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
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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