An Ethic for Aesthetics: The Fourth Covenant (Part 5 of 6)

The Fourth Covenant: The covenant with my community at large.

As an officer of the law is a functional citizen in his community, whether he deals with ten people or with ten thousand, so am I an active citizen of mine, even though no more than ten people may have read what I’ve written.  But (1) because my work can’t help from reflecting my context and my community, and (2) because that work goes far beyond the community itself, and (3) because my attitude regarding my artistic profession affects the way I affect friends and citizens around me—it is right to acknowledge a covenant of honor between me, my work, and the people among whom I live and write.

Too often, and too easily, artists have seen themselves as creators not unlike the first Creating Deity.  Or, if they do not rise to divinity themselves, they worship their “muse,” their talent, the transcendent experience of inspiration, their profession as if it were divine.  Everything else pales before the supreme act of artistic creation.  And because all the life around them may be material for their art, they can feel justified in sacrificing any tender part of it on the altar of this exalted profession (or else they may not even notice how they cut and burn living things for the sake of this obsession).  Their art, then, feeds upon their community.  It can consume friendships and families and spouses ever before it—the artistic project—is complete and available to a broader public.

Communities, too, are at fault, often elevating the more famous artists among them to celebrity status: actors, movie directors, best-selling authors, dancers, singers, song-writers.  And if such a treatment is at least a potential for the more minor artist, he may take on airs before airs are granted him—in which case the damage is perhaps solely his own.

For my sake, then, as well as the sake of the communion in which I live as a busy citizen not different from the cop on the corner, I keep covenant with my family, my people, my church, my town, my commonwealth:  I honor what they in good faith honor.  I honor what is honorable among them.  At every level, both as an artist and a member of the communal body, I participate.

Or, to put this another way, I do not objectify them, divorcing my own accountable self from them in order to study, scrutinize, criticize, examine, analyze them, as if they were a smear on the scientist’s microscopic slide.

Here is what careless, uncovenanting art can do:

I know a woman who lives in a large house in a small town in Michigan.  To the delight of everyone, a movie crew arrived to film the village, its streets and shops and houses, as the setting for a full-length feature.  This woman’s house received more camera attention than any other in town.  My friend was flattered—until the movie itself was released to theaters nationwide.  She went to see it.  And she returned home ashamed.  For her house had become the home of vile, ruinous people.  It stigmatized the building for a little while, which caused her some local distress.  But worse than that, she believed that her dear place had become in the imagination of the nation a place of wickedness and horror.

I myself became intensely aware of the need for this fourth covenant while I was doing research for a novel about the Lakota Indians, The Crying of a Vision.  Marlene Whiterabbit Helgemo, and Indian herself and a friend of mine, invited me to spend time with her on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, specifically to attend the Sun Dance there of a holy man named Elmer Running.  She had said, “If you are serious about this, I will invite you to our religious ceremony.”  I accepted, never doubting that this would be the best sort of research I could accomplish.

“Research,” I say—until I drove between two tall poles marking Elmer Running’s ranch, and down a dirt road to a wooden hut, where three very large Indian men approached and motioned me to stop.

I rolled down my window.

They wore their black hair long and braided.  I saw thick, hypertrophic scars on their breasts and their backs.  They gazed at me a while.

Why was I there, they asked.

I told them that Marlene had invited me.

“Do you have a camera?”


“Do you have a tape recorder?”


I was telling the truth.  It hadn’t occurred to me to bring either one.

“Do you draw?”

That was a different sort of question.  And though in their minds it had a similar purpose, in mine it had ceased to consider mechanical devices and had begun to consider me, and my purpose for coming among them.

“No,” I said.  “I can’t draw.”  But I can, I did not say, take notes.

They let me pass.

And I readjusted completely my relationship to them and to the experience I was about to enter.

I had intended to scrutinize, to examine these people, to make them the objects of my researches rather than to seek in them subjects of a fully human relationship with me.  But they themselves had already experienced the faintly insulting experience of anthropologists working among them.  No, not “among” them, but “upon” them.  With a twinkling contempt, they call such human ciphers “Anthroes.”  Merely to study the sacred rituals of a people, you see, is to demean them, to deny the genuinely holy quality of the ceremony.  What the Lakota know was a sacred way to dance with the eternal and to join the limitless, the anthroes reduce to a particularized, limited, definable practice of primitive people.  The scientist might truly admire what the Lakota do; might acknowledge a complexity in the act and a pragmatic consequence; but they would never subject themselves to it, body, heart and spirit; and the absence of faith in them makes them, the anthroes, seem like dissociated and foreign spirits in this place.

