The Art Of Humanity

Dinah Livingstone gave this talk to the Oxford SoF Group in April.

This talk, called The Art of Humanity, will focus on the verbal art of poetry. The talk is both a defence of poetry and a natural theology (with nothing supernatural about it) and inquires how the making that goes into those sister arts contributes to the making of humanity. I begin by looking briefly at how we live on Earth as animals, but as poetic, paradoxical animals to whom imagination comes naturally as soon as we learn to speak. Like ourselves, poetry unites what is sensual and earthy with what is intellectual and spiritual, and theology creates imaginary supernatural beings as personifications or other ways of figuring what we encounter in our lives. The paradox is that in us matter goes 'all the way up', and spirit goes 'all the way down'. For poetry, theology and humanity the power and the passion is to be speaking matter, incarnate word.

Living on Earth

Human beings are an animal species that has evolved within the ecosystem of Planet Earth. Like other animals, in order to live, we have to engage physically with our environment and one another. We are material bodies that need material things in order to survive — warmth, food, drink — and Earth is the habitat we have in which to get them. If we fail, we die. The Earth is a physical body in space and although it has been modified over the millennia by human labour, we did not create it. It is an exhaustible physical treasury given to us. Likewise each human being that is born is given a particular, limited, mortal body. How that little body develops depends partly on his or her given genetic material and partly on how well it is looked after by parents and others.

In order to satisfy their needs, humans have developed skills in hunting, gathering, agriculture, building, carpentry, cooking, sewing, weaving... and as they cannot survive in isolation, they create social groups to protect individuals. In all these tasks they use language. However, language is not something that replaces animal consciousness and knowledge, but emerges out of it and enormously enriches it. So what is knowledge? For this talk I don't think the best place to start is the philosopher's abstract enquiry. Better to start not by asking about knowledge of something or other, but knowledge how to do something.

A good carpenter knows how to saw wood straight, put up shelves that don't collapse, fit a door so that it is not proud — and makes it all look so simple, whereas an inexperienced, butter-fingered person like me can be left cursing all morning. If you know the salsa it means you know how to dance the salsa. It is probably impossible to learn it from a book without hearing the music or seeing anyone dance it. We used to dance a lot in the 1960s to music like The Yellow Submarine but when not long ago a daughter tried to teach me the salsa, I couldn't get it. In one sense I 'knew' what the salsa was, as I saw other people dancing it, but I did not know how to do it. My body couldn't get it; perhaps it was just not 'my' rhythm or I was 'past it'.

The London taxi driver has to pass a fiendishly difficult exam called 'The Knowledge'. This is a practical test of knowing how to find your way round all the streets of London. My father (a keen amateur jockey) once rode two winners on one day at Wincanton, his own horse Fitz Fritz and Dorothy belonging a neighbour. It helped that he knew the steeplechase course — that is, he knew how to ride round it and what to look out for. A farmer who 'knows his pigs' knows how to look after them so that they thrive. That practical knowledge is the basis but of course there is a lot more to get to know about pigs (as there is about London). When I was a child we had some delightful, intelligent Gloucester Old Spots and they had lots of 'character' we got to know. Likewise — though much more deeply — a new mother learns to know her baby.

A baby usually learns how to crawl before he learns the word 'crawl' and how to walk before he learns the word 'walk'. A cat can't talk at all but it can learn some things. I recently acquired a new kitten and when it was a few months old I began teaching it how to use the cat flap. In order to get into the garden it has to open the kitchen door (left ajar) with its paw, go through a cat flap at the top of the stairs, go downstairs and out through another cat flap. It has now learnt how to do this and never makes a mess in the house. Similarly young children have to learn how to use the lavatory. But no cat can compete with Luther who, the story goes, was on the lavatory when he had his eureka moment: 'The just shall live by faith!' All the instincts humans share with animals are enriched by language and sometimes by laughter. Lovers have private jokes.

