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Art as a Sacred Idolatry

For the last few hours I've had a line running through my mind. I even found myself penciling it into the table-cloth at dinner:

Every artist is the God of her own world, the master of a world of her own making.

I first said that to my counselor this afternoon when we were talking about why my art meant so much to me. Those of you who read my fiction will laugh at that, because not only is it what most people would label fanfic, but I am something of a traditionalist when it comes to such things. I write stories that are based in the same world that inspired The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion, and I take grain pains to make them as consistent with those books as I can. So it would seem I can't even claim the title of "master," much less "God."

But that's not really what I mean. I have adopted a metaphor, a set of characters and cultural institutions because that lets me spend my time exploring the philosophic (in the purest sense of that term) issues that most interest me. I borrow the metaphor and embrace it and use it to the best of my ability. But what I do with that world is my own call, and my responsibility. It is in this sense that I am the God of this world: the creator who can speak into the dark and, with a simple , call the light into being.

At its best, all art is tikkun olam. I am far from an expert on kabbalah or Judaica generally, but one definition that always stuck with me is from Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the U.K.: "perfecting, preparing or repairing the world". This is usually applied to keeping the commandments and otherwise preparing the world for the coming messiah. Preparing this world, the actual present-day world, not some world of my imagination. But art gets us thinking and talking about shoulds and perhaps might-have-beens (or even might-yet-bes?). It's not an accident that ethics and aesthetics are usually grouped together as part of the same branch of philosophy.

In a nutshell, art invites me to reimagine the world. I can start from scratch, I can move forward like I want to. That is an awesome power, and if I could actually change the real world by thinking a thought, that would be too much power for anyone. But imagining a world where heroes still matter and friendship matters more and where war is seen as horrible and one-day ending - these are not thoughts that should be put off until the king comes back (either in Middle-earth or our own Midgaard). It is idolatry in the original sense of that word (idolum, image) because the artist seeks after a world that does not have any real substance and often uses it to play with ideas that are inaccessible in the real world. But it is a sanctified idolatry. Because imagining is how we (or at least I) dream.

As a religious person who has all too much personal experience with the idiocy of theodicy, I often struggle with the idea that I see myself as more moral than God. Sometimes I actually think that is true - it's a horrifying thought, really, and the philosopher's argument that morality does not apply to God is cold comfort. But in the face of loss (personal or through the news), I sometimes think this is the only appropriate response. I'm reminded of a passage from Elie Wiesel's novel Night:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.


While I still believe in God (I seem incapable of disbelief, for some reason) as an artist I feel compelled to imagine a world worthy of God and work out the impossibilities of bringing that world into actuality. I think this duty applies to all artists, frankly, whether they believe in God or not or simply don't care on the topic. I've used religious language here because it is the metaphor that comes most naturally to me. But I can't imagine anyone looking at our current world's poverty and slavery and children with their limbs hacked off and everything else - I can't imagine any artist seeing all this without wondering how things might be better. Not in a broad, general way but specifically. I mean imagining a world, fully realized, where things are better. Exploring what that looks like. Making it as real as possible.

All in all, that seems like a worthwhile task.

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Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
hhimring
Jul. 8th, 2011 06:51 am (UTC)
I think art can be and do a great many different things, so sentences containing statements about "all art" always provoke me to contradiction. But the side of art you are describing is certainly an important and central one to me personally--and I think to the Professor as well, if I understand his essay on Fairy Tales correctly. It also seems to be the central theme of the scene in The Silver Chair where Puddleglum goes and stands in the fire (although I know that some people think C.S. Lewis's approach to such subjects is not subtle enough).
As for your Elie Wiesel quotation, it just makes me want to cry. In a good way. I hope.
lindahoyland
Jul. 8th, 2011 07:09 am (UTC)
I share your thoughts about art,very well said.My stories mean a lot to me as well and I think although we play in Tolkien's world we each create something unique.
foxrafer
Jul. 10th, 2011 10:16 am (UTC)
I don't have anything to contribute to the discussion, really, but just wanted to say I really enjoyed reading this and thinking about the topics you raised.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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