An Ethic for Aesthetics: the First Covenant (Part 2 of 6)

Surely, I cannot be conscious of all five covenants while I work on a story or a novel; but they become the spiritual place and the subconscious context of the writing.  I can work within them as a sprinter works within his noisy arena, or (or the case of a novel) as the long-distance runner moves within the context of his natural track, the other runners, his own immediate physical characteristics, the sense and regulation of speed, his premeditated strategems.  By a thousand subtle connections and clues, the context affects the runner’s run.

Likewise, the covenantal relationships which I maintain with five elements of the world within which I write: they shape the tale that shapes the children.  And it is ever my effort, by a way obedience to these covenants, to “get it right.”

First Covenant — The covenant with perceived reality.

The description of this covenant is easy enough.  It’s the practice that’s complex.

What people generally reckon as the “real” world—everything visible and experience around them—I must observe with a dead-eye accuracy in order to “get it” (the descriptions, the setting, the ways things actually happen) “right!”

Does the wind really “moan”?  And if so, how?  (It always requires some obstruction to give it voice, like telephone wires or tree branches or the soft sifting of dry snow.)  When a woman lies on her back in bed and weeps, why would I get it wrong to write “the tears streamed down her cheeks?”

No description should come from a writer’s false presumption of how the universe works.  No writer can live entirely within himself and expect to present a world to his reader which his reader will trust.  And once trust is lost in small things it will be lost for the story whole—and that would make for a genuinely lonely profession (which writing is otherwise not).

So then: the natural weather in which my story is plot takes place should never be made un-natural in order to accommodate the plot!  These two honor and acknowledge each other (which is the organic motion of covenant).  But I myself broke that covenant in my novel The Crying for a Vision by giving a two-foot depth of snow a crust hard enough to support the weight of a boy.  Such a crust is possible, of course.  I was the boy who walked on it in North Dakota.  But not (as I wrote it thoughtlessly) on the same very cold day in which the snow first fell to the depth of two feet.  That snow would be soft.  It needs several days of sun and wind to harden the surface.  I got it “wrong,” and I didn’t catch the error till after the book was in print.

If I had caught my error in time, I would not have grumbled for running up against a difficulty, a problem to solve.  Rather, I would gladly have arisen to the challenge of this contradiction between my plot and its setting.  In order to do right by both, I should be forced to take certain creative leaps which might move my book in directions so new and unpremeditated that I myself might be astonished!  Short cuts with the real world undermine a writer’s rightness.

So how do houses creak?  And why?  And when?

And what does the sadness of a child feel like?  And where is the sadness located within her?  And what does it look like in the puckering of her chin and the tug of her lip?  And is it ever enough to write “she was sad” without presenting the tiny and terrible manifestations by which the observer discovers sadness (and its peculiar quality) within her?

With this last series of questions we move from the realm of the natural world into the “real” lives of human beings, our multitudinous interactions, our gestures, facial expressions, moods, developments, behaviors, loves and hates and fears and delights, the subtle relationship between our interior selves and their exterior manifestations.  We move into the realm of social experience—and here especially (as this is nearly always the central stuff of a story, its force and its purpose) I must observe with a dead-eyed accuracy, in order to “get it right.”  For if I get this wrong, why then the entire tale will be wrong, whether it’s a realistic history or a fantasy.

And how shall I observe accurately the human behavior around me?

Well, (1) without prejudice (which is a blindness already in the author’s eye).  And (2) with sympathy.  And (3) by a scrupulous, completely honest examination of my own interior self.

That principle, “without prejudice,” is hard.  It is frightening, as it means to live and act in an acknowledged ignorance!  But we tend to live ever by means of prejudice.  We must, you know, pre-judge most of our situations; that is, we must assume many things about each situation we enter, or we might never be able to act within it.  We think we know how a salesperson will act toward us (though we don’t really know the woman) because we take unconscious cues from only a few things: her dress, her behavior, her language.  Likewise, we think we know teachers and plumbers, folks who use the language essentially as we do, men in expensive suits, train conductors by their costumes, the waitress who cracks gum in the hollows of her molars.

But to see only what we think we see, as necessary as it is in daily life, would cause an author to write the narrow world inside his head rather than the broad and “otherly” world around him.

So I must practice the hard, the sometimes scary exercise of resisting pre-judging those I meet; of admitting that I do not know, that every human before me is a mystery, that I am a stranger in a strange land.  This is constantly causes in me the feeling I experienced when first I became a pastor in the inner city and force myself to walk the streets is all my Euro-whiteness, in all my evident difference.  It feels dangerous.

