Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"For man is a vain thing…"

O momentary grace of mortal men,
Which we more hunt for than the grace of God!
--Richard III, Act III, Sc. v

The above quote was spoken by Hastings upon learning he was to be beheaded in one of the many twists of fate accorded the characters of what is reportedly Shakespeare’s most popular and enduring play.

Imagine my surprise as I read Eliot’s Choruses from “The Rock” and stumbled upon Eliot talking of art: “You, have you built well, have you forgotten the cornerstone? / Talking of right relations of men, but not of relations to GOD.”

As a preamble to The Four Quartets, “The Rock” is a spiritual search, yes, but also a meditation on the role of art: “Much is your building, but not the House of GOD.” In other words, where is the purpose or our art, our writing, our films? To what are they delivered, and why? What are we doing here on earth as it is in London?

According to Eliot, and Shakespeare, we are building a temple of our acts, and most certainly of our words. “God” in this day and age, as a concept, is irrelevant, but certainly not irreverent. Choose a mode of addressing the spiritual and write for that. Is this possible anymore?

Before the secular humanists get their hair all up in a fuss, let me say that I am, if anything, a secular humanist. And yet the more I read the humanists—Rabelais, Montaigne, Cervantes, and Shakespeare—the more I see that we are, indeed, the creators of our temple of community. Who among us will argue with Don Quixote, or even the dirt-brown wisdom of Sancho Panza? Who will come between the arguments of Panurge and Pantagruel?

In the current trend of art/literature-as-gnosis, be it from Jack Spicer (“Poet be like God”) or Harold Bloom (“Where shall wisdom be found?”), there is some sort of longing for wisdom, if not in the intellectual sense then in the practical sense—in the Confucian, Aristotlean sense.

Wisdom is only as good as it will build a life of sanity. Or as Eliot puts it, “The good man is the builder, if he build what is good.”

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