Searching for Our Human Face: The Kiss of the Muse

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.

In The Meaning of Life, S. L. Frank tersely sketches our lot as darkly as Hobbes: “ a narrow, boring, and banal existence tormented by need” (p. 2). Nikolai Berdyaev promptly names the condition and the antidote. “The everyday prose of life is not only the result of sin, it is sin: submission to its evil . . . Beauty is not only the aim of art—it is the aim of life” (The Meaning of the Creative Act, p. 246).

Dostoevsky’s pithy aphorism that “beauty will save the world” is often treated as a pretty, but enigmatic phrase, though it is actually a prophecy of the artistry of the Spirit. Sergius Bulgakov was certainly sensitive to this truth:

If, after Christ’s coming into the world, “the great Pan died” and all of nature changed, having become participant in Christ’s humanity, then humanity too changed, precisely in its naturalness. Humanity received new powers, new impulses for the establishment of the Kingdom of God not only within us but also in the midst of us, entos hemon, and this concerned all humanity, both that which belongs consciously to the Church and that which does not belong consciously to the Church (though somehow already belongs to it in re). (The Holy Grail and the Eucharist, p. 57)

I want to carefully unpack how I think we should understand Bulgakov here. In order to do this, we must recall again the continual birth of the intimate Self from the agapeic Father. The soul is not first a needy abyss, but a child of plenty. We forget this, because our beginnings in nature are so vulnerable and so commanded by the maw of need. This link to divine plenitude should be concentrated on the mysteries of creativity, for the new powers are forms of naming which are also for that reason forms of making.

The ancients were closer than many of us in recognizing in the muses the children of Zeus and mnemosyn, though we probably miss the import, for memory is itself something much more than patterns of past events scribbled into the tracery of the brain. But let that go. Rather, notice the strangeness of the artist’s work. This is how Josef Pieper describes it:

Any time the sound of true poetry reaches and moves the contemporary reader or listener, as with the work of Gottfried Benn or Franz Kafka or Georges Bernanos, he knows in that moment that, strictly speaking, it is not the Berlin dermatologist Dr. Benn or the two insurance agents Kafka and Bernanos who had such an effect on him . . . Who else is involved? To whom are we listening? (For the Love of Wisdom, p. 227)

Moreover, this is also the experience of the artist. One is raised above prosaic life and egoistic capacities. The ecstasy of inspiration can be interpreted as a Dionysian plunge that is either impersonal or grasped by the will to power as a method for asserting the individual against cosmic nothingness. Yet this pose is based upon “an exilic interiority, a fictive inwardness, where the creature can grasp itself as an isolated essence” (Hart, Beauty of the Infinite, p. 400). But as we have seen, the truth of interiority is that depths are not isolated. On the contrary, infinite inwardness is also a horizon of infinite breadth. It is the shallow, jejune psyche that thinks itself capable of that kind of fictive isolation. Paradoxically, in being raised above the quotidian self, the poet discovers a taste of true identity.

This is a particularly thorny enterprise to describe, partly because of the essential role of metaphysical relations in the constitution of a self. The person as a center of volition and knowing is never a pure, autonomous center of freedom, but a nurtured product of heteronomy. We come to awareness, desire, knowledge and love because our existence is gifted, our development nurtured, our very consciousness as personal called into being by God and the world. Without the world, we would not even acquire the reflectivity that indirectly shows the soul to itself. But this means that insight into the other is somehow also insight into oneself. Unique identity is distinguishable, but not separable from the truth of everyone and everything.

Implicit in these reflections is that a kind of minimal creativity is available in all our experiences, even the most ordinary. This is not the place to discuss the gulf of immense ignorance that persists in our capacity to explain how the physical firing of neurons can ever leap beyond an electrical circuit to become an act of knowing. Many are invested in sophistical hocus pocus designed to diminish the embarrassing lacunae in our explanations, that is to say, the gap that is equal to pretty much everything. Although it is often dismissed today as an untenable, even quaint hypothesis (when it is entertained at all, that is) I believe divine illumination remains valid. Every act of knowledge from the taste of pineapples to the crooked smile of a particular friend is ground in participation in the divine. “God is not only the ultimate reality that the intellect and the will seek but is also the primordial reality with which all of us are always engaged in every moment of consciousness, apart from which we have no experience of anything whatsoever” (Hart, The Experience of God, p. 10).

