This essay was meant to accompany my creative writing senior project, The House on Samarkand Hill. It took a different direction than it originally intended, and much more might have been said, but as it is the fruit of two very late nights, and there are several points that came out of it of which I am particularly proud, I count myself satisfied overall.
You may recognize that large portions of the text are lifted directly from honors essays and other papers of mine. If you see a reference that seems unnecessary, that’s probably because it is, and it was merely required that I cite the book somewhere in the essay.
Light of Suns As Yet No Man Has Seen: A Personal Aesthetic Philosophy and Justification
This paper discusses my personal philosophy of aesthetics. I focus especially on the drive to creation, the actual creation, and its significance on various levels. As an artist, I believe my primary appointed duty is to respond to the creative urges within me and manifest my subjective experience with objective reality. In so doing, I fulfill the triple responsibility to glorify the God who engendered both, increase my understanding of my own full self, and offer what insights I may have into the world for those readers willing to accept them. I also examine in this paper my position as an writer in time and space and the influences that have formed, and continue to form, my artistic process. Taken altogether, this paper is an exploration of meaning in art—how it is provided, from what, and to whom.
Story is inherently part of the spatial and temporal organization of the cosmos. As humans made in the image of God, the ultimate storyteller, we automatically try to make sense of the world within the context of story—whether in history, myth, science, or otherwise. We see this proclivity universally on both personal and cultural levels. There is a certain kind of storytelling branded “art” that is specifically the field of this author, and it is this kind of storytelling, in his medium of the written word, that I shall attempt to justify in this essay, addressing in particular what I believe of its purpose, direction, attitude, and necessity in the light of my own discoveries and experiences and the Christian view of art being a refraction of truth.
The story comes into existence through the interaction of two worlds: the reality of the artist and the reality of his experience or environment. The artist takes the materials from these two worlds and reassembles them so as to imitate preexisting story within reality and yet create something original. By this he ideally fashions something of worth, something communicable, and something true.
My first purpose is to examine the various aspects of the artist, the efficient cause in storytelling, and particularly a Christian artist. This last distinction I believe to be important; much ink has been spilled, rightfully so, by Christian intellectuals who assert that it is better and more effective for Christians to produce good art than for Christians to consciously try to reproduce Christianity in art. But there is something particular and important about Christianity in any artist’s work. I have witnessed or heard of from friends several remarkable aesthetic transformations in which a certain artist’s craft came to life after a first dramatic experience with the Christ. Historically, T. S. Eliot is a notable example, and he was adamant about the necessary uniqueness of principle and idea given to Christians, and that they cannot divorce this principle and idea from their attitude toward art and, by implication, their own acts of creation (Ryken 208). The confessing Christian produces no truly secular art.
There is, moreover, a special eternal nature to Christian art that is often overlooked. If by Christian art I mean art that is produced by Christians working within a specifically Christian worldview, I also mean art that is a part of the Church, or a part of a universal Christian culture. Andy Crouch in Culture Making suggests that the artist’s craft will not only exist in the New Creation but exist in continuation and perfection of earthly attempts (164). There is no shame for the Christian in his weak attempts to craft story, for there is a glorious future for his art, even if it lies past the holy fires, beyond the end of the world.
The artist of whom I speak exists also as a myth-maker, or mythopoet. His stories do indeed flow from the truth the artist knows, but it is by the imagination that story is formed. Myth is the product of human imagination, a consistent secondary world in which the characters of story are allowed to dwell. It is a portal into a higher realm that is no less real. George MacDonald is quick to note the importance of this aspect.
The end of imagination is harmony. A right imagination, being the reflex of the creation, will fall in with the divine order of things as the highest form of its own operation…. The reveries even of the wise man will make him stronger for his work; his dreaming as well as his thinking will render him sorry for past failure, and hopeful of future success. (Ryken 102-103)
Another related aspect of the artist is that of the tradent. A tradent is one responsible for preserving and passing on truth from outside himself. Part of this must be, as has been discussed, Christian truth. The rest must be what he has received from the world. But the artist-tradent’s role extends beyond this; the importance of the artist as individual is also asserted, for the uniqueness of his experience and person means that he has the privilege of passing on truth as only he has been able to witness it. There were four authors of the same Gospel; not one of them was wasted.
