I am so coarse, the things the poets see
Take that, TS Eliot.
Are obstinately invisible to me.
For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening–any evening–would suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.
To me each evening looked far more
Like the departure from a silent, yet a crowded, shore
Of a ship whose freight was everything, leaving behind
Gracefully, finally, without farewells, marooned mankind.
Red dawn behind a hedgerow in the east
Never, for me, resembled in the least
A chilblain on a cocktail-shaker’s nose;
Waterfalls don’t remind me of torn underclothes,
Nor glaciers of tin-cans. I’ve never known
The moon look like a hump-backed crone–
Rather, a prodigy, even now
Not naturalized, a riddle glaring from the Cyclops’ brow
Of the cold world, reminding me on what a place
I crawl and cling, a planet with no bulwarks, out in space.
Never the white sun of the wintriest day
Struck me as un crachat d’estaminet.
I’m like that odd man Wordsworth knew, to whom
A primrose was a yellow primrose, one whose doom
Keeps him forever in the list of dunces,
Compelled to live on stock responses,
Making the poor best that I can
Of dull things . . . peacocks, honey, the Great Wall, Aldebaran,
Silver weirs, new-cut grass, wave on the beach, hard gem,
The shapes of horse and woman, Athens, Troy, Jerusalem.
Gregory Wilbur is my favourite modern composer. He writes song tunes which I find beautiful and intelligible, and since his CD My Cry Ascends, a collection of psalms and hymns set to lilting, Celtic-influenced melodies, crossed my radar more than a year ago, I've been listening to it over and over again. After a year’s more or less continuous play, it seems unlikely to pall on me.
Wilbur has a “Music Philosophy” page on his website containing his artist’s credo. Part of it reads: “I believe that originality is not a Biblical notion.”
I agree with him.
|HT: Great Writers Steal|
Wace and Layamon would have sunk like stones in such an artistic marketplace. These Middle English authors have left their names to the history of English letters as the authors of two alliterative poems that tell the same legendary history of Britain and King Arthur, based on the same chronicler, Geoffrey of Monmouth.
Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur constantly punctuates his story with the refrain, “as the French book telleth.”
Shakespeare wrote thirty-eight plays. Only two of them—The Tempest and Love’s Labour’s Lost—have plots he invented himself.
|Seriously, how do you beat this?|
Those who make a name for shock value are doomed to be abandoned once someone more shocking comes along. If originality is the litmus test of quality, then the race is on; who can be most outrageous?
Gregory Wilbur argues that the Bible makes less of a case for originality, than for craftsmanship. “The difference is taking those things which have been done before and re-shaping and re-structuring.” He cites Mary’s Magnificat in the second chapter of Like as “a compendium of phrases and concepts from the Psalms and other OT passages...recombined and refashioned into a song of praise that fit the occasion.” Similarly, the Christian composer JS Bach “took established forms, ideas, melodies, and studies from other composers and crafted them into greater and deeper works than before.”
The purpose, and the tendency, of originality is to displace what came before, not to celebrate and build upon it.
Wilbur explains, “The modern concept of originality serves the individual by being different or standing out instead of entering the stream of God’s good providence as displayed by His faithful servants in the past and to learn from them and expand their work into deeper realms.”
Why do it differently?
When it’s already been done so well? Who needs to reinvent the wheel? Who needs to break the mould?
|I'm sure there are other ways of building churches, but we don't talk about them on Vintage Novels because they aren't this pretty.|
I’m not saying innovation and invention are bad things here. What I’m doing is arguing for an alien mindset. Artists have trained themselves to look for ways to be
What I want to encourage is a mindset more skeptical of change for change’s sake. A mindset that seeks, not ways to be different, but ways to be the same.
So. Answer the question.
Why must you do it differently?
You can do it if you must, but you need to convince me. I want syllogisms. Use the back of the paper to show your working. Marks will be awarded to arguments that are clear, logical, theological, and respectful of elders and betters.
What is the purpose of Christian art?
The purpose of Christian art is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever.
How does Christian art achieve this end?
Give ear, O my people, to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth.In Christian discipleship, the audience may change. The tellers may change.
I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old:
Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children, shewing to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done.
