29 February 2012

A Day of Small Things

Many of us, I think, at least once or twice in our lives have been stopped dead in our tracks - almost as if we'd been cut to the heart - by a truly great painting. The kind that makes you forget what you were thinking the moment before, or about to think the moment after - and that simply, quietly, decisively draws you into itself. As if nothing else in the world mattered. As if this, say, 3' x 4' space encompassed by a frame was not only bigger than your whole life, but bigger than anything you could ever have imagined life to be. Almost as if it had made you expect that, even if your life couldn't be, nonetheless it ought to be, something radically different from what it had been up till that moment.

And yet you'd hardly expect even the most arrestingly "living" canvas to step out of the wall and start painting pictures of its own. It is an example of art, maybe even the highest art. But it will never, no matter how it tries, ever succeed in becoming an artist. What you experienced just then was admittedly a grand moment, and yet - from the standpoint of what the artwork itself was capable of doing or not doing - it was also a dead moment.

Which brings me to the matter of a very different kind of art. The kind that is able to step out of the canvas, and which can, by the grace and good pleasure of its artist, itself begin to paint. The kind of art that is spoken, and yet also speaks; that comes to us boldly as a song on the wind, yet can also make a secret music of its own, in the depths of its heart. I mean, of course, the kind of art that is you and me. Because in a sense each one of us is an artist, as well as a work of art. Certainly we are so in the eye of the one vision that matters: the sight of God. You see, unlike certain other kinds of creator, our maker does not deny or efface or suppress any part of Himself when He makes a human soul. Or even a human mind and body. He's got this strange habit of leaving all sorts of not just random or superficial, but telltale, significant, autographed pieces and traces of Himself in us, if you will: and not just in the things that we are but in the things we do, and create. Now I'll grant you this can be a very different exercise from our normal human business of creating. We humans can and have tried - usually by means of a kind of brutalizing, stultifying discipline - to create works of art in which you'd swear there was no trace, either of our common human nature or of our personal, individual selves. Works that seem as if they were not only only made but conceived by a machine. Or a monster. But God has no reason to make any human creature in whom there is no imprint - however much effaced by its own perversity and "independence" - of His most precious, loved and crucified Image. Which is to say, of His own very heart. After all, our God is not just a but the creator: why should He make the very summit of His creation into something the express opposite of Himself?

Nonetheless it may sound strange - even to many Christians - to hear that, because God made each of us in, and through, and by means of His Image, therefore we humans are each one of us a kind of artist. Taken literally, it goes against the grain of much or even most of our everyday experience. But we must never let the surface facts of so-called everyday life get in the way of our apprehending certain deeper truths: truths of who we are, and could be, and yearn to be. Which three things aren't nearly as different from (much less opposed to) each other as the loud, strident beat of Modern Life would try to convince us. It is a fact, of course, that most of us never descend to that ineffably pure yet rich depth - that lichened, ivied soil we call humility - which alone enables us to ascend into the right mode and means of expression: the kind, I mean, which culminates in art. And especially good art. For instance, at this moment I don't think I could write a good poem if my life depended on it.  And that limitation, I more than suspect, is at bottom due not so much to any lack of ambition as to a certain petty pride: a kind of pompous self-consciousness, and fear of failure, or of sounding (even more) foolish, that prevents me from getting deep enough into either myself or my subject to bring a really good poem up to the surface. But the fact that most of us are timid, or shamefaced, or impatient, or much-too-proud-busy-and-important-to-be, poets doesn't mean we are not all of us real poets, creators, by nature. And that means that what's true of visible, active, public poets is also true of the never-published, and even of us might-have-beens and can't-be-bothereds.