The medium of any artist is aesthetic triggers of experiential memories, necessarily the materials of his experience. The objective experienced reality serves as a bridge to the receiver, for there is necessarily some vital overlap between the two worlds of aesthetic experience for each individual. John Dewey’s insights into this are worth considering.
When an art product once attains classical status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human conditions under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life-experience…. In order to understand the esthetic in its ultimate and approved forms, one must begin with it in the raw; in the events and scenes that hold the attentive eye and ear of a man, arousing his interest and affording him enjoyment as he looks and listens…. The sources of art in human experiences will be learned y him who sees… the zest of the spectator in poking the wood burning on the hearth and in watching the darting flames and crumbling coals…. The man who poked the sticks of burning wood… is none the less fascinated by the colorful drama of change enacted before his eyes and imaginatively partakes in it. He does not remain a cold spectator. (139)
These ordinary aesthetic experiences, through the intentionality of the artist, carry meaning by which the artist may experience communion with his audience. To understand this communion and its implications, Dorothy Sayers proves extremely helpful. The foundation of her book, The Mind of the Maker, is an examination of useful analogies as relate to God and the art-creator. As she declares, “The characteristic common to God and man is apparently… the desire and the ability to make things” (22). Chief among her analogies is an equivocation of the Father with the Idea, or the unformed story as it exists within the creator, the Son with Energy, or the story as it exists in formal manifestation, and the Ghost with Power, or the story as it exists in return in the receivers.
I would posit another kind of trinity in art: the one that answers why the artist creates. This is one of the most basic aesthetic questions, and has been answered in countless ways ranging from social function to personal aesthetic need to mere diversion. The Idea arises from experience and inner compulsion. As mentioned previously, I accept John Dewey’s conceptualization of the significance of the Energy. But for whom is the Power intended? Is it primarily for the artist or the receiver of the art?
In Tarkovsky’s 1979 science-fiction film Stalker (Сталкер; here it refers literally to stalking, or walking stealthily), there are three major characters identified only by their occupations: Stalker, Writer, and Professor, who are traveling into a mysterious and deadly area called the Zone. Stalker is the guide, and he takes the other two to this place in the Zone called the Room, where, it is said, the deepest wishes of the heart will be granted. On the way, the two characters Writer and Professor are forced to evaluate their motives and purpose in life. The cynical Writer’s dilemma especially touched me. I reproduce one of his monologues below, delivered immediately after a brush with death, as translated in the subtitles.
I’ve got no conscience. I’ve just got nerves. Some bastard criticizes me, and I get wounded. Another lauds me, and I get wounded again. I would put my heart and soul in it; they gobble up both my heart and soul. I would relieve my soul of filth; they gobble it up too. They’re all so literate. They all have a sensory deficiency. And they’re all swarming around: journalists, editors, critics, some endless broads. And they all demand: “More, more!” What hell of a writer am I if I hate writing—if it’s a constant torment for me, a painful, shameful occupation, a sort of squeezing out hemorrhoids? I used to think someone would be better off because of my books. But no, nobody needs me! Two days after I die they’ll start gobbling up someone else. I wanted to change them, but it’s they who’ve changed me, making me in their own image. The future used to be just a continuation of the present, with all the changes looming far behind the horizon. Now the future and the present are one. Are they ready for it? They don’t want to know anything! All they want to know is how to gobble!
Dissecting this monologue (as well as any element of a Tarkovsky film) takes time and thought, and I am not sure I have yet grasped the fullness of what it expresses, but essentially Writer’s main crisis is that he sees no meaning in the purposes of his life. What he produces, whether it is good or bad, his readers devour; he believes that they do not truly care about what he is trying to teach them; they only exist to “gobble.” Writer’s view of his art, therefore, might be reduced to a clash between his intent in writing, which is to teach the world, and the intent of his readers, which is merely to absorb mindlessly whatever is popular at the time. He in turn has become shaped by the demands of his readers and has lost touch with his art. At another point in the film he remarks that unless he is remembered in a hundred years his whole life will have been wasted. As an artist he wants a sense of fulfillment, something to assure him that his art was of more than temporary value. This is the dilemma that I wish to address here, for art is indeed meaningless if it is worthless to all parties.
