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??

29 March 2006

Revising the Canon

Read: Isaiah Chapter 5
Listened to: Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, the version with full chorus and children’s chorus

I do worry about the new shift in literary priorities, the replacing of “good old” classics with not-quite-so-good, maybe as old, certainly not classics! Where will the next generation of readers be if they read, in high school, Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head” instead of Wordsworth’s “Prelude”; Felicia Hemans to the exclusion of Coleridge; Frederick Douglas’s slave narratives rather than Uncle Tom’s Cabin; and “the greatest masterpiece of Japanese prose narrative” replacing Moby Dick? But there is not time to read both, I mean all of the above. Such students/readers would have a different perspective on literature, and consequently, somehow on life. They would likely value social awareness and influence over compositional skill—wait, hum, that’s already happened. They might probably search for issues of race and gender rather than spiritual elevation or exaltation of the human soul. Wait, again: we already do. In the halls of higher learning, this shift has already occurred.

In my graduate classes, that’s what we do. Now, let me explain. We do not read Smith to the exclusion of Wordsworth; we read them side-by-side, as a comparison. We do not talk about slavery rather than The Sublime; we talk about both. So that’s good. In that context we have time to look at both the old priorities and the new. And we already have that rootedness Rosie recommends.

What will happen when this shift makes its way down the academic ladder, I don’t know. Do teenage readers need “a rootedness in one particular tradition”? I wonder. I would be heartbroken if every reader knew The Tale of Genji and not one knew Paradise Lost. But is that just my preference? Let’s unpack that more.

What about globalization? Christians, with everyone, need to be ready for this new earth. We need to be aware of and sensitive to all the cultures and traditions we will encounter in our neighborhoods and all over the world. We hop on planes as easily now as our ancestors stepped into Model-Ts. No, more comfortably! So why not read about the heritage of the places we’ll step off into?

Well, we can never read it all. Once, up until the 18th century, I think, it was possible for one man (or woman) to have read everything, EVERYTHING ever published. Some had done it. Coleridge is believed to have come close, though he lived into the printing boom. It is now not only impossible to read everything, it is not even close to possible to read everything even on one narrow subject. OK, maybe you could read everything about, say, organic okra farming, but you could never read everything about organic farming in general. And even excluding the internet (who does that now?), there are far too many books and periodicals. Even excluding periodicals, there are far too many books to read them all. One must choose. One is, of necessity, choosing to exclude thousands of books when one picks up one. When I picked up one particular biography on Tolkien last night, I was excluding all the others [unfortunately, for that one turned out to be no good as far as getting to know Tolkien the man]. So should young readers be trained to be snackers in literature? Read a little snippet of English poetry, a bite of Japanese prose, a tidbit of African folk tale, an appetizer of Australian fiction, an hoers d’ouevres of the American novel, a taste of Greek epic, a nibble of Latin epigram, a sip of Norse myth, a crumb of Saxon verse, a sampling of Asian poems, and a smorgasbord of modern plays? Or should they first be immersed in one tradition, so as to have some comparison to jump off of, some foundation to judge from?

Well, then the question becomes, whose tradition should be privileged in American education? Ours, simply because we were born into it? Well, why not. It’s a good tradition. Does it boast anything over others? Well, maybe it boasts its long association with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Maybe we (Westerners, Americans, Christians) think our literature is worth teaching to our children because of its spiritually healthy origins and associations.

Or, to put the same thing in a negative way: Perhaps as Christians we are afraid of losing the great spiritual classics, the books from a time that was, apparently, more sensitive to the Holy Spirit than now. Perhaps we understand the loss to consciousness, the weakness of a worldview built without (for example) Milton’s perspective on sin, marital love, choice, divine predestination, the problem of evil, the possibility of Paradise, the necessity of the Son of God as intercessor, etc. There is something about reading these things in his fabulous blank verse that brings them to life. It’s not better than reading the Bible, but it might be more memorable, or more vivid, or more fresh and new. So, yes, Christians can always read the Bible, but won’t we lose something without Milton?

That said, our “Western Canon” does not include Jewish writing, or a lot of the early Christian fathers, or the mystics (generally). And the new shift towards finding out overlooked authors often turns up very spiritual characters, such as Jones Very and Alice Meynell.

