by Conrad Martin
“Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. 2 For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. 3 But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. 4 Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.” (1 Corinthians 14:1-5, NIV)
Poets seem quite comfortable with the inexplicable. On the Curator, the word “mystery” appears baldly on every third page, and furtively on half the rest.
Clearly, the parallel to 1 Corinthians 14 is partial. We could translate “understanding” in the quoted scripture to “appreciation” or “enjoyment.” Artists differ on whether we should ever or always give the term “understanding” to the experience of joy or meaning which poetry can bring, but we agree that art is approached with unique expectations.
Perhaps just as clearly, art seems distinct in material importance. This is not a communal worship service and there is no covenant of blood. The audience painlessly self-selects.
Still, a principle applies; the one who speaks asks a favor of the one who listens, and the one who listens hopes to receive something for their pains. One could say that the receiver’s claim suffers as a result of the freedom with which they engage, but in fact, something almost like the opposite is true. To make this point I will draw heavily from a piece by Stanley Cavell titled “Music Discomposed” from the book Must We Mean What We Say?
Cavell declares his thesis: “The dangers of fraudulence, and of trust, are essential to the experience of art” (188).
If I am hungry and you have bread and we make a deal, the need and the surplus are well-defined, and my intention and yours are well-defined, so any fraud is mathematically obvious. If the bread is moldy, I show it to you and you return my money.
But I cannot come to an original work of art needing something so tangible or so specific. Perhaps I think I know what I need. I feel the vague shapes of a general kind of problem of shapelessness. It is a purpose of art to deal with those shapes in new ways, creating inscrutably satisfying geometries, resolving primordial disjunctions.
Because the need it fills is larger than any of our definitions of need, we cannot judge it beforehand. There is no way to judge a new thing of this kind by an old standard, because it is a special kind of new thing—one which brings with it a new standard. You have to see it yourself to have a clue about what it really is, and to know how well or poorly it does at being real.
For a piece of art, part of being real is being, at least subtly, new. Clichés are bad.
Part of being real is also not being a random assortment of surplus psychological elements.
But because you must “see it to know it,” and because this “seeing” requires of you a high degree of attention and a deep readiness for emotional participation, you must come trusting—you must risk being let down or laughed at before you can know that your trust will not be betrayed, or else you haven’t truly given yourself a chance to see what is there to be seen. This is why the issue of fraudulence and trust are essential to art.
Cavell is primarily focused on the awkward post-modern uncertainty about meaning and the necessarily ambiguous or ironic expressions of this angst in contemporary fine art, but he uses the present moment to see something which has been true about art from the beginning. Such art spirals around the question of whether the artist is being serious or sarcastic, whether absurdity is even a meaningful idea, and why in the world did we all come here anyway? Cavell speaks of this as art being reduced to philosophy (a reduction no more respectful to philosophy than it is to art—what kind of philosophy?), which shows that there always was within art a philosophical concern, namely: is art meaningful?
The answer to that question is in tasting and seeing.
But in words, the answer to that question is oddly yes and strangely no: art means something about everything, precisely because it models a totality—because it is meaningful within itself and by reference to its own terms. Cavell says it quite excellently:
Within the world of art one makes one’s own dangers, takes one’s own chances—and one speaks of its objects at such moments in terms of tension, problem, imbalance, necessity, shock, surprise. . . . And within this world one takes and exploits these chances, finding, through danger, an unsuspected security—and so one speaks of fulfillment, calm, release, sublimity, vision. (199)
Art’s ‘inner totality’ is not more an escape from communal responsibility than it is a more perfect embrace of it. Cavell continues:
I said: in art, the chances you take are your own. But of course you are inviting others to take them with you. And since they are, nevertheless, your own, and your invitation is based not on power or authority, but on attraction and promise, your invitation incurs the most exacting of obligations: that every risk must be shown worthwhile, and every infliction of tension lead to a resolution, and every demand on attention and passion be satisfied—that risks those who trust you can’t have known they would take, will be found to yield value they can’t have known existed.
If the purpose of art is not to satisfy a specific need but to tell its own free story of need and abundance, then empty art implies a general and essential emptiness. Cavell explains how art’s very freedom binds it to its responsibility:
The creation of art, being human conduct which affects others, has the commitments any conduct has. It escapes morality; not, however, in escaping commitment, but in being free to choose only those commitments it wishes to incur. In this way art plays with one of man’s fates, the fate of being accountable for everything you do and are, intended or not. It frees us to sing and dance, gives us actions to perform whose consequences, commitments, and liabilities are discharged in the act itself. The price for freedom in this choice of commitment and accountability is that of an exactitude in meeting those commitments and discharging those accounts which no mere morality can impose. You cede the possibilities of excuse, explanation, or justification for your failures; and the cost of failure is not remorse and recompense, but the loss of coherence altogether. (199)
Art’s inner totality is not more an escape from communal responsibility than it is an affirming and reinforcing—by any and every splendor of reality—of the deep foundations upholding the whole possibility of communities and responsibilities. That foundation is a trust in ultimate and universal coherence.
That is why prophecy is a greater gift than tongues. Because Beauty is more than absurdity (God bless it), and Unity is truer than true.
Cavell’s words were focused on music, and not all the arts have the same affiliation with the province of meaning. Poems, involving words, involve understanding in a way music does not. The dynamic of an “inner meaning” is still crucial, but poetry does invite propositional interpretation as a key figure in the dance. Sometimes his part seems rather minor, but if you approach him civilly, he may be your best way to be introduced to the more lively characters.
And this, (Dear Reader), this is why we care about how you experience the poems we select and publish. We don’t always agree among ourselves about what they mean or about what we mean by that question. We publish the submissions we ourselves enjoy the most.
Citations: Cavell, S. (1969). Must We Mean What We Say? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Artwork: Portico of Octavia, Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902).