Sunday, March 14, 2010

my modus operandi

In his Preface to Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde writes, and I agree, that "It is the spectator and not life that art truly mimics." In other words, human experience must be filtered or translated through someone's conscious mind; and it is this consciousness - and not merely life -that is truly being represented in any work of art.

Put another way, what we create betrays who we are.

Consider a most obvious example: creation. The beauty and order of the universe reveals, in part, the character of the One who created it. Scripture affirms this notion, saying, "For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made" (Romans 1.18-19). In the same way, we ourselves are God's living works of art - each individual, His poema, or, workmanship, illuminating some aspect of His personality (Ephesians 2.10).

Just as God reveals His character in that which He has created, so we reveal ourselves in what we create. This principle is perhaps most evident in the world of painting where what you see on the canvas is not just a reflection of the outside world - it is a window into the world inside the artist - a picture or mirror of his soul.

In The Cry one momentarily partakes of the anguish of Munch:

Dance reveals the colorful exuberance of Matisse:

One need not be told that Mary Cassatt harbored a reverence for motherhood; one need only look at one of her paintings:
When I absorb myself in a novel, I am really plunging into the mind or soul of its author. I am achieving a kind of sustained, if temporary, psychic unity with him - borrowing his glasses, walking as he walks, seeing the world as he sees it.

Thus, in its barest essence, art is not only a reflection of the soul of the artist; it is a representation of his mode of perception, his way of seeing, and it is this mode of perception which, more than anything else, he is sharing with his audience. Here we are presented with a paradox: for on the one hand, all art is "true;" and on the other, none of it is.

But what may be stated unequivocally is this: there is an ongoing if invisible transaction which takes place between the observer and the work of art whereby the artist's mode of perception is translated onto his art and then imparted to the observer. In this way all artists, whether they like it or not, are in some sense teachers.

I will never forget how my imagination lit up like a torch when I first read Fern Hill, the poem in which Dylan Thomas describes his rambling walk through the English countryside: "All the moon long I heard," come the words, "blessed among stables, the nightjars / Flying with the ricks, and the horses / Flashing into the dark."

Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem, Pied Beauty, with its infectious, seemingly spontaneous rhythms, had an almost identical effect: "GLORY be to God," he writes, "for dappled things— / For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; / For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; / Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings..."

I was compelled to ask myself whether this world of flashing horses and skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow was the same one in which I was living, for I palely recognized the silhouettes. Were these ordinary glories things I had learned to overlook? Or, perhaps worse, had I yet to learn how to really see them?

Either way I knew that something wondrous which in me had been lying either dead or dormant was awoken... and I became alive to the sacred beauty of the world in a new and more vigorous way.

Interestingly, both artists had one thing in common: they did not view the world as an accidental collision of atoms but a sacred universe, something God created, and into which He breathed His breath of life. Hence their mode of perception was primarily influenced by Christ - their imaginations, along with their hearts and minds, had been touched - baptized, even, into a new way of seeing.

Like Thomas and Hopkins, I believe that Christ created the world through the power of His Word; and that it is this same Word which - even now, at this moment - holds atom upon atom together in the great fabric that forms the sea and the sky - and even the skin that envelops my body.

For this reason, to resist allowing His Word to influence - yes, even dictate - my "reading" of human experience would be like trying to fly a kite while banishing the presence of the wind.

Instead, like Paul, I consider it my highest aspiration to "know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified," - in hope that all I touch will be tainted with the fragrance of Christ. This does not mean that I cannot rest my narrative eye on that which is not Christ - for then I would have to shut my eyes to the world; nor does it mean that I should exclude the grotesque admission or representation of sin and suffering. Rather it requires that I see Christ - and by that I mean, the possibility of redemption - in everything.

His flesh and blood sacrifice becomes the lens through which I perceive the world.

For example, my father told me of an encounter he had with Haitian refugee children in a town outside Port au Prince. The children were sitting in a dirt yard in front of a clapboard church, making kites by stretching scraps of plastic over sticks that had been tied together with string. When they saw my father they approached him smiling and, in spontaneous unison, burst into song: "We are not forgotten! We are not forgotten!" they sang, in broken but discernable English. They took my father's hands and they laughed as they sang,"We are not forgotten! He calls us by name!"

Now from a purely common sense standpoint, there is a great sense of irony in this story for one could argue that, if anyone is forgotten, it is these children. But when viewed through the lenses of Christ, the situation begs a different reading for, in Christ, there is hope for these children because there is a God who sees. And though they may be but nameless faces to most of the world, there is a God who calls them by name, and Who suffered unimaginable torments so they could come unto Him and be not only comforted, but saved.

In this way, the whole of the Christian life is a process of transformation, of learning or re-learning how to see. We not only see things in terms of what is; but what can be - indeed, what will be.

And it is this way of seeing which I hope will give flesh to the bones of my work - just as it gives breath to my life.


Shilo Taylor said...

