St. Augustine and the Artistic Ache

I am fairly certain most artists are driven by what I call the “Artistic Ache,” a haunting by some great emotion, experience, beauty, or meaning that only just eludes them. To describe this, to capture it, is the challenge of the Artist, but because he cannot describe his prey, his observers have trouble giving his pursuit much respect or understanding. Yet, the Artist knows — rather somehow senses — the prey exists, and what’s more, the Artist is mysteriously compelled to chase it.

This compulsion is the Artist’s blessing and curse. The curse has taken form in the image of the madman running off to Faery or the image of the libertine sinking into sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, or anything that may transmit a the smallest feeling he has collared the transcendent quarry. And the blessing has taken form in the image of the focused genius, lying on his back on 20 meter-high-scaffolding in the Sistine Chapel, or the image of the dying author, racing death to complete The Brothers Karamozov.

Nonetheless, this mysterious desire, either the general phenomenon or the specific experience of a particular author, is difficult to nail down, describe, and therefore, discuss.

Still, I think it rewards a little meditation. For myself, the nature of the Artistic Ache took a helpful form in C.S. Lewis’ explanation of Sehnsucht (a quite nice introduction to Sehnsucht here). While he doesn’t describe it as something only artists perceive, being an artist, Lewis was very familiar with the experience, and being a writer, adept at giving it verbal form.

“In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

This longing is, I believe, something the Artist is a bit more attuned to. But the Artist, as he pursues the ever-horizoned object of his desire, does well to remember to locate this longing in something greater than his art. While the creative pursuit of that Elusiveness is an important aspect of the Artist’s Vocation, the desire that compels him to create is a desire that ought to compel him toward greater things as well — namely, that Source of Beauty, that Fountainhead of Desire.

On this point, today’s last thought belongs to St. Augustine.

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From the Tractates on the first letter of John by Saint Augustine, bishop

Our heart longs for God

We have been promised that we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. By these words, the tongue has done its best; now we must apply the meditation of the heart. Although they are the words of Saint John, what are they in comparison with the divine reality? And how can we, so greatly inferior to John in merit, add anything of our own? Yet we have received, as John has told us, an anointing by the Holy One which teaches us inwardly more than our tongue can speak. Let us turn to this source of knowledge, and because at present you cannot see, make it your business to desire the divine vision.

The entire life of a good Christian is in fact an exercise of holy desire. You do not yet see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when he comes you may see and be utterly satisfied.

Suppose you are going to fill some holder or container, and you know you will be given a large amount. Then you set about stretching your sack or wineskin or whatever it is. Why? Because you know the quantity you will have to put in it and your eyes tell you there is not enough room. By stretching it, therefore, you increase the capacity of the sack, and this is how God deals with us. Simply by making us wait he increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given to us.

So, my brethren, let us continue to desire, for we shall be filled. Take note of Saint Paul stretching as it were his ability to receive what is to come: Not that I have already obtained this, he said, or am made perfect. Brethren, I do not consider that I have already obtained it. We might ask him, “If you have not yet obtained it, what are you doing in this life?” This one thing I do, answers Paul, forgetting what lies behind, and stretching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the prize to which I am called in the life above. Not only did Paul say he stretched forward, but he also declared that he pressed on toward a chosen goal. He realised in fact that he was still short of receiving what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived.

Such is our Christian life. By desiring heaven we exercise the powers of our soul. Now this exercise will be effective only to the extent that we free ourselves from desires leading to infatuation with this world. Let me return to the example I have already used, of filling an empty container. God means to fill each of you with what is good; so cast out what is bad! If he wishes to fill you with honey and you are full of sour wine, where is the honey to go? The vessel must be emptied of its contents and then be cleansed. Yes, it must be cleansed even if you have to work hard and scour it. It must be made fit for the new thing, whatever it may be.

We may go on speaking figuratively of honey, gold or wine – but whatever we say we cannot express the reality we are to receive. The name of that reality is God. But who will claim that in that one syllable we utter the full expanse of our heart’s desire? Therefore, whatever we say is necessarily less than the full truth. We must extend ourselves toward the measure of Christ so that when he comes he may fill us with his presence. Then we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

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