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1979: C. Jay Fox - Art As a Way of Knowing


1979: C. Jay Fox - Art As a Way of Knowing

C Fox

C. Jay Fox, like many other faculty members at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, received his B.A. (1965) and M.A. (1967) degrees from Brigham Young University. Joining the faculty of Church College of Hawaii in 1970, he completed his Ph.D. in English at Purdue the next year. A respected administrator, Fox accepted successive appointments as Chair of the College's English Department, first Chair of the newly organized Division of Communication and Language Arts, and Vice-President and Academic Dean, which he filled at the time of his lecture. Additionally, he headed the Hawaii Department of Education Secondary English Project Review Committee and has held a variety of Church positions, including high councilor. Fox's intense commitment to all the arts finds voice in his McKay lecture, seventeenth in the series. He and his wife Dawn have six children: Jonathan, Elise, Kevin, Jason, Rachel, and Sally.

 


Introduction

May I say by way of introduction how sincerely honored I am at being asked to give this lecture. I sense too the responsibility I have, not as your dean but as a member of the English faculty, in taking your time today, particularly since this lecture is in honor of David O. McKay, a prophet who to me was an almost mythic hero who caught my heart and my imagination at an early age and who only became a real person one day when on Temple Square I shook his hand. The strength and firmness in that handshake--obviously from one who was not a stranger to manual labor--wedded the man and the ideal in my mind.

I hope that what I say today will in some modest way pay tribute to him by describing to you the ways in which the fine arts, those in which the mind and imagination are chiefly concerned, can lead to knowledge. The arts constitute a record of what it is to be a human being at a given time in history; they also help put into perspective this life and eternity. I will attempt to make that very complicated and broad subject appear simpler than it is by giving some answers to the question, "What good is Art?" What I say may be applied to all the arts, but my concentration will be on imaginative literature because I am more informed about it than the other arts. It would be a contradiction to express these ideas solely in expository terms, for my thesis is that good art is one of the valuable ways of knowing worthwhile things, and so part of my ideas will be expressed in the language of art, some of it my own.

Art as a Way of Knowing the Trolls Are Taking Over

I will begin this lecture this morning by borrowing a metaphor from John Gardner:

It was said in the old days that every year Thor made a circle around Middle-earth, beating back the enemies of order. Thor got older every year, and the circle occupied by gods and men grew smaller. The wisdom god, Woden, went out to the king of the trolls, got him in an armlock, and demanded to know of him how order might triumph over chaos.

'Give me your left eye,' said the king of the trolls, 'and I'll tell you.'

Without hesitation, Woden gave up his left eye. 'Now tell me.'

The troll said, 'The secret is, Watch with both eyes!'

Woden's left eye was the last sure hope of gods and men in their kingdom of light

surrounded on all sides by darkness. (3)

 

My own poem "At" puts it another way:

It reconciled us to life
At a time when verities were simple,
Its sweet reason clear.
We danced into its rhythm's trance,
And dance and dancer blended unity of being.
We could not doubt its right,
Our special way of knowing.
Yet in times less moral,
The relativity of another way
Has become the dogma of the hour,
A valueless approach to what in earlier years
Affirmed the past, the passing, and the things to come.

The trolls of the universe are any adversarial powers which lead to disorder and darkness. Men and gods try to preserve civilization against forces that prefer chaos to order. Today, we, like Woden, have been tricked out of full vision by contemporary trolls, moral relativists, who would have us believe that there are not eternal verities that are absolute, that truths depend upon those holding them. Unless we combat such thinking, we may soon lament, as Moroni did for his people many years ago, that we have become "without civilization. . . without order. . . without principle and past feeling" (Moro. 9: 11, 18, 20).

We have not been left defenseless. We know what the verities are. We have also been given a variety of ways to understand, use, and reinforce them. Brigham Young said:

Every good and perfect gift cometh from God. Every discovery in science and art, that is really true and useful to mankind, has been given by direct revelation from God, though but few acknowledge it. It has been given with a view to prepare the way for the ultimate triumph of truth, and the redemption of the earth from the power of sin and Satan. We should take advantage of all these great discoveries, the accumulated wisdom of ages, and give to our children the benefit of every branch of useful knowledge, to prepare them to step forward and efficiently do their part in the great work. (JD 9: 369)

One of those branches of "useful knowledge" is moral art, or the moral fine arts if you will. How curious it must sound to many (perhaps even on this campus) to speak nowadays of art as "moral" or "useful." Yet I propose that it should be, even though I have spent many years of my life studying, writing about, and defending the so-called aesthetes and decadent writers of the 1890s to whom such words would be anathema.