For the question of whether art is for artist or self, the answer is yes to both of these, and I would consider God a third category and that to Himself. He, too, is a receiver, but He is a different kind of receiver, and He is one for a different reason altogether than that of mortal bodies. This is the trinity in the direction of the art. We create art in triple ministry: to ourselves, to other men, and to God. Of course, there is simply no other cogent party in existence. This is true, and it speaks to the comprehensiveness of the ministry of art that the Power moves in all minds, human and divine.
To start with, the artist has a duty to others. Art exists, as Energy, in communicable form. If we are not Dadaists, we use language so that other human beings can understand a coherent message. Richard Bollos notes that we cannot, moreover, justifiably consider our duty toward fellow human beings a mere “training camp” for glory—it is an active and effective extension of the Creator’s will on earth (46-47). It is a response to our commission and a natural desire that art be a shared experience. The story is not merely an expression of what exists within the self; it is the stuff of humanity. There is a duty, then, to that humanity that comes with the gift, for we are readers as well as writers. We cannot exist singly or cumulatively as artists without other writers to learn from and teach. The interaction is important, that we may individually and collectively reach greater heights of imagination and realization of truth.
Again, we write not only for other formal creators. We give as we have been given. Although we may expect that the truths which are communicated to another will somehow be expressed in turn by the receiver, there is even a goodness that comes with filling the impotent. The artist, like the missionary, ought to be a vessel that overflows with truth. This is the duty and ministry. We fill all who are thirsty.
This, however, cannot satisfy Writer’s despairing question. Is it still worth it to be an artist if no-one receives or understands one’s art? My reaction would be yes. It is the duty of the artist, if he believes himself called, to create regardless of his reception, even as the prophets were to prophesy to the unbelieving and the Christ told parables to the undiscerning. One way of looking at this duty is the divine analogy: for whom did God create the earth? It was for its inhabitants, certainly. But it was also for Himself. It was the expression of the truth He knew, which was Himself.
Speaking for myself, I know that I would still write even were I never published, even did no one else ever read. It is a response to the compulsion that comes from my artistic nature, but it is also more than that. To satisfy the artistic urge is not to merely sate it, as one might sate hunger. It is not only the release of emotions. It changes things in more than the moment. I sometimes feel that I have progressed into a new stage of life after writing, or at least upon the conception of the Idea. Writing propels me forward in my understanding of the world and myself, and through many shattered lenses I come to have a clearer and clearer picture, which in turn perpetuates new art. In my life, at least, art is undeniably a ministry to self. Dorothy Sayers captures this sentiment well when she says, “To write the poem… is an act of love towards the poet’s own imaginative act and towards his fellow-beings. It is a social act; but the poet is, first and foremost, his own society, and would be none the less a poet if the means of material expression were refused by him or denied him” (42).
In Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Secret Miracle” (one of the inspirations for Christopher Nolan’s recent film Inception), the protagonist is a Polish Jew, Jaromir Hladík, who is brought before a Nazi firing squad. Before they shoot him Hladík prays to God for just one more year to work on his great work, a play called The Enemies. God grants him this request of one more year by freezing external time. Hladík then spends the next year, even as the firing squad stands frozen and ready, finishing his play. Since no one will ever know about the miracle and his work, his magnum opus ceases to become about leaving something to posterity. It is about the author himself, resolving something within him. As he finishes refining it to perfection and at last chooses an epitaph, time restarts and Hladík is killed. Why does Hladík write? He writes for himself. He writes to find resolution to the incompleteness of his mind, which demands its complement. Writing is truly a process of discovery and forming that complement.
