But the moment he begins to enter into his work and to be an artist, the moment he catches sight of a task, the moment it becomes clear to him what it intends, what he wants, what he plans, he then prays around his work, the work that is meant to be a pious work: he prays that God would give him support, that his angel would help him, that the saints might not forget him, that the Lord’s Mother might grant him her particular protection. And this is where the second prayer [the first being his praying the prayers of the Church] appears: for the work, into the work, and—even before the work has begun to take shape—out of the work. And then he is carried away…And now his prayer no longer knows any boundaries, and his ascetic practices and his devotions take on an unprecedented breadth; as if they were nourished by his work, as if they were produced and born by his work…In everything he does, and in his human life, the artist in him always does battle with the very pious man… And for his own inner equilibrium, he needs to show Christians that an artist can be a Christian and to show artists that a Christian can be an artist. In this, he recognizes something of his apostolate…
—Von Speyer on Michelangelo
Is this what haunts us? Rather, what dizzies us? Hearts focused far afield, but an enduring, practical need to manifest—what?: love? service? piety? prayer? attention—here and now; we are the men who talk in their sleep, here and not-here. Our inner ear rebels, and this is why we wander around looking dizzy all the time.
It might be said this way: the artist is haunted by prolepsis, the Not-Yet-Now of the Kingdom of God, and has to, at the same time, hold two things at once: the reality of the Now—brokenness, longing, becoming—and the reality of the To Come—healing (but still scarred), consummation, being. The Now and the To Come seem so powerfully contradictory, and like Ivan Karamazov, we cannot imagine how the two could possibly be reconciled.
But the possibility is kept alive in Art. Art is the tabernacle of Hope.
I think this is something similar to what Seamus Heaney was getting at in his Nobel Speech:
One of the most harrowing moments in the whole history of the harrowing of the heart in Northern Ireland came when a minibus full of workers being driven home one January evening in 1976 was held up by armed and masked men and the occupants of the van ordered at gunpoint to line up at the side of the road. Then one of the masked executioners said to them, “Any Catholics among you, step out here”. As it happened, this particular group, with one exception, were all Protestants, so the presumption must have been that the masked men were Protestant paramilitaries about to carry out a tit-for-tat sectarian killing of the Catholic as the odd man out, the one who would have been presumed to be in sympathy with the IRA and all its actions. It was a terrible moment for him, caught between dread and witness, but he did make a motion to step forward. Then, the story goes, in that split second of decision, and in the relative cover of the winter evening darkness, he felt the hand of the Protestant worker next to him take his hand and squeeze it in a signal that said no, don’t move, we’ll not betray you, nobody need know what faith or party you belong to. All in vain, however, for the man stepped out of the line; but instead of finding a gun at his temple, he was thrown backward and away as the gunmen opened fire on those remaining in the line, for these were not Protestant terrorists, but members, presumably, of the Provisional IRA….
[Yeats’ poetry is credible because] it knows that the massacre will happen again on the roadside, that the workers in the minibus are going to be lined up and shot down just after quitting time; but it also credits as a reality the squeeze of the hand, the actuality of sympathy and protectiveness between living creatures. It satisfies the contradictory needs which consciousness experiences at times of extreme crisis, the need on the one hand for a truth telling that will be hard and retributive, and on the other hand, the need not to harden the mind to a point where it denies its own yearnings for sweetness and trust….
Poetic form is both the ship and the anchor. It is at once a buoyancy and a steadying, allowing for the simultaneous gratification of whatever is centrifugal and whatever is centripetal in mind and body. And it is by such means that Yeats’s work does what the necessary poetry always does, which is to touch the base of our sympathetic nature while taking in at the same time the unsympathetic nature of the world to which that nature is constantly exposed. The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.
“The Great Gaels of Ireland / The men that God made mad / For all their wars were merry / And all their songs were sad.” I think there is a sideways truth to this (typical of Chesterton). I’ve always sensed that in Irish poetry, storytelling, and music, those haunting dichotomies stand in starker relief, those dichotomies between between joy and sorrow, between here and some Otherworld. But it’s only been recently that I’ve gained the language to describe it.
But that the Artist has the special task of holding these dichotomies—that man can be both Christian and Artist, acknowledge horror and redemption, that his work is a sort of tabernacle for Hope out of which can come something like prayer—this is still emerging in my grey matter, little green sprouts popping out for a howdy. Perhaps this whole Artistic Vocation makes a bit more sense if we consider Artists are made a little mad.
But it is a promising idea. And maybe a bit comforting.
Then again, rationalists might tell us we are little more like the character in T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party who asked to be convinced she was crazy:
I must tell you that I should really like to think there’s something wrong with me. Because, if there isn’t, then there’s something wrong with the world itself. And that’s much more frightening! That would be terrible. So I’d rather believe there is something wrong with me, that could be put right.
Then again again, to misquote, well, a bunch of people, apparently:
Those who hear not the music think the dancers mad.