There is plenty of precedence for a view of moral art within art criticism itself. Traditionally art has been seen as something which should be exemplary, something which should provide models deserving imitation Leo Tolstoy's What Is Art? (1898) is perhaps the leading manifesto for this view in the Christian tradition. He asserts in that essay that

The task for art to accomplish is to make that feeling of brotherhood and love of one's neighbor, now attained only by the best members of society, the customary feeling and the instinct of all men. By evoking under imaginary conditions the feeling of brotherhood and love, religious art will train men to experience those same feelings under similar circumstances in actual life; it will lay in the souls of men the rails along which the actions of those whom art thus educates will naturally pass. (288)

Brigham Young is in the same tradition. "Upon the stage of a theatre," he said,

can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards. . . The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. (JD 9: 243).

You can understand why he said the saints would "go to hell" if they continued to read the kind of novels they were reading (JD 15: 224)! Tolstoy sees the standard provided by Christ, the earthly example provided by the actions of a hero, and the record provided by the poet. Tolstoy's process is commendable.

There are, too, a host of Romantic writers from Rousseau's time (and before) who came to the same moral conclusion without necessarily tracing it back to a personal God. In their view humanness is innately divine and Nature is pantheistically infused with restorative models. Unfortunately such faith ebbs as the corpse of the nineteenth century is laid out, and only a "darkling thrush" is left to hope at the beginning of the twentieth (Hardy 13).. With the modern period beauty becomes "truth and truth is relative" (Gardner 131-132).

Within that relativity, moral principle becomes a matter of opinion and the study of form in art becomes more important than content. Existentialism, nihilism, naturalism, dadaism, and a legion of other "isms" are only other ways of spelling sensuality, despair, and violence. It is, as I once heard Saul Bellow, a Nobel prize novelist, say in a lecture at Purdue University, a time when "the threshold of sensation" has been raised. What used to shock our parents provides not the slightest tickle now. Dowson's call "for madder music and for stronger wine" becomes the imperative (89).

If we are to espouse art as one of the right ways to knowledge it must be moral art. lt must be at least something akin to what John Gardner, a contemporary critic, calls "moral": "doing what is unselfish, helpful, kind and noble hearted" (23). For Gardner art

is good only when it has a clear positive moral effect, presenting valid models for imitation, eternal verities worth keeping in mind, and a benevolent vision of the possible which can inspire and incite human beings toward virtue, toward life affirmation as opposed to destruction or indifference. (18)

Such art is not "cheap," "cornball," or "didactic," nor is it trivial (18). I commend his book On Moral Fiction (1977), published last year, to you. It may not align itself with all those things you consider virtuous or of good report, but it is as fearless a statement as we have by a current writer. It reaffirms the writer's duty which William Faulkner spoke so eloquently of in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech (313).

The importance of all this depends, of course, on our accepting Oscar Wilde's dictum that "Nature also imitates art" (992); or, to put it another way, on our believing Picasso when he replied to the critics who said that his portrait of Gertrude Stein didn't look like her by answering, "It will" (qtd. in Ellmann and Feidelson 8).1 In other words, he was saying that the more you look at my portrait of Gertrude the more you will see in Gertrude the things I have put in my painting. Art shapes our perception of reality. What a sobering ideal! Read Victor B. Cline's book Where Do You Draw the Line? (1979) if you have doubts. His evidence is persuasive that violence and pornography can be harmful, that there are limits we must not exceed if we are to prevent anarchy, and that democratic processes can be used to establish and hold to the line (347-354). Mosiah championed such choices by the voice of the people in his time (29: 26-27), and the Lord gave the formula for guidance in the ninety-first section of the Doctrine and Covenants: those with the Spirit will be benefited through their ability to discern the truth (91: 4-6).