Yet my answer to Writer cannot be complete without a third direction of art, which is toward the Primal Creator and Primal Filler, God, who is also the Commissioner. Not only does the artist experience a kind of communion with the receiver of his art. In using the materials of the creation, and even acting as a sub-creator himself, he experiences communion with his own Creator. If all truth is God’s truth, and we are made in the image of God to create, then it is a fundamental duty to God to create. We identify ourselves with our Creator in making art and speaking truth. For the pious heart writing should be an act of worship and edification: we write as an act of loyalty and devotion to the King, and also to the Kingdom of Heaven and its health upon the earth.
The triune direction is a triune communion. As Sayers states, the story is equally and indivisibly Idea, Energy, and Power (41). So the writer, the reader, and the God hold communion in the sharing of truth. All are partakers of the divine nature. This communion ought on some level be the goal of what has been called “high art”—or art for more than mere distraction’s sake. Francis Schaeffer in Art and the Bible makes an interesting point regarding Moses and the Nehushtan or “brazen serpent.” In this story, a piece of art was used as a sign to heal the people, and also symbolically prefigured Christ (20). This image is rich in semiotic potential, for in art we symbolically represent truth. We, too, raise up brazen serpents in the wilderness; perhaps some of those who look upon it may see truth beyond. But that is not our responsibility. We raise it up regardless, in service of our God and even bold representation of His truth, and so may approach Him and assist others to do so as well.
But, then, how will we represent His truth? If art-making is mythopoeia, how may we remain faithful to reality while still acting within our role as sub-creators? We cannot emphasize enough that this is not only a part of our responsibility, but inherently part of any art-making that truly uses the material of experience. Flannery O’Connor states, “I’m always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system. If the novelist is not sustained by a hope of money, then he must be sustained by a hope of salvation, or he simply won’t survive the ordeal” (77-78). The implications of the latter part of this statement will be dealt with later in this essay.
There are problems that every Christian artist has to deal with. One is the problem of evil in the world. It is inescapable that the artist, to be truthful in this world, must write of the evil that exists herein. O’Connor comments,
[W]hen I look at stories I have written I find that they are, for the most part, about people who are poor, who are afflicted in both mind and body, who have little—or at best a distorted—sense of spiritual purpose, and whose actions do not apparently give the reader a great assurance of the joy of life. Yet how is this? For I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer. I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that. (32)
She responds to this thought:
My own feeling is that writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable…. Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause. (33)
I believe in redemption, but how am I to represent it in fiction without a contrived deus ex machina? What if I know there is an answer to a question my fiction raises, but I do not know exactly what it is? The wrong thing to do would be to force an answer on the art. The right answer must be to represent reality as it is known, even if that known is ugly or horrible. The highlighting of this ugliness may yet lead to response and an answer, but even if it does not, it makes the writer and reader alike yearn for an answer.
I recently wrote a short story titled Black Wings, set in one of the most colorful and vicissitudinous periods in German history, the 1920s, in Berlin. But it was written from the perspective of one who was, like many Berliners, depressed and purposeless in the aftermath of the Great War. The story is marked by death and the collapsing of the world around the protagonist. It is a tale of people needy for salvation, willing to except even the most terrible of creatures as god if it will take them from meaninglessness. The grimness and grittiness expose, if nothing else, the existence and even, to a degree, the shape of the vacuum for redeeming truth. As O’Connor said, fiction is a shocking plunge into reality. The reader who is willing to accept what it offers, if the author can offer him anything, will find himself pointed to redemption by a realization of its absence. If the author is Christian, then he will be pointing to the true redemption found in divine love.