Indeed I have little doubt this point would be apparent to almost everybody, if only we cared more often to put first things first. No matter how bad a poet I am at the start (or even at the finish), the only way to start getting better is not by ranging ever higher or farther or later, but by dwelling deeper, and quieter, and closer to the beginnings, as it were, both of myself and of all things. Of course there is no point in my aiming if I don't aim to be perfect. And yet there is no perfection to which I can attain that is not rooted in, and bounded by, another, much older, vaster, humbler Perfection than I could ever conceive, much less create. And there is, as I hope to show, reason to believe that that part of me which is receptively still, deep and quiet is closer to It - at least in the process of creating - than that part of me which is ever-hastening on  to the next level of "my own" perfection.

Not that each of these modes - the closer and the farther, so to speak - is not both possible and necessary. To take a familiar example from the realms of both poetry and painting: Each one of us, however poor or limited his technical level of achievement, has in the works he longs to create both a grand, impersonal, "public" manner, and a manner that is more private, intimate, "domestic." A mode, say, of high drama, or momentous tension, or of pomp and "stately" occasions - and a mode so homely, so unpretentious, that there hangs about it a quietude more "composed" than the stillest still life ever painted by one of the Dutch masters. Or even by de la Mare's especial favorite, Chardin.

Now of the two modes, it may seem obvious which one is the more quickly mastered, and which takes more time; or even which is the more labored or spontaneous. It may even appear easy to conclude which of the two modes is the more consciously self-created, and which one comes, as it were, like pollen on the air, from sources not only unconscious, but untraceable and inexhaustible. We humans are small - at least quantitatively - and from that it seems reasonable to suppose that our most effortlessly characteristic works are likewise small in scale, modest, unambitious. And that anything "bigger" must come from somewhere else. But not necessarily.

Think of many if not most of the greatest writers humankind has known. Are these commonly the ones who've tended to be most impatient and dismissive of lowly, inconspicuous individuals, situations, surroundings? Or who've been most "in their element" when depicting human beings in the grand manner, or human life on the grand scale? Or are these "greatest," rather, precisely those who've been better than the others at delineating, and making delightful  - and even discerning something of the exquisite mystery and artistry implicit in - visibly ordinary people, places and acts? And these no less than the loudly and busily extraordinary? To take a few random examples from just one century: Dickens, Tolstoy, the Brontes, Melville, Mark Twain, Dostoevsky, Hardy - even Henry James, or Joseph Conrad. Are these the sort of authors who had neither time nor patience for simple folk, or simple things? To say nothing of that piece de resistance of all great writers: Shakespeare himself. A consummate master of "simplicity," I daresay - at least of those realms and moments of life in which we are all most "simple," and most alike. And that even in his "grandest" high dramas. Indeed, who better than Shakespeare could decipher the dream-haunted, or nightmare-hounded, child hidden in an Othello or a Hamlet? Or that lost-and-never-to-be-found child locked away in a Macbeth? Perhaps even in an Edmund, or an Iago?

Or take again the example of painting. Think of Rembrandt and Van Gogh. You may easily come up with others you prefer, or even whom you might regard as greater. But even of your most particular favorites, can you think of anything they've done that surpasses, in either vision or technique, the right rendering of the face on a tired, beaten-down, bedraggled old woman? Or of  the wistful, mysterious smile on a little girl standing in a doorway? Note how often, in our human experience, being "great" connotes an eye for the minute as well as the immense, the "less" as well as the "more". Almost to the point where the gift lies not just in seeing but in a kind of going inside the infinitesimally small, or delicate, or fragile, or transient. Almost as if the bigger the writer, the smaller she is able to become. And the deeper she is prepared to go in.

My point is neither to exaggerate nor to diminutize the dignity of Man as the one creature made in God's image. The fact remains that, speaking Scripturally (and of course symbolically), we humans are sheep as well as goats, plants as well as animals. The point of which fact, I believe, is that there remains in our nature something not just "pre-modern," or ancient, but primordial: something in us that longs, not merely to receive from, but  in a small, utterly dependent way even to become, that Soil in which all things thrive both seen and unseen. Nor do I think this is an unreasonable or prideful hope on our part. What most distinguishes us from the lower animals - and herein, I suspect, lies the Image at His most indelible - is that we too can become something of that presence in which every living thing, however "insignificant," finds its peace; something of that silence in which every sound, however faint and tremulous, finds its voice. And even its music. But for that to happen, both our compositions and our arrangements may need to be on a humbler, yet also much more intimate and intricate scale, than those to which our usual impatience and self-importance have accustomed us.