The common potential foe is, of course, the ubiquitous TV. A writer in a recent issue of Scouting cautioned that "so powerful is TV's influence that even children who are living enjoyably in intact families, secure both emotionally and economically, tend to show the same developmental oddities the experts are worrying about--if they watch a lot of TV" (Edwards 72).

Art as a Way of Knowing How to See

The formative power of art in shaping perception and behavior has its positive aspects, however, and there is a large body of affirmative literature which is exemplary. Art then is a way of knowing how to see. Joseph Conrad epitomized this r™le of the writer in his preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus by stating, "My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see. That--and no more, and it is everything" (x).

Literature provides many insights, which are hard to portray in more expository prose, because literature can provide the details of setting, character, description, dialog, and commentary all woven together for a designed effect. It is used often by psychologists as an option to case studies.

It has the power to call our attention to people and things that

may have gone unnoticed in the real world. "For don't you mark?" Browning says in "Fra Lippo Lippi,"

we're made so that we love

First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted--better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out. (ll. 300-306)

I remember well the experience shortly after I arrived in Laie of seeing for the first time Jan Fisher's large, crayon drawing of a Korean girl that hangs in our Aloha Center. For the first few weeks most of the students from the Asian Rim had appeared much the same to me, but in Brother Fisher's painting he had captured something distinctly Korean and these people I had "passed/Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see" now became individuals with clearly recognizable characteristics. It was a vivid experience in my life.

How much of our perception of religious history is shaped by the artist? Do you not think of characters and events from the Exodus story in terms of Cecil B. DeMille's movie or Arnold Friberg's paintings? Are not Nephi, Moroni, Abinidi, and other Book of Mormon characters pictured in your mind as large, strong, muscular characters also after the manner of Friberg? Which of the many paintings of Jesus is the one you imagine when you think of the Savior? These things influence us more than we realize. Once in a moment of dissatisfaction, I wrote these lines entitled "To the Painters of Jesus":

Let's get one thing straight:
He was a man.
I speak in the past
Because whatever He is now
He was mortal then (a condescended being),
Not some sallow-faced effeminate, with phony face,
But a real body with sweat and dirt,
With hair and hunger
Like Hofmann's Hebrew,
Not Rouault's Hallowe'en hack.
He wasn't tidy all day either.
His clothes had grime like yours and mine.
His feet, too.
Those beautiful feet
That stood upon mountains
That bruised
That bled
That throbbed with weight of man's commission.
Why can't you paint him as he must have been?
For in bringing him down we are brought up.
Yes, I know all that about Isaiah's despised and lowly one;
But don't cover up his smile with all your somber tones;
For in the truth of it,
He must have been a man who laughed, as well as cried.

Art As a Way of Knowing How to See Feelingly

It is not enough that art should help us understand and see with the head. No, art should help us know how to see with the heart. "It's the heart," Faulkner reminds us,

that has the desire to be better than man is; the up here can know the distinction between good and evil, but it's the heart that makes you want to be better than you are. That's what I mean by to write from the heart. That it's the heart that makes you want to be brave when you are afraid you might be a coward, that wants you to be generous, or wants you to be compassionate when you think that maybe you won't. I think that the intellect, it might say, 'Well, which is more profitable--shall I be compassionate or shall I be uncompassionate? Which is most profitable? Which is most profitable--shall I be brave or not?' But the heart wants to be better than man is. (qtd. in Leary viii)

Man will improve only to the extent that he can feel what he understands. How many who knew about (and even helped carry out) the holocaust at Auschwitz ever felt what had really happened to the Jews until they saw The Diary of Anne Frank? I did not begin to appreciate the sacrifice of the Willie and Martin handcart companies until I read Wallace Stegner's imaginative historical account of it ("Ordeal" 60-65). Nor did I sense the brutality of what it must have been like for Joseph Smith to have been literally tarred and feathered and scratched and beaten by an insane mob whose mouths were fouler than their tar buckets until I read Vardis Fisher's account of it in The Children of God: An American Epic (1939). I certainly didn't feel it in reading B. H.. Robert's euphemistic account in the Comprehensive History (1930) as fine an account as that is (280-281).2 I would read it to you now but you would wince at the reality of it. Archibald MacLeish describes the principle I am referring to better than I:

This divorce between the knowledge of the fact and the feel of the fact exists in our world whether we like its existence or not and it is because it exists that the word, art--or, better, the word, poetry (which stands, in their essential likeness, for all the arts)--belongs beside the word, science, in these grave discussions. Not until mankind is again able to see feelingly, as blind Gloucester says to Lear upon the heath, will the crucial flaw at the heart of our civilization be healed. And to see feelingly only poetry can teach us.