Part of me wants to end this by saying: The Holy Spirit will take care of Himself. God is big enough to be found through any literary tradition, and He will not let truth disappear. Reading, say the writings of Confucius instead of the Book of Proverbs, or even Poor Richard’s Almanac, will not make Proverbs any less true, or the writings of Confucius anything more than sometimes right and sometimes wrong thoughts of a wise but fallen human being. So should we teach any and all literature and let God look after the formation of young minds?

Or should we approach this from another point of view? “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Train up a child surrounded by the books that are rooted in the spiritual tradition s/he must be rooted in, and then s/he will grow up with a taste for The Good. Maybe. Then, as you say Rosie, then teach readers as they grow older to dip into every tradition for the flavours of the exotic, the tastes of the foreign.

I’d love to hear what other people have to say. I’d love to know what somebody thinks who was raised on the literature of another culture all together and thinks that has contributed only positively to his/her Christian worldview.

23 March 2006

Memorizing poetry

Read: Part of RoadSense for Drivers: BC's Safe Driving Guide (in preparation for taking the test to get my British Columbia driver's license); Milton's sonnet "On His Blindness" (see below)

Listened to: More Italian vocabulary; Mendelssohn's String Symphony No. 8 in D (a version transcribed for winds), in streaming audio over KING-FM, Seattle's 24-hour classical music station; I'm listening to the latter from up in Vancouver as I type this (oh, the wonders of the Internet!)

Today I picked up and leafed through my copy of Committed to Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize (edited by John Hollander), looking for a poem to work on memorizing. My mother grew up in an era where every schoolchild was required to memorize lots of poetry, and she sure did! I missed out on that, so I've been trying to make up for lost time. I selected Milton's "On His Blindness," which was already quite familiar to me, but I'd never gotten it down by heart. After an hour working on it in the car on the drive up to Vancouver today (before switching on the Italian lessons CD), I pretty much have got it. (Don't tell the BC driver's licensing folks that I was reading a book of poetry -- albeit only one line at a time, and with very infrequent glances -- while driving!!)

There are so many benefits to memorizing poetry. It becomes a part of you and shapes your appreciation of other poems. It nourishes your imagination and helps inspire your own poetry (or other art form). It can become part of your prayer language, just as memorized hymns can be (and are for me in a big way); hymns are, after all, a special kind of poetry. When, in your waning years, you begin to lose your short-term memory, the poems and songs and Scripture you've memorized will be some of the last things to go (along with childhood memories; a great argument for filling up a child's memory bank with wonderful experiences to keep her in happy reverie in her senescence).

Of course, as with any anthology, Committed to Memory is one particular person's (or committee's) idea of what are the "best" poems to memorize. I have begun making my own anthologies of poems and things, because others' collections never quite cut it as my own definitive list. However, I find it helpful to use others' canons of "great books" or "must-have classical recordings" as a jumping off point for making my own lists. I probably have about two dozen books of the "list of books" genre, including The NY Public Library's Books of the Century, Clifton Fadiman's The Lifetime Reading Plan, etc.

So... Do you memorize poetry? What are some poems you would put on your own "best poems to memorize" list? Why? What makes a poem good to memorize? I have some incipient thoughts on this, but will wait to develop them further and see what others write before posting them. I will at least tantalize you with a few of the poems I've got so far in my personal anthology of poems to memorize. All but the last two are commonly anthologized and probably frequently memorized, but I'm glad to have found a couple that make my own list unique.

"Love (III)" (Herbert)
"God's Grandeur" and "Pied Beauty" (Hopkins)
"Fire and Ice," "The Road Not Taken" and "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" (Frost)
"The Apologist's Evening Prayer" (C.S. Lewis)
"Nativity" (R.S. Thomas)

Natural or Organic? No GMOs!

Read: The Dark Tower, an [(should that be ‘a’?) heartbreakingly, frustratingly!] unfinished novel by C. S. Lewis—I think one day I’ll host a contest in which participants write possible endings. I’m dying to read the rest of it, but it doesn’t exist!
Listened to: more Father Brown, part of the soundtrack to “Evita,” and my “Music Composition in Medieval and Renaissance Forms” students’ final compositions.