For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children:
That the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children:
That they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments.
The story never changes.
CS Lewis said in his poem that he was “compelled to live on stock responses.” His poem—and many of his writings, like The Abolition of Man—rebuked the yearning toward originality. To Lewis, originality was not merely an impediment to the purpose of art; it was in direct conflict with the purpose of art. For Lewis, as for many others, the purpose of art was to train the affections of its audience toward the good, the true, and the beautiful. Humanity being naturally sinful, naturally (in the medieval litany) “greedy, immoral, impious, ignorant, and slothful,” does not naturally respond to good, true, and beautiful things with reverence, submission, and love. It must be trained.
Originality interferes with this process. Originality looks for new stories to tell. Originality hates stock responses, and thus it insists on making the beautiful appear ugly and the ugly appear beautiful. It insists on meddling with categories of good and evil, true and false.
Originality gives us stories in which villains turn out to be misunderstood heroes. Originality gives us Hollywood movies purportedly based on Scripture, which cast God as childlike and vindictive, and His prophets as bigoted and mentally ill.
Stock responses, by contrast, set objective things before us and demand our submission to a reality we cannot control, edit, or reinterpret to suit our own ends.
|While we're at it, here, have a library.|
Our fathers’ suspicion of originality manifested in a reluctance to tell new stories. Here I become a little self-serving. I have often meditated upon the fact that my own novel is basically Arthurian fan-fiction. I am attempting to get over a feeling of inadequacy on that account. I am not God. I do not create; I subcreate. I must begin by copying God; surely it is a logical progression to go on and copy my fellow-men, especially when the story is a tapestry to which many better men than I have contributed over the course of centuries.
Medieval art—anonymous, self-effacing, and craftsmanlike as it was—evinced a truly remarkable flight from originality. In his essay The Genesis of a Medieval Book CS Lewis explains:
The characteristic activity of the medieval—perhaps especially the Middle English—author is precisely “touching up” something that was already there. And this something may itself be the “touching up” of something earlier... The beginnings of this process—if it had a beginning any more definite than daylight has each morning—is often lost to us. Hence we might equally well call our medieval authors the most unoriginal or the most original of men. They are so unoriginal that they hardly ever attempt to write anything unless someone has written it before. They are so rebelliously and insistently original that they can hardly reproduce a page of any older work without transforming it by their own intensely visual and emotional imagination, turning the abstract into the concrete, quickening the static into turbulent movement, flooding whatever was colourless with scarlet and gold.In other words, the medievals wrote the same way Mary wrote her great song: taking elements of what had gone before and remixing them into more of the same.
I am not arguing for plagiarism. The medievals were always honest about where they got their materials, and generous in their own turn. Rather, I am arguing that the needs of the Kingdom and the purpose of Christian art is best served by an attitude that seeks to produce more of the same rather than something different.
Nor do I argue that Christian art should go right on doing what it’s doing at the moment. No, I think Christian art is in a parlous state. I think we have embraced originality and Enlightenment categories of thought and sold our birthrights for a pot of message. I think we need to do an about-face. We need to look at the great Christian art that has gone before, and we need to use it like a medieval craftsman would: both copying and improving. We need to look at the blueprint for our culture, God's Word, and seek to apply it to more and more areas of our life; but the blueprint itself never changes, nor what it teaches.
This is something I struggle with. I read a story and think, "I can tell just how this is going to end. I've read this before." "Oh look, another sweet picture of a mother reading to her child." "I bet that this tune will have a shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits after it." I think it's worth cultivating a taste for exactly these kinds of things. As GK Chesterton so astutely observed,
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.Put another way, what woman, sitting down to a romance novel, is ever disappointed by the wedding at the end? One knows exactly what one is in for--and actually, it's a shame that only the romance novel industry deals in foregone conclusions these days. It takes humility and contentment to exult in these unsurprising things.
|Waterhouse, for example, has never seemed particularly daring to me. But one likes him that way, doesn't one?|
And, the beautiful thing about goodness?
Goodness is no small thing. There is always a "further up and further in" to explore. Doing "more of the same" isn't going to limit us; not when 'the same' is...infinite.