Mark Patrick Hederman seeks a possible meeting place between philosophy, literary criticism, art and truth. He stresses the prophetic role of the artist, the manner in which the work of art give voice to “something more than the poet could have accomplished on his or her own”. This “something more,” Hederman affirms, is the truth of Being which demands the total commitment of the artist to the poetic act.
231 pp, Columba Press, 2001. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie.
1. Art and spirituality
2. Art and criticism
3. Poetry as truth
4. Philosophy and the feminine: the novels of Iris Murdoch
5. Wole Soyinka and the fourth stage
6. James Joyce: priest and prophet
7. Seamus Heaney: the end of art in peace
8. Art and our future
CHAPTER 1: Art and spirituality
Spirituality describes the way we relate to the world of the spirit, the way we connect with whatever we describe as our God. Each culture has to find its own way through to the dimension of the ‘Other’. Each people, embedded in varieties and layers of culture, must burrow their way to transcendence, to freedom, to appreciation of what is other than, or different from, their particularity. Otherwise they remain immured within, never reaching any dimension beyond themselves.
How to accomplish this, how to reach such dimensions, is the problem. There can be no all-purpose technique, no abstract and universally applicable solution. Each of us is irretrievably enveloped in our own particular cocoon, from which it is impossible to escape completely. However, we can prevent ourselves from being obtusely atavistic by making some effort to identify our more unyielding cultural reflexes. What the French call la hantise d’être insupportable is difficult to translate, but it suggests being haunted by the probability that we are unbearable; this last word in a double sense: that others cannot abide us and that we are incapable of gaining access to a world other than the one we were born into. Those most capable of making us aware of these probabilities and of pointing out the hidden and subtle ways in which each of us may be so, are artists. Specifically, the people of the last century who explored the spiritual dimension of life, in ways that make it accessible to others, are artists. Artists are the best guides we have.
Sometimes such people are not very admirable in themselves. Sometimes we are freed from our chains, as Nietzsche says, by those who were unable to free themselves. The path to freedom is not always very glamorous; the things we have to do to get there are not always edifying; the people who help us are not always paragons of virtue.
Part of my argument requires the repudiation of a certain kind of criticism of artists. There is a high-minded superiority and nitpicking disdain that characterises some contemporary assessment of the work of people, past or present, whom the critics judge guilty of actions or attitudes now proclaimed to be ‘politically incorrect’. Some artists or thinkers are excommunicated completely for attitudes or activities that later generations find inexcusable.
It is salutary to remember how many of us had ingrained attitudes twenty or forty years ago, which at that time we accepted as perfectly normal, but which we now find unthinkable: such aberrations of cultural complacency would include attitudes to women, to children, to peoples from other races, etc.
Thomas Jefferson remains, for me, one of the most striking examples of such cultural blinkeredness. Cultivated, imaginative, intelligent, philanthropic, his drafting of the American Declaration of Independence and his sensitive commentary on the social situation in France leading up to the French Revolution, on the eve of which he was in Paris, might have led to the hope that his cultural awareness would have been beyond the ordinary. And yet, he arrived in Paris with two slaves, one of whom was still a mere child, his concubine, pregnant with one of his children. The culture that welcomed him in Paris made it de rigueur for such a man to have a lover among the great ladies of the court. The only question was: upon whom should he bestow his favours. The husband of his chosen was expected to be a good sport, if not indeed flattered by his choice. But even such moral and social laxity and broadmindedness did not extend to concubinage with a teenage African-American slave-girl. The clash of two very limited but different cultures, even though it did awaken his slaves themselves to the anomaly of their situation, causing them to insist upon eventual freedom, did not seem to ruffle in any way the cultural complacency of Jefferson himself.