I need to put a caveat on my comments about art that opposes “natural principles.” Let it never be assumed that I think it is for that reason not art! 12-tone music, for example, is a very impressive art form. Schoenberg and the rest thought that the traditional foundations on which music had been built for centuries had crumbled, so they decided to invent a new system. They did not set out to work contrary to the way the universe works; they simply chose a new method. The system of ternary harmony, they thought, was worn out. This system of triads, by the way, seems to have some “natural” basis in the radio frequencies/pitches produced by the planets, or the “songs of the stars.” These theories stem from Pythagoras, Ptolemy, and Kepler.
Click here for Music of the Spheres
But Schoenberg & Co. decided to use a new system, a mathematical principle of musical equality. There’s nothing wrong with that as a philosophy. But, see, they really thought that it would be great as a music, too. Schoenberg is often quoted as saying in a few generations or so, kids would be whistling 12-tone rows in the street. Well. It didn’t work. And I don’t like the music. I love studying it (what could be more fun than a dodecaphonic matrix, I ask you that??), but I don’t like to listen to it. That could be just me. But have I any right to say it is not great art just because it sounds awful??

And what about composers who dip a mouse’s feet in ink and let it walk across the score, then play the resulting notes? Aren’t a mouse’s steps according to nature? Hum. I’m arguing with myself here. Sure, there’s rhythm and pattern in the way that little guy trots. But does it therefore follow that it would make good music? Funnily enough, aleatoric (“chance”) music and serialized (12-tone) sound pretty much the same. The least organized and the most organized.

So, in other words, I have no idea what I’m talking about when I say art must conform to natural principles to be great. There seems to be no logical reason why an “arbitrary” organization some guy came up with out of his head is unnatural. Aren’t human thought processes natural? And really, those paintings made by elephants, or monkeys, or dogs, are more natural, in one sense, than those made by people through their overactive rationality. This is coming back around, like the conversation on soul. We probably cannot tell how much soul is in a work.

Is everything a strange loop?!?
Thanks to the brilliant Douglas Hofstader

21 March 2006

On young people and art

Unless you become as a little child, you shall not inherit the Kingdom of God.

My students were amazing on Friday night! They read much famous poetry, and a good deal of their own. I loved the feeling of the evening: We sat in a row, my poets and I, in white-and-black, on tall stools, speaking into the silence the listeners opened up for us. Our voices rolled straight out through the coloured lights into the darkness where all the ears were, into their brains, clear and profound. Our poetry sounded so good there! Appreciation adds beauty upon beauty. My kids wrote of love, death, nature, faith, confusion, loss, worry, tranquility, and dogs and frogs. We made them laugh, we made them sigh, we made them sit silent and see pictures in their heads!

And before and after the words, we gave them music. Here's a picture [which I stole from somebody's xanga, thanks!] of the band, high and crazy on their own volume and velocity (and man, it was loud and fast!!)

Art can be Fun! or, Fun can be Art??

Wow, this is so cool. Art doesn't always have to be as serious as we're making it out to be!! And yet, this takes as much dedication as wielding a pen, I would imagine....
Click here to watch Chris Bliss juggling
It's a bit long, and it only becomes more dazzling as it goes along, so try to watch the whole video. Enjoy!

On fantasy literature

Here's an article by a pastor in my area. I was motivated to put this on by Rosie's timely comments on fantasy literature (under the "Why bother?" post). I heartily agree. "Fiction" is often more true than most of the books you find in the non-fiction section (self-help, opinion, biography, history....) So here's one opinion on the Harry Potter craze. I have one somewhere that takes a different position, by Chuck Colson, and I'll try to find it. Tammy, if you have it, would you post it?

Welcome Back Harry Potter!

I am both an ordained minister and a Harry Potter fan. I know this makes me a ‘persona non grata’ in some church circles. But the less-than-academy-quality acting and screen writing aside—I still enjoyed the latest movie in the series, “The Goblet of Fire”.

Don’t get me wrong, I am quite aware of many Christian critiques of the series. First critique? “Harry Potter blurs the lines between right and wrong!” Are you kidding me? It is a modern morality play. The ongoing fight between good and evil is the undergirding of the entire narrative. Granted, Harry has a “certain disregard for the rules”—but arguably so did Jesus. Sometimes, rules can be harmful and restrain ‘good’. Sometimes it is ‘right’ to break rules. Remember 1776?

Maybe what's offensive to many is not that Harry does good, but that he has to struggle not to do evil. Harry is in Gryffindor, but is aware of a streak of Slytherin within his heart. Remember that even the sovereign Sorting Hat had a hard time determining where to place Harry. I get this struggle. I confess that for me, doing Gryffindor is often at odds with the bent of my heart toward Slytherin. It is not Harry Potter that blurs the line between good and evil---the real culprit is my heart.

