Read [since I last posted]: Act II of Waiting for Godot; most of the essays in Lewis’s The Weight of Glory. “The Turn of the Tide,” a poem by C. S. Lewis, in the first day of my new Lewis/Tolkien class.
Listened to: Tchaikovsky, the overture to “Romeo & Juliet” and also Piano Concerto No. 2. And more Father Brown.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the question of evil: Does literature (or any art), to be “great,” have to acknowledge the reality and presence of evil? I believe the answer is yes. But let’s start first from the opposite question, since that has actually come up in my experience.
After my senior recital, a friend started a conversation about art that is, according to her perception, about only evil—or sorrow, pain, depression, hopelessness, meaninglessness, etc. I imagine she was thinking about fearsome music depicting pure suffering, such as Penderecki’s “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.” [Sorry, I couldn’t find a link for you to listen to this anywhere on the web.] Or art that’s all about terror and agony, like Munch’s “The Scream.” Or novels of loss and vanity, including maybe Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms. So, her question was if art that shows only something bad can be good art, and specifically if it can be Christian art. She was desperately yearning for depictions of redemption in human subcreation. After some talk, we decided that no piece of art can tell all the story. An artist must choose to tell some part of the story. S/he might pick the Fall part of the tale, say, or the lost and wandering part, of the reached-the-end-of-my-rope part (like the suicide scene in Descent into Hell). Or s/he might go further and tell the salvation, justification, or even glorification part. But you must read Purgatorio before you read Paradiso, and you must read Inferno before that. You must walk through Mordor before you can destroy the Ring. And in our spiritual lives, our remorse for sin comes before the joy of our salvation. Christ died before He rose again. However, although I might not doubt an artist’s “greatness” if he never ever got to the redemptive bit of the story anywhere in his entire oeuvre, I would probably doubt his Christianity.
So how does this relate to the opposite question? I guess by a chiasmus. I might not doubt an artist’s Christianity if all she wrote were sappy “I love Jesus we’re my best friends” doggerel, but I would certainly doubt her greatness. Even if the verses were of very high quality, I might doubt their lasting artistic power. What good is art if it ignores the reality of our human situation? It can offer relief from sorrow, joy from pain, escape from suffering, but can it entirely ignore their existence? And isn’t the very nature of art, especially literature, to depict some kind of conflict, overcoming, victory, etc? I remember hearing about a Willa Cather story in which there is, supposedly, no conflict. A story with no bad guy, with no evil. But I’ve never come across it. If I do, I’ll write about it.
Meanwhile, I’m going to try to think of specific artistic examples and get into this conversation. Because I haven’t really added anything to it yet, just brought it up again. Can art be any good if it ignores all evil?
And here’s a related question: If not, then will there be art in heaven??