Gracious epiphanies


Another quote. I was struck by this from the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, quoted in an edition of the Mars Hill Audio Journal.

“In turning toward his own inwardness and looking for his own subjectivity to grasp and express, [the artist] may become divided from things and imprisoned in himself. He may lose at the same time the poetic spark of creativity and the sense of the very work to be done, if he forgets that the creative self cannot possibly be revealed except in the joint revelation of the reality and transreality; of things and of some secret meaning grasped in them. Why? Because it is in an awakening to things that creative subjectivity awakens to itself. In and through that obscure and emotional knowledge, inexpressible by concepts, expressible only by the work which is poetic knowledge and in which subjectivity itself is made into a means of grasping the world.”

The quote is from a 1954 book by Maritain on his friend Georges Rouault and was brought up in the context of an interview with Thomas Hibbs, who has written the text to a catalogue of an exhibition of paintings by Rouault and Makoto Fujimura. Ken Myers, the interviewer, went on to unpack this quote a little by saying:

“This is a concise expression of Maritain’s belief in the way that art helps us know something about the existence of the world. Things – apples, birds, a sleeping girl, a man on a horse – reveal reality. Things aren’t just meaningless stuff. They are gracious epiphanies. Things confer a kind of real knowledge about the world, though not a knowledge that fits into concepts. Artists and composers and poets help us as we try to perceive that knowledge”.

I like the phrase ‘gracious epiphanies’. It needs a bit of chewing over, that one. It makes me think of Marilynne Robinson’s excellent novel, Gilead, in which the character, John Ames, an elderly Congregationalist pastor who is dying, reflects on his life for the benefit of his young son, who will never grow up to know his father. Ames is a sensitive man and his accounts contain many ‘gracious epiphanies’; little things that reveal poetic truths. When his fiery grandfather, who is also a pastor, talks about his visions of Jesus, which had spurred him to shed blood for the abolitionist cause, the younger Ames responds that there is a great sun shining over the whole world. I must look up the proper quote, as I’m not sure I got it right. I think what he means, though, is that the gracious epiphanies in things speak with a voice just as direct to anyone with an ear to listen as the supposed visions do to the grandfather (whose mental stability the book ultimately casts doubt on). It’s the same thought as expressed in Psalm 19, when it says: “The heavens declare the glory of God”.

Rouault and Fujimura, who are both very different artists, derive a sense of the meaningfulness of the cosmos from their faiths in God. In the same edition of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, Ken Myers interviews Stratford Caldecott, author of a book called Beauty for Truth’s Sake, on this same theme of the loss of a sense of a coherent meaning within creation being linked to the denial of beauty. There is much to think about in this area!

I also like Maritain’s observation that poetic knowledge is not expressible in concepts. It is obscure and emotional. Felt. That’s why it is so hard to talk about what one is doing as an artist. I have a bit of my Dad in me, which is hard-nosed and thinks that this ‘knowledge’ is no knowledge at all and ‘just feelings’. But even my Dad, for whom such thoughts have no meaning at all, responds to the lines of a 1963 SAAB 96!