No man who comes to knowledge through a poem leaves the feel of what he knows behind, for the knowledge he comes to is the knowledge of that feeling life of the mind which comprehends by putting itself in the place where its thought goes--by realizing its thought in that only human realizer, the imagination. It is for this reason that the teaching of poetry. . . is as important to the university in crisis as the teaching of science. . . . For only when poetry itself--which means all the powers of ail the arts--regains its place in the consciousness of mankind will the triumphant civilization the sciences have prepared for us become a civilization in which men can live alive. (qtd. in Mack 373)

Art as a Way of Knowing How to Experience Recollection

But you may ask, how can I believe fiction--something made up? How can that add to my knowledge? Thornton Wilder answers that question in this way:

The response we make when we "believe" a work of the imagination is that of saying: "This is the way things are. I have always known it without being fully aware that I knew it. Now in the presence of this play or novel or poem (or picture or piece of music) I know that I know it." It is this form of knowledge which Plato called "recollection." We have all murdered, in thought; and been murdered. We have all seen the ridiculous in estimable persons and in ourselves. We have all known terror as well as enchantment. Imaginative literature has nothing to say to those who do not recognize--who cannot be reminded -- of such conditions. Of all the arts the theatre is best endowed to awaken this recollection within us. (vii-viii)

Wallace Stegner goes so far as to say that "History, a fable agreed on, is not a science but a branch of literature, an artifact made by artificers and sometimes by artists" (Sound 205). Both work with the same raw materials, which may be summarized or they may be dramatized. Whereas history reports the "actual," literature reports the "typical" (Stegner Sound 205). What this means is that literature can be true to human nature even though the details are fabricated. The typical may be truer than true. Are the details of the proverbs, parables, allegories, and metaphors of the scriptures all historical facts? Were there really five wise and five foolish virgins (Matt. 25: 1-13); was there really an olive vineyard, a servant and a Lord of the vineyard as described by Jacob in his allegory of the House of Israel (Jacob 5)? Does it matter? Are they any less true even though they might never have existed in tangible fact?

One of my most moving "recollections" was in rereading Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) after being a while at the Church College of Hawaii. Paton's novel describes in beautiful, lyrical prose the breakdown of tribal society in South Africa as individuals leave their homes in the rural valleys and go into the city of Johannesburg. The novel is a lament for Gertrude who becomes a prostitute, Absalom who is convicted of murder, and Stephen Kumalo his father, a black priest, who can do nothing to save them. It is a lament for a country whose landscape has been ravaged and whose indigenous people have become outcasts through strict segregation. In a larger sense, it is a lament for any group that suffers cultural displacement. It is, brothers and sisters, a lament for much of what has gone on in the South Pacific in the last hundred years. It is about the same psychic distance from the bush of Africa to the city of Johannesburg as it is from the villages of the Pacific to the city of Honolulu, or Los Angeles, or San Francisco.

But my experience in saying "this is the way things are" in Laie after rereading the novel was not just empathy in a humanistic sense. It was revelatory because the paramount cry of the novel is not that the "tribe is broken" but that it is "not mended again." Paton saw the inevitability of what happened in South Africa: a more technological society moved in on a less technological one; but he saw no solution to binding up the wounds and uniting the hearts of the whole society. He could only hope for the dawning of a more enlightened day.

From an LDS perspective, though, the tribe can be mended or at least refurbished by the fabric of the gospel and a priesthood society. Societal cohesiveness can be reestablished through a new ecclesiastical charter that will respect as much of the old as is not contrary to celestial laws and can, at the same time, provide the rules, sanctions, and direction to replace that which is lost or has been set aside, and can renew individual and group identity. This approach to the novel is a good example of a way to blend the teaching of literature, religion, and social anthropology in the classroom. The vehicle, of course, is the work of art; and students have attested over and over again to its worth as a way of knowing.

