"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

03 April 2006

Madness and Vision

Megan asked in a comment on my last post:
"What does Gardner mean by 'divine madness,' and in what way do we live or die by the artist's vision? "

Here are some excerpts that suggest his answers:

On madness:
“The writer and the psychotic make use of the same faculty and similar energy, the same ability to escape external time and space. If it is true that the motive force of this energy is some tension in the life of the artist or madman [. . .] then a proper use of artistic energy is one which treats the tension, makes decisions about it rather than evading it. The artist is free, the psychotic – helplessly driven by his fear – is not. The theoretical border between art and madness seems to be, then, that the artist can wake up and the psychotic cannot. In fact, though, the difference must be one of degree. Psychotics, we know, can snap out of it, and sometimes do, and an occasional artist relinquishes his hold. Shakespeare understood this. When Hamlet plays mad, he takes a step toward real madness. Sanity is remembering the purpose of the game.”

On the purpose of art:
“In a world where nearly everything that passes for art is tinny and commercial and often, in addition, hollow and academic, I argue – by reason and by banging the table – for an old-fashioned view of what art is and does [. . .]. The traditional view is that true art is moral: it seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us. [. . .] That art which tends toward destruction, the art of nihilists, cynics, and merdistes, is not properly art at all. Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy. [. . .] Art asserts and reasserts those values which hold off dissolution, struggling to keep the mind intact [. . .]. Art rediscovers, generation by generation, what is necessary to humanness.”

Gardner is not saying that all art must be deathly serious, but he does say that serious art makes the world "safe" for "trivial" art that is merely showy, merely entertaining. When he says we live or die by the artist's vision, he is saying, I think, that art does not merely reflect culture but also influences and even perhaps creates it.

If we embrace the vision of the true artist, we receive from it hope that we can live by. The true artist is the one with the vision of love, the one who rejects falsehood in all its forms and calls us back to truth -- and if we don't listen to his vision, we will listen to the false vision of the false artist.

I think we can see this today in the films we embrace (art doesn't have to be novels or poetry of course, and today's most popular art is film, or perhaps contemporary music). We may say we want "truth" in the films we view, but what do we usually settle for? The world's version of truth, which is cynicism and nihilism and dark, dark, dark pictures of what life is all about.

Not that we shouldn't know that vision -- it is the only vision the man without God can ultimately have -- but to immerse ourselves in it and accept it as "true"? That is another thing altogether, yet it is what many today do, and without the grounding of true art of any sort with which to compare it. My students, for example, know the truth intellectually, but they live in a world of falsehood in the images they constantly view (and the music they constantly play) and don't even see the disconnect between mind and heart that this requires.

Ed Veith talks about this in a book my son read last semester, the title of which I cannot now recall. He points out that art surrounds us -- in the ways we decide to decorate our homes as well as in the art museum or at Barnes and Noble. And if what surrounds us is "tinny and commercial" and there is no antidote in exposure to true art . . . then our hearts will be formed by the subtleties of the art we embrace, not the philosophical or theological propositions we give voice to.

I fear I am not explaining myself very well here, but I wanted to address Megan's excellent questions; take this as a kind of thinking out loud as I try to (too) quickly articulate my ideas. I'll try to get back to them when I have time to do a clearer job!

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