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?

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