Another experience with the performing arts caused me to reflect on the way things must have been many years ago in Hawaii. I was privileged to see Iolani Luahine perform the ancient hula a few months ago before she died. Listening to the beat of the ipu and the chanter transported me back in time and space. IoIani's wiry and sprightly brown body moved weightlessly in perfect harmony with the rhythm of the chanter and gourd. It was at once a feeling of sadness, enigmatic wonder, and ritual, as if voices from the dust were whispering their old laments. My description is very, very inadequate because all the elements blended into an expression of the inexpressible. It was knowledge that had to be experienced in order to be apprehended.

After the performance, a young Hawaiian girl came up to Iolani to convey her admiration. After an embrace, Iolani looked at her seriously and said, "I am not going to be here long. Hold to the old. Learn the modern, but hold to the old." I left the Polynesian Cultural Center that day wondering who would perpetuate what I had just experienced and who would be able to recreate it as she did.

Those of you who participated in the dedication of the Hawaii Temple last June may have had a similar, but more profound experience as you listened to our own choir from Laie sing the Hosanna Anthem here in this auditorium (Stephens). It was a transcendental experience. Those angelic voices parted the veil and crossed the threshold between earth and heaven. Understandably, then, did President McKay say that

there are feelings in the human breast which cannot be expressed in any language or words; so we must provide ourselves with other mediums of expression; for instance, music, art, architecture--the wonderful arts which do not belong to any nation, but which speak the language of the soul. Music is international. . . . Music is divine art. (184)

There are many other examples I could cite of those who have been brought to such insight through art, examples of students who have for first time "seen through" and learned to accept their problems. A divorced woman who after reading Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (1913) said she could finally understand and accept her dominant mother and brutish ex-husband, and another student, now a bishop, who after reading Crime and Punishment (1866) finally had the courage to own up to a serious sin he had repressed for a long time. These experiences were, they said, the turning points--the Thoreau-like dating of their lives from the reading of a book. It is not enough to read the scriptural books only, Brigham Young counseled, because even though these works are indispensable, if they are all we read we "may be nothing but a sectarian after all" (JD 2: 93). He then went on to counsel, "It is your duty to study to know everything upon the face of the earth, in addition to reading those books. We should not only study good, and its effects, upon our race, but also evil, and its consequences" (JD 2: 93-94). Art thus becomes a way of knowing much about life vicariously. I can think of many things I would rather learn in that manner.

Art as a Way of Knowing How to Read, Write, and Analyze

For the more practical minded, art is a way of learning how to read, write, and analyze better. As we confront art and attempt to understand and criticize it, we develop analytical skills that can be useful in many of the tasks of life. This is why the study of literature is the culminating study of any language. Unless we understand the figurative expressions found in the literature of a language, our comprehension of that language will be incomplete. This is why English majors are often prized in business and law. If they have learned their lessons well, they have expanded their repertoire to include a wide range of language skills.

Much could be said on this subject; let me treat briefly two points that affect each of us. First of all, the ability to recognize many allusions understood by an educated reading public a few decades ago is an all but dead ability for most young people today. How many today understand allusions to the Odyssey, what it means to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis, or to refer to a woman as a modern-day Circe? One of my students thought the Bard of Avon was some kind of soap. In a freshman class I taught at Purdue a decade ago, only three out of thirty knew what I meant when I called one of the students a good Samaritan; none knew the allusion when the text said that "the new grammar was made for man and not man for the new grammar." In a graduate German language class composed mainly of engineers, most of the students thought it was nonsense they were translating when they tried to take literally what they rendered in English as "dust shall you eat all the days of your life." They had no inkling of what the reference was.

