Art, the scholar, and the self

Today I want to talk about a poem.

Archaic Torso of Apollo


Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875-1926

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Stephen Mitchell (see the original German here)

I read this poem in my first year of literary study and was struck first and foremost by the stark insistence of the last line: ‘You must change your life.’ At first it seems oddly disconnected from the rest of the poem – a meditation on the strange living power of a damaged piece of art. (The technical term is ekphrasis, a verbal description of visual art.) But the bluntness of that last phrase is designed to make us consider its relevance to the rest of the poem.

A demand

The experience which Rilke describes here is not inspiration, pleasure, or quiet reflection – any of the states of mind we might want to associate with looking at art. Instead, it is obligation. You must change your life – it is required of you, even inevitable. We are not looking at the statue: it is looking at us. ‘Here there is no place/ that does not see you.’

How can a damaged statue of a pagan god require anything of us? I have been thinking on and off about this poem ever since I read it, and it has become something of a challenge to me as I have pursued my literary studies. As with all good ekphrastic poems, the technique of describing a piece of (usually visual) art allows the poet to explore the nature of his own art as well. Reading the poem, we don’t physically see the archaic torso, but Rilke conjures it for us, depicting in his own medium the life and ‘brilliance’ he describes. He then demands a response. He demands we consider ourselves in the light of the statue and of the poem which revives it for us.

A challenge

The challenge, I think, is to take art seriously, and act accordingly. Rilke forces us to recognise the living power of an object centuries out of its time, jolting us out of our self-centred preoccupation with the present moment. Art can do this if we let it: push us out of ourselves and remind us of the existence of a world beyond us, of wild beasts and legends and stars, or simply of the inner lives of others.

Apollo (the god of the arts) is not an especially comforting figure here. All the poem’s metaphors are full of contained energy, the sense that all at once there may be an explosion of movement, in what direction we don’t know. The demand for us to change our lives is the natural extension of the realisation, inherent in all good art, that there is powerful agency outside us in the world, and so human self-sufficiency is only ever partial and temporary.

Academics in particular have good reason to heed this truth, given the strong temptations towards idolatry of the self in the pursuit of knowledge. I regularly face the danger, as a literary scholar, of denying the agency of the writers I read by focusing only on what I want to find, rather than accepting what they have to say on their own terms. You will know your own specific temptations, from abstract problems of methodology to the everyday desire to hoard credit and resources for yourself.

The Christian scholar seeks, above all, to acknowledge and work under the supreme agency of God in the world. Art like Rilke’s can help us to look away from ourselves long enough to do so.

Faith and Knowledge

Our “Christian philosophy in diagrams” series began with an ontology: things in relation over time. After ontology (what there is), philosophy typically looks at epistemology (how we know). This week I want to share a proposal based on the following diagram:

Diagram relating self-evident knowledge to faith and the results of reasoning

The oval represents what goes on in my mind, and it’s tightly bound to the green surrounding, which represents my experience. We’re looking at a common-sense, realist view of mental content here – and not just beliefs: the purple area on the right represents tacit knowledge, which was formally introduced to epistemology by Michael Polanyi. His phrase “we know more than we can tell” nicely evokes this sector of mental content. I know how to communicate, how to recognise certain faces, how to ride a bicycle, and so on – without necessarily being able to explain this knowledge.

We’ll leave tacit knowledge aside now to consider propositional knowledge (although Polanyi showed that tacit knowledge plays a central role in scientific research). So the central column indicates how knowledge that I might express by saying “I know/believe that…” can be arranged from what I find self-evident to what I hold most tentatively.  This is where things get interesting. I owe much of the following to Roy Clouser, whose book “Knowing with the Heart” takes its title from a quote of Blaise Pascale: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing”.

Knowing God is Real

Does the Bible tell us to have faith that God exists? Biblical writers never even seem to countenance that big question of our humanist age. Instead, we’re supposed to find it obvious that the creator God is real, and put our faith in Him. (Indeed, says Clouser, the authoritative texts of other religions make similar claims.) And I hope that is our experience – once we’ve encountered God’s self-revelation in Scripture, in daily life and perhaps through visions or other special experiences. So that bottom layer of the blue column is for all basic beliefs that are obvious to me – about the reality of my friends, the accuracy of my vivid memories, etc – and also that God is real and loves me. The arrow from “Special Revelation” indicates one of the important influences – along with many other forms of testimony – on what I may come to see as self-evident.