Although we learn how to do certain things in a similar way to other animals, our learning is much richer because we are speaking animals. As a means of communication, of their nature languages are not private, just as human beings are not isolated 'headcases' but social animals, members of a species. Even before it can speak the baby is entering a language community and learning to talk, so although he will probably walk before he can say the word walk, he will still appreciate the encouraging words and cries of his doting family and gradually connect doing and saying. Similarly, a whole web and history of ideas surround dancing, carpentry and pig husbandry.

Another sort of knowing how to is knowing how to distinguish, how to tell edible blackberry from poisonous belladonna, how to tell wheat from barley (barley has a beard). That is also practical knowledge. If you mistake belladonna for blackberries and gorge yourself, you could die. Language enables us to name these plants and pass on our knowledge to others. Language has to engage with the world as it is. Telling someone blackberries are poisonous and belladonna good to eat is dangerous, when the opposite is the case.

That is not to say that any of this knowledge is static or perfect. A musician might strive all her life to play better, a carpenter to increase his skills or a cabbie to learn better short cuts or new one-way systems. Knowledge how to starts by being good enough knowledge to do the job and after that, at least in some fields, you can go on learning all your life. Knowledge how to becomes art.

By making language, or rather, languages, humans exponentially increased their powers of interacting and dealing with the Earth and each other. And with their powers, their desires also increased for a richer life. In personal life each human individual meets love, beauty, joy. As well as having to secure food and shelter, he or she has to face pain, death, boredom, loneliness or a sense of futility when they occur. The increased consciousness that comes with language brings both the possibility of a richer life and is a richer source of suffering.

The rest of this talk will look at how humans use art to express and deal with their predicament. It will concentrate on the sister arts of poetry and theology (assuming, with Blake, that all gods are created by the human 'poetic genius'). However much our consciousness increases, knowledge that is 'sweet reason', art that speaks to our condition, must involve an acknowledgment of and acquired familiarity with the physicality of ourselves and the Earth. That is what we have to work with, which no art can ignore. There is a continuum. It is not the sort of continuum that when we reach 'stage 2' we have 'moved on' from 'stage 1'. We carry it all with us. We remain mortal bodies even when playing or hearing the most 'heavenly' music' or enjoying the most 'divine' visions. We are speaking animals with an expanding consciousness, not spiritual beings striving to 'rise above' our animal nature. Gnosis that denies what we are is false, art that is not rooted in Earth fails, just as a building that ignores the laws of physics will fall down. Human language and art must have some recognisable relation to the world we live in, so that our word remains incarnate, our wisdom embodied.

Poetic Paradoxical Animal

We are poetic animals by nature. The continuum works both ways. Just as we remain mortal bodies even when enjoying the most spiritual experiences, our highest poetry makes the fullest use of the physical resources of spoken language. Words are the poet's material. Words are physically produced by human lungs, throats, tongues, lips and teeth. Indeed, languages are called 'tongues'. Hopkins called poetry 'the darling child of speech and lips'. The sounds of words are very important in poetry, for example, whether the vowels used are 'dark' and formed at the back of the mouth or lighter front vowels. English is fortunate that its word 'dark' has the most open back vowel A: —that is why the doctor tells you to say aaah! How we hear that darkness in Milton's Samson's tremendous protest against his blindness:

O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
irrecoverably dark, total eclipse
without all hope of day!

In contrast, the words 'blaze' and 'day' are a close front diphthong, here recalling the absent light.

The pattern of sounds also matters, what sounds are repeated in a pleasing order. So does the rhythm of stressed and unstressed beats, which we respond to as physical beings with beating hearts. The various poetic forms have more extended rhythmic and sonic patterns. Poetry is language to which people may have a strong physical response — making the heart beat faster or the hair rise on the back of your neck.

At the same time the content of poetry must also appeal our senses — what we can see, hear, feel, taste and smell. Poetry may use synaesthesia, appealing to two or more senses at once. Poetry deals in particularities, very concrete things. For example, Joh n Heath-Stubbs' poem 'Plato and the Waters of the Flood' (see page 4) begins with Noah's Ark landing:

When on Armenian Ararat
or Parnassus ridge
scrunched the overloaded keel,
pelican, ostrich,
toad, rabbit and pangolin —
all the beasts of the field —
scrambled out to possess once more
their cleansed and desolate world...