It is not only a lack of familiarity with the stories that closes our understanding to much of what we read, it is a lack of knowing how figurative language works. The scriptures, themselves, are mysterious indeed unless we know something about metaphors, symbols, types, allegories, and parables. I remember what an impressive revelation it was to me to discover that Jesus on the cross gave one of his most telling sermons to the Jews in uttering the words, "My God, my God why has thou forsaken me?" (Matt. 27: 46), when I learned he was alluding to the first lines of the 22nd Psalm (Ps. 22: 1). Read the psalm and you too will see how the master teacher at the hour of his death delivered in nine words a summary of the prophecy and fulfillment of his life's mission by using a simple allusion. And yet the Jews missed the whole point of it.

We have up to now examined the need for art to be moral, the way in which art shapes perception, the way it gives us insight, the way in which it helps us feel as well as understand, the way in which it teaches us typical truths about ourselves, and the way it uses allusion and figurativeness. Something needs to be said about the way art aids the artist. Since what art does for the audience is so closely aligned to what it does for the maker, it would be difficult and probably misleading to separate the two.

Art as a Way of Knowing how to Cope

Kenneth Burke in The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941) calls literature "equipment for living" (253), and maintains that "if we try to discover what the poem is doing for the poet, we may discover a set of generalizations as to what poems do for everybody" (qtd. in Hayakawa 128). One of the most basic manifestations of this is the proverb. Proverbs are "symbolic" strategies for dealing with situations. For example, they are good for consolation: "The wind in one's face makes one wise"; for vengeance: "At length the fox is brought to the furrier"--one which may appeal to you at this very moment; for "foretelling": "The more laws, the more offenders"; and for wise living: "When the fox preacheth, then beware your geese" (qtd. in Burke 254-255). (Curious how there are so many proverbs about foxes.) How many times in my own administrative work have I consoled myself at my own lack of speed by repeating Friar Laurence's proverb from Romeo and Juliet, "They stumble that run fast" (Shakespeare III.iii.94). Much of the play as a whole is an exemplification of this truth so that the larger work serves the same purpose as the epithet. In more than one stressful situation I remember repeating Emily Dickinson's little poem, "Elysium"--once when I was awaiting a medical report on my wife and once awaiting the outcome of my last Ph.D. examination. In both instances I gained courage from the poem which goes like this:

Elysium is as far as to
The very nearest Room
If in that Room a Friend await
Felicity or Doom--
What fortitude the Soul contains,
That it can so endure
The accent of a coming Foot--
The opening of a Door. (712)

As we experience opposition in life we symbolically try to encompass our feelings by expressing them. We may feel better after uttering profanity, writing a letter to the editor, telling somebody off, recording it in our journal, or in laughing at a good joke. The artist does the same thing, though usually in more intricate ways, by getting things off his chest, so to speak, in his art work. Having objectified his feelings in writing, or clay, on canvas, or in a song, he is able to analyze those feelings at some distance and thus find relief. The audience, later coming to the work, may find it provides the same relief and so receives a similar benefit. The work of art helps us cope by reducing many of the frustrations of life to "manageable proportions." Robert Graves maintained that "a well-chosen anthology [of verse] is a complete dispensary of medicine for the more common mental disorders, and may be used as much for prevention as cure" (qtd. in Hayakawa 128). A poem, says Robert Frost, "begins in delight and ends in wisdom. . . ends in a clarification of life--not necessarily a great clarification such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion. It has denouement" (vi).

This unraveling of the threads of life Frost refers to can happen in an artistic creation all of us should engage in--our personal journals. Journal writing is a very neglected subject in the curriculum. We need to teach one another more about the possibilities. Ira Progoff's book At a Journal Workshop (1975) outlines a variety of ways that can take journal writing beyond the diary level of recorded trivia. He suggests we begin with the "Now" moment" by describing our inner feelings and values and that we then select "Steppingstones"--important turning points from birth onward (64, 102). The aim is to establish identity and perspective for ourselves. "Dialoging" is one of his key points, a technique in which we stage imaginary conversations with people or things (Progoff 159ff). Even though we may not be able to interpret them, dreams can be recorded as well as the meditative or intuitive thoughts Progoff calls "twilight imagery" (78-79). These personal entries are our own form of art and can be a way to improve self-knowledge for us and someday for our children after us.

