A Letter To Our Great-Grandchildren
Ignore those who express everything in economic terms. What matters is often economically worthless and functionally useless
Getting older, one gets clearer; the gift of offspring breeds an urgency to pass on to at least some of the expanding brood the searing clarities brought me by a long life lived to the hilt. The descendants of my wife and me currently total 25. Every new addition has me pleading with the voice of Yeats to be granted “an old man’s frenzy” to “remake” me as “William Blake / Who beat upon the wall / Till truth obeyed his call.”
The particular truth obeying my call with searing clarity the other day was that Man’s requirement to make art is identical to Man’s requirement to make religion. Identical is a word of sharp precision. So be it. What I have come to see with adamantine clarity is the parched soul of the devotee equally of Art and of God slaking its thirst at the same creative well.
That souls matter is another clarity of urgency for our 25, bombarded relentlessly as they are (or will be) by competing advertisers and competing politicians insisting that all that matters in life can be expressed in economic terms as the ease and indulgence of the body, personal status and vanity, and their “standard” of living — never the “point” of living nor, God forbid, the origin of it. That “point”, I suggest, might be expressed as love, joy, belonging and peace and also their contributors, art and religion themselves, all of which are economically worthless and functionally useless.
What man or woman, endowed with consciousness, is not confronted by the mystery of their existence? What — even if they persistently shelve any fleeting consideration of that mystery until at the deathbed of one they love, or perhaps their own deathbed?
That which I am thus calling “art” here must exclude whatever has no other purpose than to divert or decorate. I confine my definition of art to that which in its creation or experience calls forth inspiration, elevation, self-loss and a conviction of Truth expressed: that Truth reconciling Man’s time-tagged presence with the one-ness of all things visible and invisible, as the Creed has it. That is, the Holy (a word which means Whole).
True religion and true art alike are fired by faith, and faith has no dimension in time and space. It is a stance of the soul, which is equally faith in the Divine mystery of created Being and in the artist’s own conviction in his or her potential to create. Art is aptly described in that phrase in the book of Deuteronomy (often on Jesus’s tongue) as “every word that comes from the mouth of God”.
This unity points to the route for the confident restoration of religion at the heart of a world whose civilisation for some 1,700 years has been predicated upon the spiritual authority of Judaeo-Christianity. Perception of religion as the ultimate art form offers the key to the future sustaining of Man’s management of his presence on earth. So I spell it out here for our 25 descendants and any others who choose to keep reading, for their guidance and — I daresay — hope.
True art is never less than religion in disguise or explicit; true religion never less than art in disguise or explicit. The divinity of the faith, the spark, the Fünkelein (as Eckhart had it), is to be shared just as it has immemorially been shared — if perhaps unwittingly so since the Age of so-called Reason.
For countless millennia art was religion and religion art — from the parietal masterpieces of the Upper-Palaeolithic on scarcely accessible cave-walls of the Dordogne and Pyrenees; or from the indestructible treasures of the Torah or Old Testament: triple-authored Isaiah; David’s encompassing Psalms; the ecstatic Song of Songs, the blazing autobiography of Job — all fruits of an ancient Israel roughly contemporaneous with an ancient Greece likewise to contribute to our inheritance, by courtesy of the quasi-divine if dysfunctional junta of Olympus. The works of Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and Aristophanes were always staged as offerings to the gods, by virtue of their inspiration: that gift of the psyche, the soul. Hence the divine architectural statement of the Parthenon, or the Olympic Games in holy celebration for the aesthetics of physical man, pinnacle of the gods’ creativity.
So too art’s unity with religion in the legacy of the civilisations of the Nile, Mesopotamia, the Indus or Yellow River — or Hindu, Buddhist, or Sufic creativity in whatever form it was to take: words or music, wood or stone, paint or ceramic, tapestry or embroidery; statuary or architecture. Art and religion remained one.
The Jewish figure of Jesus came to enshrine his own legacy in art as, supremely, the spoken and written word in the redemptive message in his own person and his disciples’ experience of him. He came to “fulfil the law”. God was love, and the fulfilment of love entailed self-loss to this or that degree: be that one person’s love for another, or for all others or indeed for nature in its beauty, Hopkins’s dappled things, love for one’s devoted dog . . . for her species’s name reversed, in prayer, in praise, mortification and the total letting-go of self in God.
