality, we are haunted by visions of human flourishing, fullness rather than lack. How do we preserve an understanding of human nature that avoids reductionism? How do we steer a course between those who say that human nature is merely a social construct and those who depict it in cartoonish and rigidly moralistic terms? And what to make of what Luigi Giussani has called “the religious sense,” that perennial human response to the mystery of existence? We asked a group of artists and writers from a variety of genres how they think the arts enlarge our sense of the human calling. How do the arts reveal the blend of glory and tragedy that is our existential inheritance? What role do the arts play in defining our nature? We also asked what works had challenged or defined their sense of what it is to be fully human, and how the creative challenges they face have informed their approach to these questions. Their responses are collected here.

 

Stanley Hauerwas: Theology

To Be Made Human

I HAVE never trusted the language of “being human.” In The Peaceable Kingdom I even wrote a section entitled “Why Being Christian Is Not Equivalent to Being Human” in response to a Catholic moral theologian who had written that “the fundamental ethical command imposed on the Christian is precisely to be what he or she is. ‘Be human.’” He developed that claim by observing that Christians have nothing to say about what it means to be human that moral philosophers have not already said. Such a view seemed quite strange to me given Jesus’s command that we are to follow him—even to the cross.

Yet I also believe, in the words of Herbert McCabe, who was also a Catholic moral theologian, that “the claim that Jesus is perfectly human is the claim that his social world is co-extensive with humanity, that he is open to all men and moreover open to all that is in man.” McCabe, who had a way with words, even suggests that Jesus, not Adam, is the first human being. Jesus is so not as some ideal, but rather he is what we were created to be.

McCabe develops this by calling attention to the significance of language for the constitution of what it means to be human. Accordingly he suggests we can compare the coming of Jesus to the coming of a new language. Jesus offers himself as the author of a new kind of communication among people. He is not offering a blueprint for a new society which we may or may not choose to realize. He is offering himself as the Word who alone is capable of creating a community that offers a new way in which human beings can be free to live lives in which self-giving becomes an alternative to victimization.

The name for that community, McCabe argues, is “church.” The task of such a community, according to McCabe, is to remember the future. We are able to do this because Christ’s resurrection makes the future our present. The church then makes the presence of Christ articulate as a language, as an interpretation of the world, by being for the world the means of communicating this reality. The resurrection, of course, is not restricted to the church, because through the resurrection the world is forever changed. The church exists, therefore, to make articulate the difference the resurrection makes so that the world can see its true character. To be baptized is not, therefore, only to become a member of the church, but to participate in the sacrament of humanity.

What I find so useful in the way McCabe develops the theme of “being human” through the learning of a new language is the necessary stress on the importance of training for being human. The problem with “being human” is that such a claim seems to make being human a status rather than a task. But to be human is a task because, if McCabe is right, we learn to be human only by learning how to communicate. So to be human is to learn how to speak and listen. In Christ, we learn that those who have ears may not listen and those who have eyes may not see. This new language requires something more than physiology. To learn the language of the spheres, to learn the language of a world redeemed by cross and resurrection, requires training.

Artists, I think, often exemplify the kind of training that is at the heart of learning to be human. Through the practice of their craft they learn that we do not see the world just by looking, but we must be trained to see the world and remember we are part of the world, truthfully. The world does not look redeemed, though we know it has been redeemed through Christ; it takes some training so to see the beauty of that redemption. Artists, who must learn to submit to the medium in which they work, demonstrate the kind of training necessary for any of us to see the world rightly.

The necessary emphasis on process for a well-trained artist is one of the reasons I think it a mistake for the arts to be distinguished from the crafts. I was raised to be a bricklayer. That means I have little patience with those who think that labor at a craft has nothing to do with what we call art. When art is isolated from the work of crafts, art too easily becomes a specialized activity serving no one but the artist. To remember that art is a craft is to remember that art is not an end in itself; rather art serves to reflect, often quite critically, the traditions of a people. Indeed art is one of the traditions of a people.

The distinction between arts and crafts can also isolate the “arts” and “artist” from the everyday. The modern emphasis of the “creative” or “inspired” character of art may rightly be an attempt to save the artist from crude utilitarian justifications of art, but such an emphasis may also isolate the artist from the everyday struggle of people to survive. Artists often must challenge the everyday and the “normal,” but everything depends on how the normal is understood. If the “normal” is Christ, I see no reason why artists should think of themselves as alienated from the life of the church, as the church is where we are trained to see Christ.

To learn to be human requires that we learn to see the world without fantasies and illusions. Thus my oft-made claim, a claim learned from Iris Murdoch with a slight emendation, that “we can only act in the world we can see, but you cannot see by looking because we can only see what we can say.” To see the world, to see ourselves in the light of the resurrection, means that Christians cannot help but discover that our language is inadequate for the task. That is why poetry is so important for the work of theology. For the poet is in an ongoing struggle to find the words necessary to say what cannot be said.

Saying, however, cannot be restricted to words, but comes also in the form of color and shape. As much as I love to read, the plastic arts are important to me. Paula, my wife, and I have been particularly fortunate to have a friend, Bill Moore, who is a sculptor. He works in diverse mediums, but we are captivated especially by his marble sculpture because in his hands the heaviness of the rock is transformed into a beautiful and gentle lightness.

A casual remark Bill once made brought home to me why I find his sculpture so deeply moving. He told us that he was still working on a piece that I had assumed had long been “finished.” I suddenly realized that he was still working on it because for him the rock was alive. It is not that the piece “needed” something else, but that the rock reached out to him; it continued to speak to him. As a result, I suspect few of his sculptures are ever finished from his perspective. After all, the sculptures change constantly as the sun rises and new shadows emerge, giving them new life Bill had not seen. He therefore never ceases to be surprised by how his work turns out, because often how it turns out does not seem to be his doing.

In an odd way I respond to Bill’s work in a way similar to that of Georgia O’Keefe. Looking into the center of almost any of her flowers I often think, “that is what creation looks like.” The boiling, serene beauty she depicts is not “back there” but right here. She trains us to see that God’s creation is in that flower. Bill helps me see that the rock is filled with similar power and energy that testifies to the goodness of being a creature.

I think that is why his work in stone seems so light. His forms float yet never hide that they are rock. Truth matters after all. Bill’s abstracts twirl and intersect as if to say, “Can you believe I can do this?” His sculptures have the exuberance of children who ask us to watch them jump rope time and time again. The repetition never becomes boring because they are never afraid of being surprised. It is the same joy that comes from the surprise that every morning the sun comes up as if to say, “What fun.”

My understanding of Bill’s work may seem, particularly to him, too spiritual, but there is a calmness in his sculpture that seems characteristic of those long schooled in prayerful meditation. “Calmness” may not be quite the right word, though I find having his sculptures around makes me calm. They reach out and say, “Stay still for awhile,” and I do stay for awhile.

Perhaps a better word to describe what I take to be the character of Bill’s work is gentleness. The stone never cries out in pain. Creation does not mean our alienation from God but rather our being united to God through difference. Bill’s curves and angles have dramatic force which reminds me that the beauty of the curve next to the significance of the angle reflects the beauty of the universe itself.

Yet Bill’s work does not try to hide the cracks in our existence. There is no attempt to suggest through these forms that life is easy. Ours is a hard world filled with pain. Such pain, however, can be borne through the discovery of “seeing.” We must come to see how the line intersects the curve, how the black becomes blue and then suddenly white, making our world at once exciting and marvelous—and wonderfully funny. I particularly like, for example, his sculpture Origami, a thin tower of folded angles, who asks us to laugh with her as she reveals that rock too can be folded.

It may seem strange for me, a theologian whose work is primarily word work, to be so taken with the work of a sculptor, but if we must be trained to be human I think an attraction to sculpture is not all that odd. Art is but another way God has enabled us to communicate—that is, to participate in this new language introduced in Christ. Bill’s work helps me see the sheer contingency of this rock, my life, and creation itself. Beauty is the name we rightly give to that which did not have to be but is. Bill’s work has helped train me to wait before, to enjoy, God’s good creation.

Duke Divinity School has a new chapel for which Paula and I commissioned Bill to create a processional cross. The bronze Christ is gaunt, but also beautiful. Fittingly, it reminds us that the beauty of the cross is meant to beckon us into friendship with God. For in the cross God refuses our refusal of friendship. On the cross, as McCabe suggests, Christ overwhelms our determined isolation and claims us as friends by making communication possible. I believe with all my heart that artists participate in God’s determination to make us human. That is why art is so close to prayer. Or, put more strongly, art may be a form of prayer through which we are made human.
Stanley Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at the Divinity School of Duke University. His most recent book is Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, co-authored with Romand Coles.

 

Makoto Fujimura: Visual Art

Withoutside: Transgressing in Love

IN 1992, Jeffrey Deitch, an influential Soho Gallery owner, curated an exhibit called Post Human. In the catalogue he wrote:

What we do know is that we will soon be forced by technological advances to develop a new morality. We will need to build a new moral structure that will give people a framework of how to deal with the enormous choices they will have to make in terms of genetic alteration and computerized brain enhancement. We will have to face decisions not only about what looks good, but what is good or bad about the restructuring of the mind and body. The limits of life will no longer be something that can be taken for granted. We will have to create a new moral vision to cope with them. In the future, artists may no longer be involved in just redefining art. In the post-human future, artists may also be involved in redefining life.