I took no notes.  I dismissed the book from my mind.  I subjected myself completely to them and their community; subject myself, I must confess, in some fear—but fear is the poor man’s humility for it does, after all, make him alert to all things around him, visible and invisible.

In other words, I became intensely conscious of the covenant which I as an artist must keep with all those who may enter my writing and thereby enter communities not confined to this place and this time.

The lack of a complete, complex human relationship between the artist and the communities that enter his art—the lack of covenant of mutual obligations—can be cruel.  Those who are only scrutinized may feel as if they’ve suffered a theft.  Something significant to their identities has been taken and handled, hand-dled, man-handled.  Now, that significant thing many never have known its name before.  The artist might have brought it to surface, allowing a community to see in itself what it had not noticed before (for this is the artist’s skill, to name the hidden things).  But unless this has been accomplished for the sake of the community’s precious things as well.  A shared ownership need not to be baneful, unless one of the two owners owns coldly, without a devotion to the thing he takes in his hands to sell away.  If it was something beautiful, its beauty is compromised by having been plucked from the ground that nourished it.  If it was a secret grief or concealed sin, well, the god to which it has been sacrificed is a god that doesn’t redeem.  This public god can only accuse.

This, then, is the core of my covenant with my community:  that my writing must serve them rather than being served by them.  Why should my profession be considered of any greater importance than theirs?

Ovid boasts:

Est, Deus in nobis; agitante calescimus illo:

Sedibus aethereis spiritus ille venit.

“There is a god in us,” he writes to writers.  “We grow hot at his urging: that spirit comes from thrones ethereal.”  Such an attitude has existed in Western societies for ages, that there is a divinity about the artist; that art is his worship; that such worship carries all before it.

But in other societies—African, American Indian, Inuit—the tale-teller is a griot, a servant of persons and of people, comforting them through long nights, acting as the memory of all, whose tales therefore are memorials.

I like this latter much better.

Next week I will tell of the last covenant:  the covenant with my faith.  Until then…..


An Ethic of Aesthetics: The Third Covenant (Part 4 of 6)

The Third Covenant – The covenant with my audience.

Of this covenant I think I am always aware.  It is fundamental to any sort of communication; to art, however, it is the essential relationship, without which the artistic event remains unfinished.  I write to be read.  As talk is meant to dwell within the listener, so  the end of all I write—its termination and its purpose—is the audience.  Or, a sillier (more-serving) way to say this is: the chance that a novel may be read (and perhaps praised) justifies the time and the serious, wearisome labor it takes me to produce the thing in the first place.

In the case of this third covenant my obligation is to “get it right for the sake of” another.

So, then, I seek a relationship that may entertain you; that could possibly enlighten you; that might elevate, might even ennoble you; that should, will ye, nill ye, expand your experience, granting you new eyes upon the “real” world around you. . . .

I seek, in other words, a relationship that could, in a manner sane and unsentimental, love you.  Yes: though it is by its very nature not a visible thing, and though no one else need realize the motive which rests within me—which drives me, even as your reading draws me—writing is as much an act of love for the reader (one by one by one) as it is for the craft itself.  And writing for children in particular is an act of intimate love: for when I write I cannot conceive of auditoriums full of children, not of that abstract collective, “children.” I think of a child.  This one child.  This other child.  Individuals who will as individuals in close relationship with the adult that reads to them—or, if they read on their own, in close relationship with my own voice—enter my tale and dwell there for a while.

And what this cardinal covenant of love requires of its parties in any circumstance, it also requires of me as the artist who shapes and who names for the sake of the tender reader.

I must not abuse the subtle power of art.

I must not indulge in the abuse of power called propaganda; that is, in the cynical effort to make people—whole groups, whole communities—believe what is a lie.  For because art shapes those who receive it uncritically, the people would then become the lie.  In this way, art can damage.  It can enslave both the minds of the readers and those whom the readers control, who are the objects of the artistic lie.

I must tell the truth.  Its alternative is devastating.

T.S. Elliot writes:

“It is literature which we read with the least effort that can have the easiest and most insidious influence upon us. . . . [T]his reading never affects simply a sort of special sense: it affects us as entire human beings; it affects our moral and religious existence.”

Do you recall my blog of art’s ability to “name” in the post “The Writing of Branta and Other Affections“?  I said that to name a thing is to grant that thing three necessary benefits: to make it known in the human arena; to grant it blessed and effective relationships to every other named thing in the universe; and to declare its purpose, and thereby its value, in the world.

 But what if the story is a lie?  And what if the name that people accept and utter thereafter conceals the truth?

