“You know,” one of my dissertation directors began as we discussed the current draft, “you are trying to argue for Balthasar’s use of poetics. But you are everywhere reticent. Everywhere second-guessing art’s usefulness.”
I sighed and smiled. “You would like me to stop debilitating my own argument.”
She considered this in all seriousness. “Balthasar has a certain love-hate relationship with art…but so do you.”
“I do more than him,” I admitted.
“Why can’t you show yourself for what you are?” By which she meant, admit in fullness how profoundly moved I am by art, how I live through poetry, how I imitate its forms and could no more leave it than I could amputate a limb.
It was a good question, coming from a mentor. I had no answer. No direct one.
I thought, briefly, of years of scolding I had received from professors when I was “unclear” for using images, citing art. Once I was told, “You write in such beautiful melodies that I don’t understand.” I learned to kill melody. I became understood.
I thought of this. But this was not only it.
I told her about my experience writing the poem “Lazarus.” Of the poems I have written, it has received the most positive comments. Normally, no one reads my poems. Not many people. But this one moved people to write me notes. I responded in gratitude, but was also ungrateful and perplexed. The poem was born of a horrible nightmare. A recurring nightmare: I drowned, but could neither escape nor die. I woke up one night after enduring the nightmare again, shaking, an image of Lazarus waking from the dead burned in my mind. So I sat down and wrote it. The work was an exorcism.
Someone praised my gift. I thought of the nightmare and mused, “Gift?”
“I do not quite know what I write when I write it,” I told my mentor. “Art is an act of controlled passion.”
Sometimes, I implied, quite uncontrolled. In one way or another.
The artist knows, and does not know. Imagination outstrips the person.
There is a way in which I terrify myself. There is in art, all art, a profound distance between the known and the expressed. What is expressed is more than what is known. This is what gives art its flexibility, and its danger. Art can speak truth with a sort of guilelessness. An openness to simultaneous meaning, or, as Balthasar would say, a symphonic meaning. But that itself conceals a cunning of sorts, an awareness on the part of the artist. Art can lie; like all things, it can lie. There is something cutting here about art in particular, this ability to lie. Art lies beautifully. It is capable of making lies appealing. Its positive quality, its ability to speak through distance, can be bent to embrace falsity and lack. This conceals the horror of a lie, makes it grotesque: if we take “grotesque” to mean the aestheticizing of the ugly.
Art is built already on a darkness – a darkness that is luminous, or simply dark. I see this in art, and I see it in myself. Art can move, compel, convict. Yet I have seen how artists glorify themselves, and how I glorify myself. I have seen art scream in blood, and I have as well. I have almost lost myself in it. That is not a dramaticism; it’s a statement of fact.
Do we know this danger? Do we know it enough? There is truth in it, and endless midnight.
Art manipulates, and art is beautiful. Art is blind, and art sees.
I used to hate this about art, despite a natural affinity for it. Some part of me still resists. Unfortunately for me, the battle is playing itself out in my own dissertation. My mentor asked me plaintively to reconcile the theologian and artist in me. I smiled. In my mind, I imagined taking up a flickering candle and stepping forward into the dark.
Secret was the garden;
Set i’ the pathless awe
Where no star its breath can draw.
Life, that is its warden,
Sits behind the fosse of death. Mine eyes saw not,
and I saw.
Many changes rise on
Their phantasmal mysteries.
They grow to an horizon
Where earth and heaven meet;
And like a wing that dies on
The vague twilight-verges,
Many a sinking dream doth fleet
Lessening down their secrecies.
And, as dusk with day converges,
Their orbs are troublously
Over-gloomed and over-glowed with hope and fear
of things to be.
On Calvary was shook a spear;
Press the point into thy heart—
Joy and fear!
All the spines upon the thorn into curling tendrils
– excerpts, “The Mistress of Vision,” Francis Thompson