Now, none of us who creates has not known some such self-loss in the throes of inspiration. There is no comparable exhilaration save that of love reciprocated in the act of it. It is the “divine frenzy” known to Plato (there’s that Yeatsian word again), it is the tears on Handel’s cheeks witnessed by his housekeeper as he emerged from composing the Hallelujah Chorus. It is Edward Elgar’s exclamation scribbled against the concluding bars of The Dream of Gerontius (to Newman’s poem) “this is the best of me”. Or it is Beethoven’s defiance, aged 30, at descending deafness, in his Heiligenstadt Testament, and it is Schubert’s wrestling out his towering song cycle Winterreise as he lay dying at 31 of syphilis contracted seven years previously — during which time he had poured forth countless works he knew he would never live to hear performed. Here was art declaring its unity with Being, with the self-sacrifice religion calls for.
The testimony of Man’s creative spirit in its surrender to the inescapably divine mystery does of course surround us. Music may be my own most frequented spiritual mistress, and every one of your souls will have its own soaring programme. Pause in wonderment before the sweep of Renaissance art from Giotto to El Greco, before Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal in the Hermitage, Rubens’s Adoration of the Magi (King’s College Chapel, Cambridge), Riemenschneider’s altar carvings, Rublev’s icons. How the religious narrative has captivated the civilising artist!
I, in my free-thinking Protestantism, can worship devoutly in St George’s, Notting Hill Gate, riding with ease the interplay of metaphor, symbolism and historical plausibility (or otherwise) in the Christian narrative and its doctrinal and ritual structures wrought out in the first four centuries after Christ’s presence on earth, when the mindset did not strain over the literal or allegorical and when most potential converts to the faith were illiterate. Charles Saumarez Smith, Secretary of the Royal Academy, noted recently in these pages that the decline in weekly churchgoing in Britain is matched by the rise in attendance in art galleries. “Are the two in some way connected?” he asked.
The answer is a profound but nuanced “Yes”. The water of the creative well, knowingly or unknowingly, serves both, as also does the concert hall and the constant flow of true (that is, inspired and inspiring) musical art on Radio Three. Inspired music pours upon us, whether or not in a secular or religious context. What is a Bach partita if not godly? And meanwhile we can cite a constant year-on-year rise in those visiting our cathedrals: a currently annual 11 million, each person well knowing what cathedrals are for, and the number of those bending the knee therein increasing by 17.6 per cent over the last decade.
Few among those are my 25 descendants, and few cross the threshold of a parish church. I fear for them, for themselves and as exemplars of the civilisation that sustains us: its ideals of governance, its laws and morality, its sense of justice and decency, its response to aggression and threat, its care for the planet and the wellbeing of all men. I fear my progeny will not long manage without recognising and articulating a workable cosmology involving Man in his mortality and Man as spirit in receipt of the mysterious gift of existence from a source beyond time and space. They will have to work with and without analogy and metaphor: work at a coherent religious algebra to wrestle with, hold to: let X be the Son, Y the Holy Spirit, and behold the nothing-all where God is, to be thanked and lost to in silent discipline and emptiness.
Look to the art that grips you, my beloved, that elevates you and the civilisation you claim to uphold, and see in it the psyche at its source, the psyche of the divine. Or shall you raise your succeeding generations in a fog as to how you ever came to be or as to your purpose beyond where the “bitch-goddess Success” (in Williams James’s burly image) presides? Are you destined, you nine great-grandchildren, for nothing but the pullulating ant-hill heaped upon the corpses of a befogged ancestry?
Or has a Truth obeyed my beating on the wall that can restore to the lost souls of Western Man the centrality of the divinity of his Being which the enduring matrix of Judaeo-Christianity provides for? Shall not our religion — so I propose — openly make claim to its identity with all true art, according to my criterion of inspiration? By such a claim, the dire dualism, exemplified by Descartes in 17th century Europe, dissolves; self-loss no longer giving place to self-aggrandisement; art for art’s sake no longer a meaningful endeavour; the Turner Prize no longer a travesty of the inspired painter’s name. The true creative gift of Man with its attendant demand of rigour may thus reclaim its authority by virtue of an origin we dare to name Divine. Blaise Pascal, also of the 17th century, will be cheering me.
In the embrace of our scientists — abreast of the Cosmos, attuned to quantum mechanics — I propose that all you 25 and any other in earshot of me allow for the resumption of the authority of the soul in Greeks’ first coinage as psyche (all but debased by its derivative coinages of Vienna). We are beyond the dualistic heresy of our forbears now, beyond the obsessive reductionism of truth-by-analysis, of the parts somehow greater than the whole, beyond the fear of Man’s imagination and the leap of artistic inspiration, beyond allergy to myth or intuition, allegory or analogy, beyond scorn of resounding praise for the Unnameable deity and of the impenetrable silence of the cloister. We are ready to move on.