Twenty-first-century artists need to consider what it means to be fully human in the context of Jeffery Deitch’s provocative and alert observation. The artist’s role, if Deitch is correct, is about to shift radically from redefining art to redefining life itself. Thus, the arts must begin to synthesize with ethics, the sciences, and philosophy; artists are confronted with both the terrors of that reality and the responsibility of that calling.

This call will require a new paradigm for thinking about our arts, and as we face that future, I fear we are not equipped for its complexity and explosive realities. But it is, as Deitch reminds us, a road we have embarked on already.

We cannot begin to redefine life without invoking questions about its creator. We must begin with the ontological quest to understand the creator’s role in speaking life into existence and sustaining it. The arts did not fully reject this ontology until recently. Up to the end of the twentieth century, we could rest on the memory of the Judeo-Christian heritage. Now, as the memory fades, we may need a more radical strategy.

As contemporary art has sought to enlarge her borders, she has claimed unlimited territory for the sake of freedom of expression, often using shock as a means to draw attention to herself. In a recent catalogue accompanying an exhibit of installation art by Matthew Barney at the Guggenheim, curator Nancy Spector notes Barney’s intent to blur the distinctions established in the Genesis creation story one by one: between dark and light, water and land, animal and human. For the artist to “contest the laws of differentiation is thus to challenge the very word of God,” she writes.

As freedom of expression became an overriding goal, any boundary-making—especially respect for the Genesis distinctions or any other biblical categories—came to be seen as anti-freedom and anti-art. I contend that this has impoverished rather than enriched the artistic language of our day. We have tied ourselves into ideological knots and surfeited on trickery, rather than embarking on a true exploration of expressive borders. We have dehumanized ourselves in our obsessive focus on self-expression.

What if we saw limitations as the beginning of our creative acts? What if we saw the boundaries of life (and death) as the starting point of our discussion? If we honor these realities, paradoxically, only then may we see beyond them. The incarnation teaches us that limitations can be a catalyst for freedom. Jesus, Paul writes, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing.” By humbling himself, he lifted all of us broken human beings with him. To follow Christ is to recognize and honor the limits of being human: less is more.

In his long poem Jerusalem, William Blake coins the word “withoutside.” In the poem’s complex mythology, the giant Albion is a sort of idealized primeval man. At the crisis point, Blake writes that Albion’s children, who are “raging against their Human natures,” “now appear withoutside.” It’s an apt word. Wrestling with our full humanity demands constant movement between two poles encompassed by Blake’s coinage: we need boundaries, as in with/outside, and we need to celebrate freedom, as in without/side. As we do, perhaps it is possible to expand the borders of art at both ends of the spectrum, toward both human potential and human brokenness. But our first call is to turn away from the excess of our past and turn instead toward humble human acts—like planting a tree, or cooking together. Then, paradoxically, we must also seek excellence. We must reach toward the far constellations of artistic promise and pursue generative cures for the ailing and impoverished language of art.

The first part of this journey, the with/outside, will involve a willingness to accept restrictions on choice, and to honor traditions and communities. This will allow the roots of our expressions to grow deep. We may need to pause and give birth (perhaps literally) in order to be human now. Raising children and other disciplines of not making art may be the art forms of our new century. They could be the most transgressive art of our times. For if our starting point is no longer only our capacity to make (an Aristotelian definition of art), but also our capacity to destroy (as in the Manhattan project), in the aftermath, our Ground Zero lives should begin anew with the basics. In such a time, our songs may sound more like lamentation than celebration. As we face the sinister forces at work in culture, our strategy may seem invisible to the powerful, helpless as a newborn, our focus localized to the minute particulars of our daily lives. Rebellion may look like ordinary human activities simply done in faith. We are, after all, attempting to draw life into death by scratching our lines in the ashes of Ground Zeros all around us. Perhaps we need to start with loving each other.

The contaminated ashes of Ground Zero do threaten our imaginative journeys, threaten to sap us of hope for that future and fill us with revenge and fear. The prophet Jeremiah, who knew exile and uncertainty as surely as we do, could still proclaim with resounding hope:

My soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope. Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

Like Jeremiah, we can call these things to mind. Let this truth, though, dwell deeply in us: in order for this hope to reign, some “other” must be “pierced” first, as Jeremiah wrote. This “other” became the “laughing stock of all my people” and was filled with “bitter herbs.” Jesus, the other of our souls, is the only one who can draw mystery into the ashes of our lament and breathe life into our dry bones. Jesus is the only true artist and true human yet.

On the other hand, the second part of the journey, the without/side, requires passionate and compassionate breaking of boundaries, like the extravagant gesture of Mary’s nard poured out upon Jesus. Christ had raised her brother Lazarus from the grave. The resurrection life had touched her, and she had to respond. She rushed to bring the expensive bottle of perfume that she and her family had probably saved for her own wedding. She was not supposed to enter a room full of male disciples, but she did. She intuited that costly suffering would await her Lord, and she anointed the future king. Fearfully and wonderfully, she broke the jar in thanksgiving. What she could not have expected was Christ’s response: he commends her act to the disgruntled disciples and tells her that her fleeting gesture would become part of an imperishable story: “She has done a beautiful thing to me,” he says. “I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Our effort to convey the gospel, too, must be filled with the same beautiful, devotional transgression. Mary’s intuition, triggered by her brother’s temporary resurrection, anticipated the cross, but also opened a new chapter of creativity in a post-resurrection reality.

N.T. Wright calls this post-resurrection time “life after life after death.” We are to bank on the future, storing our treasures in heaven, but that is only the beginning. Heaven comes then to fill the earth, transforming the old earth into the new one. God will use our earthly efforts, made in faith, as a conduit for that transformation, Wright says. In this post-resurrection reality, apparently we can learn to create backwards, not out of our wretched humanity, but out of our full humanity to come.

We create from the outside in, with/outside and without/side. Instead of focusing on self-expression as our culture teaches us, we allow God’s life, both here and not yet here, to invade ours, to mold our expressive hearts so that we can be released from the bondage of decay (as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans). Our future humanity can flow through our art now. Celebrity culture will tempt us to be the center of our creative acts. But the center will be what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world,” where true creativity is to be birthed, unleashing the future grace into the eye of the storm. Through prayer, and through the shedding of our egos, God will make our imaginations fertile.

That child of withoutside could only be conceived in the ashes of Post Humanity. That is our lot. We are princes and princesses born in the pit of Ground Zero. But Paul calls us heirs nevertheless, waiting to be revealed. Every fairytale points to it. A celebration is coming.

So rather than redefining life, as Deitch would have it, we let the life (after life after death) define us. In our studios, in our rehearsal halls, in our libraries and research facilities, we wrestle with the chimera waiting to be named in our new century. We need to remind each other that we are co-heirs with Christ, that we have been given authority to write our future reality into being, thereby ruling over the new creation. The world created the monster by transgressing in what Paul Vitz called “selfism.” To tame it, we need to transgress in love. We are embarking on a generational journey that requires more than our singular, individual success. What we built in faith upon the old earth, like the sacramental wine and bread, should be familiar but extraordinary. We need to live our lives artfully and create our art humanly. Our sacrifice to anoint the great Artist will be remembered, and the aroma spread in the new earth. Artists are the stewards of the old earth, but the imaginative conduit of the new. And we do not even need to make art to be part of that glorious picture.

 

Makoto Fujimura is a New York-based visual artist whose works combine traditional Japanese Nihonga painting with the metaphysical language of abstract expressionism. His books include River Grace and the forthcoming essay collection Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture.

 

Valerie Sayers: Fiction

The Muck

MY UPBRINGING in an Irish Catholic household in the prudish 1950s (in the deep South, no less) guaranteed a fascination with the physical aspect of what it means to be “fully human.” Seven years old and preparing for my first communion, I was stunned when Sister Alma used the phrase body and soul. I hung my head in abject shame: in our household, “Don’t touch your body” was a constant refrain at bath time, and I understood the word to mean genitals. That it should be used in the context of soul was as much intellectual bafflement as I had undergone in my young life. When I finally had the nerve to sneak a glance around me, I saw that my catechism classmates were unfazed; maybe, in other households, families casually discussed the nether regions. Maybe bodies were on a par with souls. I was deeply consoled.