Second main critique? “Harry Potter encourages the exploration of magic and witchcraft!” I prefer to say that Harry Potter—as well as Lord of the Rings, Brothers Grimm, Star Wars, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—anything by Shyamalan--invites us to look beyond our senses. For too long the woods have been disenchanted. For too long have we been lulled to sleep by simplistic ‘muggle’ science that hoped to explain all phenomenon in the cosmos. I was trained as a scientist—an engineer—the president of the Math Honor Society. I found great solace in equations that gave me the same answer every time. But I am now more passionate about the unexplainable than the formulaic. I have seen far too many things that challenge my formulas. The forests are indeed enchanted. By the way, scientists are coming around. Quantum Physics has shattered the formulaic science of my generation. Modern scientists are more like ancient medicine men, or shaman who are fetishly naming the powers that cannot be seen—quarks, etc. They are more and more aware that the molecules themselves are ‘enchanted’.

Thank God for people like Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling who invite us to continually enter mystical realms—to imagine, to have higher expectations for the creation. This is after all what the Bible does. We are invited to become aware of the higher realm—a realm of miracle (the Christian political-speak for ‘magic’). In that realm, things happen that are inexplicable. There are powers and forces that are beyond our wildest dreams—beyond science, beyond formula, beyond our comfort. Now that’s what I am talking about!

Maybe we are just a little bit jealous that JK Rowling does so much imagining with far less material at her disposal than we have. Maybe she challenges us to be recaptured by the stunning imagination of the Bible again. No doubt, sorcery is very dangerous. But I believe passionately that the Bible presents a reality far more dangerous! Harry Potter-like sorcery and witchcraft are really pathetic counterfeits of the highest power in the universe, God Himself. What could be more magical (or miraculous if you prefer) than the birth of Jesus Christ? Imagine the fantasy-like scene of the angelic beings hovering over the shepherds. Or a virgin conceiving, a whale, an ark, a Triune God who speaks, pursues, loves, embraces. If anyone is mildly attracted to the mystery of sorcery, they should be wildly attracted by the wonders of the Bible, what C.S. Lewis refers to as the Deep Magic.

Maybe what we should be most offended by is not Harry Potter, but any hyper-formulaic science that has no place for the enchanted, mysterious and the miraculous. Maybe, just maybe, that is what we need to protect our children from! What do you think?

Pastor Bill Senyard,
Peace Valley Community Church
December, 2005

Survey of Christian Classics

Read: Thomas Howard's brilliantly enlightening comments on Many Dimensions in his (Howard's) indespensible The Novels of Charles Williams.

Listened to: The beginning of Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries on tape.

Next year I hope to teach again a Survey of Christian Classics course, like the one I used to teach at BICS, but this time for high school students. I would like your advice on the reading list. Here are the works I plan to use thus far. This is a modification of the syllabus Rosie's mom used to use. Rosie, I'll pull out that list you sent of contemporary Xian writers and see who I else can add who's still alive. :)

St. Augustine, Confessions
“Caedmon’s Hymn”
“The Dream of the Rood”
Julian of Norwich’s “Revelations of Divine Love”
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso
Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand
Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses
John Milton, Paradise Lost
John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
Selections from Jonathan Edwards’ Basic Writings
Short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne
George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdie
Short stories by Flannery O’Connor
C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
A Sacrifice of Praise: An Anthology of Christian Poetry by James H. Trott (Poetry of Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Coleridge, C. Rossetti, Hopkins, Eliot, Luci Shaw, Scott Cairns, et al.)

We will, unfortunately but necessarily, be using only selections of these works. They are, after all, high school students, albeit very intelligent and motivated homeschoolers.

17 March 2006

Good books on aesthetics

Listened to: South African Gospel (CD in The Rough Guide series)

Read: Two short stories: "The Five-Forty-Eight" by John Cheever and "Distant Music" by Ann Beattie (in Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker, edited by David Remnick).

Apropos to our recent exchange about what is beauty, there's an interesting post (and subsequent discussion) on what books one would choose if teaching a university course on aesthetics, on the blog of my fellow Regent alum Gideon Strauss. I recognized and have read and agree with some of the suggestions there (Jeremy Begbie's Voicing Creation's Praise and part of Nicholas Wolterstorff's Art In Action). Click here to see the blog entry.

16 March 2006

Teaching Art to Young People, or Learning it From Them?

