“A Want We Want and so Revere”

Sara Zarr today at the Image Journal blog compares an ideal with an experience.

I have been aware of Andy Crouch’s book, Culture Making, for some time, but have not read it. Along with your kiss, it is on my list, especially since it seems (at least from the title) that we would have very similar views on the Artistic Vocation. But alas, too many books, so little time, and Georges Bernanos has been haunting in from my nightstand.

Ms. Zarr quotes Crouch as saying, “What is most needed in our time are Christians who are deeply serious about cultivating and creating but who wear that seriousness lightly—who are not desperately trying to change the world but who also wake up every morning eager to create.”

But Ms. Zarr then points out the wonderful (frustrating?) salience of artistic experience that often flies in the face of the wisest vocational theorizing: namely, that its really hard to do what you know you ought to do. “Reality,” wrote one my favorite artists, “can be so uncomfortably real.” And actually doing the creative work that is our calling is seldom as glamorous as our imagination makes it (and let’s be honest, as artists, our imagination makes it looks pretty good, a, I right? Berets, cigarettes, Moleskine journals, and the aloof, misunderstood, yet prophetic gaze we stretch out over the world?)

In short, artists and would-be artists often have high hopes and great joy for their artistic life, hopes and joys that are quickly put to the test once the work itself must be taken up.

And yet, there is something to be learned here, and it ties into the subject my last post.

In Book Six of his great poem, The Prelude, William Wordsworth recounts a disappointment similar to the one many artists feel when they start living their vocation and realize its not all accolades and personal fulfillment. He tells of his long-anticipated crossing of the Alps on foot. Well into the trip and having been separated from his guide, he comes to a stream where he has to chose between two possible paths. He chooses the path that seems most logical to him: the one that goes up. He climbs a path, but runs into a villager who tells him that he chose the wrong path. The descending path was the correct path, and in fact, was not only the correct path, but the last leg of the journey. With a great sense of disappointment, Wordsworth realizes that this great, romantic journey was suddenly, and rather unremarkably, over. He had crossed the Alps.

Wordsworth’s first temptation was disappointment, but he soon realized something truly remarkable: that the human power of Imagination must be truly great and magnificent if even the sublimity of the Alps cannot live up to its image-making. Wordsworth chooses not to stew in the disappointment that what he has on earth doesn’t live up to the promises of the eternal grasping, but he chooses rather to rejoice in our nature, a nature that draws us ever forward, toward something ever greater. Thus follows one of my favorite passages of poetry:

Imagination–here the Power so called

Through sad incompetence of human speech–

That awful Power rose from the mind’s abyss

Like an unfathered vapour that enwraps,

At once, some lonely traveller. I was lost;

Halted without an effort to break through;

But to my conscious soul I now can say

“I recognise thy glory:” in such strength

Of usurpation, when the light of sense

Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed

The invisible world, doth greatness make abode,

There harbours; whether we be young or old,

Our destiny, our being’s heart and home,

Is with infinitude, and only there;

With hope it is, hope that can never die,

Effort, and expectation, and desire,

And something evermore about to be.

Under such banners militant, the soul

Seeks for no trophies, struggles for no spoils

That may attest her prowess, blest in thoughts

That are their own perfection and reward,

Strong in herself and in beatitude

That hides her, like the mighty flood of Nile

Poured from his fount of Abyssinian clouds

To fertilise the whole Egyptian plain.

The melancholy slackening that ensued

Upon those tidings by the peasant given

Was soon dislodged. Downwards we hurried fast,

And, with the half-shaped road which we had missed,

Entered a narrow chasm. The brook and road

Were fellow-travellers in this gloomy strait,

And with them did we journey several hours

At a slow pace. The immeasurable height

Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,

The stationary blasts of waterfalls,

And in the narrow rent at every turn

Winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn,

The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky,

The rocks that muttered close upon our ears,

Black drizzling crags that spake by the way-side

As if a voice were in them, the sick sight

And giddy prospect of the raving stream,

The unfettered clouds and region of the Heavens,

Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light–

Were all like workings of one mind, the features

Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree;

Characters of the great Apocalypse,

The types and symbols of Eternity,

Of first, and last, and midst, and without end.

(ll. 593-641)

Even at those points when our vocation is frustrated can we find encouragement, encouragement in the frustration itself, for frustration begs comparison, comparison requires a standard, and the standard reveals the greatness to which we are called. And that greatness (and what’s more, the fact such greatness can be both revealed and perceived!) demands contemplation, a contemplation that yields peace.

In your vocational frustrations themselves, look for ‘the types and symbols of Eternity.’

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