Small wonder that the child comforted, however mistakenly, by the word body would soon be the young reader drawn to Leopold Bloom in the outhouse, to Heinrich Böll’s strange, funny scatology, to the relentless parade of unwed and adulterous mothers in literature: Tolstoy’s Anna and Hardy’s Tess and Faulkner’s Dewey Dell. My own youthful first novel, Due East, concerned one Mary Faith Rapple, fifteen years old, pregnant, and decidedly unmarried. Her ordeal was a chance to explore my old-fashioned southern culture’s response to an old-fashioned dilemma in the midst of a burgeoning sexual revolution. It was a chance to explore soul in the context of body, moral struggle in the physical world—which is, after all, the one world writers can report on with full authority. Fiction needs to hold body and soul in tension, even as it holds content and form in tension: the aesthetics of writing are its soul, and the writer had better be as scrupulous about narrative examinations of conscience as any other kind.

But writers do not live by form alone. We are obliged to delve into content, and often that means that we are obliged to dig up whatever the rest of the culture would prefer to leave buried, deep in the muck. “We goin on de muck,” Teacake says to Janie in Zora Neale Hurston’s exuberant 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God: he is taking her to the Everglades, that rich, funky, overgrown territory of black workers living communally, close to nature, independent of whites. Hurston’s muck, dark and threatening to anyone with bourgeois values, is a glorious garden for Janie and Teacake—till, like Adam and Eve, they are cast out. Then, as the title says so easily (it would have been read unironically in its time), “Their eyes were watching God.”

Whether their eyes are on God or not, all writers worth reading go out on the muck, in the muck, and stir up threat, possibility, celebration, crisis. Susan Sontag famously said that “real art should have the capacity to make us nervous.” What made us nervous in the 1950s of my childhood was sex and politics, those dangerous topics forbidden at polite dinner tables; they can still disturb us, even in a culture that has utterly trivialized sex and made politics a screaming match—but what makes many academics and self-identified intellectuals and artists really nervous in 2009 is religion. I’ve been at twenty-first-century dinner tables where the word soul has caused the company to tremble and blush as much as the word body once jolted me, and no wonder: we’ve all had our fill of hypocritical, ignorant, and literal hellfire and damnation, to say nothing of intolerant and sometimes violent fundamentalism. Religious language is suspect, bankrupt: look what’s left of the word evil now that George Bush is through with it.

We need to reclaim that word, and the word soul; the daring among us might even think about stealing back sin. But fiction writers—even and perhaps especially writers who approach narrative with a religious sense—know that, however keen we believe our moral vision to be, however much we share with the preacher a devotion to rhetoric, a duty to jab, and a pressing need to keep our audience wide awake, our job is not to be the sermonizers. Our job is story: our job is poking around some little corner of the world our readers have never seen before, allowing them to experience its physicality, its ideas, its history, and perhaps even its future, in some way that defies logic, exposition, and instruction. The kick is that we writers, too, are discovering that corner of the world even as we write it. We too are transcending the limits of the rational in favor of art.

In 2009—this our time of torture and rising waters, of desperate poverty alongside desperate wealth—our tormented old world has a lot of sorry corners, but that’s the world and those are the corners that we’ve been given: to observe, to describe, to shape into narratives that won’t just reflect our time but help shape the way our culture sees our time. And yes, all right, maybe our sense of time is a little jangly now, maybe our attention spans are short, our devotion to language distracted by our love affair with the visual. Maybe we despair that we will ever find the words.

We can take our consolation in remembering that it’s often in struggle—physical, spiritual, psychological—that language pours out, as if unbidden, and sorts itself into striking new forms. Literature thrives in repressive cultures: South African novels and plays under apartheid, Chinese poetry after Tiananmen Square, the outpouring of experimental narrative in the Jim Crow American South. The more threatening the tale, the more necessary the story, the more dangerous the story’s form. Perhaps the worst danger for the writer actively resisting the repression of religion is the temptation to write sentimental fiction (or, as Flannery O’Connor called it, “pious trash”).

The only rock for the writer with a religious sense to cling to is language itself, language to reveal and maybe even reconcile that tension between body and soul, content and form, word by word. Or gush by gush: when David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest appeared in 1996, readers wearying of minimalism were ready to drown themselves right beside him in that rush of words that signaled his glorious faith that language itself would show the way, his disciplined determination to make each word the precise and necessary one. A decade later, we are shaken to the roots of our being—dare I say our souls—by his suicide: many of us thought that he had figured out how to use language to keep despair at bay. A little over a year before he died, he published a strange, beautiful story called “Good People,” simultaneously homage and answer to Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants,” in the New Yorker. Both stories are about the not-unrelated subjects of abortion and romantic love, but Hemingway’s depicts a worldly, sophisticated couple, and Wallace’s describes two working-class students at a junior college, both religious believers. Wallace’s narration is not without irony—the young man is introduced as Lane A. Dean Jr., and a wary reader braces for condescension—but the story so swiftly inhabits Lane A. Dean Jr.’s struggle that our suspicious reader is bound to inhabit it too. Foster Wallace (the daring among us) does indeed use that word sin in his storytelling, and even invokes the name of Jesus, just as simply and unselfconsciously as Lane A. Dean Jr. himself does; in a wonderful line near the end, the narrative employs irony and empathy in equal measure when Lane asks himself: “What would even Jesus do?” Wallace’s decency as a writer—his willingness to inhabit the murky, mucky consciousness of a man at once simpler and, one senses Wallace believes, more complicated than he himself is—makes his absence an even greater loss.

My students, a generation younger than Wallace and many of the contemporary writers we read, sometimes struggle with the thickness, the complicated tensions and allusions and ironies of his prose, just as they sometimes struggle with the narratives of writers who ask readers to learn new forms, writers who depict complicated, marginalized lives: Junot Díaz and Edwidge Danticat’s immigrants scoping out the luxuries, deprivations, and intellectualizations of the urban Northeast; Sherman Alexie’s wandering Indians; Melanie Rae Thon’s lost boys and girls, thieves and hustlers. Perhaps because I teach at a Catholic university, my students may be quicker than most to pounce on the word redeem in Alexie’s title (borrowed from a Lucille Clifton poem) “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” about a homeless alcoholic Indian; and no matter how free-market their politics, they understand that Thon’s willingness to climb into the skins of prostitutes and drug-dealers, to inhabit their worlds and their language, is a form of fictional empathy that surpasses the generosity of most Christians of their acquaintance. Children of the internet, they aren’t shocked—they’ve seen most everything, or at least the surface of most everything—but they are often surprised. Fiction on the page often moves them to an angle of vision quite different from the angle they use watching movies or TV or YouTube videos. Their deep and solitary immersion into literature slows time down for them, allows them to feel the muck, so to speak, between their toes.

Fiction writers need to keep the faith (I’m preaching to myself now) that novels and stories still matter, that narrative still has that capacity to show us the world anew, to make us nervous, to prick our consciences, to jolt our sensibilities. But I also think that those of us who are religious must avoid thinking we have some kind of lock on the moral vision thing, must avoid thinking that our own subjects or imagery or forms have to be explicitly religious. Fiction, like all art, is a good (or, often, a not-so-good) on its own aesthetic terms. If growing up with the Latin mass and a nun called Sister Alma has made me comfortable with the word soul, with David Foster Wallace’s use of Jesus and sin, growing up in the shadow of strip clubs has made me comfortable with George Saunders’s invention of a male strippers’ bar called Joysticks. I admit that I don’t have much patience for prudish readers: a Tim O’Brien narrator says, “Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.” Give a writer the twenty-first century world, and the writing’s going to cover the territory. I owe a good deal to a long list of writers whose sensibilities are decidedly unreligious; I’m big on Zadie Smith at the moment, and if the only religious sensibilities in her contemporary London are objects of her satire, I am doubly grateful. What religious sensibility can’t use its own shaking up?

It was, after all, the shocking narratives of the Gospels themselves that convinced me as a child, that convince me still, that the most unlikely and unsavory characters are worthy of a storyteller’s attention, that this muck-filled world in which we are fully human is also where we ground our longing for the divine.

 

Valerie Sayers, author of five novels including Brain Fever and How I Got Him Back, is professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. Her stories, essays, and reviews appear widely.

 

Ena G. Heller: Visual Art

Enriched by Art

I WRITE FROM a completely biased perspective: I cannot imagine a world without art. For as long as I can remember, I have lived among works of art: from the books that lined the walls in our house and the museums and galleries my mother took me to as a child to the museums I visited, studied, and worked in as an adult, my entire life has been enlightened and enriched by the presence of art. In the last ten years I have been dwelling professionally in an even more rarefied environment—at the intersection of art and religion, of the aesthetic and the sacred. The lessons this particular environment has taught me have been many. I would like to share a few of them here, and pay homage to this magazine, which has contributed so significantly to legitimizing the very complicated—and often contested—intersection between contemporaneity, creativity, and faith.

As a historian, though, I need to start in the past. In the Christian tradition, art has been connected from the beginning with the teachings of the church. In the thirteenth century, Saint Thomas Aquinas reinforced a tradition going back at least to the fourth century and the early fathers when he explained the “threefold reason for the institution of images in the church: first, for the instruction of the unlettered, who might learn from them as if from books; second, so that the mystery of the incarnation and the examples of the saints might remain more firmly in our memory by being daily represented to our eyes; and third, to excite the emotions which are more effectively aroused by things seen than by things heard.”