I recently had the joy of spending two-and-a-half days taking care of two girls, ages 9 and 11, for their parents. Among the many fun things we found to do was photography. Prompted by the older one's request to give it a try, I decided to teach them how to use my fancy digital camera to take pictures. It was delightful to share the joy of creating art with young people, and see them take pleasure in what they could realize from their imaginations. I was also quite impressed with their artistic sensibility. They seemed to intuit that they could shift their point of view by moving around with the camera to change how the subject looks in the final result. The younger one was particularly good at zooming in close to make the subject or a small detail of it fill the frame. And the older one delighted in focusing on the subject while throwing the background out of focus, a technique she only had to ask me how to do with the camera's controls, but she already had the idea that's what she wanted to do.

This got me thinking about how young people develop the sense of recognizing beauty. Is it innate? Is it something you can teach? I remember the story my pastor told of the time when he took his whole family on a trip to India, when their children were little. His son, about age two at the time, taught him something about the human capacity to appreciate beauty. They were approaching the Taj Mahal from a muddy parking lot, and you couldn't see the majestic structure yet because it was behind a fence. But all of a sudden they came out into the open and there was the Taj Mahal looming ahead of them. The little boy breathed in a gasp of astonishment as soon as he saw it. It was then that my pastor friend realized he had in that little toddler a human being capable of appreciating beauty.

Young children also love the sounds of language. While they can't appreciate the more subtle aspects of poetic imagery yet, they can recognize and delight in repetitions of sounds, rhymes, puns, etc. And they seem to be always inventing their own little songs and poems. I can't remember what poet it was who was asked "When did you start writing poetry?" and he responded, "When did you stop?"

If you've ever had the chance to spend some significant time around children (this was really the first time in my adult life that I have!), you know that they teach you to see the world from a child's perspective again. I found my creativity enhanced by being with these girls, watching and participating in their artistic endeavors with them.

14 March 2006

Why bother?

I’m going to add this to each post/comment, and I encourage you to do so too:

Today I’ve listened to: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, the “Emperor”

Today I’ve read: Many Dimensions by Charles Williams

Yesterday was a fantastically beautiful Spring day. 80º, sunny, perfect. I sat outside listening to the myriads of birds, thinking, “Who needs music when we have the melodious and harmonious calls of birds? Who needs poetry describing nature when the real thing is so much more real and so much more satisfying? Who needs novels when the world and people and even trees have more depth and colour and meaning? Why do we bother with art, anyway?”

Then I picked up Many Dimensions. And I knew the answer. Whether or not I can articulate it, I knew and felt it. Nature is what it is and does what it does, but there was that book. It was alive. No, the characters were alive. No, they are something different and better than living. They are permanent, though they pass through my mind only while I read and when I think on it, or dream the story into my life as I did last night. The crisp psychological detail, the spiritual enormity, the trueness of it is unparalleled and indispensable. I almost venerate those characters. Yes, I want to emulate them. The stillness of Chloe, the silent acquiescence of her will to God’s, makes me want to change my name to Serena and live in tranquility. I ate that book up as a goat grazes away all things green, as a man in the desert consumes water. I wanted to read it as fast as I could, yet I grieve now that it is finished.

That is one reason to do art: to keep us starving and fed, to take us away from family and duty but give us back to spirit, to submerge us and lift us below and above all this beautiful material existence.

13 March 2006

Never travel without a book....

Take a look at this web site! As Rosie said when she sent it to me, "What a novel idea!" Perhaps we should all do it, and "turn the whole world into a library."
click here for Book Crossing
What would you leave for everyone and anyone to read? I would leave
Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis, the single greatest book, humanly speaking, or maybe Mere Christianity. But I'm sure there could be other, quirky, random, hard-to-find books that would do well in this sort of exchange. What would you send out on the waves of human flux?

09 March 2006

If Beauty is Truth, is this beautiful enough?

Here is today's question:
What makes a good work of art?
What is a good poem? Mere technical prowess? Mechanical precision married to intensity of thought and feeling? Perspicacious observation? Or "a certain je ne sais quoi," to quote Peter Schickele?
And what is a good quality photograph, from an artistic point of view? What makes a piece of music a work of genius? Can we list off the items that make it great? Or does greatness transcend the individual features? When is a painting wonderful? Are only subjective evaluations valid, or are there objective measures of quality?

Here is a poem we can talk about, maybe, in relation to this. It's formless, and it's talking about the difficulty of writing poetry about God! So it can spark a meta-conversation (love it!). Is it any good? If so, how can it be? It follows no form. If it's no good, how do we know that? Against what standard? So, have fun.