Now I'll grant you this pattern among writers and artists that I've noted - however common - may hardly be consistent enough to be elevated to a principle. And even if it could be, it's far from clear how far that principle might extend, whether in range of time or of space, or even of Being itself. We can't know whether, and how far, solicitude and care for the individual and the particular is of the very essence of Greatness. But there is something we can know, and perhaps already do.

Just consider for a moment, in comparison to all the powerful things that exist in nature - or even compared to not a few things Man himself has made - what a frail and passing thing the individual human being is. Or at least has been, up till now. (And if the modern individual remains a comparative nothing, how much more so was her counterpart of 2000 years ago?) And now consider, not just the peculiar point in time (c. AD 30) of that same individual's redemption, but the lowliness, the vulnerability, the sheer unfiltered, unclouded, unaffected intimacy of the manner in which she's been redeemed. Humanly speaking it would be hard to imagine a familiarity with our condition more penetrating of who we are: - one that goes the whole length and breadth, depth and height of what it means to be human, more than this one strange Life, bounded by a pauper's birth and a criminal's death. Think of, not just the grand highways the Son was prepared to travel, but the lowly cellars, closets and cupboards he was prepared to enter, and not merely to know us, but to enable us to see, and know, and love, ourselves and each other, even with those same eyes with which He is loved by the Father. And then ask yourself which of these two modes of our human art - the farther or the closer - is best revealing, not just of the nature but of the art, of our Poet?

Intimations of Deity?

The Linnet

Upon this leafy bush 
With thorns and roses in it,
Flutters a thing of light,
A twittering linnet. 
And all the throbbing world
Of dew and sun and air
By this small parcel of life
Is made more fair;
As if each bramble-spray 
Of mounded gold-wreathed furze,
Harebell and little thyme,
Were only hers; 
As if this beauty and grace 
Did to one bird belong
And, at a flutter of wing,
Might vanish in song.

- Walter de la Mare


No doubt I've said something much like this before. But there are poets whose command of language is so instinct with magic - so imbued with a mastery and a delicacy that is more than human - that in their company words like "uncanny" and "preternatural" become the tiredest of cliches. 

I've been reading, studying, savoring de la Mare for going on 12 years, and I still don't know how he does it. He can speak of some frail wisp of a bird, not just with enraptured interest, but with such attentiveness to loving, and loved, detail - to shaded breast, and impossibly round head, and tracery of wing - it's as if he were decoding isolated fragments of the very sentence that first spoke it into being. Yet not just as naked words hanging in the air, but rather as if clothed with something of that first fresh smile, and deep breath, and gleam in the Eye. 

(Economic) Culture Sores

Alright, so I was off by two months.  

As best I recall, sometime this past December, I rashly confided to a select handful of friends (as if I have that many to begin with) how I thought the Dow would top 13000 before the year was up. Not, mind you, that I’m expecting it to remain there for any length of time. Or even, necessarily, anywhere near it again anytime soon. But what if it does, and more? Suppose this was the first jolt of a really sustained recovery, complete with jobs, rising home prices and (my imagination is staggering) negligible inflation. What would that mean? Would it prove that Quantitative Easing was working? That it had been the right approach all along? Or would it merely stand as evidence that, however secure any upturn produced by stimulus might seem, we’d be enjoying that much stronger and more lasting a recovery had we embraced policies of austerity a la Britain’s David Cameron?   

One thing is all but certain to me. If recovery does take hold, Democrats will chalk it up to the enduring wisdom of Old Man Keynes, and Republicans will blame it on the enduring profitability of domestic fossil fuels.

That’s the problem with wars of ideas. And especially nasty ones like our current orgies of self-congratulation on both sides. Truth isn't so much the first casualty as he is an unwanted guest sentenced to take all his meals with the children and the servants.   