The poem is much more graphic because he names 'pelican, ostrich, toad, rabbit and pangolin' than if he had just said 'animals'. The verbs 'scrunched' and 'scrambled' are more particular and vivid than if he had just said the ark 'landed' or the animals 'went out' and we enjoy the resonance of the proper names 'Armenian Ararat or Parnassus' ridge'. However, I don't agree with the dictum of a certain school of poetry 'no ideas but in things'. Although poetry deals in the sensual and particular, it has always also dealt in ideas, the wholeness of experience, intellectual as well as sensual. 'For a tear is an intellectual thing.' In a poem the particular often has most universal resonance.

The German word for writing poetry is dichten, related to dicht meaning 'thick'. Poetry 'thickens' language and therefore consciousness, making it more concentrated and intense. A poet is a Dichter. Sound and rhythm are ways of concentrating the language of a poem, as are its appeal to the senses and its ideas. Befitting us as a speaking animal species, poems (and ideas) are not isolated. Another way in which a poem thickens language and consciousness, increasing 'connectivity', is by being a conversation in a tradition, by allusions. This can be done in what I have always regarded as a rather heavy-handed way like T.S. Eliot in The Wasteland or with the light touch of 'answer, echo, answer'. The problem is, the lighter the touch, the finer your audience's ear must be. The poem packs a lot of psychic energy into a little space. It is not 'tired' language but gives a sense of springing freshness. At the same time there is a sense of rightness, even inevitability: these words in this order is how the poem 'had to be'.

A vital means of poetic concentration or thickening is the use of symbolic language. Coleridge seems to be right that nature gives us our 'shaping spirit of imagination' at birth. One of the most astonishing things about watching a two-year-old learn to talk is that metaphor, symbol and 'let's pretend' (as well as joking) seem to come naturally as soon as the words are acquired. The child will go into a corner and say: 'I'm a pony in a barn,' and neigh. Or: 'I'm a naughty goblin,' and run off with a biscuit. Or: 'I'm an astronaut and this is my rocket,' (a stick). Or the child can wave a magic wand and tell his grandfather: 'You're a cat.' Grandfather is expected to miaow. The child is aware that it's a game of 'pretend' and chooses when to wave the wand again and turn Grandfather back into himself. We are born to be not merely speaking animals but poetic animals. A poetic potential is not something 'added on' to language but is inherent in it. Children learning to talk not only enjoy sounds and rhythms but have a native gift for symbol and metaphor.

As well as having enormous variety, everything on our Earth has a family resemblance. Part of learning to talk is learning the names of things, so that you can distinguish them, tell them apart. At the same time we see how one thing is like another. Here is just one small example. This poem 'November' ends:

Flutter, flit and tweet,
keen to survive the coming cold.
Each little rustle,
sudden or stray thought,
might be a bird
or a falling leaf.

Not only are the flitting small birds like the free-floating brown leaves, but both are like a 'sudden or stray thought'. The noises are very small: 'flutter, flit and tweet... each little rustle.' Of course a thought makes no noise at all but it is as if it 'rustled'. That metaphor involves sight and sound, but we can have metaphors for all the senses. For example the smell of the Earth is 'a draught of strong ale, warm, huddled cattle', which involves smell, taste and touch. We can also have rhythmic metaphors. Perhaps the one everyone remembers (and young children love) is the galloping anapaestic tetrameter:

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he.
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three.

In his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth speaks of 'a principle which must be well known to those who have made any of the arts the object of accurate reflection; namely the pleasure which the mind derives from the perception of similitude in dissimilitude. This principle is the great spring of the activity of our minds and their chief feeder.' This similitude in dissimilitude — likeness in difference and distinction in likeness — is one of the ways in which poetry expands or 'thickens' our consciousness. There is the shock of recognition that something is like something else and the pleasing tension that it is also unlike. A metaphor compares two things in this way. For the metaphor to have poetic power its 'vehicle' (that is the thing to which something else is being compared) must be well rooted in the material Earth, physically well grounded. For example, in Hopkins' poem Hurrahing in the Harvest (using a metaphor which his friend Robert Bridges tut-tutted was 'in poor taste') he compares Christ to the beautiful hills of his beloved 'wild Wales':

And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder
Majestic — as a stallion stalwart, very violet-sweet!

