Pneuma vs Asthma

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I heard an interesting conversation between two poets last night: Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking with Simon Jarvis, Professor of Poetry and Poetics at Cambridge.

The occasion was the publication of Simon Jarvis’ new poem, Night Office, the first of five poems of exactly 7000 lines apiece, but each in a different style/metre. The author said that the idea was to get so sick of writing in one particular way that you become inspired to write differently next time (which reminded me of Truffaut‘s advice that ‘each film should be a reaction to the previous one’).

It was good to hear the poet reading his own words, but the part of the evening that I want to reflect on here is the discussion which followed, as it touched on the relation of art and religion, which is the main focus of this blog chapbook. Jarvis maintained that, as a result of the general postmodern critique of subjectivity (resulting in what he described as the ‘routinised disenchantment’ of contemporary culture) art has recently come under the same kind of questioning that religion has endured under modernism. Jarvis maintains that this process has revealed the essentially religious form of the arts in our culture. At the same time, he says that the old idea that art has replaced religion can no longer stand, because “those who still believe in art today are considered as away with the faeries as those who believe in God”.

At one level, this seems to move the question (of the relation of art and religion) on… if art is not superior to religion, then maybe religion is a potential partner for art… but how, I wonder? I took the opportunity of asking Rowan Williams this question, and he said that the first requirement would be for artists to lose their messianic complex (and religionists too, he added).

On reflection, I am taking this as a personal challenge, for if Jarvis is right, and things have moved on, then this no longer simply requires modernists to lose what Evan Boland has called ‘the hubris of the imagination and its sanctity’. The challenge is also to contemporary artists to become humble enough to actively situate their practice in the service of God. And by this I do not mean making dogmatic propaganda. I think one thing that artists can teach religion is how to avoid producing one-dimensional artefacts – mere carriers of information. Paul Tillich spoke of a symbol being ‘a sign that participates in the reality to which it points’. It is this participation that gives life to art, and of course, it is this participation that is at the heart of religious practice (and there was a lot of talk about liturgy last night, too).

Funnily enough, to become humble enough to place one’s work in the service of God may be easier to do in practice than in theory. That is, it is an action, not an idea. In this blog chapbook I make little stabs at thinking through the question of the relation between art practice and religious practice, but I am quite clear that it is in the practices themselves that any real meaning is to be found… which is why I am trying to think of my work as an artist and a priest as a single practice.

Rowan also said something really useful about priests not needing to reason people into church; people come into church looking for ‘a larger room’, room to breathe, because they are experiencing a kind of spiritual asthma out in the world. How they then learn to breathe is another matter, he said, but at least we have a kind of inhaler we can offer them at the start. He didn’t relate this to art, and I don’t know whether he would, even as a poet himself – I wish I’d thought to ask him when I had the chance.

ps (and further to my last post): the talk was recommended to me by my friends Ian and Judith, both distinguished writers. We went to the pub afterwards, where it was advertised there was to be an old-style sing-song around the piano. As we talked about the talk we had just heard, Judith said that it was too easy for men to sound clever by making grand statements about the relation of ‘art’ and ‘religion’. What kind of art? What kind of religion? She has a point, one I need to try and remember when writing like this (although that kind of specificity gives rise to a whole other set of problems, of course). But what was a more positive reminder of what this question is really about was the way her face lit up – or rather, the way her spirit lit up – when the piano started playing. I had just been saying that it was interesting that somehow music never seems to come into this question – people just accept that there is a spiritual aspect to music (and here I think it is fair to generalise, because it is true for most music) in a way that seems impossible with, say, contemporary visual art. They accept it because it is self-evident – they experience it. This is not to say that it cannot be experienced in other ways – in church (where there is often also music) or even in an art gallery – but it is clearly not so direct. And so when Judith went off to sing along with the others around the piano, I said to Ian, you see? And he said, yes – music is revealed religion.

pps: from another blog on this event:

Joy. This was a little odd, there’s a huge amount of painfulness in ‘Night Office’ and Simon was asked as to the whereabouts of joy. He replied that joy itself is a kind of pain in that it entails a complete loss of self-control. I’m now trying to get my brain around the possibility that the Jarvis worldview is unremittingly bleak. This may however be an extension of his view that Greek tragedy lies behind every aspect of European culture.

and some years later, the final word:

…news reached me that Simon Jarvis had been convicted on child pornography charges. The first response was nauseous shock, the second was to google for the details. Sure enough, the local Cambridge paper confirmed the conviction, made reference to many thousands of images and a Yahoo chat log. So, the dilemma has been whether or not to write with reference to this event, whether to read it as a signal to stop writing about poetry altogether or whether to try and make some kind of public sense of the various emotions that have afflicted me for the last couple of months. … To conclude, I still think Simon’s longer work is important, it’s just that I won’t be reading it any more.