What…had been plain, dense cloud cover now took on landscapelike formations, a chasm with long flat stretches, steep walls, and sudden pinnacles, in some places white and substantial like snow, in others gray and hard as rock…. They hung over the town, muted red, dark-pink, surrounded by every conceivable nuance of gray. The setting was wild and beautiful. Actually everyone should be in the streets, I thought, cars should be stopping, doors should be opened and drivers and passengers emerging with heads raised and eyes sparkling with curiosity and a craving for beauty….
However, a few glances at most were cast upward followed by isolated comments about how beautiful the evening was, for sights like this were not exceptional, on the contrary, hardly a day passed without the sky being filled with fantastic cloud formations…we lived our lives under the constantly changing sky without sparing it a glance or a thought. And why should we? If the various formations had some meaning, if, for example there had been concealed signs and messages for us which it was important we decode correctly, unceasing attention to what was happening would have been inescapable and understandable. But this was not the case of course, the various cloud shapes and hues meant nothing, what they looked like at any given juncture was based on chance, so if there was anything the clouds suggested it was meaninglessness in its purest form.
My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard
As I was walking up to the church this morning I passed that row of big oaks by the war memorial…and I thought of another morning, fall a year or two ago, when they were dropping their acorns thick as hail almost. There was all sorts of thrashing in the leaves and there were acorns hitting the pavement so hard they’d fly past my head. All this in the dark, of course. I remember a slice of moon, no more than that. It was a very clear night, or morning, very still, and then there was such energy in all things transpiring among those trees, like a storm, like travail. I stood there a little out of range, and I thought, It is all still new to me. I have lived my life on the prairie and a line of oak trees can astonish me. I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world and sees things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again.
Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
NORWEGIAN CLOUDS AND IOWA OAK TREES. Both embody fantastic energy and changeableness. Both are wild and beautiful. The shapes of the clouds and that hailstorm of acorns are the result of chance, or more accurately, in weather terms, the interchange of cold and warm fronts and the winds they produce.
Knausgaard’s clouds might be more excessive and beautiful than that line of oak trees in the town of Gilead. And, perhaps, as the narrator notes, they should awaken a “craving for beauty” in the drivers and passersby. But they do not. And, while it seems at first that the onlookers’ indifference to the clouds’ beauty might be their problem, the narrator goes on to explain that is not the case; the problem lies with what the passersby already know: the clouds do not conceal signs or messages. The varied cloud shapes and colors do not awaken anything in their viewers because they “meant nothing.” And so, in the end, the clouds move into the soon-to-be-forgotten category of yet another pretty Norwegian sky.orwegian clouds and Iowa oak trees. Both embody fantastic energy and changeableness. Both are wild and beautiful. The shapes of the clouds and that hailstorm of acorns are the result of chance, or more accurately, in weather terms, the interchange of cold and warm fronts and the winds they produce.
Marilynne Robinson’s oak trees “astonish.” They astonish despite the fact that, like the sky and clouds in Knausgaard, they are an ordinary sight, seen hundreds of times, even if not in this particular manifestation. What authorizes the astonishment? Many would answer as Knausgaard did: nothing at all. Marilynne Robinson, if you know her essays and books, might answer: the creation itself; the fact that we live in a created world and that faith, as she argues in a passage quoted by Anthony Domestico in Commonweal, is a “great, continuous instruction in perception itself,” and to perceive correctly is to see “that the beauty that floods our senses has the meaning of vision and revelation.”
Two different pictures of the same world, one that means “nothing” and one that has the meaning of “vision and revelation.” Knausgaard’s passage is informed by a kind of natural thinking; the world is simply there, having moved from possibility to necessity. It’s dense, opaque, beautiful, robust. But there is no point in looking for an origin for what is.
Certainly Robinson doesn’t think the falling acorns, the thrashing trees and that sliver of moon have meaning in and of themselves, are, that is, some kind of sign from God’s book of nature which we can read. Even the “travail” that the narrator John Ames feels in the scene has more to do with his psychological state than with what is actually taking place.
But he then brings another dimension to the scene: “I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world and sees things it will never know any names for.” What does Ames open his eyes on? Well, oak trees; and yet those oak trees seem to be more than what Ames knows them to be. Their name and even his knowledge of oak trees aren’t adequate to the experience. What is that experience?