Art as a Way of Knowing how to Synthesize

Art helps us cope with the world and ourselves on a much more systematic level by helping us order the atomistic experience of daily living. Wallace Stevens's "Anecdote of the Jar" is his commentary on the power of art to put things in order (76).3 In another place he calls it a "Blessed rage for order" ("Idea" 130). Although they utilize different ways, philosophy, religion, and science all attempt to do this also. As human beings we are forever seeking a system that will integrate life to our satisfaction. In art, experience is ordered by the creative individual who thereby gains from the perspective, and then the work of art often produces the same effect in the recipient of that art. Unless this happens, man has an assortment of odds and ends with no gestalt, a condition that produces insecurity and unhappiness. To put all this together is one of the things art is for.

In literary art the results may range everywhere from the ordering of elements in an imagistic poem to the elaborate ordering of elements in a fully developed myth. An example of the first is a short poem I wrote in 1974 at the birth of our daughter Rachel. I wanted to capture the feelings of having a new child, seeing my wife, my gratitude to her, and seeing them in the morning light. My journal entry for that day was "Soft Light":

A soft north light
And violets on your soft white gown
Simulate a painting by Cassatt.
But ours is one she never signed.
A new impressionism
Of olive tone and auburn hair
With Rachel at your breast.
In wicker white you rock her there
Uniting color, soul and mind.

The great myths of the world integrate experience on a much wider scale, of course. They create motifs and patterns out of our archetypal concerns with creation, existence, immortality, escape, time and timelessness, the Fall, quests, initiation, death, rebirth, sacrifice, scapegoats and supreme beings, to name a few. Dealing with these fundamentals, myth becomes "literal and useful" says Tindall paraphrasing Malinowski:

Its function is not explanatory or expressive but cultural. Myth is a narrative, which, satisfying deep religious, moral or social needs, sanctions ritual, contains practical rules for guidance, and constitutes a social charter. Justifying conduct by precedent, connecting the present with the past and with the supernatural, myth strengthens tradition while uniting the community. It furnishes meaning, place, and hope. Since this cultural device is always a narrative, it has literary aspects which may develop into epic or drama. (101)

These elements of transmitting knowledge are found in all great religious myths to one degree or another and many of you will recognize them as benefits we derive from our own temple ceremonies. So significant is the mythic power of literature that it has caused one novelist to observe that "investigating and understanding. . . universal and exemplary significations of literary creations is tantamount to recovering the meaning of religious phenomena" (Eliade 33).

We must be cautious, however, of how far we pursue these notions. Art is a way of knowing but is not the way. It does not displace the definitive declaration of direct revelation. Obviously "the Christian will take literature a little less seriously than the cultured Pagan," C. S. Lewis reminds us (10); but as a latter-day Apostle Orson F. Whitney asserted,

Poets are prophets of a lesser degree, and the prophets are the mightiest of poets. . . . Jesus Christ, the greatest of all prophets, was likewise the greatest of all poets. He comprehended the universe and its symbolism as no one else ever did, and he taught in poetic parables, taking simple things as types, and teaching lessons that lead the mind upward and onward toward the ideal, toward perfection. We must not despise poetry; it is indispensable, even in practical affairs. The Gospel of Christ is replete with poetry. None but the ignorant pass it by as a thing of naught. (30-33)

Brothers and sisters, there are trolls abroad in the earth. True art does provide an edifying way of seeing, feeling, recollecting, coping, analyzing and integrating. It is part of that process in which, again to quote Whitney, "all kinds of teachers go before the prophet, preparing his way, or come after him, confirming his testimony. And the sum of it will be the betterment and eventual salvation of the race" (Whitney 36). That art may be a way to help us achieve that end I pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Notes

1I have expressed this in a poem of my own:

Picasso

Nature also imitates art.--O. Wilde

Gertrude's enigmatic face appeared

To have escaped the camera's eye.

"It doesn't look like her at all," they said.

To which the priest of artifice replied,

"It will."

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2See Robert A. Rees' comparison, "'Truth is the Daughter of Time': Notes toward an Imaginative Mormon History" (19-22). Back to Top

3"Anecdote of the Jar" goes like this:

I placed a jar in Tennessee
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee. (Stevens " Anecdote" 76)

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---. The Sound of Mountain Water. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969.

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