Friday, October 26, 2007

Striving to Prove Yeats Wrong

A few evenings ago I sat down in eager anticipation (for I had been meaning to catch up with this for a long time) to watch Ken Burns' documentary film on the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The films opens to a black screen and the following quote appears, the first thing you see:

"The intellect of man is forced to
choose perfection of the life,
or of the work, and if it takes
the second must refuse a heavenly
mansion, raging in the dark."
-William Butler Yeats

No doubt this is a famous stanza but I had not heard it before, and knowing something about both the genius and the tumultuous personal life of Mr. Wright, I was struck by how perfectly appropriate it was for the subject matter at hand... but perhaps even moreso by its profound relevance for anyone who is interested in pursuing some kind of artistic vocation, and balancing that desire with a healthy and (if one is a Christian) even a holy life. I mention the holy there not only because of the concerns that undergird this blog, but also because Yeats himself hints at it there in his allusion to the 'heavenly mansion' an artist, or so he seems to imply, chooses to forsake in the earthly pursuit of his art.

It is a troubling quotation for those of us interested in balancing dreams of creating great art alongside hopes to become worthwhile men/women, husbands/wives, fathers/mothers, and, finally, disciples of Christ.

A Christian artist (and by this I mean a Christian who strives to create art, not one who has necessarily been recognized as an artist by the society in which he or she lives!) fearfully recognizes both the warning and the challenge in Yeats' quatrain. My brother and co-creator of this blog, Mutt, knows this struggle all too well. I know it too, but at this point in my life am not pursuing my own artistic dreams with the vigor and determination equal to his (for various reasons). But Mutt is aware, sometimes painfully so, of the extremely difficult balancing act that is required of him as he tries to pursue his chief calling, that of God-fearing husband and father, while at the same time chasing down that elusive but worthy dream of becoming a novelist. Each of these pursuits exacts a personal price, but in the first case it is easy to see that the returns are well worth the struggle. This is not so clear, however, in the case of the second. And therein lies some of the danger. If a man allows his frustrations and disappointments over the second stuggle to interfere with his attempts to lead a good life, is he not somehow morally, or even spiritually, compromised?

This is one of the questions implicit in Yeats' words, and he seems to be holding to the line that a man cannot possibly be both 'great' in art and 'good' (in a moral sense) in life. But a Christian artist must strive in his own life to prove Yeats wrong. As Christians, we have no higher calling than to pursue a place in that 'heavenly mansion,' and if we are fathers and husbands, the way we will work out this salvation is through a life of faithful and loving service to our families. But this should not preclude us from also putting into practice whatever artistic talents have been gifted to us by our Creator. I do not believe that God has made it to be a rigid, either/or proposition. The witness of so many great artists in Western (and at least nominally, Christian) culture can lead us to despair on this question, but we should not take any one man's (or woman's) case as our norm. The Lord has called each of us by name, to pursue a vocation unique to our own souls. Let us live up to that great challenge he has set before us. Let us never be afraid to pursue the True, the Good and the Beautiful, in all of its forms, with integrity and passion -- but let us refuse to compromise our attempts at holiness in order to do so. Our success is not up to us... but our spiritual lives are indeed our own responsibility.

So, to echo Pope John Paul II (echoing Jesus): "Rise, let us be on our way..."

1 comment:

Mutt Ploughman said...

To read this bravura blog post by Duke and not comment on it somehow, however inadequately, would be criminal. If one needed one specific example of what this blog is really all about and wanted to perhaps check out one posting to get an idea, this would be the one to look at. Thought-provokving and insightful, Duke here asks the questions that matter, and also, it's hard not to take notice, issues an appropriate call to arms to attempt to answer them with our lives AND our work.....I cannot hope to phrase my words as well, but I certainly can relate to the quote from Yeats as Duke has already pointed out. I understand the use of the term 'fearfully' - it has to do with what you stand to lose if you sacrifice to much in the name of your art - but I personally cannot look upon the choice in a state of fear, because if I do, I will flag. For my part, I feel that I must prove Yeats wrong or die trying, and I intend to do that. When I say 'die trying', I do not mean to be romantic or dramatic, but I do mean exactly that in one sense, because I don't intend to stop trying to write fiction. I view the desire to do so as something that God put into me, and I want to answer the call without neglecting my responsibilities in any way. Others have done this successfully so in theory there's no reason why I can't, but it is a difficult struggle. To put it in very simple terms, I see that struggle as my life's purpose.