Perhaps it’s best to let Robinson gloss herself. In another passage she writes: when “a thing [in this instance, rainwater] exist[s] in excess of itself, so to speak, [it attains] a sort of purity or lavishness, at any rate something ordinary in kind, but exceptional in degree.” In that sense, it is not simply a matter of two scenes, one of clouds and one of oaks, and two different takes on the natural world, the first more secular, the second more religious. To talk that way, even if partly correct, would dismiss Robinson’s notion of faith as quaint; I want to take her position seriously, both for her sake and my own, since I’ll admit now, my own experience of the world is much like hers.
Robinson’s shorthand for this kind of experience in Gilead is: “right worship is right perception.” She is fully aware of the problems of using the word “perception.” She knows its place in the Christian tradition, especially the Protestant tradition that places emphasis on one’s individual experience, on having, as the Bible puts it, eyes to see and ears to hear. And she knows how the word has been denigrated in our daily usage; it often means no more than: “You see that cloud as a horse. I see a dog, and surely both our perceptions are equally valid.” Well, in that little scene they are. But Robinson has something wholly different in mind. She employs the word “perception” in a different sense, one that implies a specific understanding of the creation and of the place of human beings and language within it.
Wallace Stevens, a poet Robinson loves, describes the kind of seeing Robinson has in mind in his poem “Angel Surrounded by Paysans”:
Yet I am the necessary angel of earth,
Since, in my sight, you see the earth again,
Cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man-locked set,
And, in my hearing, you hear its tragic drone
Rise liquidly in liquid lingerings.
Robinson, then, is talking about our experience of those moments when the ordinary and the extraordinary seem to tip into each other. Stevens’s “angel of reality” posits a kind of primordial seeing, a seeing as if for the first time, the ordinary earth seen again, but cleared of “our stiff and stubborn, man-locked set” of preconceptions. Or as Stevens puts it in his poem “The Latest Freed Man”:
It was the importance of the trees outdoors,
The freshness of oak-leaves, not so much
That they were oak-leaves, as the way they looked.
It was everything being more real….
In his book The Experience of God, David Bentley Hart describes this kind of perception: “it is the sudden awareness that no mere fact can possibly be an adequate explanation of the mystery in which one finds oneself immersed at every moment.” For Hart, for me, and I think for Robinson, this mystery has to do with what Hart calls the “sheer inexplicable givenness of the world,” the fact that anything at all exists.
In a Paris Review interview, Marilynne Robinson responds to the question, “Did you ever have a religious awakening?” with an emphatic, “No, a mystical experience would be wasted on me.” But what she goes on to say is pertinent here: “Ordinary things have always seemed luminous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to every encounter with the world. You don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something because it is addressed to you.”
We might gloss the word “addressed” with “given.” Marilynne Robinson’s latest book of essays is aptly called The Givenness of Things. It is both an unfashionable book and an extraordinary one. At its core lies both the rehabilitation of the uniqueness of the human being and the miraculous fact that we have a consciousness that makes the world intelligible to us. To quote Robinson, “The reality we experience is given [her italics] in the sense that it is, for our purposes, lawful, allowing hypothesis and prediction….” There is, in short, a world already here; that this world need not be at all informs and shapes Robinson’s thinking.
Robert Sokolowski lays out a related line of thought in a chapter titled “Creation and Christian Understanding” in his book Christian Faith and Human Understanding. Here is his starting point:
The world, obviously, does exist. We start with that. But in Christian belief the world is understood as possibly not having been. The world becomes understood as existing in such a way that it might not have existed. And, in the Christian understanding, if the world had not been, God would still be…. God is so understood that it would be meaningless to say that Creation added to his goodness, that he created out of any sort of need.
What follows from this premise is a different set of questions than, say, Aristotle would ask in inquiring into the being and substance of things. For Aristotle the problem would be, how did this animal or bird come to be this way? In the Christian understanding of creation, which is perfectly consistent with the “how” of evolution, the larger question is always: why does this animal or bird exist at all? And, if there is no reason for animal or bird to exist at all, and yet they do, God, who is self-subsistent, must have chosen to give them being. To return to David Bentley Hart once more:
One realizes that everything about the world is in fact charged with an immense and imponderable mystery. In that instant one is aware, even if the precise formulation eludes one, that everything one knows exists in an irreducibly gratuitous way: “what it is” has no logical connection with the reality “that it is.”
As Sokolowski puts it, “the fact that we are is the outcome of a personal transaction, not the outcome of chance or necessity, and it calls for a personal reaction on our part.” It is just such a personal reaction that John Ames offers as he looks at the line of oak trees. For Marilynne Robinson, our thought and perception are the gifts that allow us to appreciate and be grateful for the gift of creation, of which those oak trees are a part. They can be new to John Ames over and over again because Ames’s experience is one in which Hart’s “that it is” overtakes, or isn’t answered by “what it is.” Or to re-quote Stevens, “It was everything being more real.”