Which, now that I think of it, is not at all a bad place for Truth to start re-disseminating. 

08 February 2012

What is Man (that WE're not more mindful of Him)?

Let me begin by stating as a matter of record that I love the Psalms. And not just as fine literature - which I dare anyone to deny - but as fierce devotion. And even, in places, as doctrine (another subject, for another time). So may I be the last to disagree with the Psalmist, when he says that Man is a wonder and a marvel - or even a kind of miracle. It's just that for me, what makes Man most miraculous is that in him which resembles a rippling spring - the kind one can imagine being rooted in a "lost," untraceable underground stream - much more than a geyser or other sudden eruption. Much less an earthquake, volcano or fire. So perhaps I should say, what I find most marvelous about the human is that in us which is best able both to hear the still, small voice, and to be its mouthpiece.

Now I know Man has also been the stuff of which gripping - and even terrifying - stories are made, if not always high drama; though that alone tells us nothing about the kind of storyteller best equipped to do him justice. In any case, for me the essential "miracle" of Man is one that, of its nature, seems designed more readily to impress, say, a Will Shakespeare than a Bernard Shaw. In other words, what makes Man marvelous is not his supposed ability to surpass or supersede his Maker (however regularly and often we may  appear to do just that). It is rather two other, very different and distinct features:

1) The amazing number of things Man seems able to do successfully "apart" from, or without even any reference to, or invocation of, God;

2) the fact that he can do those same things incomparably better - to the point where that "better" and "worse" constitute a difference almost of Light and Darkness - when he is in a state of what we hypermoderns would call the most abject dependence upon his Maker.

I say this because, for all his considerable graces and virtues, the creature Man has never struck me as being a terribly original creator (though he can do some thoroughly derivative things remarkably well with the right coaxing). Even in the matter of outright evil, I'm amazed at the number of God's creatures, both high and low - ranging from the most bitterly jealous archangel to the most conceitedly manipulative Angora cat - that seem fully capable of going from bad to worse entirely on their own, with no corrupting input from human agents. Indeed one might argue, the world of what we call Nature is a nasty enough place in its own right, without the vicious little children of Adam adding to or compounding its strife.

What I'd like to suggest is that we need not only compound the strife, or the striving, of Nature. Nor does our role of peacemaker need be confined to our usual method of suppressing its incessant warfare: by crushing it beneath our technologically superior weight and intellect. Human pacification of nature has never been simply a matter of more concrete, gravel and asphalt. Or even of the most savagely over-manicured 18th-century gardens. Even when it comes to some very unruly plants and animals, we humans have been capable of many forms and degrees of government beyond military dictatorship. But it takes, I believe, a certain kind of human nature to elicit the trustfulness of natural things - including our own kind - and not just to extort their tameness.

Or more precisely (as I've belabored many times before, and in many places), it takes a certain place within our nature. And so, by implication, within each one of us. A  place which, possibly on account of its rude country-cottage appearance, we may seldom if ever visit. And which, because of the particularly sore neglect of recent decades, has begun to show signs of serious disrepair and even decay. But I suspect the seeming rudeness and peasant-like simplicity of this - I want to say - rural retreat within us is no accidental feature, but in fact a key component of the original Design. After all, if our aim is gain the trust of wild things, it helps that we ourselves should know both how to trust, and above all, when and Whom. And afterwards, once these points have been established, how to trust totally, in such a way that, however far you go back, there seems never to have been in the truster any sense of Self at all. Because the place in human nature I'm thinking of is one that is, when all's been said and done, very little conscious of its adult wisdom, or even of its acquired resourcefulness. To such a degree, indeed, as might embarrass most self-respecting adults. So little conscious, and so humble, I believe, that one might almost imagine it being reduced to the most incoherently gibbering idiocy, or the most infantile helplessness, but for the infinitely humbler wisdom, patience, and above all exquisite kindness of God.