However, does this allow us to conclude that if he were alive today Jefferson would have been a child-abuser, that the politician he would have most admired would be Pol Pot, or that he would have condoned the 1995 bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma? Such seem to be the suggestions of Conor Cruise O’Brien in his study of Jefferson and the French Revolution. (1) Furthermore, Cruise O’Brien’s intention is not only to destroy Jefferson’s credibility but to vilify him, to make it shameful to admire such a person. He knows that many Americans, and others, have been taught to love and admire Jefferson. He knows that these people will be outraged. The very purpose of his study, in his own words, is to ‘go on outraging them… out of existence’. The fact that Jefferson was an uncritical supporter of the French Revolution, ‘hot with enthusiasm of the great French struggle’, makes him, for Cruise O’Brien, the equivalent of a contemporary terrorist. The September Massacres of 1792 were atrocities that Jefferson condoned. These were numerically on a larger scale than their 1995 equivalent in Oklahoma City. Therefore Jefferson is ‘worse’ than one of the Oklahoma bombers. It seems to me that such comparisons fail to take into account the painful awareness imposed upon us by the logic of historical confrontation with cultural blindness. Before the Second World War most Christians were saturated with attitudes towards the Jewish people which, when followed through to their logical and inexorable conclusions, led to the hideous reality of the Holocaust. This reality in turn made it less possible for subsequent generations to be blinkered by such prejudice.
This does not necessarily mean that we are making cultural ‘progress’. It would seem more likely, using a phrase of Herbert Butterfield, that each generation is equidistant from barbarity. However, visible evidence of the scale and scope of our atrocities makes it less possible to be unaware of these propensities in ourselves and less capable of turning a blind eye. Perpetrators and condoners of such atrocities in the first years of the twenty-first century must be more ‘responsible’ for what they do than were their peers at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
So, I shall continue to admire Thomas Jefferson as a person who did try to make sense of life as it stepped up to him, and who used his time on earth constructively, even if he was prisoner to the culture of his times and even if he had – as who has not? – weaknesses and deficiencies. And 1 shall continue to disregard the efforts of those who set themselves up as the ultimate tribunal establishing the validity of other people’s lives. History is one thing; the last judgement is presumably another.
We would do better to examine our own consciences and try to imagine what our children will think of our present prejudices. The most dangerous decoy is to presume that we are, or ever can be, without them: insensitive attitudes to races other than our own, to those of a different sex, class, age, state of health. Secret sins shouted from the rooftops, ugly war crimes perpetrated in dark rooms, writ large and suddenly on TV screens, must constitute a rude awakening, an irreversible jostling of public consciousness. The revelation of evil in day-today existence, its detection and identification in some of our most automatic responses and reactions, must surely show it up for what it is, for both the perpetrators and the public at large. It can no longer hide itself as habit and be condoned as our way of dealing with things, our ‘rough justice’, our little foibles, our home-made pesticide.
Sensitisation does not always have to come from lived experience, exposure, humiliation, revolution, necessity. It can also come through the work of certain artists. They bring us to the edge of our culture, to the hall door, even if we are not going to be able to get further than that. However, the hall door is a major step in the right direction. It allows us to open it and to dialogue with others of the same or of different cultures. More than that, artists help us to detect what the future holds in store. This ‘prophetic’ quality of the artist need mean no more than a heightened sensitivity, which makes them capable of sensing what is coming in the future, as animals ‘sense’ a thunderstorm or as Cezanne sketched future shapes in the plane trees of Provence. More than that, they can invent the future by sketching the possibilities that none of us ever thought of.
The point of view I am presenting here, which is the point of view offered by a monk, is not the same as that of an artist or an academic. However, it is a point of view that might shed some complementary light. Both Dostoevsky and Yeats were aware of the connection between the work of certain artists and the life of the monk, identifying the contribution that the latter should and could make to the future of civilisation. Yeats compared Synge to those who:
sought for the race not through the eyes or in history, or even in the future, but where those monks found God, in the depths of the mind, and in all art like his, although it does not command – indeed because it does not – may lie the roots of far-branching events. (2)
Yeats and Synge believed the inhabitants of the Blaskets and Inishmaan to be living ‘under the weight of their necessity’ in such a dimension: ‘in the orgiastic moment when life outleaps its limits’. (3) This is the moment of transcendence from which a literature can be created ‘by what is still blind and dumb within ourselves’. (4) Artists who work also in this dimension ‘speak to us that we may give them certainty, by seeing what they have seen’. (5) A certain type of ‘criticism’ can and should accompany such artistic effort. It constitutes a kind of thought and, therefore, a philosophy, which is a coherent and comprehensive articulation of that thought. The thinker who has, in my view, most successfully articulated it is Martin Heidegger:
Such reflection cannot force art and its coming-to-be. But this reflective knowledge is the preliminary and therefore indispensable preparation for the becoming of art. Only such knowledge prepares its space for art, their way for the creators, their location for the preservers. (6)
However, before even examining such a text, we are forced to ask ourselves at least two important cultural questions: ‘What does Heidegger actually mean?’; and then, even more importantly: ‘Is this philosopher worthy of our attention, if he personally is guilty of behaviour and commitments that remove him from the arena of civilised discourse?’
