Introit for the Third Sunday in Lent

Mine eyes are ever looking unto the Lord, for he shall pluck my feet out of the net: look thou upon me, and have mercy upon me, for I am desolate and in misery.
Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul: my God, in thee have I trusted; let me not be confounded.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Art and Power

Particularly after reading (at the behest of a seminarian friend) this excellent post from the Dominican House in DC, I've been thinking about the subject of creativity. There are a lot of critical theories about how to interpret art, literature, &c.; the twentieth century has seen a proliferation of differing lenses through which to see art, from Marxism to feminism to queer theory to postmodernism. What many of them sometimes fail to reckon with, though, is the root impulse behind all art, and that is the basic human urge to create.

I take this to be one of the fundamental human impulses. In the beginning, we are told, God made the heavens and the earth and all their furnishings, culminating in mankind -- whom He then makes in His own image. The first thing we are told about God, at some length, is that He makes things; then, that He has made us in His image. Man was made for love, because God is love-in-Trinity from before time and space; man was made for truth, because he is rational, the Trinity Itself containing the divine Logos, the Word of John 1; and man was made to make. I don't think it at all coincidental that the duality of the sexes and the command to be fruitful is placed immediately after this. Nor do I think that this doctrine is simply a spiritualization of the sexual impulse -- I rather think that that is simply the biological form of the desire to create that animates humanity.

Now, this can be taken in a lot of directions. You could reflect on the significance of sex, the aim of art, the nature of evangelism, the propagation of philosophy. How about technology?

Technology is obviously one of the consequences of the inventive spirit that is itself one of the forms our creativity can take. And the creativity of humans as expressed in technology has never reached the Atlantean proportions that it has in our own age. I am sitting here, writing a blog post that, when I click the button, will be available in a matter of fractions of a second to be read by people all over the globe. That's beyond cool. It's beyond words.

But we also live in a fallen world, and our creativity -- like our desire for love and our desire for truth -- has been wounded and left incomplete by that fall. I don't mean simply that we may spend more time and energy playing with our techno-toys than those toys justify, though that's certainly true (as anyone who has had to endure my incessant quoting from can doubtless attest). But there is another, a subtler problem, which J. R. R. Tolkien suggested in his Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, and made more explicit elsewhere:

"[T]he creative (or, as I should say, sub-creative) desire ... is at once wedded to a passionate love of the primary real world, and hence filled with the sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it. It has various opportunities of 'Fall.' It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as 'its own,' the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator -- especially against mortality. Both of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, -- and so to the Machine (or Magic). By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of developments of the inherent inner powers or talents -- or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating, bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognized." -- Letter to Milton Ward, 1951

This contrast between external apparatus and growth from within is an important one. It's part of what David Wong was talking about when he wrote this foul-mouthed and insightful article a few years ago: use enough apparatus, instead of interacting organically with the outside world, and your power to interact with the outside world atrophies. Every talent, every aspect of our interior selves, is like a muscle that needs to be exercised to stay in good shape.

Deep down inside, we know this. I rather think this is why, for instance, we make a distinction between the obsessive bodybuilder or athlete who works out way more than he needs to and diets insanely, and the one who uses steroids as a shortcut. Both, in point of fact, are behaving weirdly, doing things to their bodies that they were not really designed to sustain; but the one is overdoing the development of an inherent power, while the other is resorting to apparatus -- changing the terms of the problem, so to speak, rather than solving it. (Even if the solution is terrible.) And the point is not to pick on bodybuilders and athletes, because all of us do this. One of my externalities is my iPod: I don't like or am indifferent to most of what's played on the radio, and I don't like driving in silence, so I plug it in and listen to anything I want. Which means that, when my iPod is dead or wonking out, I am downright moody, vacillating between depression and anger -- because I have developed so little tolerance for having my will and my tastes thwarted.

Art is something different from power, from what Tolkien called the Machine. Art is something that works with reality, rather than trying to reshape it, and taking it to pieces if it won't assume the shape we want. Technology can go either way: buzzwordy though it all is, green energy (when it really is green energy) is a brilliant example of this, but our reliance upon a limited supply of fossil fuels seems to be increasingly destructive. The contrast between NFP and contraception is another good example: the one uses scientific observation to understand and work with the human body, the other uses the same observation to alter the body.

We need to get back to an organically creative approach to life. No period of the past was a golden age, but this is something our ancestors were better at than we are (if only because, having so much less technology, they had little alternative). I don't think we need to abandon technology as such, or I wouldn't be writing this blog. But we do need to take stock of things -- of our own actions, possessions, habits -- and ask ourselves whether they are tools we do, or can, use to develop ourselves, or Machines that we use as substitutes for personal growth. Because really, if we throttle our own power to grow, who wins?

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Gabriel:

    I have a copy of Tolkien's letters and yet I had never read the one you quoted. All his writing is full of wisdom. I think the man should be canonized.

    You have put your finger on what I believe is the chief cause of the ecological and social mess we've gotten ourselves into.