Creating a Distance

And suddenly, one day, he realizes that a Christian life ought to have a unity: not talent here and piety there, for God is in fact the giver of both and both ought to be brought to perfection in God. A discrepancy between the two is a sin, because it is necessary for the two to form a single service….prayer itself gives him insight into things and relationships … If he feels uncertain in achieving these things, he begins to pray again and begs God to perfect what he himself cannot bring to completion. Thus, there is in his work a sort of interplay of question and answer with God, an anxiousness about creating a distance, a will to do God’s will.

—Von Speyer on Botticelli

What a ramble this post will be. I think I’ll chalk it up to the nature of the material.

There is, I think, a parallel between the dichotomy I discussed in the last post (the dichotomy between the Now and the Not yet) and the dichotomy between the defined and the definer. It is this latter dichotomy that so haunted Hamlet, that “free artist of himself,” and I suspected it is that which haunts the more conventional artist as well.

Whenever I teach Hamlet, I ask my students to imagine human consciousness represented by a circle. What is inside that circle represents what a particular knower knows. But what happens, I ask, when the knower tries to know himself? What happens if you were try to fit the circle inside the circle; or conversely, to expand the circle to include itself?

The pull toward knowing oneself—and needing to transcend oneself to do so—this is the basic, human phenomenological experience, I think. But the response to this pull tends toward and either/or: EITHER we reduce the experience of this pull to nothing but a quaint curiosity of a restrictive, ontological immanentism (a hideous phrase, that one)—and thus we slam back to earth, smothered in melted wing-wax; OR we maintain an enduring, hateful distain for that “this-world gravity” which won’t allow us to break through the atmosphere of our “hereness and nowness.” Either way, the pull toward transcendence hangs on, mocks, haunts, insults our enlightened sensibilities. It pricks and stings us.

I think the Artist feels this sting more keenly. And perhaps the Artist can help the rest of us learn what to do with it, how to abide with it.

An artist is intimate with the tension between the Idea and the Manifestation of the Idea (as Dorothy Sayers discusses in Mind of the Maker)—that sense you have when you feel like the line, lyric, beat, shade is not “quite right,” with the soft nausea, the dissatisfaction, of knowing that you’re not quite there.

The Artist is, I think, used to that tension. And his work is an example how how to abide in that tension.

But there is a similar tension that haunts the Christian artist, I think, and one he is less apt to abide in: this is the tension between talent and piety. So often, the Christian Artist—and for the sake of ease, let’s forgive use of that term for now—the Christian Artist so often doesn’t know what to make of that space between his piety and his talents.

This is a distance much more palpable to the Artist, much more the source of anxiousness, and it is aggravated all the more by the fact that Artist deals in distances—the distance between Idea and Manifestation—he is used to them, he allows himself to feel those distances when they refer to his work,; he is used to feeling those spaces and to stand in them when the matter is his art. But it the “artwork” is himself—the sting is more piercing, and he so often is at a loss.

But as in his Art, so as in his Primary Art (that is, his own life), the Artist must know that when he stands in the distances, he is not there so much as to bridge them, but to testify to them.

When we live in those distances, there can be much anxiety. It is less so when the distance is in the context of a particular piece of artwork (although, that has plenty of anxiety, too). But so much rides on how we respond to that space of anxiousness, especially in our lives.

Will we see that space and all spaces as a rift, something we must fill in? If so, then how long, O Lord, must we sing this song?

But is all distance necessarily rift? Might it not also point toward the ongoing strain toward transcendent, the ever greater, the ever more? When Lover chases Beloved, there is also distance.

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,

Though winning near the goal—yet, do no grieve;

She cannot fade, though thou has not thy bliss,

For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

This is the sort of distance the Romantics adored and testified to. But there is a place for something like this in the faith, with this key difference: He will not fade, and still we will have our bliss. If God is Ever-greater, we will ever pursue him. But He will be Caught and yet Pursued; always possessed, always more; always here with us, always fleeting.

And the fact that this type of distance does have a place in Eternity, this fact should temper the Christian artist’s anxiousness with distance, with creating distance. The Artist, as I wrote before, must hold in his hands the what Heaney called “the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it.”

But he must also hold a similar paradox, that he stands in the distances—in the Primary Art of Life just as much in the Secondary; that not all distances are rifts; that distance can bear witness to consummation.

Yes, a rambling post. But if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.

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