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GRACE AND NECESSITY: Reflections on art and love

02 November 2006


Morehouse, £12.99 (0-8192-8118-2); Church Times Bookshop £11.70

ROWAN Williams's writing is frequently said to be difficult, and this book is no exception. Yet, in the end, nothing is more destructive of true understanding than spurious simplicity. Trying to understand the nature of art is a case in point.

The difficulties are not in the language used to analyse it, but are intrinsic to the nature of art itself. Good works of art carry an overload of meaning, and should appeal to levels of the intellect which are not immediately obvious. Echoing like a refrain throughout this book are some words of Jacques Maritain: "Things are not only what they are . . . they give more than they have." The same might be said of the book itself.

Its four sections are devoted to Maritain's philosophy of art and its roots in scholasticism; the poetry and paintings of David Jones; the novels of Flannery O'Connor; and Williams's theological reflections on God and the artist.

Maritain is now an almost forgotten figure, sidelined by the reaction against Thomism after Vatican II. This is a pity, because his understanding of art, as interpreted by Williams, is both profound and illuminating, in sharp contrast to the shallowness of those who treat all artistic endeavour as if it were mere self-expression.

Art, Maritain tells us, makes claims about the way things are by a truthful uncovering of "relations and resonances in the field of perception that 'ordinary' seeing and experiencing obscure or even deny". It restores to reality a dimension that lies "outside the scope of instrumental reason".

This is a bare summary of a complex analysis, but it is enough to indicate why art and religion are intimately related. This was certainly true of David Jones, the resonances in whose poetry and paintings are so profuse that the faint-hearted are liable to give up in despair. There is encouragement here for those who want to return to him with fresh insight.

I have to confess that I had never heard of the American novelist Flannery O' Connor, but I note that she was dismissed in eight short lines in the Oxford Companion to English Literature as an example of "Southern Gothic". All of which goes to show how disastrously some critics can miss the point.

In analysing what, on the face of it, are horrific stories of death and destruction, Williams draws out the significance and dangers of our human hunger for God. "To arrive at the point where the world can be truthfully named in its relation to God involves some grasp of the world as object of pointless futureless love; it must therefore involve levels of bewilderment, deep emotional confusion and frustration in the process, even a blurring of the boundaries between love and rejection" - of which, it seems, there is plenty in the novels themselves.

In a final reflection on the nature of creativeness, Williams describes God' s creation as a work of disinterested love, a delighting in "the other". What the artist tries to do is to uncover the generative love that is at the centre of holiness. If this sort of love is at the heart of artistic creativeness, beauty will look after itself.

This is a thought-provoking book that sets out in new theological directions, and is all the more interesting for having been written by a poet.

The Rt Revd Lord Habgood is a former Archbishop of York.

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