May 27, 2005,
Near the beginning of the film Amadeus, the reigning court composer of Vienna, Antonio Salieri, wanders through a palace trying to guess which of the guests at a lavish party is Wolfgang Mozart, once a famous child prodigy and now a young man acclaimed for his genius as a composer. Salieri, who has risen from humble origins to his position of eminence through sheer hard work, is a deeply devout man, having vowed that he would offer his life and music to God if only God would grant him artistic genius. Momentarily distracted from his search by a passing tray of pastries, Salieri enters an empty room. Suddenly a woman bursts in, hotly pursued by a man who proceeds to chase her under a table. The man’s silly giggles and goosings are cut short when he hears a chamber orchestra begin a piece of surpassing beauty. “My music!” he says, and tears out of the room to take up the conductor’s baton.
POISONERS WITH EXQUISITE PROSESo in what sense might we say that creativity is a virtue? Oscar Wilde, a creative individual if there ever was one, and an artist with his own share of problems, framed the question with his usual wit. “The fact of a man’s being a poisoner,” he said, “is nothing against his prose.”
If Wilde strikes you as suspect in voicing this opinion, given his own notorious troubles, how about those two paragons of reason and rectitude Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas? They provide a philosophical basis for Wilde’s position by distinguishing between two different types of human action: making and doing. Doing involves human choices, the way we exercise our free will. In the realm of doing or Prudence, as it has been called the goal is the perfection of the doer. In other words, in our behavior we are seeking to perfect ourselves as moral agents.
But in making or Art, if you will the end is not the good of the artist as a person but the good of the made thing. The moment that art is made subservient to some ethical or political purpose, it ceases to be art and becomes propaganda. Art seems to require an inviolable freedom to seek the good of the artifact, without either overt or covert messages being forced into it. And history demonstrates that it is simply a statement of fact (to paraphrase Aquinas) that rectitude of the appetites is not a prerequisite for the ability to make beautiful objects. Thus our poisoner with his exquisite prose. Or Picasso brutalizing the women in his life. Or the legion of artists and scientists who drank or drugged themselves to death.
It would be wrong, I think, to blame the Aristotelian-Thomist conception of art that art is concerned with the perfection of the object and not that of the maker for the rise of the Romantic cult of genius. For one thing, those philosophers were anything but antinomian in their thought; the artist was still subject to the laws of Prudence. Moreover, these thinkers had a broad definition of art, one that did not elevate the genius above the common man the cobbler and the composer were, in a sense, on the same plane, a fact still alive in Haydn’s self-understanding.
The ultimate extension of Romantic ideas about the artist can be found in the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, for whom the genius was the superman, beyond good and evil. In the composer Richard Wagner, Nietzsche thought he had found an avatar of the artist. Wagner’s epic operas, with their sense of the ending of the old order of gods, followed by a new era of human emancipation, seemed to embody Nietzsche’s belief in the superman. But after Wagner composed Parsifal, based on the mythology of the Holy Grail and rooted in Christian metaphors, he was abandoned by Nietzsche, who accused him of “falling at the foot of the cross.”
THE CREATIVE SACRIFICESo where does this leave us? If creativity seems unequally distributed, can bring about destruction, does not intrinsically aid in the moral perfection of the creative individual, and has been tainted by the Romantic cult of genius, it doesn’t seem to warrant consideration as a virtue.
And yet there is something in most of us that accords a high measure of dignity and worth to the creative impulse. Nearly all the world’s religions are grounded in creation stories that also ennoble human beings as agents who perpetuate the divine act of creation by their own actions. In turn, each human action partakes in some measure of the supernatural powers of the creator.
On a personal level, we witness and are enriched by the grandeur of creativity when we see it embodied in art or engineering or statecraft. We sense that creativity lies at the heart of what makes us human, and that without it our lives would be spiritually and materially impoverished.