Common Knowledge

Then we have the blue arrow labelled “Proof; discourse”, leading from self-evident knowledge to what I’ve called “common knowledge”. The claim here is that we tend to be less certain of things that have to be proven or explained to us. Much confusion is generated when beliefs that are easily shared and agreed upon get passed off as the only real knowledge – leaving everything else as mere belief or opinion. If we buy into the widespread “objective vs. subjective” dualism, we’ll be urged to refer to “knowledge” only when reiterating beliefs shared by lots of boffins! But this notion is completely unworkable, as Clouser shows. The history of ideas (not least science) readily shows that “objective knowledge” routinely changes. Moreover, it only takes a little post-modern awareness for us to suspect that, in many discourses, the use of words like “objective”, “proof” and “fact” owes more to their effectiveness in silencing dissenting points of view (“subjective” “beliefs” and “opinions”!) than to any real infallibility. More needs to be said about analysing how reliable a belief is, as distinct from how firmly I currently hold it.

So we’re left with the term “faith”. There’s a popular view that this is about believing in things without evidence. But biblical faith is more like extrapolating beyond evidence. “I do believe: help me overcome my unbelief!” Lots of teachings come in this category for me, like the belief that God will heal a loved one, or that Jesus will return. So I’ve put “faith” part-way up the column of uncertainty – having already parked my basic Christian convictions along with my most certain knowledge.

Try reading John 9 for a fascinating insight into the convictions of someone gradually coming to faith in Jesus. Then perhaps compare it with the way Jesus became real to you. Or pray and ask Jesus for that reality, if you’re not sure about it!

Modern music and faith

Rapid, complex notes; an example of modern music.

A (tiny) snippet of my clarinet quintet, Love Unknown (2008). It’s music, Jim, but not as we know it…

A couple of months ago, fellow FiScher Alicia Smith wrote a fascinating blog post on the relationship of her PhD studies with her faith. I’d like here to attempt something similar in relation to my own field. This post is going to ask more questions than it answers, for space reasons, but hopefully it will generate debate! If so, my plan is to follow this introduction up in more detail in the future, perhaps via an occasional themed series.

My PhD was built upon the analysis of contemporary Western art music, also commonly known as avant-garde, experimental or modern music (although each of these terms carries quite distinct – and rather problematic – connotations within the field itself). I was looking at the ideas and musical processes which lie behind the music of various contemporary composers such as Thomas Adès, György Kurtág and Kaija Saariaho (a quick search on YouTube or Spotify will give you an idea of what their music sounds like – they are all quite distinct from one another). All of these composers stand to some extent within the radical lineage established by earlier (and more infamous) composers such as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage.

As with its parallel strands in the visual arts and literature, music like this tends to polarise opinion, with some lauding it as an authentic expression of contemporary concerns, and others deriding it as incomprehensible, elitist or arbitrary. Modern music seems especially likely to bring accusations of inaccessibility (‘these composers don’t care about their listeners; they’re just writing for themselves’), incoherence (‘that’s not music, it’s just noise’) or discomfort (‘why would you write something that just makes me feel bad?’).

For a Christian, questions about the role of artistic endeavour within God’s kingdom can complicate the situation still further. At various points within my PhD, as part of the usual bouts of self-questioning that all postgraduate students experience from time to time, I found myself fearing that what I was doing was all a waste of time. Was this music just a distraction from my fundamental calling of telling people about Jesus? Or, perhaps even worse, was it a kind of destructive influence in itself, an emblem of the despair and darkness of the contemporary world which I should be resisting rather than embracing?

The problem for me is that I love much of this music, and feel an enthusiasm for it which surpasses even the great and well-loved works of the Western canon. Indeed, often other, more ‘accessible’ or ‘uplifting’ music can seem rather boring by comparison. I love it for its complexity, which to me seems to mirror and respond to the complexity of the created world; I love it for its moments of fleeting but hard-earned beauty, which often speak to me of a deep yearning for redemption; I love it even for its free inclusion of sounds that are uncomfortable or perhaps disturbing, since these seem an honest response to the beautiful but broken world in which it is written and heard.

For me, then, part of my journey as a PhD student (and beyond) involved coming to terms with the gap between my own experience of this music, and the reality of its wider reception within society and within the church. One of the motivations for my research is the desire to bridge this gap. Hopefully, I’ll be able to talk a bit more in future posts about what that has meant in practice. In the meantime, please do talk about your own experiences with modern music and art in the comments!