Catholics often say, and rightly, that they have a positive view of creation thanks to the Sacraments. Christ redeems us through simple, earthly things, and so we are taught to love them. But it is really more complicated than this, and we can see the grandeur and devastation running through the Catholic imagination.
Rainer Maria Rilke, the poet whose life grew from Catholicism into immense animosity toward Catholicism, could never quite escape what he resented. Moved by the sculpture of (the Catholic) Auguste Rodin, Rilke concentrated his artistic efforts on what he called “thing-poems” (Dinggedichte): poems that focused on objects, and moved over them in contemplation as a sculptor might draw a shape into stone. He and Rodin, while working with different arts, reveal a similar interest in how details affect us. For Rodin, the human body and its imperfections served as a point of fascination; for Rilke, specific objects of nature more and more drive his reflections. Both men strive for a visceral art.
In Rilke, the focus rests on a visceral “withinness” or interiority (Innere). His favorite image is that of a rose, since the flower in its suppleness stands as a kind of pure openness and yet bears pure hiddenness.
Soundless life, expansion void of end,
used-space without space taken
from this space, which near things decrease,
almost not, silhouetted hollows
and pure interiority, so strangely delicate
and self-illuminating—to the edge:
are we aware of anything like this?
– excerpt, “Bowl of Roses” [translation mine]
Things have meaning. Things speak to us. This is Rilke’s point, and it is Rodin’s. Yet in the case of Rilke, a tragic obsession with things abides alongside his love for what they reveal. For him, there is nothing except the rose – easily bruised, unfolding in a delicate and self-enclosed eternity. As for Rodin: his sensuality strays away into lust, which is another mode of obsession with things.
Rilke considered his thing-poems to be revelatory, to be new – and in the manner he accomplishes the work, there is newness to be found. But he fooled himself if he imagined that no one else before him grasped the bewitching power of objects. Shakespeare, the English poet of poets, could focus on objects in such a manner – describing nature, and the careful curve of a rose – and yet with a global attention that Rilke eschews for the sake of detail. Perhaps only G.M. Hopkins rivals Rilke in reverence for detail, with the skill to match him. But for Hopkins, there is more than the detail alone – even the very details of our flesh:
Thou mastering me
God! giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.
– excerpt, “The Wreck of the Deutschland”
In the wake of Hopkins and Rilke, modern poetry is deeply characterized by what Rilke would recognize as thing-poems. Poets love to describe details, and they distract themselves with the harsh feel of a shaped scene. But poets have followed Rilke more than they have Hopkins, and for them only the details appear to persist. Everything else disintegrates into interpretation.
They have got it wrong, these poets, and in them a Catholic virtue has become grotesque. Not that they are entirely to blame, since Catholics have thrown themselves into the same lot. It is an obsession with things, and a forgetfulness of what they are there for. It is not simply that the world around us is beautiful; it is beautiful for a reason, and what we do with these beautiful things must be done for a reason. Earthly beauty has an end (a telos, a goal). That is the other quality of creation that is most true in the Sacraments. Things are not just things – they are God’s, and we are God’s, and it really is as simple and as difficult as that.
Thing-poems can do us no good if they forget what things are for. They are lists of details, visceral reminders nothing at all. A junkyard of once-meaningful evidence. Oddly enough, the short story writer Flannery O’Connor detected the grotesque result, even if poets couldn’t see it. As early as her first novel, Wise Blood, she portrays a character named Haze who desperately desires redemption but who wants that redemption without Christ. This man literally preaches a “church with no Christ,” and he quickly descends into a twisted penance that he does not really believe can help him. Haze wears barbed wire across his chest, and blinds himself. He is a man of tragic details, and no direction.
Poetry, in its odd way, is no different than Flannery O’Connor’s character. All barbed wire and visceral details and guilt – and no redemption.