In an essay titled “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Martin Heidegger sets out to answer the question, “What is the mode of being of the work of art?” To ground this question, Heidegger looks at a Van Gogh painting of a pair of shoes. On the one hand, shoes, like tools and equipment in general, are made to be reliable, to function without their wearer having to give them a second thought. But in Van Gogh’s painting we’re made aware of a more complex reality.
Wallace Stevens once defined reality as both a chair and all the life lived in it, and Heidegger wants us to see both the physical reality of the shoes and how Van Gogh’s painting discloses the life of the peasant woman to whom these shoes belong. In the near-poem Heidegger makes of the painting, the shoes come alive: “In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles slides the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls.”
Van Gogh’s shoes, and art in general, belong to the tension between what Heidegger calls “the earth”—the reality of the non-human, “[the earth’s] unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field”—and “the world”—the human context in which the peasant woman feels an “uncomplaining anxiety as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death.” In this tension between earth and world (what Heidegger calls “strife”), Van Gogh’s painting discloses what the shoes, both mere shoes and the life lived in the shoes, are “in truth,” their “general essence.”
This double nature resides in the work of art itself, which is made of paint and yet transcends that material and allows the material to be more fully itself. Heidegger’s example here is a Greek temple. He points out that the marble we see in the temple is something quite different from the marble we saw in the quarry. The quarried marble now erected into a temple “draws out of the rock the mystery of that rock’s clumsy yet spontaneous support. Standing there, the building holds its ground against the storm raging above it and so first makes the storm manifest in its violence. The luster and gleam of the stone, though itself apparently glowing by the grace of the sun, yet first brings to light the light of the day, the breadth of the sky, the darkness of the night…. The temple, in its standing there, first gives to things their look and to men their outlook on themselves.”
Heidegger goes on to draw a crucial distinction between equipment and art: the work of art never uses up its material. Utilitarian objects exist simply in matter; they use up their material in the function of the material: bricks in a wall. But the work of art for Heidegger allows the materials of its making to “shine forth,” to be perceived in a way that they could not be perceived otherwise. In Van Gogh’s painting the physical properties of the paint are formed into shoes, but, unlike the paint used to cover a wall, the painted shoes bring into the open the life lived in those shoes. They allow the shoes to be more fully perceived.
In the strife between what wants to remain concealed and what wants to be revealed, the work of art (and I use “work” here, as Heidegger would have it, as a noun and a verb) allows the “happening of truth.” This truth is not Van Gogh’s. And, while his talent as a painter is important, it is not his talent that allows the truth of the shoes to happen. “To create,” as Heidegger says, “is to cause [or perhaps a better translation here is ‘to let’] something to emerge as a thing that has been brought forth. The work’s becoming a work is a way in which truth becomes and happens.”
The painting of the shoes allows the truth of the shoes to emerge the way the temple let the shape of the sky and the darkness of the night emerge. That experience is one in which a pair of shoes exceeds itself as shoes, and, in the very excess of that exceeding, allows us to participate in the truth of what is opened before us. Participation is crucial to that active sense of “work” on which Heidegger insists. He calls this participation “preserving,” and a work (noun) of art does not happen without the work (verb) of both creating and preserving.
In the “strife” of Van Gogh’s painting, the shoes emerge as we participate in—we “preserve”—the understanding that field work can be both an intimate knowing of the earth and the impossibility of ever knowing it. His peasant shoes hold each step across the fields in every season and at every time of day and night. The shoes let the many emotions be felt which must have accompanied the woman who worked the fields or sat and watched the sun set, pooling in pinks and reds and purples across them; and they let those moments emerge, perhaps, when the woman felt she knew some secret; and those many other moments when the fields refused to yield anything more than what had been planted in the dirt.
I think writing like Marilynne Robinson’s is rooted in the Heideggerian belief that it is in and through language that the world emerges in the fullness of its reality. Heidegger says, “Language alone brings what is, as something that is, into the Open for the first time.” This phrase—“as something that is”—returns us to Wallace Stevens’s “more real” oak trees and to Marilynne Robinson’s oak trees that “astonish.” The oak trees (“what is”) seen in their Being (“as something that is”) are seen in the perpetual newness of not needing to be at all. The “revelation in words by means of words” that Stevens speaks of returns us to the way language and art in general bring us back, again and again, to the fundamental experience of being: that there is something rather than nothing.