Art, he is saying, can be as powerful a modifier of human being as genetic engineering. Its modifications would be more aligned with what we should be, more appropriate to what we are, because grounded in the truth of Being. A certain kind of thinking is necessary to prepare art for its essential task and to prepare us for awareness of its achievement.
As a general principle, it should surely be conceded that such a possibility concerning art must remain valid, no matter who is responsible for articulating it. Once the argument has been made, it cannot be obliterated simply by denouncing the person who formulated it. Would we, for instance, give up using penicillin if it were shown that Alexander Fleming was a monster?
What Heidegger has revealed to us about art is as important to our spiritual life as penicillin has been to our physical life. And this, very simply stated, is that art is a starting point. It is what makes history original. The movement of history is neither an inexorable flow, nor is it a human decision entirely; it is neither fate nor politics. It can be a more subtle conjunction, which lies between these two options. The growth and the shedding of cultural skin which determine the movement of human history are, according to this theory, a combination of philosophy and art, with art playing the original role. Philosophy lifts art to the opening at the top and catches it as it falls on the other side. But art establishes the actual escape route and does what is necessary to lead us through. Art has the imagination to sketch out the possible.
In the mythical story of the escape from the Labyrinth at Cnossus, philosophy plays the role of Ariadne and art the role of Theseus. But just as each culture weaves its own particular labyrinth, so each one has to find its own Theseus. Each Theseus will also be provided with the particular silken thread at the mouth of that labyrinth which will allow him or her to encounter the minotaur at the centre and then find the way back outside.
All of which is a mythological metaphor to describe a kind of knowing, which combines science on the one hand and mysticism on the other, with art as the nexus between the two. This specific phenomenon of art as a vehicle of transcendence is what Joyce describes as ‘the Haunted Inkbottle’. (7) It is that use of language which allows some possibility for another dimension to eke its way into the text, if the art work is a written one. In a letter, Joyce tells his brother: ‘I like the notion of the Holy Ghost being in the inkbottle.’ (8) Which means that the way of access to this world of ours, for all that is beyond its reach, happens in the space between the paintbrush and the canvas, the nib of the pen and the paper, between the fingers and the computer screen.
The Holy Spirit, who cannot enter our world without camouflage, without disguise, hides in the inkwell so that inspiration can exceed the most extravagant efforts of the artist. Within the space created by these words or images, by this poetry, by this art, something as yet unheard of can infiltrate. We can call this other dimension the thirteenth cone, the fifth province, or the fourth stage, the image or the name are always inadequate to the task. However, it is through artistic ecstasy that such a transcendent dimension is allowed to penetrate the opacity of our cultural labyrinth.
The kind of thought that can help such an event to occur and can make it more available to others once it has occurred is ‘criticism’, which places itself between the artist and the inspirational event, holding open the space wherein the extra breath from elsewhere accrues. This, as I see it, is the real business of such criticism. It is thinking with the artist.
What kind of artist are we talking about here? There is a paradox that historical example and individual biography almost impose: the more overtly religious the artist, the less convincing the art. Conversion, for instance, is not a great career move for the artist as artist. One only has to think of Tolstoy. Art, of the kind I am talking about here, has to do with the unconscious in a way that is difficult to articulate but which means that such art happens through an artist in ways that remove any identifiable copyright or exclusivity of authorship. So many artists have given testimony to this reality, it is hardly possible to gainsay.
