“Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” –John Keats
“Truth is beautiful, without doubt; but so are lies.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
In preparation for a History of Modernity mid-term this week, my fifteen-year-old daughter is listening to a lecture on the Romantic Poets. As I’m sitting in the same room, I’m afforded the possibility of reclaiming a few bits of literary knowledge grown fuzzy in the couple of decades since my last British Lit class. The lecturer is describing how the works of the romantics in art, poetry and literature were expressive rather than imitative in nature, focusing on experience rather than objectivity. To experience turbulent heights and depths of sensation and emotion was their desired end both in life and art; emotion and sensation divorced from any objective construct wherein they might serve anything larger or more lasting.
Keats’ declaration that “beauty is truth, truth beauty” takes on a somewhat disturbing light in this context. Without ever critically examining the poem, I had long assumed Keats was speaking of the inherent beauty of objective truth. Alas, now I think not. It seems that he’s actually subverting the idea of an objective truth. His “beauty equals truth” statement is less than a degree removed from saying “If it produces pleasure, then it’s good,” or, to phrase it as a more contemporary mantra “If it feels good, do it.” The experience is regarded as its own moral proof text. I suppose if that’s the case, then he must also be inadvertently subverting the idea of beauty.
The earlier pre-enlightenment geniuses like Shakespeare—though masters of the use of emotion in their stories—operated from a different worldview, one that didn’t employ emotion as an end in itself. Instead, emotional responses served some larger reality that was informing the meaning of a story, poem, play, or painting.
This is interesting to me from a personal journey standpoint, as only in my mid-twenties did I begin to appreciate the structures of truth and the requirements a concern for truth might place on literary expression. From the ages of sixteen to twenty-four, I was much more in sync with the romantics. I wanted to feel deeply, and I did. High highs, deep lows. I approached both theology and romance this way. It was raw emotion that fueled my poetry. I courted darkness and despair for the added edge such experience gave to my expression. Having no windswept moors to haunt, I wandered Southern fields on dark and stormy nights. I swung wildly between acts of asceticism and lapses of mild indulgence, partially because I had no understanding of the liberating message of the gospel, and partially because I prized sensation, emotion, giddiness and pain so highly as fuel.
For the sake of everyone around me, it’s a really good thing I didn’t remain twenty-one forever.
It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that the strictures of Truth entered the picture. Till then, form & emotion had been paramount. Now there was this whole added consideration of meaning. And the question of whether my writing lined up with, or failed to line up with, an objective reality. And whether the artifacts I created were ultimately redemptive or counter-redemptive in their effect.
Writing suddenly became a whole lot more difficult.
If things meant something, if art incarnated ideas and if ideas had consequences, if truth was not the same as beauty (at least not in the way that Keats believed it), then I was responsible for the impact of the things I made and therefore had need to be sensitive and discerning. It wasn’t enough just to spin evocative, poetic phrases that were fragments of no greater whole. This was a holier vocation than I had imagined. I became a much slower writer, which is to say, for the first time in my life, writing truly became work. It was no longer enough just to bleed all over the page. Truth is not something we often arrive at by chance after all. It must be sought and discerned. One does not want to blithely misrepresent those things that Flannery O’ Connor referred to as lines of spiritual motion*, for on some level by attempting to name such things, one is attempting to create roadmaps and signposts for others to follow. Nothing less than the recognition of grace as grace hinges on the act of naming the stuff of reality rightly. If we fail to name rightly then we as humans will never make sense of the twin wounds of our seemingly indefinable, unfathomable loss and of our seemingly inexplicable, lingering hope.
If one believes that such things as these spiritual lines of motion do exist, then one will probably agree that artistic portrayals of these lines might more often and more easily be drawn falsely than truly. Especially in a culture that has lost it’s place in the larger narrative and so has little point of reference by which to rightly name anything. This is where romanticism plunged us off a steep cliff.
But maybe we were already going there anyway.
It is perhaps the holiest work of the artist to discern and divine and reveal the names and locations of these lines of spiritual motion accurately. It is easy to create when one is a romantic after all, for no emotion or experience has to line up with anything beyond the glorious (or inglorious) abandon of the emotion or experience itself. It is declared to be its own validation simply because it is. But when we come to see ourselves as servants and stewards of an unyielding truth and love that preexisted the universe, forever unchanging, then we assume a quite different posture. We are humbled. We wonder whether we are fit to employ such tools at all in stumbling service of something beyond our comprehension. And yet, there remains the thumbprint of God in our souls, compelling us to create, compelling us to press forward, laboring to capture those lines of spiritual motion in lines of poetry, in brush strokes, in film. And so we do. Stumblingly. Haltingly. Imperfectly. Weakly. Brokenly. But oftentimes beautifully as well.
I’ve been ruminating on such things lately because of my involvement in an ongoing, collaborative art project that in some way hinges on detecting those fault lines along the surface of our existence. Several years ago, public spaces painter Jonathan Richter invited me to create pieces with him for a gallery show. Richter spends evenings in public spaces (mostly pubs) painting an ongoing series of off-kilter, spontaneous portraits. These paintings give off a vaguely disturbing, surreal aura, sometimes seeming fraught with a subconscious and archetypal symbolism, other times feeling like fragments from the watery language of dreams. At any rate, Richter is quick to say that the pieces in this series are not created with forethought or planning. Rather they emerge from the process itself, from the layering of paint, the subjects sometimes achieving a definite shape only towards the end of the physical process. Once the paint has dried, Richter turns the paintings over to me. I meditate on the images, mulling the portraits for however long it takes to begin to tease out their secrets such that I can express something of their essence in a line or two of poetic prose. There’s something about this process of filtering a work through two imaginations that seems to put a finer edge on it. Like double-distilling a vodka.