The world’s great religious traditions reinforce this intuition. Both Judaism and Buddhism, for example, stress the relationship between creativity and spiritual practice. In Genesis, God creates out of nothing, out of silence and the void. Zen Buddhism calls on its followers to achieve a form of “mindfulness” that can only be cultivated by silence and stillness. Musicians often speak of the way that sound emerges out of a meditative silence, and visual artists speak of the block of marble that contains the figure within. Listening to the silence or waiting for the form to be revealed within the stone are forms of attentiveness, even prayerfulness. As Lama Surya Das has written about the Zen tradition:
It takes time and practice to learn to “get out of the way” and enter into the state from which such true art emerges. The total attention, precision, and discipline required for true creativity to blossom though one’s own craft requires fully inhabiting the present moment, free of self and other, past and future, in a nonconceptual state of wakefulness just like meditation practice. The late Tibetan master Trungpa Rinpoche called it “First thought, best thought” a slogan embodying the notion that raw, unedited “isness” is the stuff that real poetry is made of. Every moment is rich with infinite possibilities. Think of it as channeling: Get out of the way, and let the Muse speak.
The Christian poet T. S. Eliot put it this way in his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” And the paradox is that in that displacement of personality, the true self is free to make itself known.
LES BELLES LETTRESIn 1950, at the age of 26, Flannery O’Connor was on a roll. She had left her childhood home in Milledgeville, Georgia, and her unimaginative and sometimes overbearing mother, Regina, and was living in Connecticut with a young literary couple, Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. O’Connor had already received a degree from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a literary prize that gave a New York publisher an option on her first novel. An invitation to the artists’ colony Yaddo had introduced her to such literary stars as the poet Robert Lowell and critic Alfred Kazin. She had been to dinner parties with Mary McCarthy and her circle of New York intellectuals.
As a Southerner and a Catholic, O’Connor had many reasons to feel an almost adversarial relationship to New York as the citadel of America’s cultural elite. But she was there to take it on, headfirst. She was feeling her oats.
Then, at Christmas, she developed the first symptoms of lupus, the disease that had taken the life of her father when she was just 15. Her father had lived for only three years after the onset of symptoms, so O’Connor assumed that she would have only a short time left. Aware that she would become debilitated and could not ask the Fitzgeralds, with their growing family, to care for her, O’Connor made the only decision she could: she packed her bags and returned home to the family farm, Andalusia, and her querulous mother.
The defeat could not have been more total. Living with her mother and a family of ducks on the farm, she was cut off from any intellectual or cultural stimulus, confined to letter writing for contact with the outside world. Her fiction, which employed violence and the grotesque, horrified her mother. “Why can’t you write something uplifting,” Regina would say, “like the folks at Reader’s Digest?” As O’Connor confided in a letter to a friend: “This always leaves me shaking and speechless, raises my blood pressure 140 degrees, etc. All I can say is, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.”
Despite the pain and enervation of lupus and the daily domestic frustrations, O’Connor did not collapse into self-pity and paralysis. A self-described “hillbilly Thomist,” she embraced the Aristotelian-Thomist view of art, especially as she found it described by one of her contemporaries, the French Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain, in his Art and Scholasticism. She was grateful to Maritain for making the distinction between Art and Prudence because she believed that a Christian writer’s “moral sense” and “dramatic sense” ought to coincide. For O’Connor, as for several other important modern Christian writers, including T.S. Eliot and David Jones, Maritain provided a sort of liberation: he helped explain why religious writers ought to resist the temptation to turn their work into didactic or propagandistic art.
But she also noted Maritain’s argument that art did involve what the ancient philosophers called habitus, or the virtue of artistic craft and discipline. Every day she sat down at her typewriter for a minimum of two to three hours, however wretched she may have been feeling, physically or emotionally. She was tart and unsentimental about the creative process, belonging to the school of artists who believe that inspiration can only be found by sitting down at 9:00 a.m. each day and meeting it halfway. At public lectures she was often asked why she wrote. “Because I’m good at it,” she invariably replied. And if some in the audience were offended by this remark, others recognized that she was simply being true to the Thomistic understanding of art.