17 February 2006

Lines on Listening

Anger blooming little starflowers on my eyelashes
overflow, overflow

Why do You leave me wandering in my own hollow cries?
Why must I shout and shout into this,
my own ringing echo?

Blank white overcast sky pressing down out of reach
rumble of something on thunder
mumble, mumble

How can I draw Your shape
on a blank white page
when my brush is dipped in and dripping
with silence—empty silence—
when my pen holds a slim cylinder
of entropy—shifting slipping—
muttering gibberish?

Yes, I do see the mountains.
They do fade range after range after range,
six at least, majesties mist-paling off to a wrinkled horizon.

And I do feel how clean this river-water is,
how cool, how absolute by itself and in its pouring over boulders.
I do hear it chattering below this pool,
Murmur murmur over a crunch of rocks,
but I do not know what it is saying.

01 March 2006

Intentionality in Art

Here's a question for you all: How much does the poet's or artist's intention matter in whether art is really art? I am a photographer, and while I know what to do to make an artistic photograph, sometimes I surprise myself by what comes out on film or screen. And sometimes I don't even recognize a photograph as good art until someone else sees it and comments on it. A photo I took on a recent trip to New Zealand (currently showing in the Lookout Gallery at Regent College, reproduced here at right) New Beginnings is turning out to arrest the attention of everyone who sees it. But I didn't recognize it as a winner when I first saw it. In fact, I didn't even notice it as one of the relatively good ones. But when I was showing my slides to an artist friend, she stopped at that one and told me it was incredible. And after looking at it for a while longer, I began to agree with her. Does the fact that this beauty came from somewhere outside of my intentional control change my relationship as artist to this work of art? Is it still art? Is this unexpected discovery of art an experience that other artists in other art forms (including poets, writers) have ever felt?

Art historian Laurel Gasque had a chance to view my photo in the gallery and commented on it thus:

Your work I would suggest is a Romantic take on the [German] photographer...Karl Blossfeldt. Art and nature are austerely and classically joined in his work. Painting and sculpture arrest my attention more than photography, but when the latter does, it does in a big way.

Blossfeldt's work which I first saw in Basel many years ago grabbed me in a special way that made me stop and honour the complete exquisite elegance of God's creation, its structure that makes all human design a footnote. Thank you for your work taking me back to this memory and kind of basic reflection.

I hope you find Blossfeldt's work of interest. You might find it static, but for me it arrests my attention, slows me down to consider God's amazing handiwork and consider it and mediate on it and relish all the inspiration it has given down through the ages to mostly anonymous artists who worked in the decorative arts, embellishing our lives not with the frivolous, but a reflection of archetypical form.

I located an online exhibit of Blossfeldt's Urformen der Kunst (Artforms in Nature). I do find it static, but I can see how Laurel saw my work as a Romantic take on some of his fern photos. Do you find that his work or mine better draws one's attention to God's handiwork? I am still trying to work out what my vocation is as an artist. One of my intentions is surely to bring glory to God and highlight his handiwork, but if I may take poetic license and apply Scott Cairns' thoughts to my photography, I would hope that I could create anew as well as merely showing a poor shadow of something that exists already in nature. Is photography as an art form inherently incapable of doing the former? What are your thoughts? Feel free to comment specifically on this photograph, even to critique it.