For my part, the process is all about trying to discern and name rightly whatever spiritual lines of motion might be inherent in the paintings. I recognize such a statement will sound strange to some. I’m certain it would have sounded strange to me in my romantic phase. I probably would have thought it ridiculous. Inherent meaning? In a spontaneously-wrought surrealistic painting? Are you kidding me? Doesn’t it just have whatever meaning each person subjectively brings to it? Isn’t the “truth” in it just a product of each person’s emotional and aesthetic response?
To respond in a word—No. To respond in five words—No, I don’t think so. Real choices have been made in the act of creation, and real things have consequently been set in motion. Something else is going on that, if not as predictable as clockwork gears, at least has the mysteriously organic physics of storm winds or ocean waves. We might apprehend only whispers and fragments of the songs such things are perpetually singing, but they are singing.
As a song lyricist of some eighteen years or so, I’ve found the most difficult cuts to write are the ones that an artist has already fleshed out musically and melodically when they hand them off to me. The first time I hear the song, it is already complete save for the thematic concept and the lyric.
Shouldn’t that be easy though? After all, in such a situation one could write about anything: Butterflies and moonbeams, a tragic ballad of ice road truckers, an ode to parasites that inhabit the lining of intestinal walls, young love, old love, lost love, found love. Anything! But alas, as I learned the hard way years ago, writing about anything is precisely what one must not do in that situation—because the music, the structure of the song, and especially the vocal meter and melody, is already saying something rather specific. The trick is to get inside the song far enough that you can look out at the world through it, casting about in your own soul and experience for an answer to the question “What is it in existence, in reality, in creation, in the human experience, in my own past or present,” that conforms to this same pattern, this same movement? What spiritual lines of motion are already being described here by this phrasing and melody and interplay of voices and instruments? What true thing is being described here?”
At the end of the day, there usually aren’t many things a particular vocal melody can say. At the end of the day, you find that you’re choosing from a very limited palette. From among all the colors in the visible spectrum say, it has to be red. And from all the varieties of reds, it has to be some variation of a rosy hue. That’s your wiggle room. Dark rose, light rose, redder, pinker, etc. Yes, you can still divide hundreds of variations from that little slice of the color wheel, but you can’t go blue or gold or even barn red. All of those options were excluded from the start by the melody itself. If you ignore this as a writer, you do so at your own peril, because you’re going to build a song that’s trying to pull in different directions.
When Richter gives me his paintings, I go through an almost identical process of narrowing what the possible meanings might be. The difference is that instead of melody, meter and inflection revealing the meaning, it’s the lines, the colors, the expressions on the faces of the figures, the objects they’re holding, their postures and positions. When I first began to work on these pieces, I had no assumption or expectation that this would be the case. It was only as I sat with the first few pieces that it became clear that this was not going to be a process of me assigning meaning to the paintings, but rather of identifying meaning that was already latent within them. It was a dawning revelation.
Nowadays, I begin my relationship with a painting believing that there are lines of spiritual motion embedded in it, though they are oftentimes wary and reluctant to show themselves. I wait them out. Armed with a pen and a yellow legal pad I sit quietly, watching the painting, making no sudden moves. Some reveal their secrets within a few minutes time. Others take hours, even days before the meaning begins to emerge. I return over and over to the clearing where I sit and wait for something to step into the open and give me a clear line of sight. I scour the ground for clues. I follow game trails into the bushes. I make notes. I attempt writing lines that branch off into new ideas. Eventually, the thing itself is revealed, standing there right in front of me. I nab it. I know it’s the thing I’ve been waiting for when, in hindsight, the conclusion feels inevitable. How could I not have seen it from the beginning? It was so obviously already there, waiting in the painting.
Apparently, some doors must be knocked on before they will open.
It would be very safe to say that I am no longer a romantic in the sense that the romantics were romantic. I regard my own emotional reactions to things with a great suspicion nowadays, as I recognize how dangerous and misleading my own sentimentality can be. And yet, I can’t help but believe that what I do believe is more wildly and frighteningly and wonderfully romantic than any merely emotional or sensational experience the romantics would have deemed romantic. Is it not more wildly romantic to operate from a premise that every facet, detail, and pattern in creation, even those that we perceive as random, are fraught with meaning far beyond our ability to comprehend? To believe that the stars are singing? To believe that the objective evidence points to the conclusion that we are living in an actual fairy tale? To believe that hunger and hope are our true guides, pointing us to something objectively real that will ultimately satisfy our deepest hunger and our most achingly beautiful hope? By my reckoning, all of that adds up to something far more romantic than the pursuit of intense but unmoored moments of sensation and emotion, divorced from any larger story.
Romanticism is dead. Long live romance.
*“When a child draws, he doesn’t intend to distort but to set down exactly what he sees, and as his gaze is direct, he sees the lines that create motion. Now the lines of motion that interest the writer are usually invisible. They are lines of spiritual motion.” —Flannery O’Connor, remarks at Hollins College, Virginia (October 14, 1963)