For O’Connor, however, writing fiction involved more than the virtue, or habit, of disciplined effort. She believed that creating a convincing, enduring world in a story requires the author to achieve a difficult balance: between judgment and mercy, reason and mystery, nature and grace. She saw the model of perfect balance in the Incarnation of Christ, who was both human and divine, infinitely holy yet infinitely merciful. She would have agreed with J.R.R. Tolkien that the artist (or creative person in general) engages in an act of “subcreation” not creating out of nothing, as God does, but creating a microcosm in a manner analogous to that of the Creator.
ART’S MANY SEASONSO’Connor’s theology of the imagination was close in spirit to that of another twentieth-century Christian writer, Dorothy Sayers. Like O’Connor, Sayers was a tough cookie, choosing Dante and Aquinas as her heroes rather than the Romantics. Though she is known primarily for her mystery novels, Sayers was an enormously gifted thinker; she was a playwright, a translator of Dante, and something of a theologian. In The Mind of the Maker, one of her most profound works, Sayers contends that the creative process in art works in ways that correspond to the dynamic relation among the three Persons of the Trinity in Christian theology and that the activity of one illuminates the activity of the other. She first made the point at the end of her play, The Zeal of Thy House, in which one character says:
For every work [or act] of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly.
Or, to put it more succinctly, there is the mind of the author, the act of writing, and the experience of reading and comprehending the story.
More often than not, the characters in O’Connor’s stories who are the most obtuse, the most prideful, are the isolated would-be intellectuals who believe their genius puts them beyond good and evil. Take the character of Julian in “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” Confined to the company of his tiresome mother, a woman obsessed by distinctions of race and class and burdened with an absurdly inflated aristocratic sensibility, Julian begins to believe that his cynical, disillusioned mind can see through everything until he suddenly experiences loss.
A STRUGGLING INVITATION TO VIRTUEIn one sense, O’Connor’s writing gave her the opportunity to learn and relearn the virtues of self-knowledge and humility: By seeing her own sinfulness in some of her characters she recognized her own need for mercy. But O’Connor did not believe that art is merely self-expression another problematic legacy of the Romantic era. Rather, she saw herself as a “Christian realist,” and believed that art had to do justice to the world beyond the self. In one her letters O’Connor writes: “Maritain says that to produce a work of art requires the ‘constant attention of the purified mind,’ and the business of purified mind in this case is to see that those elements of the personality that don’t bear on the subject at hand are excluded. Stories don’t lie when left to themselves. Everything has to be subordinated to a whole which is not you. Any story I reveal myself completely in will be a bad story.”
Since O’Connor’s untimely death in 1964 at the age of thirty-nine, one of the dominant strains in Western thought has held that traditional ideas about the creative individual are false. A host of postmodern thinkers have asserted that the very notion of creativity is an illusion. Meaning, they say, is “constructed,” not by an individual who has developed the habitus of art, but by other forces: the “selfish gene,” or the unconscious, or the economic means of production. Postmodern artists and critics have spoken of the exhaustion of art; awash in the fragments of past cultures, modern art is reduced to eclectic “quotation” of older works, and has lost the drive to synthesize the achievements of the past into something new.
It is no accident that this worldview has no time for the Judeo-Christian understanding of art as subcreation, something analogous to God’s creative fiat. The postmodernists reject Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s definition of the imagination as the “repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” Like Hulga, these intellectuals think they can see through everything, but they do so at the expense of their own humanity.
The undermining of traditional Western ideas about creativity has brought about a deep cultural impoverishment. Creativity may be only an invitation to virtue an invitation that is not always accepted but it exists only in individual souls, souls that must struggle to observe the world, empathize with its inhabitants, and shape an artifact into a form that communicates meaning to others.
Gregory Wolfe is editor of Image journal. Among his books are Malcolm Muggeridge: A Life and Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery. He has also co-authored several books with his wife Suzanne, including Books That Build Character and Bless This House: Prayers for Children and Families. This article appears in the Summer 2005 issue of In Character and is reprinted with permission. In Character can be read online here.