One can go further. Jean Borella claims that the affections of our hearts are always first a dynamic energy of divine life. Even a facile schoolboy crush has some umbratile relation to eternal immensities, divine delights. “Every act of love is a participation in the Trinitarian ecstasy. The being of the act participates, not the being of the acting subject. But how is this possible? . . . Every act of love is . . . by nature, supernatural” (The Secret of the Christian Way, p. 140). I know that this invites incredulity.

Grant, provisionally, that ordinary folk going about their ordinary lives, unbeknownst to themselves, are continually immersed in an experience that is held by a thread of grace to a reality more deeply pressed by the poet’s more conscious mode of activity. The act of the artist is conditioned by silence, by listening, by letting be. “The artist does not just superimpose a fixed form on sluggish matter, for at first neither he nor the matter is universally fixed or fully defined. Both come to definition in the act of origination itself . . . What is outward now shines with inwardness . . . ‘mine,’ yet not mine, intimate yet other. Against the dominating self, inspiration deconstructs the will to dominate otherness” (Desmond, Philosophy and Its Others, p. 92). Note that one is not dealing with foregone conclusions or with inert essences in which the encounter between others makes no constitutive difference. Obviously, one is far removed from the preoccupations of instrumental mind. Rather, the drama of meeting is also the possibility for discovery, for elucidation of a reality that arises from the occasion of encounter. Something new is made manifest for truth is both an event and a making.

And so, against the closure of the past or the treating of individuals as dead beings fated to a sameness that precludes genuine novelty, one must insist that a new word can be spoken. If it is new, it cannot be fully anticipated. That’s why the artist has to step back, be receptively still, pay attention. The artist fails insofar as he or she knows beforehand. Moreover, the artist’s work is a unique fusion of mutual synergies. The inspiration comes both from a primal divine source that is probably shared with the angelic powers, mediated through the unique logoi of the poet who is thereby able to realize more fully a singular vocation to particular, creative love. And love is made manifest by entering into intimacy with an outside other that now becomes both inside and outside. It is, of course, even more dizzyingly full of subtlety and counterpoint, for the other that is made known is not a passive object waiting to be named, but a spiritual being in its own right, speaking a winsome singularity through act, awaiting the response of a beloved capable of hearing and magnifying the name in songs of praise.

Something like this:

For I will consider my cat Jeoffrey.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, with the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his fore-paws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the fore-paws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For Sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For Seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For Eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For Ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For Tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin & glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good Cat.

And etc. – Christopher Smart, from Jubilate Agno, “My Cat Jeoffry”

(Go to “The Loss of Innocence”)

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2 Responses to Searching for Our Human Face: The Kiss of the Muse

  1. Jonathan says:

    Thanks for this, Brian. It’s always wonderful to run into Christopher Smart. Poetry of C18 (let’s say from the Glorious Revolution to the French Revolution) is underrated and under-read. Smart is one of the best and strangest. Collins, Smart and Cowper, my three favorite from the period, were all mad and all wonderful poets. They were in some sense the first modern artists, i.e. insane. For between the world of late modernity and the world of the artist there can be nothing but strife.

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  2. brian says:

    Jonathan,

    Some madness is tiresome and disturbing and not at all nice. And I guess poor Christopher Smart experienced that as well — but some madness is protest and vision and properly unsettling to our sleepy, dull senses and our unloving convictions. As poet, Smart gives the lie to an 18th century of stolid Enlightenment complacency. Anyway, as you know, the poet is a vates, peering more deeply into reality. To those who cannot see, it is bound to appear insane.

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