I often ask my students to write a statement of what they believe and what they would like their writing to accomplish. In that spirit, here’s my own little credo. I believe words evoke and depend on a reality apart from the acts of verbal reference, although poetry and, to my mind, theology are as Wallace Stevens said, “a revelation in words by means of words.” I write, first and foremost, to honor the mystery of creation. Here are some of the assumptions that underlie my work:
This world is the only reality available to us;
It is a mystery;
In order to feel comfortable, we often end up loving what is imaginary—our own dreams and self-deceits; we reduce the mystery to our theories and explanations;
The “contradictions” the mind comes up against, as Simone Weil says, are the only realities (why, for example, the truly innocent suffer so much more than anyone could ever deserve);
Those contradictions (as Weil has taught me) must be experienced to the very depths of our being—they are our cross;
What we suffer is our lived experience of the gap between the profound goodness of being and the painful, imperfect world human beings continue to create (As Wallace Stevens put it, we are an “unhappy people in a happy world”);
We must love this world—not to figure it out or even understand it, but as Wendell Berry says, “to suffer it and rejoice in it as it is”;
As a writer, I must try to shape a language that will take into account a world we did not make, being faithful to that essential mystery; at the same time, my language must try to faithfully record the terrifying and painful contradictions of human experience; and finally it must do so while remaining open to the intrinsic joy of being.
Of course, such statements of belief have all to do with those earlier conceptions of the cosmos that I sketched; if we conceive of being as random and meaningless, there is no meaning to which our words can point. We can describe nothing but the meanings our words bring into existence. Within the Christian framework I’m speaking from, words are a gift, like the world itself and our existence. Words point to being that is intrinsically meaningful (the intuition of Genesis 1) rather than to a meaningless world on which meaning must be imposed. To say this does not mean I subscribe to a conception of language that is wholly transparent and non-distorting. Words conceal and reveal. Even in the most faithful articulation something is added or subtracted, or both, from the experience we wish to write about.
Poetry never tries merely to mirror what science might call objective reality. As Stevens understood, reality is not, say, a chair in a room that one might try to describe accurately. Reality is both the chair and all those people who sat in it, read books, daydreamed, collapsed after a hard day’s work. Language seeks to evoke the lived sense of experience—the life lived in the chair. Metaphor, of course, never merely describes a fact; it seeks to evoke a sense of lived experience. When the Psalmist says “the heavens declare the glory of God,” he tries to evoke the literal stars: the sense that those stars “speak” because they cannot remain silent in the presence of God’s glory, the utter wonder of what is and need not be. Truth, here, is not in the statement but in the experience to which the metaphor directs us.
We live in a time when the language of theological discourse has been emptied of much of its former significance. And yet to live in a world that denies the possibility of the sacred seems utterly and unnecessarily reductive to me. My task of late has been to evoke what I would call the primordial intuitions of Christianity. What are they?
That we live in a world we did not create;
That God’s immanent presence is capable of breaking in on us at every moment;
That most of the time we cannot “taste and see” that presence because we live in a world of self-reflecting mirrors;
That by attention alone—“that attention that is so full the ‘I’ disappears,” as Simone Weil says—can we live in the world but outside of our existing conceptions of it.
This requires what Northrop Frye calls “double vision”: the recognition of our own limits of understanding; and, after that, “perhaps the terrifying and welcome voice” that “annihilate[s] everything we thought we knew, and restore[s] everything we never lost.” Eden is always with us. But it requires that we die to our human ways of knowing.
And so I write because in writing I sometimes unite my love and need. The work of writing helps me attend to a world I love but did not create. It is an act of soul-making that arises out of the need for the real work of our lives: the work we do not to acquire things but to be, to belong.
I believe great poems allow us to be more vividly, if only for moments. Consider how the sound of a poem, the physical feel of its words, the sinews of its syntax, all seem to be brought suddenly into contact with its sense, and the poem’s full resonance creates in us an elated sense of expansion. As the critic Sven Birkerts puts it, we “respond to the rightness of the verbal expression and, because of that rightness…suddenly grasp that the whole is welded together out of bits of sound. That organizations of sound mean—this is no less miraculous than the existence of physical laws. And both recognitions point in the direction of the first and last mystery that saturates the sacred writings of all cultures—that there is such a thing as being at all.” That a line of oak trees can astonish.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.