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Friday, October 08, 2004
"EX OPERE AUTHORATO?"

Someone posted a great question in the comments of the Joan of Arcadia post below, that I wanted to bring out for broader consideration.

The poster (anonymous, otherwise I'd credit you), noted first that Graham Greene lived a degenerate life, and according to the poster, an unrepentant one. My reading of the post is that the charge is Greene was a Clintonian style misogynist. So the poster asks:

What I am wondering is more generally, when thinking about the subject of literature and faith--and teaching it for that matter--is the author's life relevant? Flannery O'Connor wrote quoting St. Thomas, that "art does not require rectitude of the appetite." Can the life of an artist be so depraved as to diminish or even negate the value of his or her art?

A few thoughts...

I am going to go ahead and say, "No, but..."

I think very often that people who have been cracked wide open and made vulnerable by their own sins, can mediate some astoundingly truthfilled art, that the rest of us would be too buttoned down to even dream of.

An artist can comunicate powerfully whatever life has revealed to them. We call it "the Credo" at Act One, borrowing from Prof. Louis Catron of William and Mary. Whatever a writer would list as "This I know to be true" they can bring forth. Artists who have lived in the grip of the dark side, can speak convincingly, as the Pope said in his Letter to Artists, "about what the world without God looks like." The Pope actually said we owe gratitude to pagan artists who have struggled to truthfully convey the misery of the life without grace.

An artist who has had an experience of the Living God (ie. of Mercy, Goodness, Truth, Beauty,...or even just the warm, fuzzy comfort of a purring kitten kneading her little paws in your side...Did I mention I got a kitten a couple of weeks ago?) can convey that powerfully.

But I would not trust someone to tell me about sin through art, just because they happen to be a prodigious sinner. I think you need sin + grief to make something true and redemptive. You need to have a profound sense of falling short of your nature at the least, and ideally the certainty of having turned away from God ("Against You, You alone have I sinned. What is evil in Your sight, I have done."

My sense is, Graham Greene lived in a continual state of grief. As did Dostoevsky. As did Emily Dickinson. As did Lord Byron.

I remember once when I was in the convent, that I complained to the Provincial, that one of the other sister's was a genius at picking the speck out of everyone else's eye, but couldn't see the log in her own yadda, yadda, and therefore, I didn't think I should have to pay attantion to any of her comments. The Provincial, as it happens, carrying a degree in psychology said, "No, it may be with some people that the truth of their words is all they have to give."

When I first started training Christians as writers, it seemed to me that they were just too virtuous to have anything gritty and real to say. I thought erroneously that sinners have more profound things to say in art. But then one day a lovely woman in Ohio with the shade of suffering just behind her gentle eyes, noted to me that it is not sin that makes someone deep, but suffering. Self-inflcted suffering, ie. the kind that comes from sinning, might sting the most, and in that sense afford the greatest possible depth ("She who is forgiven much, loves much.", but there is no necessary connection between sinning and artistic creativity.

I am reading a book about the connection between artistic talent and psychology, specifically depression, which definitely establishes a connection, but isn't sure if the depression is a result of the demands of creativity, or if creativity is a flight from depression.

I would like to hear from some of you on this.