As the director of the Museum of Biblical Art (mobia), I can attest (happily) to the fact that the almost eight hundred years that have passed since Aquinas have not much dampened the effect art has on its beholders. As for religious art, although modern society has done more than its share to take it out of its intended environment and present it in a sterilized, secularized, and aestheticized manner in museums, it still continues to inspire as well as educate. Visitors to mobia have confessed to being “spiritually uplifted and greatly educated,” and having “a wonderful, exuberant, and spiritual experience.” I recognize that it is easier to confess to a spiritual experience in a museum dedicated to biblical art than elsewhere—but still, the statement shows an expanded understanding of art’s multivalent nature.

Art teaches and touches us, speaks to us, inspires and awes us, upsets and offends us, makes us laugh and cry and share and meditate. In the many years I have worked in public museums, I have constantly been amazed by the wide range of emotions that a single art work or exhibition can inspire. A visitor to an exhibition of contemporary artists at mobia a few years ago summed up her experience as “beautiful, challenging, scary, moving, creepy, frightening, real, and evocative.” One does not see all these adjectives in the same sentence often. That a person could feel such intense (even contradictory) emotions through encountering art attests to its power.

The theologian Paul Tillich famously had an almost religious experience in front of Boticelli’s Madonna with Singing Angels. He wrote that “beauty itself…shone through the colors of the paint as the light of day shines through the stained-glass windows of a medieval church…. I turned away shaken.” To be sure, not everybody can have an experience that powerful. Yet at the beginning of the twenty-first century, in the increasingly cynical New York City, religious art continues to impact people intellectually and arouse varied and multiple emotions. An exhibition of Georges Rouault’s Miserere et Guerre print series, held at mobia in the spring of 2006, was most often remarked upon as a chance for “quiet reflection,” a tranquil environment giving visitors “the ability to interact with the prints in a personal, unhurried fashion.” Beyond that, some visitors related to the spiritual component so obvious in Rouault’s work, noting that the exhibition gave them “the opportunity to meditate and appreciate the artist’s gift of religious expression,” while others embraced and reacted to the powerful message about war, destruction, and human vulnerability, applauding the “serious meditation on subjects we do not like to think about,” and “striking meditation on human frailty.”

These testimonies show that art can be different things to different people—but no matter how it talks to our intellect or affects our heart, art makes us think, look, feel, and understand. It teaches or inspires; often it does both. There are many theories as to why art possesses such power over us. I for one think it may be due to the close kinship with religion. As British critic and philosopher of art Clive Bell wrote, “Art and religion are two roads by which men escape from circumstance to ecstasy. Between aesthetic and religious rapture there is a family alliance. Art and religion are means to similar states of mind.” Modernity, of course, has also taught us that art can not only duplicate but, for many, can replace spiritual experience. As early as the nineteenth century, the newly opened National Gallery in London was hailed as a “sanctuary, the holy of holies,” and a visit to it was likened to “going on a pilgrimage…an act of devotion performed at the shrine of art.” A century later, it’s a commonplace to consider museums the new temples, and art the new religion.

What is of interest here is the cultural context that led to such statements, and the way that context influences both recipients and creators of art today. After all, we bring with us the frame of reference of our times (meshed with personal experience) every time we visit a museum, as the statements by mobia visitors above attest. The same can certainly be said about the artists themselves, who each approach subject matter, symbol, and message in unique and personal ways. I will use but one example to illustrate the unexpected ways in which art and the religious sense come together in the creative imagination of an artist.

Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) was a German sculptor known mainly as a social activist and most certainly not as a religious artist. Yet after losing her eighteen-year-old son Peter in World War I, her grief and her struggle to accept contemporary violence and to understand the meaning of sacrifice led to a decidedly religious iconography in her 1938 bronze sculpture Pietà (Mother with Son). While in traditional Pietàs, the Virgin Mary holds the body of the dead Christ across her lap, here the mother envelops her dead son, who is in an almost fetal position. She appears to hold him, cover him, almost contain him (as she once did, in her womb), as if trying to give him life again. This is a mother’s cry of unspeakable loss. While the subtitle underscores the personal nature of the subject matter and may reassure a public who would not have expected a religious work from Kollwitz, for those familiar with the western tradition of art, there is no denying that the sculpture is also a modern interpretation of the timeless and universal scene: every mother’s grief is personified by the mother of Christ in the moments after her son’s body had been taken down from the cross.

Interestingly, Kollwitz made a point of denying Christian influences on this particular work, even comparing it to a similar work by her friend Frieda Winckelmann and pointing out that her sculpture, unlike Winckelmann’s, was “not religious.” Her mother, Kollwitz says, is depicted as “an old, lonely, darkly brooding woman” and most definitely not “the Queen of Heaven.” Is Kollwitz’s work, then, to be understood as a non-religious pietà? The answer is both yes and no. Yes, that’s how the artist perceived it, and there is a secular, personal meaning to the story; and no, the work cannot deny the artistic tradition it belongs to: a culture steeped in Christian iconography, whose symbolism of grief was here appropriated and personalized by the artist. And as symbolism and personal interpretation change over time, they remain just as powerful, albeit differently. Because after all, beauty—and its religious significance—remain in the eyes of the beholder. At the 1978 dedication of the Nevelson Chapel at Saint Peter’s Church in Manhattan, a parishioner asked Louise Nevelson if the forms on the chapel walls represent the twelve apostles. The artist answered: “Maybe. Or the twelve tribes of Israel, or twelve forms from your own imagination.” The only correct answer is an emotional and intellectual response to the art—the guises that the response can take are many. Hence the transformative power of art.

 

Ena G. Heller is Director of the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) in New York City. Her publications include Reluctant Partners: Art and Religion in Dialogue and Women’s Space: Patronage, Place, and Gender in the Medieval Church.

 

Ron Austin: Film

The Last Mystery Movie

IN THAT I’M well into my seventh decade, perhaps I can best contribute to this symposium by taking a backward glance at how the art of film has answered the question of what it means to be human.

Film, like any art, poses this question better than it answers it. Movies seldom examine the nature of the human in abstract or philosophical terms—and are rarely effective when they do so. In art, the manner and even the style in which the question is posed largely contains the answer.

Film answers the question of what it means to be human in terms of faces, eyes, light and shadow, and often with a silence more eloquent than words. Any answer to this question is an encounter with the mystery at the heart of the human person.

In this respect, the greatest movies might all be called mysteries.

I believe that this effort to identify the human—the search for the soul, so to speak—has been the spiritual engine for the innovations that created the art of film. The fundamental changes in film form came less from technical innovations than from a changing view of character and story, the inner and outer aspects of what it means to be human.

The art of movies began with Charlie Chaplin and Carl Dreyer, who used the human face as a line of defense against the dehumanization of war and the growing conformity of mass societies. Chaplin’s humanism, his famous blend of laughter and tears, became a touchstone for generations, inspiring Clair, Renoir, and Welles. Dreyer offered a more spiritual perspective by creating a powerful cinematic icon, so to speak, in the visage of a saint, Joan of Arc, consumed in flames. Humanity was defined by both these artists through the close-up, beyond words or concepts. That is, by a spirit found in the eyes of the disdained little tramp and the martyr.

The introduction of sound brought techniques largely borrowed from the stage and literature, but the movies soon developed a unique form of storytelling. Perhaps we should begin, as they do in Hollywood, with story development. The various narrative approaches which include structure, progression, and closure are inseparable from our understanding of the nature of human beings. The beginning, middle and end of a story might tell us what the author believes about life—whether it is fated to be tragic, a meaningless farce, or a journey toward truth and revelation. The different techniques of acting, camera work, editing, and music, all follow from the effort to fulfill this original vision.

Jean Renoir was, in my judgment, the most significant figure in the development of pre-war sound film, and his influence, like Chaplin’s, became worldwide. (He inspired, for instance, the neorealists Truffaut and Wenders.) Seldom does Renoir, though highly articulate, depend on dialogue or any verbalization to express his deeply ironic, subtle point of view. To fully realize his insights in terms of cinematic art he pioneered new techniques in direction and cinematography. Depth-of-focus staging, for example, became necessary for Renoir if he was to capture the ambiguities and complexities of intimate relationships.

Renoir’s viewpoint might be called a tragic humanism. Shaped by bitter social conflict and facing a seemingly inevitable second world war, Renoir conveyed a compassionate sense of futility that in many ways lingers to this day. The limit of Renoir’s humanism is simply that it doesn’t fully define the human.

There were revolutionary changes in filmic storytelling immediately after the war. Vittorio de Sica and his collaborator, Cesare Zavattini, consciously wanted to make the story disappear along with the camera and the actor. The stories of Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D seem hidden in the ordinary events of daily life. Their films featured abandoned, often desperately poor people whose faces radiate a goodness despite their circumstances. The small son’s upward glance at his distraught father in Bicycle Thieves and the “good Toto’s” downward gaze at the homeless child in Miracle in Milan define the human in a manner unique to film, and, again, beyond categories or analysis.