The Neo-Platonic Problem

Caveat lector: this is going to be really long and esoteric! If you don’t have time to read it, skip to the end!
By the way, go Augustine!! Fantastic segue, Rosie.
Yes, I confess. I am an “Inklings”-style Christian Neo Platonist. I do believe that all we see here is but a shadowy antitype of its perfect type or Form, which will be revealed in the new Heavens and the new Earth. Everything we see here will be fulfilled. There seems to be some Biblical evidence for this theory. The strongest is in the book of Hebrews. That author knew his Republic! Hebrews 8:1-5 (NASB) reads:
Now the main point in what has been said is this: we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary, and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary that this high priest also have something to offer. Now if He were on earth, He would not be a priest at all, since there are those who offer the gifts according to the Law; who serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, just as Moses was warned by God when he was about to erect the tabernacle; for, “See,” He says, “that you make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.” (emphasis mine.)
The earthly priests served in a tabernacle which was a shadow and a copy of the tabernacle in heaven! Wow. Perhaps some of you Greek scholars could tell me if the same words for “shadow” and “copy” are used in Hebrews and in Plato? But think about it: it seems that God gave Moses basically a blueprint of a tabernacle that existed in Heaven, and Moses built the best copy he possibly could under terrestrial conditions with mortal artists and finite materials. Then, I guess, when we get to Heaven we’ll see the real one? And just as the old men wept to see Zerubbabel’s temple, poor copy as it was of Solomon’s, so we will rejoice to see the original of which everything here is but a poor imitation!
And it’s a beautiful idea. We will become what we will be, in full perfection. Every color will be more vibrant, every sound more resonant, every taste more vivid. More than this: I imagine we will be able to see the entire spectrum of colors, experiencing those far beyond our 10% current range. We’ll be able to hear the entire spectrum of sound, above a dog’s whistle and below an earthquake rumble. We’ll be able to distinguish textures and temperatures more subtle than we even know exist. More still than this! Perhaps, perhaps we’ll be able to see sound, hear colors, taste music, paint with words. Perhaps synesthesia is a bit of what is to come. In short, I would not be one bit surprised to get to Heaven and find it to be what Lewis described in The Great Divorce and The Last Battle. Or at least, those seem apt descriptions of the Valley of the Shadow of Life: who knows what “Deep Heaven” may contain?
But such a view might be limited. Why should I hold heaven—the final infinite, the beginning of forever, the unending landscape, the eternal timeline—to the standard of the Shadowlands? Why should what’s there be simply what’s here, only better? Hum. So, one spanner in the works of my philosophy.
I have tried to adapt Lewis’s concept, and fix some of the theological and eschatological inconsistencies, by putting the World of Forms into the future. I decided several months ago that I did not think that these Forms exist right now in any Ideal Realm or World of Pure Forms, unless that resides in the Mind of God. Plato’s is in the Past, Present, and Future, eternal in all 4-D directions, if I’m not mistaken. So, to Christianize mine, I’ve put it into a time after Christ returns. Yes, yes, of course I realize God is outside time, etc., etc., and maybe this terminology does not apply. And that my only proof-text seems to say it does exist now. But by having Perfection exist in an already-not yet realm, I thought I had freed it up as an arena for art. Here’s how. I’m going to take a long tangent to say how.
The contemporary Christian poet Scott Cairns has written an excellent article entitled “Elemental Confusion: Towards a Sacramental Poetics.” In this profound and challenging article (April 2005 [in progress]), Mr. Cairns contests that the primary reason for the failure of contemporary American verse (especially, but not exclusively, Christian poetry), is that the poem has become merely “a document of prior experience.” The poem must not be a description of a past moment, it must be a moment itself—an epiphany, a revelation, a creation (8). Art, then, to take Tolkien’s word, is not only itself sub-creation, but a catalyst of further sub-creation, or sub-sub-creation, or meta-sub-creation? The “Sacramental” in his title weaves together the theology Communion with an aesthetic of poetry. Firstly, he gently exposes what he sees as the shortcomings of some denominations who strip the elements down to mere reminders. This, he says, is like poetry which only commemorates a past event and does nothing in itself. It is a kind of theological and poetic poverty, as he sees it. Then he presents a eucharistic view of communion, in which participants in some way or other take Christ into their mouths each time they partake of those elements. This, according to Cairns, is how poetry should work: it must contain a living, present, moment: a power, a presence. His definition of “the poetic” is sublime—and I do not use that word lightly—“the presence and activity of inexhaustible, indeterminate enormity apprehended in a discreet space” (4). That beautiful, spiritual, dangerous comprehension will resonate in me for a long time hence.
This view of poetics is rooted in a metaphysics of language: what is a word? What does it signify? What can it do? Cairns lays out a subtle distinction between a paralyzing, shallow, enervating belief that words are merely signs, meaningless noises, versus a rejuvenating, regenerating, generative faith that words are something more (7). He supports this claim with a brilliant discussion contrasting the ways in which the Greeks used their words for “word” with how the Apostle John used Logos. I will quote at some length here.
When the evangelist and theologian, Saint John, uttered Logos as his word for Word, he was making what I suspect to be a very Jewish point with a very Greek gesture. Until that moment, logos was generally consigned to the transcendent realm of Platonic Ideas, the realm of Real Things, of which the apparent world was supposed to be only a shadow. When Saint John wrested Logos from the ether and placed it in the muck among us, he was articulating a collision of realms, a collision whose concurrently disruptive and generative powers Christians have all but forgotten…. the neo-Platonic notion of the written word assumes it to be a name merely, it is, in practice, perceived as a sorry substitute for the spoken word, which is itself a sorry substitute for the thought, which is a sorry substitute for the very distant Idea—that objective reality to which we have no real access…. (7-8)

