30 March 2006

The Problem of [the Absence of] Evil

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??


Rosie Perera said...

I found a link to a live performance of Penderecki's "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima" by the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra: MP3 (broadband); MP3 (modem). Found these links at this website.

Pretty screechy music! No redemption in it. But it's still art. I agree with your point about artists only being able to tell part of the story.

Now what happens if an artist has an idea for a massive trilogy, in which he is going to represent Creation, Fall, and Redemption (in any medium you might imagine: paintings, novels, whatever), and this artist, who does unsurpassed work on the first two parts, dies before being able to complete the final work of the trilogy. Does that mean he isn't a great artist? I know it's a hypothetical situation, and the artist, in order to produce such masterpieces, must have studied and practice much before beginning this trilogy, and his greatness would have presumably been measured already beforehand (which means he would have had to have depicted the idea of Redemption somehow at least once in order to have had in mind a masterpiece grand finale). But just suppose this situation really happened. What do you think? Great or not great? (You could restate the question and suppose he had finished the Creation and Redemption frames but died before being able to do the Fall.)

Now, as for that question of whether there will be art in heaven: if there weren't, it wouldn't be heaven to me. I can't imagine wanting to spend eternity without art. But will art still need to depict evil in heaven?

Part of me wants to say "Probably not." Which leads to the following conversation: "Will it appear trivial to us, then?" "No, of course not." "Do you understand how this could be?" "No. I suppose we must wait to find out."

But the other part of me wants to say: yes, great heavenly art will still depict evil, but only as a past reality (that we'll be grateful no longer exists), just as we will still remember the cost Jesus paid to purchase this redemption for us (his scars will still be visible, I think, for all eternity).

I have no idea which of these two answers accords with God's grand plan. Or perhaps neither of them does.

Iambic Admonit said...

Read: “Farmer Giles of Ham” and the dragon episodes from Beowulf, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Hobbit.
Listened to: “The Blue Notebooks” by Max Richter and “Klienes Requiem” & “Lerchenmusik” by Henryk Górecki

Here are some thoughts on these excellent questions:

If an artist finished only the “Creation” and “Fall” portions of his trilogy that would be enough to tell his greatness. We know Dante’s genius from the Inferno alone. It might not speak of his faith, but other testimonies—his life, his creeds, his friends, etc.—would reveal that. Paradise Lost, even without Paradise Regained, includes prophetic passages of the Savior’s incarnation and redemptive work.

If an artist were to complete only her “Creation” and “Redemption” parts, well…. Redemption of necessity presupposes a Fall. There would be no Redemption if were not something to be redeemed from. Which, incidentally, leads to a theology that the sin of Adam and Eve was not outside of God’s plan, that it is in the long run cosmologically “better” for man to fall and Christ to come than for man to earn his own salvation through continued perfection. God has no Plan B. But this does not enlighten the artistic question.

Is it possible to create a great work of art, a work of genius, that does not acknowledge the fallen condition of the world? I am trying to think of such a work. I think of Perelandra, a story that takes place on an Edenic, unfallen planet. Even though Lewis creates, arguably, a better “perfect world” than even Milton, the drama of the tale is the temptation. It is the conflict, the fear that the Woman will transgress the prohibition and destroy yet another race of rational, Imago Dei beings.

Perhaps it is not possible. Or at least, has not been done. ?

Mehitchcock said...

The closest I've ever heard to a story with no conflict is a hort story from around fifty years ago. The title and author are unknown to me.
In the story, a time traveler is accidentally and mysteriously dropped hundreds of years into the future.
He sees many wonders. Instantaneous travel, high technology, all the scientific fantasies one could imagine.
They allow him to ask a few questions before they send him back to his rightful time.
He asks about war, poverty, disease, and a multitude of other problems.
They laugh and say they have none of them.
The time-traveler reacts with incredulity. "None of them?"
"Oh, no. We have REAL problems now."
That's where the story ends.
It seems similiar to the question of ar in heaven. A place of incomprehensible goodness may also have unimaginable conflict.
In fact, a place so different would probably think good, evil, and conflict were just preciously simplistic terms.

Read today:
I read about Frederick II and the Holy Roman Empire. Also read about the crusades against the Baltic states. Horrifying and shameful, really.

Listend to:
Thanks, Rosie. I listened to Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima AND BArber's adagio. Great link. Other than that, "Roller Coaster of Love" was on the radio three times today!