Vittorio de Sica’s use of real people and locations eschewed the more artificial aspects of theatrical production and achieved what James Agee termed a “spirituality of the commonplace.” At about the same time in France, Robert Bresson’s “anti-theatrical” approach in films such as A Man Condemned and Pickpocket went further, from using non-actors to a kind of relentless anti-acting. These stylistic innovations were initiated by a search for a human essence, individual yet paradoxically beyond the individual personality.

Notions of structure and continuity—transitions between events and images—were altered further by the young French New Wave filmmakers Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, and others. One might describe these later post-war styles as entering an age of discontinuity in which life’s meaning, if there was any, was elusive. Films would increasingly bear witness to a loss of identity and, finally, to the risk of a loss of meaning itself. If one wants to understand the existential emptiness of post-war modern society simply look into the face of Marcello Mastroianni on the beach at the end of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, or into the eyes of the fleeing boy also reaching land’s end in Truffaut’s Four Hundred Blows. These are the faces of those fighting to retain or even to discover their humanity.

Directorial techniques and styles are often attributed to the genius of the “auteur,” but they also reflect the underlying search for the truth common to all artists of integrity. Fellini and Bergman sought truth through imaginations spurred by dreams and visual allusions. Eric Rohmer, in contrast, sought to capture an ontological reality, a deeper sense of being itself, with long uninterrupted takes.

Federico Fellini, in his film 8 ½, offered us a self-revelation that exposes the viewer’s own inner conflicts. In quite different styles so did Bergman and Truffaut. But to what extent could viewers accept the truth of this painful existential human condition? The only answer implied was the acceptance of suffering as meaningful and even as a form of guidance. I believe this understanding is evident, though unstated, in the best of the work of this period, and even in Rohmer’s comedies.

Acting styles, over time, became more “real” and internalized in the effort to capture more authentic and recognizable human beings. Woody Allen’s well known admonition to his actors—“Don’t act!”—reflects an approach pioneered by many of Hollywood’s early stars. James Cagney, for instance, described his acting technique simply: “Plant your feet and say the truth.” Knowing how not to act became, in effect, a movie acting technique.

Hollywood absorbed most of the changes developed by the more independent filmmakers in Europe and Japan, but slowly and hesitantly. The early filmmakers in Hollywood, however, made their own contribution to a compassionate understanding of the human being as the other. Many of these pioneers were Jewish and refugees from war and oppression, and they brought with them an acute awareness of marginalization and exclusion. Hollywood’s star-driven typology was eventually used to promote the ideal of universality.

The story development in the films of the last decades of the century, such as in the work of Tarkovsky, Kieslowski, and Wenders, is often oblique, requiring us to engage with the film and often denying us the satisfying purgation offered by most popular movies. The stories in Kieslowski’s Decalogue explore a universal human condition through incidents that often seem inexplicable. They reveal the inner, personal conflicts that lie beneath the commandments, that is, the human frailties that make the commandments necessary and salvific.

Kieslowski’s Red seems at times improbable and ends inconclusively, as does Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Kieslowski offers in his films only, as he put it, “fragments of life…a glimpse of a bit of life without knowing how it began or how it ends.” Like Jesus’s parables, these stories are subversive and paradoxical. The strategy is to lead us, as well as the story’s characters, to moments of inescapable self-recognition.

We know what is human by first recognizing the indecipherable depth of our own humanity.

It is not surprising that the most innovative and inspiring filmmakers of the last quarter of the century were those whose humanity was not so much threatened as ideologically denied. Tarkovsky and Kieslowski, a Russian and a Pole, had to overcome the obstacles of totalitarian repression and eventual exile to accomplish their remarkable work. Kieslowski, in defining his own objective, speaks for all of these artists. His films, he said, were an attempt to “prove the existence of the human soul.” The proof he offers of what it means to be human is the same as Chaplin’s or Renoir’s. It is the ineffable light in the eyes of others whom we will never fully understand or be able to define.

I think this backward glance points us in a direction, though it does not offer a map. In film there has always been an effort to compress the image in a way that resembles iconography, and from the beginning there was an exploration of the possibility of a cinematic poetry as an alternative to the “prose” of narrative storytelling. This tendency emerged early in the films of Dovzhenko and Jean Vigo and is sometimes described as the lyric tradition in film.

The search for a religious dimension in the art of film has also been present from the beginning. Exploring this dimension meant an awareness of the fullness of psychological and sociological reality while, at the same time, opening the audience to the uncanny experience of the sacred. A spiritual strategy proposed by critic André Bazin, a Catholic, rejected any overt physical representation of what might be considered supernatural. Bazin’s approach was to find the presence of God in the observance of the ordinary. This ontological approach was seen as “an obligation to God and the reality of the universe.” Eric Rohmer, in this spirit, notes that “the process of filming disabuses one of the notion that the characters or the filmmaker is omniscient.”

For films to further explore what it means to be human will require, in my opinion, a new kind of bond with the audience. One might even say that new filmmakers will need a new audience. There is nothing elitist in this. Quite the contrary, in that it implies a greater interaction with the audience. The goal of the film artist must be, like Jimmy Cagney, simply to stand eye to eye with the viewer and speak the truth that needs to be said—though that truth will not always be welcomed.

John Ruskin said that the moral task of all artists is to see and then to describe with all honesty what has been seen. The art of film becomes distinctive and invaluable as it incarnates the human spirit, not just in flesh but in light and darkness, sound and silence. As I believe this brief historical sketch suggests, this effort will require yet another revolution in film form and technique.

 

Ron Austin is a veteran screenwriter and producer and a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He serves on the editorial advisory board of Image. His book In a New Light (Eerdmans) further examines the development of the art of film.

 

Paula Huston: Fiction

Bearing Light

I AM FORTY years old and hovering on the brink of a dramatic reconversion experience. I am also under contract to Random House for my first novel, which is actually an extremely long short story, one that got away from me and that I can no longer get back. Page after page it grows, in raggedy fits and starts. Though I have come to love my main character, a slender young piano prodigy called Sylvia, I’m never sure what she’s going to do next.

One day, the worst happens. Though I try to steer her clear, Sylvia manages to involve herself with a handsome Israeli violinist, one with whom she has secretly been in love for some time. And the next thing I know, she is pregnant. The novel is now ruined; I have no idea how to extricate my protagonist from this mess of her own making. Yet my pleas for help are met with calm editorial assurances: Everything will be fine, Paula. There’s nothing more promising than a character running away with a book.

But truly, I don’t know what to do. What makes the situation even worse is that I’ve come to cherish my shy young pianist with her floating cloud of hair and her determination to master one of Beethoven’s most difficult sonatas. She’s worked so hard, after all—hour after hour of practice late into the night. She’s walked home alone through the mean streets of Baltimore. She’s failed to eat properly, and she’s not getting enough sleep. She shouldn’t have to deal with all this worry.

Stumped, I go out to breakfast with a wise friend. I pose the question as though it pertains to the child of an acquaintance, someone who has come to me for advice. What would you do, I ask, if this were your daughter? If she were this talented?

My friend listens with obvious concern. I can see him wondering if one of my own teenagers is the real subject here. When I offer no further information, he sighs and stares down at his hands. “What difference does it make,” he asks finally, “that she’s so talented?”

“Well, that’s obvious, isn’t it?” I protest. “Doesn’t she have an obligation to be who she is? Can’t you see how horribly this pregnancy, which she did not plan, is going to mess up all her chances?”

He shrugs. “And so?”

“And so, what? What are you saying?”

“And so abortion is justified when self-fulfillment is at stake?”

 

I am fifty-three, a Catholic for nearly twelve years now, and I have not written a novel since Sylvia and her unplanned pregnancy thrust me into a moral dilemma I would have much preferred to avoid. The question raised by my friend not only snafued the book, which ended in an unsatisfying ambiguity that was duly noted by its New York Times reviewer, but forced me to confront my own blind allegiance to self-fulfillment as the primary goal of human existence. In the four books I have written since, I’ve been seeking to grasp another view: the Christian take on what it means to be fully human.

At the moment, I am standing at a university podium delivering a Newman lecture entitled “The Death of Reason” to an audience that includes a good number of faculty from the philosophy department. At least one appears to be so appalled by the presumptuousness of a fiction writer daring to speak of matters epistemological that he’s put himself into a temporary fugue state. Or maybe he’s just sleeping.

When I glance around at the rest of the crowd, I am met with rapt looks, as though this audience believes that if it simply listens hard enough, I will finally begin to make sense. By the time the talk is over, I am shiny with sweat. “Questions?” I ask bravely. A hand goes up in the front row, directly in front of me and impossible to avoid. “Ah,” I say, as though pleased no end. “You there. What’s on your mind?”

A young man gazes back at me, perplexed. “The talk was good, but what I want to know is how we’re supposed to be? Like…South Park or The Lord of the Rings?”