Hopkins had a Jesuit training in philosophy and theology and of course he did not think the blue hills were really Christ's (or the Greek god Atlas's) shoulder. It is a metaphor expressing a moment of ecstasy. Its poetic power (the metaphor's substance or vehicle) derives from the fact that strong and beautiful blue hills, male shoulders and horses physically exist and can be apprehended by our senses.

Poets must each find their own voice to express themselves, the Earth and humanity — what it is and could be. Voice is first and foremost a human bodily power. Poetry does not 'float' or 'rise above' that human bodily power to become 'pure spirit'. On the contrary, rather than abstracting, it uses its bodily, sensual capabilities to the utmost. It beautifully suits the poetic paradoxical animals we are: matter 'all the way up', spirit 'all the way down'. It is most sublime when it is most embodied. Poetry is incarnate word.

Natural Grace

Keats called trees 'mighty senators'. He personified them. Others have called trees gods. And Hildegard of Bingen spoke of 'greenness' as divine. I often talk to trees and can quite see how people could think of particularly noble trees as gods. I also say things like 'Sun, please shine today' or 'Rain, rain, go away'. When it thunders, it is easy to imagine a mighty being or god grumbling overhead.

As Blake put it: 'The ancient poets animated all sensible objects with gods or geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged and numerous senses could perceive.' 'Animating' sensible objects with gods is a poetic activity. Personification is a poetic trope, akin to metaphor. What we may describe as more 'primitive' religion thinks of the sun or rain or thunder itself as a god. Then people may go on to think of the god as the master or maker of sun, rain and thunder. Mighty Jove has thunderbolts. It is not a long step between saying 'God thunders' and 'God makes thunder'. And it is still a form of personification. God is the supernatural force or divine person who makes thunder, or when you get to monotheism, God is the divine person who makes everything.

As well as being or making cosmic forces and things on Earth, gods or God can be a personification of human capabilities, actual or idealised. Men can be fathers and God is called an 'almighty father'. Human beings can love and they can personify God as love, saying God is Love. Once God is a person he or she can be a character in a story. He walks in the Garden of Eden. In the rather horrific story of the sacrifice of Isaac he orders Abraham to kill his only son. In Paradise Lost God the Father and God the Son are both characters (Milton's theology, by the way, seems to be Arian) and the whole cosmos throngs with good and evil angels.

What is the point of inventing these supernatural beings? First there is the poetic point. They are personifications expressing our deep experiences of the world. Some things we encounter in the world give us a sense of awe, 'something far more deeply interfused', a sense of the holy. For Blake : 'Everything that lives is holy.' As we are naturally poetic animals, we try to express this in poetic terms, using tropes like personification and allegory. People who regard God as 'real' just don't know that is what they are doing, rather like Molière's bourgeois gentilhomme, who was amazed to discover he had been speaking prose.

Although the Earth and our material human bodies are given to us, in another sense humanity is also what we make of it — it is a project or goal, what we as individuals and a species can become. Humans are ambitious and want to know not only how to survive, but how to live with meaning. They make art, and once made, this art shapes them. They try to make living an art. As poetic animals, we keep seeking a 'thicker' —expanded, intenser — consciousness and here theology comes in as a sister art to poetry, creating supernatural beings, who nevertheless all 'reside in the human breast'. In fact, that poetic quest remains even for those who, like Don Cupitt, have 'taken leave of God'. Cupitt now speaks of true religion in terms of the eminently poetic task of 'finding your own voice'. Not everyone likes writing or even reading poetry. But poetry is a paradigm for every kind of knowing how to that becomes an art. You can ride a race, make a garden or bake a cake that is 'pure poetry'.