Therefore, the story must, in its trueness, concede the fallenness of the world, but cannot only do that. It must transcend the fallen world. This is the essence of mythopoeia, the imaginative reaching into a higher realm. Thomas Howard writes,
[D]espite the cold and lethal myth that holds the whole world in frosty sovereignty, there are pockets of warmth and life. The old vision, the vision that was affirmed in the high myths, is kept alive and nourished in the households of good and humble people everywhere. And (we wish it were true) in the church. At least it is still celebrated in the church, for we still sing Kyrie and Gloria and Sanctus, and break bread and pour wine, and call them the body and blood of God. (Ryken 342)
These transcendent things survive in the world, and exist in fiction, in symbols and flashes of the divine. Symbols, which do not have to be allegorical to remain potent and real, are natural to any art and are in a sense necessary for the fiction to carry transcendent meaning. That transcendent meaning exists in the material universe is contingent upon their preexistence, as Gallagher and Lundin declare (3, 7). In the quote above, Howard notes how, in our world, the spiritual is kept present through the ritual symbols of communion. My novella The House on Samarkand Hill is populated by a number of symbols which are important in the way they reinforce the themes of the plot. There is a dark pine-wood which takes on the meaning of the soul, primality, and wildness; there is a grandfather-character who symbolizes sin and death; there is a girl who is inspiration, holy wisdom, and persistent grace. These are only a few, and often multiple symbols coexist to represent the same themes. Through these tools, the story can refer to things greater than itself and take on greater relevance. As a corollary, when the characters and images are more than mere symbols but are truly manifested, they make those symbols meaningful within the world of the story. This two-directional use of symbols produces art.
In Christian fiction, flashes of the divine, or glimpses into some aspect of the redeeming truth, are also valid. This can appear through the redeeming actions or attitudes of various characters. Imperfect as those characters and their motivations may be, they briefly become vessels for communication of the divine. One of the most significant uses of this technique would be the character of Dorothea in Eliot’s Middlemarch, who serves throughout as an emissary of divine love. So redemption can be communicated positively as well as negatively.
Fiction, therefore, must be successful both physically and metaphysically to effectively carry meaning. Flannery O’Connor says it well when she identifies fiction as being fundamentally “incarnational,” complaining of authors who “put down one intensely emotional or keenly perceptive sentence after another, and the result [is] complete dullness. The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you” (68). For her, fiction is about the spiritual things visibly penetrating the physical things, so that a representation of this physical reality indicates the greater as well. Leaving out either physical or spiritual is death to the novel (163).
That point of connection has already been mentioned as symbol and expression of divine love through the material of experience. The possibility of these tools being contrived in art, however, is not simply eliminated. Much of kitsch is formulaic in its redemption, its cheap grace, its happily-ever-afters; old symbols, meaningless to the artist, are recycled with the hope of producing a certain effect; for the one who seeks genuine interaction with art, a contrived expression of evil or good is superficial and therefore always deadly. It will either cheat the receiver of the art into , or it will be rejected by those who know better.
This is because genuine experience is needed for authentic communion. The receiver of art may look at his own experience and, through this lens, dismiss the validity of the artist’s claims—wrongly, sometimes, but assuredly if the artist speaks out of ignorance. When the artist knows only brokenness, he ought to create art out of that brokenness. He must write from vulnerability. But the Christian artist does not stop there, because the Christian has hope, and because of this the brokenness will not destroy. The Christian artist, in looking at or speaking from brokenness, embarks on a voyage in search of redemption, and he must trust that it exists or his art is mere vanity at best. The renowned visual artist Makoto Fujimura asserts,
Like Blake, I paint an write not to argue for certain ideology, but I desire to journey with the creative Spirit, to bring light to the gospel of Jesus Christ, whose words and actions refract via eternity, bringing his prismatic light into our broken realities. (168)
Even when we do not know, we still create and have hope. This hope is rooted in our God, and the assurance that He will, if He has called us as artists, manifest Himself in our art, and in the hope that others will gain entry to the art and, in doing so, enter a temple to Him. In his essay “L.I.B.E.S.K.I.N.D.,” Fujimura says:
Art is an inherently hopeful act, an act that echoes the creativity of the Creator. Every time an architect imagines a new building, an artist envisions the first stroke of a brush on a white canvas, a poet seeks a resonant sound in words, or a choreographer weaves a pause in layers of movements, that act is done in hope; the creator reaches out in hope to call the world into that creation. (69)
My own experiences have taught me that the intersection of redemptive power and the harshness of reality is divine love. Truly understood, divine love is not trite. It is not about things working out comfortably or, temporally, into happy endings for all characters. It is about the grass coming up through the pavement, about twisted shapes made straight. It is a religion of fire and sword; of martyrs and apostles and angels; of the cross, scourge, and thorns of our Christ; and of His resurrection. It is Gethsemane and the high priestly prayer of our Lord.