Why, then it can in whole groups, whole communities and cultures, conceal the truth of the child so misnamed.  It can hide the truth of her person, her real character, her purpose and her value, even from herself.  Moreover, the true child would then be isolated, cut off from the rest of society, as well as from the blue firmament and the green earth and the gathered seas!  For if the story of creation in Genesis 3 is construed to mean that Eve is responsible for the fall of all humankind—and if the telling of this tale names and characterizes all women according to a primordial fault—what must be (what, in fact, has been) the effect of such false naming upon women themselves?  Ah, what a loneliness!  What an incarceration.  Even the apostle Paul did not interpret the fall in this manner.  But ages and ages of culture have, destroying the truth of womanhood—and thereby of women—through cruel millenia of human history.  And a story is at the source of it.

But if that example is rather too cosmic for the lowly children’s tale, then consider Hugh Lofting’s innocent book, The Story of Doctor Dolittle, which I in my childhood read with a happy hunger.  I dwelt in the tale.  I, only barely conscious of my identity as an American white boy, traveled with Dolittle down to Africa.  The animals were not dangerous.  They were just needy—and we, Dolittle and I, could satisfy them.  I recognized the fantasy, and I delighted in it.  But then Dolittle was locked by an African chief in an African jail.  He got out, of course.  By a cunning trick.

It’s that trick which left a lasting (albeit unconscious) impression upon me.  For though it was accomplished by an unreal exaggeration, there was at the core of the trick an insight which I received as the fundamental truth upon which Lofting’s fantasy was built.  (Fantasy, in order to work, must always derive from realistic propositions of human nature and the nature of this world.)  The trick?  Dolittle promised the son of the chief that if he would let the doctor out of jail, the doctor would turn his black skin white.  He mixed a brew of everything white in his medical bag, and had the black child dip his face into it.

Of course the trick worked; for don’t little black boys see little white boys as the better thing to be?  The “naming” that took place here entered me at the same deep level as my sense of my own whiteness: barely conscious, but pervasive and central to my more spontaneous definitions and decisions.  I continued satisfying in my racial (if not my own personal) superiority.

But this must be my covenant: by means of my writing to love all children, each and each—the one who reads as well as the one affected by the reading.

The apostle Paul speaks of edification—an interweaving and upbuilding of the community—as coming from “speaking the truth in love.”

Next week I will look at the fourth covenant: the covenant with my community at large.  Until then. . .

An Ethic for Aesthetics: the Second Covenant (Part 3 of 6)

Second Covenant — The covenant with the conventions and the community of my chosen craft.

I can be briefer about this covenant, though it has required a lifelong attention.

The conventions of my craft are the forms and patterns of literature’s various genres.  This covenant was established even before I knew it; I entered an apprenticeship of sorts when I, who read continually, became conscious of the words themselves, and loved what they could do, and started to question how they did it.

“Getting it right” in this case means making the words works as best they can.  Making the poem a poem indeed—and besides that, a good one, too.

Sentences.  Lines of verses, the sounds of those lines, the shape of many lines put together according to certain anticipations: sonnets, lyrics, hymns.  Alliterations.  Dialogue.  Descriptions.  Suspense.  The episodic progress of a narrative.  Stories.  Novels.  Each literary form has its definitions.  Each has a history, through which the definitions have evolved and changed.  These are the templates and the tools of my craft.  Of course I should know them—even if I choose, in any particular story, to diverge from them.  Of course, I should continue to read what they have been in the past so that the tools I have in hand are ever more various, ever more accurate.

So then, my covenant is as much with the authors who have gone before me as with the tools we use in common.  T.S. Eliot, in his essay “Tradition and Individual Talent,” argues:

“Tradition. . . cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.  It involves. . . the historical sense. . . ; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence. . . .  This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal, and of the timeless and the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional.”

But this second covenant must also embrace authors who are my contemporaries.  We never do write in a vacuum of our making.  At least I can’t.  (Maybe a writer gets to do one major work this way; but after that he’ll be rewriting the same thing over and over.) Besides reading the material of his present age, I have established and maintained personal relationships with other writers—as friends, if possible; as colleagues busy about the same profession, certainly.

So I exchange communication regularly with authors like Wendell Berry, Eugene Peterson, the playwright Robert Schenkkan and Jim Leonard and Mark St. Germaine, film-script writers and producers David McFadzean and Matt Williams.  Moreover, we meet and talk when we can, and sometimes read one another’s material.  It is in the spontaneous interaction among artists (and, surely, artists of all the arts) that the spirit of any one writer is challenged, refreshed, revived, sustained.  It is in such discussions that the work of a particular time-period gets its quality of kinship.  And it has been this way throughout the history of literature, that artists talk with artists, argue, collaborate, criticize, disagree, imitate.

Next week I will look at the third covenant: the covenant with my audience.  Until then. . .