I love borrowing your glasses, walking where you walk & seeing the world as you see it, dear cousin! Thank you for the glimpses...and for teaching me.

e said...

I’d like to push the Oscar Wilde quote. Okay, art mimics the spectator, but I’d like to push and push and say, yes, yes, but too, isn’t it the case that within each text the reader or viewer becomes the new spectator, on top of, and at best, alongside of, the first spectator?

I mean, it’s the best artists or authors to whom people grow attached and want to personally defend as artists who champion their values or thoughts. Sorry, but most people who read Twilight will agree with each other about the meaning of the book, either because most people who read the book are shallow, or because the book itself is shallow, or both. Centuries of debate exist over something like Augustine’s Confessions or Plato’s Symposium for a reason.

Here, I’m not disagreeing with the idea that art betrays who we are when we create it, but I’d say that art first betrays the original artist, and next it betrays the spectator; and at that, once the spectator comes in contact with the art, the art becomes in one sense a second creation within the eyes or hands of the spectator who now controls the interpretation of the art, and thus the meaning the art will hold for him or her who beholds it. In this way the meaning that’s decided on by said spectator is also betraying the spectator in some sense, as the new splayed open artist.

When you say that a good novel is an event of putting on the author’s glasses and shoes, I don’t totally disagree, but I would add, they are the shoes and glasses you perceive the author to be wearing. To which I mean, the glasses and shoes you put on may become the shake that awakes you, but they may simply be the version of the artist, the you-version of the artist, that you’ve felt has forced you to parade around in such a new way.

So you read Thomas and say, “God’s moon!” Where as a secularist reads Thomas and says, “Oh god, the moon!” You may happily object here and say, “Yes, but Thomas too would say ‘God’s moon!’ Right?” Well, maybe he would, maybe he wouldn’t (when I do what I would mumbling call art I sometimes say that which I wouldn’t say otherwise if I weren’t doing art). However, even if Thomas in this sense would be in complete agreement with you, I wouldn’t say the secularist is completely wrong in his reading of Thomas.

Allow me, if you will, to now retreat a bit and say I love the way you’re a spectator, and love what your speciation reveals to me about me…and what it reveals about you too, as much as that’s a possible conclusion within my reach-reach attempts at empathy and understanding.

As always to someone as amazing as you, much, much love.


HM Baker said...

What?! You? Pushing?

It may be that the God to whom Augustine writes his confessions is perceived by some – secularists, as you called them – to be “the moon” but only if you may justly ascribe to the moon the same attributes which Augustine ascribes to his God – that is, the God of Judeo-Christianity, and of the Holy Scripture, for it is clearly this God to whom Augustine is speaking – as is evidenced by the innumerable references to Scripture that one encounters upon any given page.

I also understand what you’re saying about a work of art becoming a “second creation,” and agree to a certain extent … but like most things, this idea can be taken only so far before it becomes absurd and nonsensical.

People write books; and they write them in order to be understood. If they didn’t want to be understood they would scrawl nonsensically on the ground with sticks. I think this idea of “creating your own meaning” is taken too far, and reflects a certain anti-authoritarianism that is pervasive throughout our culture.

People don’t want to be told anything, not even the most obvious things, such as whether Augustine was writing to the Judeo-Christian God or the hyacinths blooming outside my window. As you suggest, it’s all about control and who gets to define what anything means.

All great texts have layers of meaning which are complex and highly debated… but at a certain point an interpretation, such as that of the man who assassinated John Lennon after receiving “messages” from The Catcher in the Rye, will be simply… wrong.

We live in an age now where all authority has been wrested from the author. The power to interpret belongs to the people! It all strikes a very Marxist note to me; and as a hermeneutical approach to literature – or any kind of “texts” - I think it lacks humility.

If you can’t concede that there are certain basic universal truths which great authors have timelessly and consistently conveyed over centuries then you might as well stop reading… because you have stopped learning. You are simply imposing yourself and your ideas onto everything…and you will always resent anyone who tries to convey anything like a moral.

You will hate Dickens for drawing a causal relationship between miserliness and spiritual decay; you will scoff at Jane Austen for always “typecasting” men and women into such predictably patterned parts; and you will laugh Shakespeare right off the stage for trying to tell you anything about love.

This, to me, is sad... because it means that something which once made reading wonderful - a true voyage of discovery, not just self-discovery - has been lost.

HM Baker said...

I see that I have confused Augustine and Thomas but my point is the same...

e said...

WEEEEE! Such fun! I would venture you and I are closer than your last comments might suppose. However, even though we may be close enough to hold hands, there remains yet a gap between us, so maybe this weekend you and Shad can tag team me with universal definitive truths, just as available and cyclical as those little mechanical fish that keep popping open their mouths, patiently, round and round, just waiting for one with slightly higher dexterity than I child to drop in the fishing hook.

HM Baker said...

Yes, I would venture to say the the same - however getting caught up in the positing of arguments is sometimes irresistible and exhilerating, as we both know. :)

Love you, E.

(Nice analogy about the fishes, btw.)