Art & Spirit

This week in all our units we have been exploring the relationship between Art (poetry, painting, prose, music…) and that part of human nature that is termed Spirit.

For William Blake and for D.H.Lawrence the division between Body and Spirit -central to many religious traditions- was something they wanted to challenge. As Blake pronounced in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.”

D.H. Lawrence in his essay “Why the Novel Matters” begins “We have curious ideas about ourselves. We think of ourselves as a body with a spirit in it, or a body with a soul in it, or a body with a mind in it…. Now I flatly deny that I am a soul, or a body, or a mind, or an intelligence, or a brain, or a nervous system, or a bunch of glands, or any of the rest of the bits of me. The whole is greater than the part. And therefore, I, who am man alive, am greater than my soul, or spirit, or body, or mind, or consciousness, or anything else that is merely a part of me. I am a man, and alive. I am man alive, and as long as I can, I intend to go on being man alive.”
Joseph Conrad, in his “Preface to The Nigger of Narcissussays something similar when he writes of the purpose of his craft as a writer, an artist in words: 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…. And when it is accomplished – behold!- all the truth of life is there…”
Mysterious words from three great artists in words spanning more than a century. All are committed to this idea that the work of the artist, poet, novelist can deeply engage our senses, can attune us to a part of our life that is usually dormant, hidden, under a cloud of mechanical reactions in thought and feeling. All three were determined through their creations to find a way to a new experience of reality, beyond the dualism of soul and body. For Blake, this determination expressed itself in the timeless words, again from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

In Blake there is this wonderful metaphor that he uses drawn from his own craft as an engraver. He says that he will work towards this aim “by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives…. melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.” As an engraver he used to outline as a mirror image his words and designs onto metal plates with a wax. He would then pour acid onto the metal plates. The acid would burn the metal away leaving behind the waxed words and images. So, Blake’s extraordinary perceptions -in word and image- were left ready to be dipped into ink and printed for all to see:

So, in Lawrence’s poem “Snake”, for a moment he was able to sustain a perception of that snake as “one of the lords/ Of Life”, but then found that his fearful, mean-spirited side took over and cut him off from that vision. But Lawrence’s poem, like Blake’s poetry and art and Conrad’s’ fiction are all creative voices that stir us into a question about who and what we are? Now. They are artistic voices that prompt us to taste the possibility of Spirit inherent in our present Life. They are fuelled with questions that prompt me towards the opening of the doors that Blake speaks of.
T.S.Eliot has his own way of inviting these questions in the concluding stanza of “Little Gidding”:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time….
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always –
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)

It is worth concluding with the thought that in Australian Literature, our preoccupation with Kim Scott has been very much to do with Art and Spirit – as I am sure you are all discovering as you put your final touches to your essays. Kim Scott is committed, through his art, to singing  (through Bobby) the experience of the indigenous Australians who had such a vital connection with Spirit in their land. This book is a wonderful example of how Art and Spirit do in fact interact and feed one another.


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