On the other hand, danger makes for sharp and watchful eyes!  It tunes my ears and makes my very flesh alert.  And by this sort of observation I can discover what these people are authentically—and how they see themselves.

After a while, it isn’t danger that persuades me to pay attention; it’s the willing confessions of ignorance and the patient watching that must follow.  For those who think they know what they do not know, will never be able to know; rather, they will put all people in their own Procrustean bed, forcing upon an infinite population only a handful of the “characters,” which their parochial minds had been able to identify in the world.

So in order to “get it right,” I watch for the truth—not with the truth, as if it were a donkey’s tail to on the persons I will write about.

And I watch with “sympathy.”

“Sym-pathy”: it derives from two Greek words, syn, which can be translated “with,” and pathos, which denotes feelings, emotion, suffering, experience.  I must not only observe the details of other people, but must also participate with them in what the details signify.  So I observe “from within” the other, as it were.   Though I’ve never experienced my own dying, yet having walked to the end the mortal paths of others, I can write of death with personal authenticity.  Though George Eliot (whose real name was Mary Ann Evans) was not a man, yet she wrote with a trenchant accuracy from the point of view (from within the mind of ) a man.  Though one may not be African American or American Indian, yet the observer, cleansed of himself and able to experience the world from the perspective of African Americans or American Indians (at their welcome, incidentally) may write their worlds and their persons with selfless truth.

Keats said of Shakespeare’s ability to “get right” such women as Lady Macbeth and Cordelia and Ophelia, to “get right” such old men as Lear and soldiering men as Othello, that he had a “negative capability.” The writer negates his self in order to write from within the place of other selves.

And that is accomplished, paradoxically, by having, first, with a perilous candor, examined one’s truest self, and by being intensely aware of how that interior self is made manifest in exterior behaviors.

I know the sins of humankind by finding them first (the tendencies, at least, and the complex machinery of motive and action and justification) in myself.  I know the affective turmoil of love recalling the experience in myself.  And the gut-knots of anger, and the sweet relief of certain tears, and the wonder of children, and loneliness, and prepubescent despair: I recall these from within my own experience—and from having been intensely alert to them while they happened.

But more than that I, like most children, was also aware of the signs of these things in my own facial expressions, my posture, my tone of voice, my behavior.  All such visible manifestations of the invisible experience became a language by which I could read the faces, the bodies, the sounds of others, and so interpret their moods, emotions, feelings: I could see into, and enter into, the interior drama.  In this sense, artists are like children; either by nature or else by striving, they maintain the ignorance and the wonder and the immediate sympathy of the little girl who, when she sees the signs of sorrow in her mother’s face, immediately mimics those signs in her own and then (exactly like her mother) begins to weep, does genuinely weep, although she cannot know the cause of her mother’s tears.


Next week I will look at the second covenant:  the covenant with the conventions and the community of my chosen craft.  Until then…

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An Ethic for Aesthestics: What is Art? (Part 1 of 6)

As far as I am concerned, art occurs.  It happens.  It is always an event rather than an object — though it is by means of objects that art takes place.

The painting, then, that hangs in a nighttime darkness on the museum wall is not itself art.  It is a medium for art.  When the light comes on, when a viewer steps before the shapes, the textures, and the colors composed upon the canvas, when the viewer enters the thing by playing her sight from part to part of the painting — that progressing event is art.

Likewise, when this post is closed and unread, it has the potential to become art, but it still awaits the moment of its happening.  It waits for a reader.  It waits for you.

Art is its own peculiar form of human communication.

As such, the complete event is divided into two parts: first, the artist acts.  Second, the reader experiences.  First, the artist (after long preparation, in craft and in life, both consciously and unconsciously, drawing upon life-long wisdom, insight, memory, and yet upon knowledge gathered for this present project) acts by composing  the medium for this particular to which the  viewer or reader will react.  The artist paints.  Or conceives a cathedral (within which conception multitude of other artists carve, sculpt, engrave, build, color and cut).  Or dances (making of the shape and the movement of her body a medium for the immediate reaction of her audience).  Or puts words to paper and detail to narrative.

The artist is well advised to work in the knowledge that his work will not be finished till it finds its audience.  Only so does he move outside himself, into community, communion, culture (or his work may exist in his eyes only, satisfying the self perhaps, but perishing, too, with that self).  Only so does he acknowledge the “other” he will recognize certain basic obligations.

First, the artist composes.  Second, the reader participates in this composition of sensible detail — details which are able to be sensed, imagined, felt: experienced.

To my definition, then.  Altogether, in its full completion, I define art as “composed experience.”