I am relieved—this is a question I can actually answer—but also dismayed by this earnest young Catholic’s intellectual confusion. How can he not see that the nihilistic snickerings of a South Parkian universe are antithetical to what he professes to believe? If I had a Bible on the podium, I’d fling it open to the Book of John and trumpet out the words in a way that would kill off in him every last temptation toward cynicism and despair: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

But I don’t. Don’t have a Bible, and don’t have the will to set him asquirm in front of his peers, much less that glowering philosophy professor. Besides, I’ve spent too many years in the classroom to let such an obvious discussion prompt pass me by. “Good question!” I say. “Thanks for asking. And what do you think?”

I am fifty-six and working on a book that is far too difficult for me. Untrained as I am in either philosophy or theology, I almost certainly have no business delving into the controversial territory of Christian forgiveness. Yet I am drawn to the subject as to no other, for the deeper I go, the closer I seem to get to an answer that can finally satisfy—an answer to the question raised by that young piano prodigy and her cruelly inconvenient pregnancy: What does it mean to live a good life?

I am learning about forgiveness in the way I’ve learned most everything else: through story. People know I’m working on this book; they call or write and tell me (modestly, and without seeming to understand just what miracles they are describing) spectacular tales of love and self-transcendence.

One morning my friend Rachel phones and asks if we can talk about a “forgiveness thing.” As we settle ourselves in the sun-flooded breakfast nook with our tea, I get ready to take some mental notes. She has not come for storytelling, however, but for advice. What she wants to know is whether I think it would be safe for her to do what she is feeling strongly called to do: go to a distant city and enter the emotionally barricaded inner sanctum of a dying recluse who has nobody else to rescue him. This recluse—by now, she suspects, as physically deteriorated and psychologically bent as any Howard Hughes—happens to be her father. And what stops my cup halfway to my lips is what I already know about that relationship—what I know about Rachel’s perilous childhood, and how much this impulse to offer loving help must be costing her.

“Do you think you’re strong enough?” I finally ask. “Do you think you can go there without being sucked in all over again?”

She stares at the net of pink roses outside the French windows. I’m pretty sure of what she’s recalling: the death of her mother when she was six, the years that followed as the only child of a grief-stricken psychotic, his midnight wanderings, his weepings in the public street, his monotonously repeated threats of suicide, and her conviction that everything—his continued existence, their tenuous family life—was up to her alone. I’m guessing she’s thinking about being fourteen and weighing less than sixty pounds, about the feeding tubes and the boring days and nightmarish nights that were her lot as an anorexic on the borderline of life and death, about the irresistible compulsion that followed salvation from self-starvation to walk and walk and never rest, about the psychiatrist who taught her to repeat, “I hate my father, I hate my father, I hate my father.” I’m guessing she’s thinking about her long-ago decision to leave and not look back.

I am awestruck. What kind of impulse can it be that would send her flying now to his side? What kind of urge toward goodness can possibly override decades of coping with hurt this big? I can’t help it; I ask her what in the world she is thinking.

Rachel drops her eyes, plays with the handle of her cup. I think she might be crying. Instead, she reminds me of what I have forgotten, a small but salient detail in the saga of her life. “Do you remember that neighbor woman I told you about?” she asks. “The one who took me to church when I was at my craziest?” I nod. Now that she reminds me, I do. “I can’t imagine what possessed her to knock on our door. Talk about a loony bin! And she had kids. Why would she risk letting a crackpot like me get near the people she loved?” She looks up at me through a square of light. “But she did. And that’s what saved me. Not the doctors—church. Jesus. Finding out somebody loved me enough to die for me. Which meant I didn’t have to kill myself after all.” She lifts a hand. “So what else can I do? That’s what I’m thinking.”

And two days later, she gets on a plane and goes.

§

A writerly confession: for much of my life, I have moved back and forth between two poles on the vast spectrum of possibility concerning what it means to be fully human. At times—self-satisfied, successful times—I have almost certainly told you that the world is your oyster, and it’s up to you to crack that recalcitrant shell. I have said, “Get out there and find out what fascinates you and energizes you and go for it. Don’t let anything hold you back. You are only a real human being when you find self-fulfillment.” For this I apologize.

At other times—brooding times—I have surely cast dark looks your way and sneered at your irrepressible enthusiasm. I have said to you, believing my own words, “Who do you think you’re kidding, you with your idealistic quest for self-fulfillment? We’re dying—the whole place is dying. Nothing means anything. Face it.” And for this I am heartily sorry.

Yet I must tell you something that you perhaps already know: as I trundled back and forth along this narrow track between narcissism and nihilism, I was accompanied by a cloud of fellow writers—Hemingway, Sartre, Ford—whose craftsmanship and acumen could move me to tears. Devoted to their work, willing to sacrifice even their lives for the art they loved, they wowed me and won me. Blinded by that shimmering beauty, I failed to notice a critical fact: that their vision—what they believed to be true about the human condition—was far bleaker than death.

To be entirely fair, when art becomes one’s religion, as it did for me during that time and as it clearly was for them, and when the question of what it means to be fully human arises, what other answer can one possibly give? In the absence of God, either we are everything there is, or we count for nothing. Says the Catholic Catechism on the subject of idolatry: “Human life finds its unity in the adoration of the one God. The commandment to worship the Lord alone integrates man and saves him from endless disintegration.”

Thus it was not until my reconversion to Christianity at forty, thanks in part to Sylvia and her unplanned pregnancy, that I began to see that there is a third way. That in Christ we are called neither to self-worship nor self-annihilation but instead to self-transcendence. That in him we are called to leave behind the vast self-concern that keeps us focused on our own happiness and satisfaction with the circumstances of life—whether our gifts have been fully developed or not, whether we have received proper respect from those around us, whether we have gotten what we deserved. And that we are called with equal force to stopper our ears against the voice that says we are nothing.

Only then does the art we make become worthy of our effort. Only then can it do what it is meant to do, which is to say, only then can it possibly shed light.

 

Paula Huston’s most recent book is Forgiveness: Following Jesus into Radical Loving. She is a Camaldolese Benedictine oblate and lives with her husband on the central coast of California.

 

Margaret Gibson: Poetry

Paying Attention

WHAT IS IT to be fully human, I ask?…and place on my writing desk two images: a color photograph of a monk’s hands folded left over right, palms up in the mudra of meditation; and a replica of the fresco of Fra Angelico’s annunciation from the Convento di San Marco in Florence. I want quiet reminders that both meditation and imagination—however they may differ in their employment of human energies—are drives to the interior, toward a potential realization of transformative and redemptive power. Imagination asks that words and images embody as best they can what is remembered, seen, known, or envisioned by the self. Contemplation asks us to leave the self—which is, finally, a construct of words—behind. Both imagination and contemplation involve watching and waiting. And both are essential to the self-nurture and self-forgetting that being fully human requires. Both value and cultivate a deep innerness.

The annunciation before me on the desk is not the more famous one Fra Angelico painted at the top of the stairs of the Convento di San Marco, just before one turns into the hallways of monks’ cells. In that fresco, Mary sits in traditional blue and white robes on a bench under a porch of columns, facing outward, facing the greensward of a Renaissance courtyard or cloister yard. A doorway is open, and we know she will eventually arise and go in—but first the angel with the resplendent rainbow-hued wings has something to say to her.

It is a stunning work, that—but the annunciation Fra Angelico has painted within cell number three has a greater intimacy. Mary is now already within a bare, barrel-vaulted chamber which resembles a monk’s cell. She has been reading, her finger marking the page from which her eyes lift to see the angel before her. The space between them is luminous. Mary’s robes are the colors of a ripened peach, a muted rose and yellow, near tones to flesh. Again the angel’s wings are rainbows, but now the light coming from the angel swells and swells, making a third and tangible presence in the room. “Between living and dreaming,” Antonio Machado wrote, “there is a third thing: Guess it.” The light nearly touches, but does not touch, not quite, Mary, who is shown kneeling on a prayer stool.

It is too easy to ignore the figure of San Domenico, who stands in the doorway, just behind the angel’s wings, his hands held in prayerful attention. What is he doing here? I complained at first, thinking him an intrusion to this intimacy. But San Domenico is neither intruder nor spectator. His presence depicted in the fresco must have reminded the monk engaged in his solitary practice: Within you is the word made flesh; within you is the light of presence; within you, the Christ is born, and nowhere else: recollect yourself!

Or, Pay attention! To embody the transcendent is why we are here.

Embody the transcendent? Saying it is one thing; doing it another. Most of us fail in the attempt, or make the attempt seldom, if ever. “Only” human—flawed, foolish, unserious, too easily distracted—how can we embody the transcendent? No angels appear to us, and so we shrug off the possibility of being “fully” human. Being “only human” I understand as a necessary humility, an avoidance of egoistic over-reaching. But when “only human” excuses harm done to another, or to oneself, we are coasting toward ruined relationships, a damaged social world, a denuded and threatened environment, the global web of life torn, perhaps irreparably. And the transcendent? Unsensed, disembodied, distant.

Because I have not been faithful to the discipline of sitting meditation, I pause and put a sticky note on my desk: To embody the transcendent is why we are here.

