Sofia #89 - Editorial by Dinah Livingstone

This year’s SoF Conference in Liverpool was about ‘creativity in religion and the arts’. It was a very enjoyable and good-tempered Conference.

This issue of Sofia includes introductions to two of the workshops by Ken Smith and Don Cupitt and a report on a third by David Paterson. We have a shortened version of the talk by theologian George Pattison and two extracts from the unscripted talk, or perhaps it should be called performance, by theatre director Patrick Sandford. As well as talks and discussions, there were singing. dancing, sculpting, laughing. poetry… plenty of creativity and a great spirit.

Later, as I was thinking about that spirit I remembered Lorca’s description of the duende, the spirit (which he calls ‘the spirit of the earth’), that arises most often ‘in music, dance and spoken poetry, arts that require a living body as interpreter – forms that arise and die ceaselessly, and are defined by an exact present.’ He says of the duende: ‘

It gives a sensation of freshness wholly unknown, having the quality of newly created rose, of miracle, and produces in the end an almost religious enthusiasm. In all Arabic music, dance and song the appearance of the duende is accompanied by vociferous shouts of ‘Alá! Alá, God! God!’… and in the singing of southern Spain the presence of the duende is followed by shouts of ‘Viva Dios!’

So is religion just artistic enthusiasm, just great art? That can’t be right. We all know that some highly cultivated people can get a buzz from great art – Bach, Beethoven – and in their daily lives be cruel or even murderers. Keats – a greater poet than Shelley to my mind, though in his day some hostile reviewers dismissed him as a ‘cockney poet’ because of his lower social class – confronts this problem in The Fall of Hyperion. It is a tremendous but quite a muddled poem and, unsurprisingly, he was unable to finish it. He begins by saying:

For Poesy alone can tell her dreams,
With the fine spell of words alone can save
Imagination from the sable chain
And dumb enchantment.

Later in the poem he enters an old sanctuary where he meets the high prophetess of a goddess and asks her why he has been privileged to enter this sanctuary, when much worthier people, who do much more good, are not:

Are there not thousands in the world, said I,
Encouraged by the sooth voice of the shade,
Who love their fellows even to the death,
Who feel the giant agony of the world,
And more, like slaves to poor humanity,
Labour for mortal good?

She replies:

‘Those whom thou spak’st of are no visionaries,’
Rejoined that voice – ‘They are no dreamers weak,
They seek no wonder but the human face;
No music but a happy-noted voice.
They come not here, they have no thought to come –
And thou art here, for thou art less than they…’

The prophetess agrees with Paul that the greatest gift is love, kindness, greater even than ‘speaking with tongues of men and angels.’  And rather than being the great I AM, the poet is asking for humility.

Nevertheless art and poetry are necessary. That is because humanity is not ready-made, complete, but in the making. With the bodies and the habitat we are given, we can make something of ourselves, to some extent make ourselves. We may even call this fulfilment of humanity’s potential ‘God’ or the ‘cosmic Christ’. Or as Pattison put it at the end of his talk ‘through Christ, human beings become “Saviours of God”. In the talk he did not make it clear whether he thought God existed in the first place or, as Sofia editor would think, was created by human beings.

For human self-making, artists – ‘visionaries’– are needed. But that does not mean that poetry must or indeed should be didactic. As Keats said in a letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds: ‘We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us – and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches’ pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters one’s soul…’ That is the way poetry ‘makes’ us – by being itself, with its own integrity – and ‘entering the soul’. It is not the only thing that makes us and even when we ‘see’ and ‘speak’ afresh, we don’t always do: our actions don’t always live up to our vision. Usually, only God’s word is his deed and he is a human construct. I disagree with Auden that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ but on the other hand, in our flower-power youth we were very naïve to feel sometimes we could just walk together up Primrose Hill with flowers in our hands, with songs and poems, and look down on London, our city, and by that alone transform it into ‘Jerusalem’.

We make mistakes. We fail. We constantly need remaking. (However,  as Ken Smith says in his piece Carpe Diem, we don’t have to deny the naïve enthusiasms of our youth but re-embody them, perhaps with more insight and effectiveness.) I was thinking about George Pattison’s suggestion in his talk that the model for the artist should not be Genesis 1, creation out of nothing like the great I AM, but Christ’s passion, because humanity not only needs making but remaking, healing.