‘Only that which does not teach, which does not cry out, which does not persuade, which does not condescend, which does not explain, is irresistible,’ Yeats reminds us. That is why overtly ‘religious’ art, or art that is a form of preaching or teaching, fails to exist as art. Yeats was talking about J. M. Synge, ‘who was a drifting silent man full of hidden passion, and loved wild islands, because there, set out in the light of day, he saw what lay hidden in himself’. ‘All art is the disengaging of a soul from place and history, its suspension in a beautiful or terrible light to await the Judgement,’ Yeats decides. The Greek word for judgement is krisis, which is the origin of our word ‘crisis’. Schiller has said that ‘the history of the world is the judgement of the world’. This sentence can be taken in at least three ways: that each step history makes depends upon the discernment that ‘the world’ makes about how to proceed; or that history is continual crisis management, the stages of which are what we call ‘historical epochs’; or that history as it unfolds is an indictment of the world – meaning us – who should have changed its course.
Yeats sees the artist as having a prophetic role in the unfolding of history’s direction. In Synge’s art, for example, he saw ‘the roots of far-branching events’. Where does such art come from? From that place, Yeats tells us, ‘where the monks found God, in the depths of the mind’. (9) Art should provide the form of truth that the future might assume at the beginning of each epoch.
The twentieth century happened in Paris in the 1920s, says Gertrude Stein. She was referring, no doubt, to all the artists who were exiled from elsewhere and who ended up in the only place that would take them in. There are two kinds of time chronological time and creative time. When we suggest that the twentieth century happened in Paris we are saying two things: the century we have just been through, probably the cruellest and most devastating the planet has survived, began its march. But we are also saying that there were artists who foretold what would emerge, forestalled, perhaps, or mitigated its full impact somewhat, and helped us to survive it. They sowed seeds for an alternative version, and the monuments they left have survived. These enduring works of art give us further opportunity to re-establish ourselves as their beneficiaries by becoming their contemporaries, even if somewhat belatedly a hundred years later.
Roger Casement (1864-1916) sent a report to the British government about the inhuman treatment, the barbaric exploitation of what was then the Belgian Congo, at the beginning of the twentieth century. He was British Consul in the Congo (19011904). James Conrad is supposed to have read this report, although it was only published in 1904, and, whether he read it or not, he wrote Heart of Darkness, published in 1902. In a letter of 1895, Conrad says: ‘All my work is produced unconsciously (so to speak) and… it isn’t in me to improve what has got itself written.’ This kind of art is inspired. It comes from a depth where its authorship is no longer quite traceable. T. S. Eliot read Conrad’s book. He wrote The Waste Land, from a corresponding place in his own beleaguered unconscious in 1922, between the two world wars:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
When I say that the Holy Spirit is in the inkwell, I am using an image for a kind of inspiration which artists have often been aware of themselves. But are not these words no more than pious platitudes? ‘It is only through the psyche that we can establish that God acts upon us,’ says Jung in his Answer to Job, (10) ‘but we are unable to distinguish whether these actions emanate from God or from the unconscious. We cannot tell whether God and the unconscious are two different entities. Both are borderline concepts for transcendental contents.’ Jung is not saying, as he has so often been accused of that God does not exist, or that God is a creation of the unconscious. He is saying that it is empirically impossible to distinguish between the ‘God-image’ and ‘the archetype of the self’, even though we can ‘arbitrarily postulate a difference between these two entities, but that does not help us at all’. For all practical purposes, he thinks, we must remain agnostic on this point, because our conscious minds are the only means by which we can formulate the possible connections that happen in the unconscious, but this is beneath any radar screen to which we have conscious access. The reason for this impossibility has nothing to do with God; it is entirely to do with the inaccessibility of the unconscious. We have no idea what happens, or who’s who, down there.
However, it is from the unconscious that all great spiritual or religious art emanates. It does not come from a conscious embracing of religious creeds or principles; nor does it arise from implementation of a strategic religious plan, a propagation of a particular set of credal formulae, or the adoption of a specific code of religious conduct.
