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. . .

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One thought on “An Ethic of Aesthetics: The Third Covenant (Part 4 of 6)

  1. Mr. Wangerin, I am a farmer and wife of another farmer in California. Thanks for blogging. I left off my blog when it became to difficult to make it uplifting anymore, but reading yours has encouraged me to start again. Thank you for writing, your books have been some of my favorites ever since I read Ragman as a teenager.

    Melissa Tregilgas

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