Therefore, not only are these two views of words different, they illustrate the fundamental contrast of two entire worldviews. Athens and Jerusalem are eternally separated in Mr. Cairns’s theology and aesthetics.
And his aesthetics bring us back to my problem. He states, quite unequivocally: “For the belated poet—the belated writer of any genre, really—the neo-Platonic model can be as crippling as it is meager.” (10) Wham. Why? Because (Mr. Cairns believes) it reduces poetry to the thin, whining, cheap task of retelling stuff that was much better in actual experience than it can ever be in these noise-symbols put together in some order to try to evoke a shadowy picture of the Thing Itself. It cripples the poet, too, because s/he always carries the burden that past poets were closer to the original and therefore better, and that s/he will always limp along with a weaker voice than theirs.
I say, Not so. Why not? Because the Christian neo-Platonism that C. S. Lewis et al passed along to the modern believer is not such a weak thing. Mediated as it was by a Sacramental theology, displayed as it is in dazzling prose, it is a poetic force to be reckoned with. In the Chronicles of Narnia, the Space Trilogy, Till We Have Faces, Tolkien’s fantasy series, Charles Williams’s The Place of the Lion, and so on, I certainly perceive “the presence and activity of inexhaustible, indeterminate enormity apprehended in a discreet space.” The space is, granted, a much larger space that that of, say, Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” Herbert’s “Love Unknown,” or Luci Shaw’s “M. C. Escher’s Three Worlds.” But the unabashedly neo-Platonic works of the Inklings can never be accused of being constructed of prior, “subsequent,” or “belated” (9); they are “occasion[s] of ongoing, generative agency” (4). How is this possible?
I think it must be because of the essential transformation neo-Platonism made in coming into the modern Christian era. It seems to have been wrested from a backward-looking, secondary position to a forward-looking, primary status. The object of a Christian Platonism is not a prior world of forms, nor even a present and inaccessible place of Real Things, but a moving towards and even-increasing apprehension of a future state of perfection. The eidos ­does not exist yet. Perhaps it did exist, in some more tenuous sense, in the mind of God before creation. But now it is always beginning to be created, day by day, on this fallen earth and in the lives of the saved.
The physical world is not a shadow, but a foreshadow. It prefigures what is to come in the new heavens and the new earth. The process of sanctification could perhaps be called an unshadowing (oo! Maybe that’s the right title for my haiku!), or a gradual lifting of the veil to reveal the hidden perfection. Every moment is a real moment, a true moment, and the more true the more of redemption reality it reveals. Thus a poem written now is more true, more right, more poetic if it resonates with both the current reality of justification and the future truth of glorification. We live in the woods between the worlds, and our verses are made here too. We wait with our faith unconsummated. Words have meaning, but they are more the musical sounds leading us on to hear the music of the heavenly spheres than complete symphonies in themselves. People, objects, and events hold in themselves the seeds of what they will bloom into. The most true poem is that which most fully lifts the veil that hangs between Now and What God has prepared for those who love Him.
And, if anyone is still interested enough to keep reading! this brings me back around to sacrament. In this view, the rite of communion is three-fold. First, it is a remembrance of a past event, yes. Christ said, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” Third, it is a looking forward to a future event: the wedding supper of the Lamb, when all will be fulfilled and all will be revealed. But secondly, in the Now, it is a real spiritual presence. Not a real physical presence any more than Heaven is on Earth at this moment. But an actual communion with Christ Himself, crucified and resurrected, and a communion with each other—all the body of believers in Christ everywhere and everywhen. It is a moment of transcendence, but transcendence brought down and close: perhaps an instant of “the presence and activity of inexhaustible, indeterminate enormity apprehended in a discreet space” and a particular time. With this three-fold vision, the poet can wait patiently for the consummation of love and art and simultaneously embrace Mr. Cairns’s invaluable advice to write dynamic, living moments of communication, embodiment, correspondences, and meta-sub-creation. As his article closes, let the poet create “the new made thing—bearing the mark of the hand that shapes it, bearing the traces of its origins, and bearing from this collaboration of past and presence a possible next moment, a future” (14), because the future is in the very words.
So, that’s a whole lot of blah blah blah. What do you all think? Is it possible to be a neo-Platonist and a great poet? Or does Platonism suck the life out of words and make them mere dry dusty signs?