But this particular experience — the artfully designed experience — is peculiar among the great, undifferentiated blends of general human experience.  As I’ve argued, it is a “shaping” experience, more powerful for forming a person’s (a child’s!) sense of truth and of self than plain teaching can, or than the rest of her daily life can.

For this experience is discrete, having clear beginnings  and endings, being separated from the rest of the day, and receiving therefore an especially concentrated attention, a peculiar wholeness of the child’s attention.

And this experience has an internal integrity.  I mean that there is not a detail in its world which is accidental or extraneous.  And no detail important to the story is left out.  All the details, all the sensations exert an integrated, harmonious force upon the mind and spirit of the child.  The force of many details working together is like the tread of many soldiers crossing a bridge together: any single soldier on the bridge could not affect the bridge; nor would many soldiers if they broke stride; but if all the soldiers stepped in time with one another and continued marching in perfect harmony, why, the force of their rhythm could build up until it destroyed the bridge.  All the parts of a story in such perfect composition can have the same effect on the child, the destruction of certain notions, the construction of others.

And this experience involves the whole of the child: her calculating mind, all her senses (in the cauldron of her imagination), her affective heart and emotions, her moral judgements, her body in motion and laughter and fearful anticipations and cuddling and drowsiness.

If this is the “shaping” experience, then; if its effect can ultimately help compose  the perceivings, if not the character and the identity, of a child, then I find myself as the artist not entirely free!  A self-satisfying, completely self-determined freedom could damage  her.  In order to be a good artist, I am already under aesthetical obligations.  But I wield a powerful tool.  In order, then, to compose “good” experiences for the child, I believe I am under certain ethical obligations as well.

If anyone questions the power of art to change reality, let him consider what propagandistic cinema, music, architecture, verse, rhetoric have done to whole populations when demagogues desired to go to war (or when democracies are themselves at war).  And miscomposed stories have justified unjust behavior (as the story of Noah’s curse upon his son Ham once justified slavery in my own native land).

In his essay “Religion and Literature,” T.S. Eliot writes:

“The fiction that we read affects our behavior toward our fellow men, affects our patterns of ourselves.  When we read of human beings behaving in certain ways, with the approval of the author, who gives his benediction to this behavior by his attitude toward the result of the behavior arranged by himself, we can be influenced towards behaving the same way.”

And when the audience that experiences the literature is youthful enough, he says,

“what happens is a kind of inundations, of invasion of the undeveloped personality, the empty (swept and garnished) room, by the stronger personality of the poet.”

I observe certain ethical obligations, then.

But because art is itself a living thing, I don’t consider myself obligated to rules which are fixed and absolute.  That would be deadly indeed.  Rather, I believe that as an artist I enjoy mutual relationships with the principles embraced by these obligations, aesthetical and ethical, and with the people affected by my art.  As relationships, then, which may change and grow to honor the growth and the change in either party (or in both of them); as relationships in which each party acknowledges the other, making promises to the other and keeping them, I can best understand my writerly and my communal obligations as covenants.


The next posts will look at these covenants I make while I work on a story or novel.  Until then…

An Ethic for Aesthetics

The Book of the Dun Cow was first published in 1978 by the Junior Books Division of Harper & Row (as HarperCollins entitled itself in those days).  This was my first book of any significance.  It was written in a rollicking, unselfconscious enthusiasm.  Simply, I was doing on a larger scale what I had been doing all my life till then: making up stories.  Telling them.  Writing them down.

Time has passed.  With this present writing I shall have published more than forty books, which together represent most of the literary genres: novels, short stories, poetry, expository prose, drama, devotional literature, children’s books.  Through the length of such activity, an author is not likely to remain unselfconscious about his craft and his career — and I have not.

Moreover, while at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana, I have taught creative writing.

In other words, I not only do what I do, but I’ve also been required to step outside the doing in order to contemplate it with some objectivity, to talk about it, to define it, and to pass it on to others.  “It.”  This identifiable human endeavor: art.  And within the wide realm of art: writing.

The definitions resulting from these contemplations I call “working” definitions.  Art is as living and elusive as the cultures that produce and preserve it, the communities, the sacred communions; art, then, resists absolute classifications.  And the creative process itself is ultimately too personal to be reduced to something like a universal system.

“Working” definitions, I say, first because they are what works today, but tomorrow may be subject to change; and second because their value is essentially pragmatic.  It is within these definitions that I work; it is by them that I can communicate something of this work to others, to fellow artists, to aspiring writers, to readers curious about the development of the material they read.


In the next few blogs, I will offer some insights on art, and the covenants I make as a writer.  Until then. . .