In the example he gives, Neil Jordan’s film Angel set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Danny the sax player can go places where others can’t go. ‘It’s a kind of poetic license.’ Pattison comments: ‘Only the artist, only the one with the “poetic license” can find his way to the heart of darkness’. Finally, Danny ‘finds an anguished redemption in the ruins of the burnt-out dance hall’ as the cycle of killing comes to an end.

Pattison sees Danny, the main character in the film, as related to Christ’s passion, as protagonist in a story of redemption. He is not saying that making the film is like Christ’s passion, whereas earlier he criticised the model of the artist creating as being like God creating in Genesis 1. I wondered about that, because surely he couldn’t mean that the content of art should always be about redemption? That would be ‘having a design on us’ and very limiting, even though, of course, the scope of art is the whole human condition, including the darkness.

There are ways in which making a work of art, a poem, can be compared to the passion, a descent, a ‘raid on the inarticulate’, a harrowing of hell and resurrection of the Word. But that is a metaphor, quite a far-fetched one. A poem is something you make. But Jesus did not crucify himself. He was a victim, crucified by the occupying imperial power, abetted or manipulated by the dominant local priesthood. It was as if a powerful local religious group in Iraq denounced an enemy fellow-citizen as an ‘insurgent’ or ‘terrorist’ to the US forces, to be killed or sent to a hell like Abu Ghraib. Sitting in my garden with my cup of tea and notebook, with a poem coming on, is not at all like that.

And incidentally, what about the West, the subject of Don Cupitt’s workshop? It won’t come as a surprise to readers that Sofia Editor regards his view of it as too complacent and triumphalist, downplaying what is wrong with the West – particularly the wrong that we do – and the achievements and wisdom of other civilisations. We still have a long way to go before ‘kingdom come’.

Certainly artists and poets can enter and describe, speak the heart of darkness. For example Coleridge’s Ode to Dejection:

A Grief without a pang, void, dark and drear,
A stifling, drowsy, unimpassioned Grief
That find no natural outlet, no relief…

Or Hopkins in his ‘terrible sonnets:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there…

But surely it’s not true that ‘only the artist can find his way to the heart of darkness.’ In our contingent state it is all too easy to fall into it, through bereavement, miscarriage, betrayal, bitter disappointment, severe illness such as Ken Smith describes in his Carpe Diem, loss of home or livelihood…and the point about the heart of darkness is that it is dark, with no light in it at all. Perhaps only later can art or poetry let in a chink of light, by articulating grief, by a sense of human communion, by restoring some kind of faith…What releases Coleridge’s ancient mariner from his ‘nightmare life-in-death’ is seeing the beautiful water snakes:

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare.
A spring of love gushed from my heart
And I blessed them unaware.

Their beauty arouses a ‘spring of love’ in him and when he ‘blessed them unaware’, the albatross fell off from around his neck. But maybe on some occasions what is needed is active kindness, practical help, solidarity…

Previous issues of Sofia have spoken about how liberation theology sees Christ’s passion as a model for the poor ‘crucified people’’ and their struggle for a better life as a struggle to rise again. And Che Guevara, for example, thought that: ‘Revolution is not just a transformation of social structures but also a deep, radical transformation of human beings, their awareness, customs, values … A Revolution is only authentic when it is capable of creating a ‘new human being’ (el hombre nuevo).

Revolution in secular Cuba and Christian Nicaragua both wanted to create this ‘new human being’. The theology draws on Paul’s ‘new creation’ (2 Cor 5:17) and ‘new human being’ (Eph 2: 15), a moral transformation. But then, immediately after the triumph of the Revolution in Nicaragua, well before the country’s infrastructure had been repaired, the new Ministry of Culture under Ernesto Cardenal set up poetry workshops all over the country in a conscious effort to help create that new human being. And incidentally, many of the Sandinista cabinet were poets and became, to transform Shelley’s phrase, ‘acknowledged legislators’. New songs were written for the Catholic liturgy of the Mass  – a re-enactment and making present of Christ’s passion – incorporating these ideas of the crucified people rising and the ‘new human being’, such as Carlos Mejía Godoy’s Misa campesina.

Christ’s passion and resurrection became a metaphor and model for a political struggle for justice and for personal human transformation in what was probably a more straightforward way than it can be for art. Certainly art and poetry contribute to the making of humanity and remaking of damaged humanity, they do make something happen, but in quite a complex way and not alone. Art on its own cannot be a satisfactory religion. Kindness remains indispensable. And thank goodness, at the Conference this year, there was also a good deal of that.

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