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

The Fifth Covenant:  The covenant with my faith.

No artist works without axioms by which to order the whirling bits of this existence.  The poet:  “a heaper into heaps and piler into piles.”  It is the very nature of art to arrange messes.  A novel is the result of organizing, is like an organism, creating structures the reader can comprehend, composing, as I’ve said, the details and sensations which become a reader’s experience.

But the artist must have certain standards according to which he makes an order (even an absurdist order) of the stuff of this life.  I call these standards “axioms,” because they are at the very base of his seeing; they are the means of his seeing; they themselves need neither proofs nor arguments to be regarded as true by the artist; rather, they become the arguments for the truth and the order of everything else.

Or to say this another way, these unquestioned standards are the tenets of his faith.  Simply, he believes them.  This faith may acknowledge a god.  It may not.  It may be orthodox or else peculiar to this artist alone.

Some artists may, by means of spontaneous consistency within their work, for the first time come to recognize what they have believed all along.

Others are able to identify clearly and directly in expository essays the belief that also governs their art.  Albert Camus is such a one, for the axioms that shape and arrange his novel The Plague are presented propositionally in his book The Myth of Sisyphus.  Camus is an existentialist.

I am a Christian.

As with Camus, this is not separable from anything else I do.  Surely, it does not mean that I must proselytize whenever I write, for this title defines my identity, not my intent—and proselytizing is an activity eminently separable from writing.  “Christianity” indicates the axioms by which I make sense of the mess of human experience, sense enough to give it a compositional order in a story.  My faith, however, doesn’t suppose that I understand everything.  I relate to it as in a covenant, a living, developing relationship.  These are axioms by which I interpret; they are not fixed and rigid interpretations in themselves.

If either one of us, then—Albert Camus the existentialist or I myself the Christian—did not each honor our personal faiths; if we did not feel obliged to grant them a guiding role in the production of our stories and novels; if we refused to continue in covenant with these axioms and wrote what in fact we did not believe, then we would become something like mercenaries, pens for hire, putting our craft in the honorable.  In fact, our work would be stunned at its core.  We might be writers thereafter, but not artists, free and independent.  And if we should so detach ourselves from this fifth covenant as to become the expression of someone else’s faith or foolishness, why, then every other covenant would be broken.  I have already written of the damage that can do to others, readers, and communities.

Moreover, with regard to the damage to myself: if I rejected this faith, my elemental means for making decisions (in life and in writing), how could I heap anything into heaps or pile anything into piles?  How could I organize, compose, or structure anything of human experience into the experience a reader could enter?  How could I write at all?  You see, to break this fifth covenant (even though it were not for mercenary reasons) would surely throw up in front of me the most monumental writers’ block ever!  It would render me wordless.

In the case of this covenant, then, to “get it right” is to get it “righteous.”