Some weeks, the world provides you clues. This week, I experienced a triptych of elbow nudges from the world, telling me to think seriously about a few things. This trifecta took the form of a guest speaker at my school, an essay I accidentally read in American Scholar at my teacher’s desk, and an essay from a collection given to me on my birthday by a dear friend.
I. Left Panel
“Drape”, Joseph Havel
Every year the students at my school receive the rare gift of a visiting fellow, someone who has made a name for herself, say, in the arts, sciences, or other academic field. This year, we invited Joseph Havel, sculptor and director of the Glassel School of Art here in Houston.
Often the fellows speak over the students’ heads–not on purpose, but most 15 years olds cannot see why certain things should matter to them. Teenagers are like solar flares, burning, on fire, propelled, whose light others can see from miles away, but they have not yet learned the dimming that comes with age or distance; they have not learned to turn around; they haven’t yet realized that they, themselves, are not in fact the sun but only small pieces of it.
I also think they resisted some of Havel’s lecture: given the task of answering how art relates to ethics, he told us that the artist’s job is not to create meaning for the audience, no clear message for us to consume. Sending clear messages, he said, is the job of advertisers, not artists. The artists’ job is not to commodify people’s desires and hopes and fears, but rather to translate a moment of the physical, emotional, and mental life into form and then set it free for an audience to encounter and give meaning. That process, he said, is essentially an ethical position. Some students didn’t care to imagine such an ethical position since it requires something from us as readers of art–we cannot simply consume or pay for an explanation or walk away undisturbed.
I was rapt with attention, thinking Havel’s explanation of art and ethics as a way to also understand the best impulses of religion.
Havel then offered the students instruction on how to view art in a museum. Don’t read the information card tacked next to the painting, he said, like so many visitors (Alain de Botton has a great argument for why museums should toss out informational placards altogether). Instead, let yourself experience the work of art. Then you can go back, he said, and read the information about the piece and approach it again with a critical awareness. But if you skip that first step, you miss the ethical imperative of art. You are trying to go for clear meaning and missing the encounter.
But when I returned to my classroom, my teenagers remained unconvinced. I don’t want to be confused, they said. When I read or see something I want to understand what it means. Don’t make me work.
My students complaints and Havel’s instructions reminded me of theologian Marcus Borg‘s advise about how one should approach the Bible, a model I use to teach my students how to read other literature as well. According to Borg, religious men and women should go through three major stages:
2) critical thinking
3) post-critical naivete
Or, as I conceptualize it:
1) blind faith
2) critical doubt
3) doubtful faith
II. Middle Panel
“Untitled”, Lee Bontecou
I must clean my desk. I must clean my desk. I must clean my desk, I repeated to myself Tuesday after school. I began to rashly throw old vocabulary quizzes into the recycling bin, shove pencils and pens into the far nooks of my desk drawer and straighten stacks of unexcused tardy sheets and extra handouts about dangling participles or how to visualize Shakespeare plots as Venn diagrams. Among those stacks I discovered a recent issue of American Scholar, a journal I love. I was loathe to throw it out before skimming the contents and I landed on an essay by Christian Wiman, poet and long-time editor of Poetry magazine who is, as we speak, dying of bone cancer.
I thought I’d read a few sections, but I ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting, weeping over my laptop, forgetting briefly that I needed to get home and let my dog out to pee. As if to explain Borg and Havel’s theories about post-critical naivete, he wrote this:
It is as if joy were the default setting of human emotion, not the furtive, fugitive glimpses it becomes in lives compromised by necessity, familiarity, “maturity,” suffering. You must become as little children, Jesus said, a statement that is often used to justify anti-intellectualism and the renunciation of reason, but which I take actually to mean that we must recover this sense of wonder, this excess of spirit brimming out of the body.
And then, as if to illustrate Havel’s point to the kiddos that art, which certainly the story of Jesus qualifies as, must be encountered rather than consumed, Wiman wrote this beautiful statement of faith:
I’m a Christian not because of the resurrection (I wrestle with this), and not because I think Christianity contains more truth than other religions (I think God reveals himself, or herself, in many forms, some not religious), and not simply because it was the religion in which I was raised (this has been a high barrier). I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (I know, I know: he was quoting the Psalms, and who quotes a poem when being tortured? The words aren’t the point. The point is that he felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.) I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion.
Wiman returned to the faith of his childhood toward the end of his young life, passing through the often adolescent or post-adolescent critical stage that so many intellectuals get stuck in, especially, I’ve found, young writers, more especially young male writers.
III. Right Panel
My friend gifted me Robert Hass‘ new collection of essays “What Light Can Do” for my birthday last month. How well he knows me. It was the best present I got. I have only read one so far, “Study of War: Violence, Literature, and Immanuel Kant.
Hass attempts to break down and revive a lesser known Kant essay called “Perpetual Peace.” In “Perpetual Peace”, as Hass understands it, Kant acknowledged in his Kantian way that violence is the natural condition of man, and that the state of peace “is unnatural and must be struggled toward. Its nobility is its rebellion toward innocence and against the brutality of things-as-they-are.” Hass then tries to explain how literature and art can serve the purpose of struggling toward peace. He imagines in his own way Joseph Havel’s argument for the ethical position of art.
Haas remembers the term “perpetual peace” from his childhood as a Catholic, particularly from the Mass for the Dead “may the perpetual light shine upon them.” He remembers that as a boy he thought the idea of perpetual peace a naive idea, an ideal only reachable with death and an undesirable ideal at that. He was in his critical thinking stage.
But then, he says, so many writers remind us otherwise. He calls particular attention to Czeslaw Milosz, who returned to a sometimes-tortured Catholic faith in his old age, and Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau stood firmly in the last stage of faith and art: post-critical naivete. An idea expressed in his poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” according to Hass, is that the concept of perpetual peace or heaven, “is deficient as a description of a realizable place on earth, but is not deficient as a description of a place held close the heart.”
Art scoots us right up against that place held close to our hearts, that place we believe in the way children believe, even if we can’t get in from here. All three artists, Joseph Havel, Christian Wiman, and Robert Hass implore us to use wonder and thought to navigate art, to use the heart and mind to allow the world “to stream through you rather than reaching out to always take a hold of it.” Have doubt, they say, and have faith. All three men urge against the question, “But what does it mean?”
That our priests and pastors may be artists and may be so wise and so bold as to ask their audiences to approach with wonder the Story and leave the easy, definitive answers to such a childish question to the advertisers.