No redemption is without cost, and all redemption is divine. Experience has taught us that we cannot accept and truly believe that evil doesn’t matter or leave a mark in the end; nor can we, without despairing, conclude that there is no redemption, that evil is ultimately victorious. Divine love is not blind; it does not deny the evil and the suffering. Nor is it cheap in its consolation with things “unreal.” In the story of Job there was as yet no consolation of the Suffering Messiah, and the only answer God gave him was that his pain stood beyond mortal comprehension but not divine. Sometimes we cannot see the Suffering Messiah, but we can assert through our art that divine love does exist, and the brokenness is only a part of its manifestation. Our Redeemer lives.
Now that I have examined how I understand the meaning and purpose of art, I shall personalize it as an aesthetic philosophy by discussing how my own experiences have led me to the conclusions I have and discuss at greater length how these ideas play out in my art. A short biography is in order. My life thus far comprises three stages. The first centers on my life in the Willamette Valley in Oregon and is characterized by early exploration and a closeness to the earth. Out in the farmland, attending a small Baptist church founded in the nineteenth century by a circuit rider, raising goats, ducks, chickens, sheep, and dogs, I had a childhood I only recognized years later to be one of significant sensory interaction with the world. We went to U-Picks for our fresh fruit, or crossed the grassy fields to pick wild blackberries. At a certain time of year the cottonwood trees would coat the yard with whiteness like snow; at another time we would see and smell the great columns of smoke that meant the farmers were burning their fields; during the winter the ground was like a sponge and the sky was always gray. It was here that I was raised in the faith.
About the time I was thirteen there was a dramatic move to the east coast, to the District of Columbia, which by this time had transformed into a densely populated area with a largely metropolitan attitude. It was here that my mind was broadened by something other than books, as I had access to museums and battlefields and the culture of the city. I was older and able to tackle more intense intellectual subjects. But this period also highlighted my isolation, for though I did not have any particularly close friends in Oregon, our extended family lived there and our church with its country friendliness. In the businesslike world of northern Virginia, I felt even further out of place, and in this I was becoming gradually less satisfied with the fact. What I gained from this stage in life was a heightened awareness of myself and the world.
The third stage of my life is the one about to end: my time at Belhaven University. This was the path to adulthood. Here, for the first time, I experienced meaningful friendships and community, as well as exposure to a wide range of arts. I was in an environment that supported intellectual and spiritual development. It was here, allowed to roam free from the moorings within family, that I could sail around the world and find myself back at home. The complete meaning in this stage is not clear yet, but it has brought me closer to being the man I am intended to be.
All these three stages have influenced my art with their unique contributions, and these influences can be traced in my writing. The first stage was one of myth, where story was based chiefly in imagination, where my world was constructed of feelings rather than thoughts. Outside of a steady fare of Hardy Boys novels, I read J. R. R. Tolkien, Rosemary Sutcliff, Jules Verne, C. S. Lewis, and G. A. Henty, for these were the authors that made me dream of meaning beyond the feelings, of experiences beyond my experience. I was writing as soon as I could read, and these first stories were illustrated tales of fighter jets and kings and George Washington. With LEGOs and other plastic toys I spun vast mythologies in play-sessions with my brother and sisters. The legacy it has left me is one of the remarkable relationship between the ordinary aesthetic and the extraordinary aesthetic, the imaginative link which allows both to be equally true.
The second stage continued many of the themes of the first, but also led me to Marco Polo and great works of world and historical literature. Feelings became thoughts, and thoughts became questions which demanded answers. I began to consciously examine my writing process, even as I wrote tales of fantasy and historical fiction that, little by little, began to improve. I was introduced to Charles Dickens, Allen French, George MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, and others, and I the art was something I actively strove to improve, rather than took for granted that it was just “what I did.”