Theology talks about the art of living in terms of salvation. I think even if we do not believe in the supernatural, theology has a lot of human wisdom and creativity embedded in it, which can inspire us in the art of living. In an earlier talk I looked at how the Christ epic, especially in Paul, was a tremendous drama of the making of humanity, human fulfilment. The theology of the Incarnation, beginning in the New Testament and reaching a peak at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, with its reiterated mantra, the same, the same, the same, brings God down into humanity. Christ is salus quoniam caro. The salvation he brings comes through his humanity, 'even to death, death on a cross'. In his poem Jerusalem Blake speaks of Jesus as 'the Lord, the Universal Humanity'. Theologians such as Teilhard de Chardin and Matthew Fox speak about the 'cosmic Christ'. The 'whole Christ' is an epic poem, the poiesis (making) of humanity. In becoming human, God becomes saving incarnate word.

I only have time to mention one more — related —theological example. The theology of the Trinity is a model of the possibilities of the human psyche. God the Father personifies power, energy, life, that we receive from parents. He pours all this into his Son, his Word, with nothing held back, his whole divine nature, so that the Son has everything that the Father has. Then together they pour that same whole divine nature into the Spirit, into love, so that the Spirit is the personified 'mutual love with which they love one another'. That Augustinian model is called 'circumincession' — 'flowing round into': being flows into speaking; being and speaking into loving; and speaking and loving back round into being. Similarly, although of course we are neither perfect nor infinite, we humans pour our energies into knowing and knowing how to, which may become art. But like every art, the art of living is not just abstract knowledge; it is practical knowledge and involves doing, in this case, living well, loving. On that Trinitarian model all our knowing should pour into loving, into kindness.

Human Kindness

What kind of creatures are humans? We noted one paradox about us above: that we are poetic animals. Another paradox is that we are the only animals who can be unkind. A cat that plays with a mouse is not being unkind; it is acting by instinct. We have a choice. That is where ethics comes in. In our quest we may create all sorts of gods, but placating or pleasing these gods is not always an ethical or moral activity. The gods are not necessarily good, just powerful — they may personify powerful, real natural forces and you don't want to get on the wrong side of them. It's only when the will of God (or God himself) is equated with love (or goodness) that obeying him becomes an ethical activity. If God is Love personified, you obey his commandments by doing what love requires, by loving. But you could also do what love requires, you could also love, without personifying it. As Stevie Smith puts it:

To choose a god of love, as he did and does,
Is a little move then?

Yes, it is.

A larger one will be when men
Love love and hate hate but do not deify them?

It will be a larger one.

Behaviour cannot be judged on a god's divine say-so or the say-so of his priests — be they mitred archbishops or red-braced worshippers of Mammon in the City, who have always reminded me of the prophets of Baal that 'shrieked and capered and cut themselves with knives as is their custom'. The behaviour of humans (and their gods) has to be judged on humanist criteria, which we have to work out together with other human beings. A lot of the time we know perfectly well how to be kind; it's just a question of doing it. Or when things are more complex, we have to try to work them out together.

Humans speak for themselves, make language, poetry, all the gods and all the arts. Every good work of art must have its own integrity and expands our humanity, because it is something a human has achieved. Humanity is what humans do. But poetry is not enough. Wisdom is not enough. Recalling the theology of the Trinity, the art of living involves both poetry and kindness. In fact, Paul tells the Corinthians: 'the greatest of these is love'. (I think a good translation for agape here could be kindness). Poets are famed for their feuding and religious people can be even more horrible, warring on each other, burning each other alive and so on. I remember the shock and disappointment I felt after reading St Bernard's wonderful works on the Love of God and the Song of Songs to discover how absolutely vile he was to Abelard at the Council of Sens. And I expect we can all think of examples closer to home.

Recalling the theology of the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection, the art of humanity is to go down into the depths of our physical-psychic being (a 'descent into hell' — ad inferos: the lower regions —, a 'raid on the inarticulate'), bring it all back up with you, embody it in language, speak out, create. But that is not all: the art of humanity is also, indispensably, to behave kindly as one odd bod to another. Just as poetry must relate to the physical world we live in, kindness, like mothering, may involve a lot of hard work and physical exhaustion. The art of humanity is poetry and kindness, incarnate word and deed.

Dinah Livingstone is the editor of Sofia. Her most recent poetry collections are Kindness (2007) and Presence (2003)

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