Okay, I admit it. At times such words sound fancy and high-toned, even false. But when I take the question seriously—playfully and seriously—I know that paying attention has something to do with the process of self-transformation. Carson McCullers told us to work at things slowly (she was speaking of love): try to love first a rock, a tree, a cloud—making the slow ascent to human, then to divine love. According to Thomas Merton, contemplation is:

the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it’s alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life. It is gratitude for life, for awareness, and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent, and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. [Italics mine]

Paying attention, vivid realization—such words apply to both contemplation and to the creative process. But how do we see anything truly, one may well ask? How do we know, much less say or render? There’s mystery here. No one knows what’s up. Why there is something, anything at all, and not nothing, is…mysterious. How any human journeys by way of silence and contemplation, realizes, and vividly manifests the presence of the transcendent or the absolute, right here, right now is…mysterious. Becoming fully human is mysterious.

I’ll bet most of us think we’re human beings already. When asked, in London, what he thought of western civilization, Gandhi said, “It would be a good idea.” When asked if he was stunned by the number of human beings on the crowded city streets (an odd question to ask someone from populous India), Gandhi turned to his interlocutor and asked, “How many human beings do you see?” Human might just be a condition to achieve, not one we’re born with.

It might just take some doing. Or rather, some non-doing. Some being. We might just have to develop a complete acceptance and openness to all situations and emotions, and that’s just for starters.

On the island of Patmos I encountered, in the monastery’s museum, a work of art, The Miracle of the Tears, a portrait of the head and neck of Jesus. There was something about the eyes—they drew me close, and although the gaze was slanted down, the eyes followed me wherever I moved. I was held by that gaze, which I finally realized was that of deep zazen. It had power. Up close I could feel it. In this image of Christ, the artist had revealed the power of God to make himself helpless before the fact of death, the necessity of death, the suffering of it. Sogyal Rinpoche writes that by refusing to accept death, “We will not be able to live fully; we will remain imprisoned in the very aspect of ourselves that has to die.”

Having to die, and accepting it—that’s part of being fully human, too. Montaigne, who advised “practicing death each moment” had as his aim depriving death of its power over us. “To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.” Perhaps that is why, in the Convent of San Marco, there are so many differently rendered crucifixions painted by Fra Angelico. The monks are not all practicing how to be angels and light; they are practicing death; they are aiming for freedom. To be fully human is to be free. To be fully human is to accept death—and what Rowan Williams also calls “anguish, darkness, and stripping.” To accept, in trust and hope.

As all the great religious traditions teach us, we must die to ourselves. The Via Negativa, a silent way, a way of contemplation beyond word and image and beyond self, takes us, as Annie Dillard writes, to the “lightless edge where the slopes of knowledge dwindle and love, for its own sake, lacking an image, begins.”

Now here’s where I begin to howl. Lacking an image! Oh, why would anyone want to go to that desert!

I love images. I can date certain shifts in consciousness from encounters with images—in painting, in photographs, in poems—and with what I’ve witnessed walking about in the woods, dark or light. Within the light of an image, I can see where to move. Within the light of an image, I can focus. Without, I stumble; I’m blind; I can’t tell what I’ll touch, if anything, should I reach out. To think of having no image is to experience the fear of death. It is to be in poverty.

To comfort myself a little, I read John Main: “The essence of poverty consists in this risk of annihilation. This is the leap of faith from ourselves to the Other. This is the risk involved in all loving.”

No stranger to angels of the unsayable, Rilke tells us how their overwhelming existence threatened to annihilate his “only human” self. Many years later, when the seventh and ninth elegies were written, Rilke has a new spirit of confidence: “Nowhere, Beloved, will the world be but within us. Our Life / passes in transformation. And the external / shrinks into less and less.” The outer world shrinks because it has been seen, contemplated, and ripened within the imagination of the poet. For Rilke now, according to Robert Hass, “Singing is being; it creates our presence.” Perhaps, more fully human, the poet is not only a receptacle for the images of earth, but also one who dwells in God, to whom Rilke said in an earlier poem: “You are the deep innerness of all things / the last word that can never be spoken.” And yet for Rilke, saying what he can in poems solves the dilemma of existential terror and loneliness.

For when a traveler returns from the mountain slopes into the valley,
he brings not a handful of earth, unsayable to others, but instead
some word he has gained, some pure word, the yellow and blue
gentian. Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window—
at most: column, tower…. But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing….

And from the same elegy:

Praise the world to the angel, not the unsayable one,
you can’t impress him with glorious emotion; in the universe
where he feels more powerfully, you are a novice. So show him
something simple which, formed over generations,
lives as our own, near our hand and within our gaze.
Tell him of Things….
_______________And these Things,
which live by perishing, know you are praising them; transient,
they look to us for deliverance: us, the most transient of all.
They want us to change them, utterly, in our invisible heart,
within—oh, endlessly—within us! Whoever we may be at last.

The earth and our lives within it, spent in looking and ripening, suffering and loving, and in saying, exist for Rilke because they have been transformed by the action of the imagination. Now, within both the poem and the life of the poet, life and death have been embraced—not understood, defined, explained: embraced. The practice of writing poems has dovetailed with the art of living more fully as a human being—and each feeds the other.

It is to that practice, and to that art, that I aspire. It can feel like a calling; it can also feel like a dare. And yet the practice of the imagination, the way of poetry and art, is the handmaiden to an even higher aspiration—a life of contemplation. So it’s a double dare.

But now I need another reminder of what’s at stake, and so I place a third image before me on the desk. On a card given me this summer by a writing student at the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, there is an angel, Chagall-like, floating in empty space. In her hand the angel holds an image of the earth, which resembles a ripened peach. “If we fail this time, it will be a failure of the imagination,” the angel says and puts the earth gently into my hand—into your hands, too, dear reader.

Angels are in the room. There is light. The angel speaks, holding words into the light. Mary looks up. She smiles, she’s afraid, she’s not afraid, she accepts what is given. What’s more, she will ponder it in her heart. Marking her place, her finger remains between the pages of the book on her lap.

I like to think it is a book of poems.

 

Margaret Gibson’s most recent book of poems is One Body, winner of the 2008 Connecticut Book Award. She is also the author of a memoir, The Prodigal Daughter, and is professor emerita of the University of Connecticut. In 2008 she taught a poetry workshop at Image’s Glen Workshop in Santa Fe.

 

Robert Cording: Poetry

Love Calls Us to One World at a Time

A FEW DAYS before his death on May 6, 1862, Henry David Thoreau was asked by Parker Pillsbury, a former minister become abolitionist, that question so many would like to have answered. Noting that Thoreau was “near the brink of the dark river,” Pillsbury asked Thoreau how the “opposite shore” appeared to him. Thoreau, according to the biographer Richard D. Richardson, “summed up his life” with his answer: “One world at a time.” Thoreau’s reply, polite but firm, was in accord with the way he deliberately chose to live his life. Just months before his death, he was still collecting material for projects on the succession of forest trees and seed dispersal, newly taken with nature’s economy of abundance and its genius of vitality. Years earlier, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau had come to a similar understanding: we need, he said, “not only to be spiritualized, but naturalized, on the soil of the earth…. We need to be earth-born as well as heaven-born.” Thoreau, who is too often mistakenly placed under the convenient label of pantheist, was not choosing to be “earth-born” over and against being “heaven-born.” He believed, rather, that both births depended on each other. To be “heaven-born” did not lie in redirecting attention from the natural to the supernatural, but in seeing more deeply into the sources of the natural. Those sources, like creation itself, were always a mystery.

In his famous poem, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” Richard Wilbur enacts the way love calls us to extend ourselves toward a world which will always remain irreducible in its otherness and yet open to our understanding and recognition. In Wilbur’s poem, the soul cannot exist free of the body’s restrictions. Each day it must learn to keep a “difficult balance” in a world which asks us, as Wendell Berry has said, “to suffer it and rejoice in it as it is.” As Thoreau’s life had taught him, if we try to leave behind the earth, if we choose religion simply to quiet our fears and prop up our hopes rather than connect us with the sources of life, we ignore the call of love and heed only the usual summons of the self and its needs.

Here I want to explore the “difficult balance” of being both earth- and heaven-born and how such birth requires that we “crave reality” as Thoreau put it in Walden. I want also to connect Thoreau’s adamant “one world at a time” to the way poetry, and art in general, can be, as Iris Murdoch has argued in her book Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, both “contingent limited historically stained stuff” and, nevertheless, a “source of revelation” that helps us experience those intimations of a world that is fuller and more real, and is and is not the very world we ordinarily move about in unawares. And I want to connect both these ideas to love—that loving the world and creating a work of art both require what Murdoch calls “morally disciplined attention” to “something quite particular other than oneself.”

As my friend and colleague at Holy Cross, Chris Dustin, has said in an essay on Thoreau’s religion, “Thoreau’s vision of nature points beyond nature, to a divinely creative source. As such, it incorporates a form of religious transcendence that is seldom recognized. As Thoreau sees it, nature points beyond itself, to a transcendent ground that is neither separable from it nor reducible to it.” Dustin goes on, “Thoreau’s point is not that we should forsake our heavenly aspirations, but that heavenly aspirations not bound to earth are not heavenly enough.” To be “earth-born” involves a “drawing near,” as Thoreau put it, to the world around us, and to draw near demands our exacting attention. Thoreau was as good a practicing naturalist as they come. He measured; he took careful notes; he made comparisons, even ran experiments.