Art of this kind is truth entering history and emerging in a recognisable and durable work. Art of this kind is theology. It does not merely illustrate a theology. It is itself a theological act or deed. It is God actively involved in the work: divine energy. The word ‘energy’ comes from the Greek en ergon, meaning ‘in the work’. It is God’s Spirit at work. Such truth does not come to us; it comes through us. We do not open up the truth; we are the opening through which truth can announce itself. Truth does this through language; not language as a tool of ours, which we can manipulate, but language as a river in which we swim. Truth seeps into our pores, starting from the feet. It cleaves us in two and breathes through us in song. We are torn and turned upside-down before this can happen. And it can only happen through individual people. It doesn’t come through a group or out of a seminar. As Rudolf Steiner has said famously of Goethe: ‘Truth is always only individual truth of significant human beings.’
Such truth emerging in significant words is poetry of the deepest kind. It is what Rilke calls ‘heart-work’:
Work of sight is achieved,
now for some heart-work
on all those images, prisoned within you; for you
overcame them, but do not know them as yet.
This ‘turning’, or conversion, which is required to become an artist of the other order – Rilke calls it the angelic order – is a reversal of our normal stance. The artist has to hang upside-down like the hanged man in the tarot cards. A scooped-out turnip with a candle inside. The head is buried in the earth and the feet become explorers of the rhythm. Iambic pentameter: the Greek words refer to the rhythm of the lines as the language reverberates through the poet. Iamb is a foot and the metre is measured according to the number of times the footbeats hit the earth. Wordsworth and Coleridge walked all their poetry into the earth: pedestrians. Humility is the virtue or the fundamental attitude required (the word ‘humility’ also comes from the Latin word humus, meaning earth). Dancing is the original medium. It is the unconscious movement of the whole body from the ground upwards. Remember Synge on the Aran Islands:
Last night, after walking in a dream among buildings with a strangely intense light on them, I heard a faint rhythm of music beginning far away on some stringed instrument.
It came closer to me, gradually increasing in quickness and volume with an irresistibly definite progression. When it was quite near the sound began to move in my nerves and blood, and to urge me to dance with them.
In a moment I was swept away in a whirlwind of notes. My breath and my thoughts and every impulse of my body, became a form of the dance, till I could not distinguish between the instruments and the rhythm and my own person or consciousness. (11)
In his 1970 Nobel lecture, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-) distinguished between two kinds of artist: ‘One artist sees himself as the creator of an independent spiritual world: he hoists onto his shoulders the task of creating, this world, of peopling it and of bearing the all-embracing responsibility for it … Another artist, recognising a higher power above, gladly works as a humble apprentice beneath God’s heaven.’
Inspiration of the second kind means thinking together. It means a kind of artistry that is both active and passive at the same time. The Greek language had a grammatical term for this, a middle voice. We have lost both the grammar and the practice. For us, everything is either active or passive. Either I kick you or I am kicked. Either I compose this piece or somebody else composes it. However, inspiration is more than ‘I think’, or ‘I compose’. It is better expressed by ‘it thinks’ or ‘thinking happens’. Even the word ‘compose’ comes from the Latin cum, meaning ‘with’, and pono, ponere, posui, positum, meaning to ‘place’ or to ‘pitch’. So it implies acting with someone or something else. Two sources, two simultaneous currents, mingle and unite wherever you have authentic inspiration of the second kind.
No one can teach us the techniques required for this second kind of inspiration. There are no techniques. Techniques are in the domain of genius, of accomplishment, where one is given the gifts to be a great artist. Asked by the government in Paris what should be done to improve the standard of art in the French educational system, and especially in the various third-level art schools and colleges, Picasso replied: ‘Give them rotten conditions, and let the teaching be bad, bad, bad.’
Great art cannot be taught; it must be submitted to and then it will do the teaching. Rumi, the thirteenth-century Persian mystic, puts it appropriately:
Then new events said to me,
‘Don’t move. A sublime generosity
is coming toward you.’
The chess master says nothing,
other than moving the silent chess piece.
That I am part of the ploys
of this game makes me
Great art of the second kind, which allows God’s creative spirit to take shape in the world, requires humility. We have to yield to this spirit, we have to give up our copyright, our exclusive right as author, our signature at the bottom of the painting or at the end of the book. It means diminishing the self so that the other source of inspiration may increase.
The claim I am making is that certain kinds of poetry and art have been doing work of a similar nature to that accomplished by the religious seers of previous centuries. Further, I am proposing a certain kind of criticism of such works of art as the most appropriate way to uncover this dimension.
