The Modern Concept of the Writer and His Art

One of the instructive sources of the ethos of this age is the college writer, who. reacting in terms of the studied rootlessness of Enlightenment culture, absorbs readily the myths of his time with naive fervor.

An interesting example of this appears in a student editorial on “The Writer and His Art” in the Calvin College Chimes for May 5, 1960. We are told the answer to questions concerning the artist and his art may be God, “but that answer in itself is not enough. The fundamental mystery remains.” The artist is to be understood in terms of a “critical and constructive” view of the world in terms of which he “persistently attacks what…is wrong, disorderly and ugly; and persistently, however subtly or evasively, attempts to show what is ordered, right, and comely. Consequently the artist is never satisfied with the status quo, and the minute he accepts it (and some do—the weary and the mercenary), that moment he ceases to be an artist.”



This is, of course, an interpretation which, while not Marxist, is in agreement with the Marxist view of art as social criticism. It is a view which does violence to such strong adherents of the status quo as Shakespeare and the Cavalier poets, who reflected the moods of their day and had no objection to things as they were. Ben Jonson, indeed, turned defender of the status quo against the Puritans in such plays as Bartholomew Fair, and Marlow, despite a mild dissent religiously, was a similar adherent of the culture of the England of his age. Such social criticism as appeared in these men was for dramatic purposes and changed with the changes in public opinion. Similarly, the great novelist, Fielding, wrote his satirical Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, not as a reformer or one discontented with his day, but as a robust humorist who delighted in absurdity wherever he saw it and had no desire to eliminate it from life.

One might, of course, point to the Christian poets, such as Donne, Frances Thompson, Quarles, Vaughn, Cowper, and Milton. But, here again, certain differences are observable. The greatness of these men is not only in their high purpose but in the beauty of its expression. In Milton’s Comus, a glorification of virtue, perhaps the most memorable passage is this:

Who knows not Circe The daughter of the Sun? whose charmed cup Whoever tasted, lost his upright shape, And downward fell into a groveling swine. ( 11.50–4)

This is indeed a vivid picture of the seductiveness of degrading vice or temptation, but the very richness of the imagery of the first sentence, “Who knows not Circe the daughter of the Sun?”, has an evocative power and beauty which reflects more than mere purpose. When Milton, in his “Song on May Morning” says,

Hail bounteous May that doth inspire Mirth and youth and warm desire

he is not discontented with the status quo and yet very much the artist.

Some artists have been champions of reform, as witness Shelley, Dickens, most Romantics and Marxists, but many more have simply expressed their delight in life, beauty, and love, or expressed their religious faith, or echoed national and cultural feelings. The limitation of art to social protest is a sorry emasculation of art. Significantly, this note, so prominent in college writers, goes hand in hand with a sourness of spirit and a basic lack of love for life, and, indirectly, of art It is an equation of a neurotic sourness and will to death with “cause” or purpose in writing when this is in actuality a reflection of decadent art.

But much more is involved. Irving Babbitt, in his discerning studies, On Being Creative, and Other Essays, spoke of the corruption of art by a tradition and men in modem thought “from Rousseau to Lenin who have discredited the higher will on which the inner life finally depends by their transfer of the struggle between good and evil from the heart of the individual to society” (p. 260 f.). College writers reflect this decadent tradition. Unlike Dante, Milton, Dostoyevsky and other great writers in the tradition of high purpose, they shift original sin from man to society, reflect not a wrestling with the continuing issues of life but with the contingent problems of the day. In this tradition, best seen in Romanticism, both sentimentality and cynical absorption with filth predominate. Subjectivity governs, having lost the perspective of absolute law, and inner experience is seen, not in terms of God, but in terms of personal aspiration, so that resentment, bitterness, and anxiety flourish. The root and branch concept of reform basic to a Christian perspective is replaced with a lust for social manipulation. The struggle is then between men only, and not ultimately between God and man, with that broken communion between God and man thus reflected in every walk of life and every relationship. It is this shadow of Rousseau which colors college writing and its sophomoric conception of art, and its only outcome is imitativeness and an enforced and derivative cynicism and joylessness as the hapless alternative to romantic, sentimental and rootless self-exaltation.

The attempt to see art, as does the Calvin College Chimes, as the attempt “to create a world closer to the good and beautiful” sounds idealistic enough, but notice its context. The artist is compared to “Adam, the first man, in the Garden of Eden. And the garden in which the artist finds himself today is this world—a garden in which there are extraordinary scenes of beauty, goodness, grandeur, order, and harmony. However, the serpent has entered in, and so there is also a vast amount of horror, hideousness, wickedness, disorderliness, and unbelievable brutality. Art is the enemy of these and always has been. The relentless and implacable enemy. And the artist lives in a constant knowledge of what could be, and a constant anger and pity at what is.” Here, very ably stated, is the Romantic conception of the artist and the world, and of the anger which leads to what Mario Praz has aptly called “the Romantic agony.” But this world is not an Eden, but a battlefield between Babylon and the New Jerusalem, and the artist is no rust and sinless Adam, but either a fallen or a re-created Adam. And even the redeemed artist is too much involved, both in the struggle within and without, to indulge in Olympian anger and pity. Not godlike judgments but forgiveness of sins and grace form his basic perspective, and judgment can only be seen theocentrically, not in terms of his ideal Eden. Romantic art tries to create a new Eden by social manipulation, whereas Christian art accepts the reality of battle and testing as the human means to the eschatological New Jerusalem. The Romantic conception of life looks backward to a solitary glory in Eden, the Christian to the fulness of the covenant in terms of the true society of God. The Romantic is bitter because his ideal is non-existent, while the Christian recognizes the reality of grace and joy in all his places and conditions. These two attitudes lead to diverse conceptions of art, and between them there can be no compromise.

The Romantic conception of art, more than any of the other theories developed in Western culture, is militantly and thoroughly anti-Christian, rests on the premise of autonomous man, and is ultimately an enemy as well to life itself and accordingly destructive of art. It leads to the cynicism of Dadaism and the mockery of meaning, as indeed all anti-Christian activity ultimately must. In Van Til’s apt phrase, all of autonomous man’s efforts involve an “integration into the void.”