But Thoreau was a scientist who recognized that seeing also requires more than objectivity and close scrutiny. Rather than understand the world by distancing himself from it, or by framing it in objective terms, Thoreau wanted to “commune” with nature because he was looking for a way to participate in a fullness which both overflowed and yet was rooted in actual things. Yet he never presumed to understand nature’s “great secret” because his experience of nature taught him that any understanding would be a reduction, a limiting of nature to the terms of his understanding.

Thoreau’s faith was in the world around him. That faith did not involve a state of mind or a creed so much as a movement toward making the “real world as real as possible,” as Gary Snyder once put it. It was a faith that was rooted in that moment when we “return to our senses.” Here’s Thoreau in his essay “Walking”:

I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit…. It sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is—I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses.

We might say that our usual, daily experience of the world we live in is quite close to what Thoreau is getting at in his phrase “out of my senses.” We eat while reading the morning paper, rush off to work in cars or public transportation, passing by those things we have seen each day for years and have long lost sight of, and finally reach work, our minds rehearsing what must be done and inventing that daily to-do list that never, of course, gets entirely done. But we also know those moments when we “return to our senses,” when the world suddenly stands forth, and we “behold,” as Wallace Stevens has said, “a kind of total grandeur…with every visible thing enlarged and yet / no more than a bed, a chair….” I mean here our capacity to perceive the fullness which exists in each moment and is always waiting for us to be present to it—what the novelist Marilynne Robinson referred to in Gilead as a “thing existing in excess of itself.” Each of us has had countless experiences of being “returned to our senses”—when, say, the field we are walking through, or the city street we are walking down, suddenly captivates us, and the trees in the distance and the way they align with the field’s grasses and contours, or the buildings and the play of light on them and the people walking, all feel as if they belong exactly as they are. And we, too, are part of that belongingness; and the field, the trees, the light, the buildings are all part of a deeper, more real, reality. This experience is both ordinary and extraordinary, and involves mystery (from the Greek mysterion). I’m using mystery here not to refer to the unknown but rather to the quality of the known; to refer to awe rather than ignorance. We can never be finished with mystery—like beauty, it is not governed by concepts and it does not allow a conclusion. It goes beyond all the evidence. In his book The Demon and the Angel the poet Ed Hirsch quotes a line from Lorca found at the bottom of a drawing Lorca did in Buenos Aires: “Only mystery enables us to live.”

Yet, as “moderns” we are all too ready to say that belief in mystery is nostalgic. Caught in our positivist moment, we limit the meaning of mystery to that which is unknown. We then point to the inevitable acquisition of further knowledge which will reduce that which is unknown and, eventually, erase the unknown entirely. In a speech given at the World Economic Forum in 1992, Václav Havel, the Czech dissident who later became the President of Czechoslovakia, argued that the modern era has been dominated by the mistaken belief that the “world—and Being as such—is a wholly knowable system governed by a finite number of universal laws that man can grasp and rationally direct for his own benefit.” Speaking to the need for a new kind of political order, Havel saw the abandonment of “the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved” as a first step. Instead of our ill-conceived belief in universal systemic solutions, Havel called for trust “not only [in] a scientific representation and analysis of the world, but also the world itself…not only in sociological statistics, but also in real people…not only [in] an objective interpretation of reality, but also his own soul…his own thoughts…his own feeling.”

Now Havel may sound too much like he’s trumpeting a return to Romanticism. I don’t think so. His repetition of the phrase “not only” is crucial here. Havel knows full well that the self-centeredness and otherworldliness of Romanticism simplified our view of the inner life and led, ironically, to the pendulum-swing towards a narrow objectivity. But he knows, too, that our belief that we know everything we need to know for the purposes of life is not only arrogant but deforming. As Iris Murdoch has pointed out in Existentialists and Mystics, our “simple-minded faith in science, together with the assumption we are all rational and totally free, engenders a dangerous lack of curiosity about the real world, a failure to appreciate the difficulties of knowing it.” I have turned to Thoreau’s notion of “earth-born” because I feel that he, like Simone Weil in the twentieth century, provides a much needed vocabulary of attention, where attention is the opposite of willfulness, and demands a continual and careful devotion to a reality which as Murdoch says, “we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy.” Thoreau’s attentiveness is a kind of spiritual discipline, an exercise of constantly attending to the uniqueness and particularity of the world around him. In doing so, Thoreau helps us think about what Murdoch calls “the transcendence of reality,” those moments I have tried to describe when we are returned to our senses and experience the joy which Weil defined as the “overflowing consciousness of reality.” It is a moment of transfiguration where the ordinary becomes extraordinary without becoming otherworldly. Thoreau also makes us realize that when we rush to be “heaven-born” we lose sight of the particulars of the world, and often end up worshipping our ideas about life rather than life itself. We need to heed Czeslaw Milosz’s warning: “Little animals from cartoons, talking rabbits, doggies, squirrels, as well as ladybugs, bees, grasshoppers. They have as much in common with real animals as our notions of the world have with the real world. Think of this and tremble” (“A Warning”).

Part of Milosz’ greatness as a writer lies in his willingness to “tremble.” Milosz fought against the late-twentieth-century tendency to adore “the labyrinth of his mind” (“Labyrinth”), knowing that, while no one expected an answer from “questions addressed to the sky, the earth, to stars and clouds” in our time, there was still the “that, ready, formed in every detail” and “already existing” (“That”). Like Wallace Stevens’s attempts to describe “The the,” there is always in Milosz a world already existing that Milosz seeks to discover. Yet, even after ninety years of describing “countries, cities, gardens, the bays of the sea,” Milosz knows that they are always waiting to be “described better than they were before” (“Late Ripeness”). Here is Milosz in the first of his selected essays, “My Intention”: “I am always aware that what I want is impossible to achieve. I would need the ability to communicate my full amazement at ‘being here’ in one unattainable sentence.” As a result, Milosz’s writing is a process of self-correction—on the one hand, he recognizes the incurable illness of our self-delusions; on the other, he sees that his task as a poet is to restore the “lost face of the world” (see “A Semi-private Letter about Poetry”). My interest in Milosz is two-fold: he is a writer who is at once quintessentially modern, aware that “human speech cannot encompass any phenomenon in its total roundness” (“Letter to Jerzy Andrzejewski”) and that human beings can be cartoonish in the way they ape social fashions and ideas; and he is resolutely old-fashioned in his belief that human nature is fundamentally attracted to the goodness of creation. His poems suffer in the in-between of these two poles: “On one side there is luminosity, trust, faith, the beauty of the earth; on the other side, darkness, doubt, unbelief, the cruelty of the earth, the capacity of people to do evil” (“A Goal”). Milosz, like Martin Buber, like the Thoreau I have tried to capture, emphasizes what Buber called the “lived concrete.” As Buber understood, “the meaning of existence is open and accessible in the actual lived concrete, not above the struggle with reality, but in it.”

Implicit in what I have been saying is the role of the artist and art. Milosz’s willingness to “tremble” is a kind of selflessness, a process of holding the self’s needs in check in the interest of seeing the real. Great art, according to Iris Murdoch, delights us “because we are not used to looking at the real world at all.” In her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, she uses Plato’s system of thought to give, ironically, a place to art and the artist that Plato did not envision in The Republic. Murdoch argues that the moral life in Plato is a “slow shift of attachments wherein looking (concentrating, attending, attentive discipline) is a source of divine (purified) energy…. The movement is not, by an occasional leap, into an external (empty) space of freedom, but patiently and continuously a change of one’s whole being in all its contingent detail, through a world of appearance toward a world of reality.” We know, of course, that the simple exposure to and even the study of great art may or may not lead to transformation, to care for the other. Art requires our consent, and in Murdoch’s view, our “morally disciplined attention” in order to enact the change from “a world of appearance toward a world of reality.”

What we may learn from art is its closeness to morals, since for Murdoch the essence of both art and morals is love. And love, as Murdoch defines it in her essay “The Sublime and the Good,” “is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real”; it is the “discovery of reality.”

Great art is the enemy of fantasy; fantasy always leads to the creation of idols. Our weakness as human beings is our tendency to make idols of whatever is at hand, whatever makes the world easier, more understandable, and meets our most immediate needs. Poets have always argued that the imagination is the opposite of fantasy. Imagination is an exercise in overcoming one’s self, of extending oneself towards what is different from ourselves. And, in their loving respect for a reality other than oneself, imagination and art call us to attend, with devotion and care, to a world which will always remain a mystery, but a mystery in which love calls us to the things of this world where we may become most fully human.

 

Robert Cording teaches English and creative writing at College of the Holy Cross where he is the Barrett Professor of Creative Writing. He has published five collections of poems, the most recent of which is Common Life.


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