There is a reading of certain poetry, an understanding of certain art works, that is ‘ontological’, or metaphysical, because such art is the way in which Being (or, in my perspective, the Spirit) can register presence in our world.
Such a task can only be achieved by a dedicated and subtle dialogue between poetry and thinking. Such a dialogue is neither the creation of poetry by thinkers, nor is it the formulation of ideologies by poets. It is the recognition by both parties that we are living in destitute times, when all the structures we have created, all the languages we have learnt, and all the ‘truths’ that we have believed to be fundamental, have somehow proved themselves inadequate to the task of catering for our common future.
In such circumstances, the role of the artist becomes essential. And the task of ‘thinkers’ is to listen and to learn. The sobering lesson of these destitute times is that we have become almost irretrievably estranged from our potential future by the ideological constructs of our various pasts. To extricate ourselves from this war of worlds, it is not enough to invent yet one more illusory utopia; it is essential to re-establish contact with the reality of what we are, with the truth of history, even if it has to find words that are beyond the vocabulary of all the languages we currently know how to speak. ‘In the buginning is the woid,’ Joyce suggests in Finnegans Wake. And in that punning conjunction of ‘word’ and ‘void’, he provokes the ‘thought’ (because, the pun is ‘two thinks at a time’) that poetry makes ‘nothing’ happen and that art ‘lets truth originate’.
This means that the origin of our historical existence as people rather than as pawns, and the hope for our existence as it might be in a more imaginative future, is art. Heidegger tells us that ‘art is of its nature an origin, which means a very distinctive way in which truth can come into being and become historical’. We are not necessarily determined by some inexorable flow of history. We can stop the world and redirect it, if we have sufficient understanding and imagination both to point out the better way and make it compelling enough to accomplish. Art is an original truth of this kind: it can reveal the way towards a more sensitive future.
In the combination required to achieve such an event, the poets have one role and the thinkers another. This does not mean that thinkers are trying to abuse poetry and make it into fodder for philosophy. It means that ‘there would be, and there is, the sole necessity, by thinking our way soberly into what the poetry says, to come to learn what is unspoken’. (12)
In accomplishing such an event, we reach the place of transcendence, which, although it can never dislocate itself entirely from the cultural place to which we belong, at least gives us access to the world or the reality beyond ourselves. Through the language of poetry, the work of art, a breath beyond the breathing space of the artist can impress itself upon our hearing.
1. Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution 1785-1800, (University of Chicago Press, 1996).
2. W.B. Yeats, Essays and Introductions, (London, 1961), p. 341.
3. Ibid., p. 325.
4. Ibid., p. 318.
5. Ibid., p. 317.
6. Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language and Thought, (New York, 1981), p. 78.
7. James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, (London: Faber, 1975), p. 182. ‘The house O’Shea or O’Shame, Quivapieno, known as the Haunted Inkbottle, no number Brimstone Walk, Asia in Ireland…’.
8. Letter to Stanislaus Joyce, 31 August 1906, in Selected Joyce Letters, edited by Richard Ellmann, (New York: Viking Press, 1976), p. 100. In another letter, Joyce ascribes the phrase to Stanislaus himself: ‘Were I to rewrite the book as G. R. suggests ‘in another sense’ (where the hell does he get the meaningless phrase he uses) I am sure I should find again what you call the Holy Ghost sitting in the inkbottle and the perverse devil of my literary conscience sitting on the hump of my pen.’ This is written in the context of his having perhaps been ‘unnecessarily harsh’ to Ireland and to Dublin and his surprise ‘that there should be anything exceptional in my writing’. Letter to Stanislaus Joyce, September 1906, ibid., p. 110.
9. Yeats, Essays and Introductions, pp. 330-341.
10. C.G. Jung, ‘Answer to Job’, Collected Works, Vol. 11, Psychology and Religion in East and West, (Bollingen Series XX, 1966), pp. 468-470.
11. J.M. Synge, Four Plays and the Aran Islands, (London: OUP, 1962), p. 222.
12. Heidegger, Poetry, Language and Thought, p. 96.