The third stage saw a rush of influences which have not yet settled. I came to read more of the classics and more complex works, as well as further broadened my scope in world literature. I took in Jorge Luis Borges, Nikolai Gogol, William Faulkner, Victor Hugo, Charles Williams, Leo Tolstoy, George Eliot, and dozens of others alongside epics such as The Mahabharata, The Knight in the Panther Skin, The Shahnameh, and The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. I had classes in creative writing and art and began to develop an aesthetic. From this stage I acquired a vision.
This, then, is what my vision of the things I wish to explore in my art has become. I am highly attracted by folk and oral literary traditions, where the most simple aesthetic references symbolically illustrate highly complex themes such as death, spirituality, and relationships. This simplicity is profound and beautiful, and if I can attain a similar level of profundity and beauty without compromising the reality and complexity of the deeper ideas, I will consider my art successful. If I can cause my reader to rethink the meaning of even the most basic ideas and images, and see redemptive patterns therein, I have been victorious in my art.
Thomas Howard comments in “Myth: Flight to Reality” that that value of mythopoeia is the way it is able to extract an essence from the accumulated and burdensome associations of our lives by putting truth into the unfamiliar and thus making it more clear by its distance. He notes that the modern writer may be tempted, seeing in his world an absence of symbols for higher virtues, to conclude that this is simply the truth and give up the quest.
On the other hand, the modern writer may be unhappy with the way things are. He may, like Francois Mauriac or Flannery O’Connor or Tolkien, think that the time is out of joint, that what we have is most emphatically not the way things are, in which case he can try various things. He can try to find tiny pieces in the pile that is left of the world in the twentieth century—pieces which, if put together in a certain way or held up to a certain light, may bring back an old memory that once upon a time it wasn’t broken like that. Or, like Flannery O’Connor, the storyteller can hail us, shout at us with frightening images to try to remind us that what we’ve made is not, in fact, very satisfactory. Or, like Tolkien, the mythmaker can step away from things and hold up for us some unabashedly ancient shapes, since he can find nothing at hand that will suit his purpose. When we have entered Tolkien’s remote world we find that it is a true one, and therefore true of ours. (Ryken 341)
The symbolic poverty of the modern age is not completely unfortunate, for it gives artists the opportunity to indulge in mythopoeia. It is not dissimilar in concept to nonrepresentational visual art, which seeks to get at a truer essence by avoiding the associations of the surface of reality. Thus I often write about distant times, or times that exist only in my dreams, because I find that the symbols with which we have become accustomed too often devalue the idea. The symbols, in themselves, distract from the meaning in the art. When I set a story in the modern age, in the familiar, the hero will often be forced to cast aside his paradigms and re-evaluate his symbols.
J. R. R. Tolkien’s poem Mythopoeia is a justification of myth-making in art as opposed to progressive, mechanical, “realist” art which a particular critic insisted was more valid. In addition to asserting that it is man’s God-given right and duty to create myth as subcreators after His image, Tolkien asserts the essential truth of the myth, and states that it does not ignore reality, but remembers what is truer than evil and invokes the redemptive power in the world in hope.
Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight.
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have tuned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen. (91-94, 99-106)
Ultimately, regardless of whether my process guides me to speculative or realist art, my purpose is to arrive at the redemptive truth and communicate it to my readers. If I can present an idea of divine love and cause my readers to consider it worthy of seeking, then I have fulfilled my duty, and my dealings with the material of experience are not inert and useless, but suffused and penetrated with meaning.
To sum up all that has been said, the artist represents truth through aesthetic experience in triune ministry to self, others, and God. He has a duty, then, represent his own experience and the wisdom he has received. Looking at the stages of my life and the direction my art has taken, I can see how my life and my art exist in continuum. Ultimately I am only a subcreator, and I speak as I have been spoken to. I write of brokenness, but also of redemptive power and divine love, because these are the things I have known, for I am not only artist but art, and my art must necessarily recall the truer art of the Prime Creator. My duty is to write in accordance with what I have been given, to hope in accordance with the power behind my calling, and to mediate truth, as Fujimura said, by refracting the perfect light of the holy Artist of artists.
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