Be careful

Be careful. Be certain that your expressions of regret about your inability to rest in God do not have a tinge of self-satisfaction, even self-exaltation to them, that your complaints about your anxieties are not merely a manifestation of your dependence on them. There is nothing more difficult to outgrow than anxieties that have become useful to us, whether as explanations for a life that never quite finds its true force or direction, or as fuel for ambition, or as a kind of reflexive secular religion that, paradoxically, unites us with others in a shared sense of complete isolation: you feel at home in the world only by never feeling at home in the world.

* * *

It is this last complacency to which artists of our time are especially susceptible, precisely because it comes disguised as a lonely, heroic strength. Sometimes it truly is a strength: Giacometti, Beckett, Camus, Kafka. Yet it is a deep truth of being human — and, I would argue, a hint at the immortal Spirit who is forever tugging us toward him — that even our most imaginative discoveries are doomed to become mere stances and attitudes. In this sense, art does advance over time, though usually this advance involves a recovery of elements and ideas we thought we had left behind for good. This is true not only for those who follow in the wake of great accomplishments but also for those who themselves did the accomplishing. What belief could be more self-annihilating, could more effectively articulate its own insufficiency and thereby prophesy its own demise, than twentieth-century existentialism? To say that there is nothing beyond this world that we see, to make death the final authority of our lives, is to sow a seed of meaninglessness into that very insight. The four artists above all knew that, and made of that fatal knowledge a fierce, new, and necessary faith: the austere, “absurd” persistence of spirit in both Camus and Beckett; the terrible, disfiguring contingency that, in Giacometti’s sculptures, takes on the look of fate. There is genuine heroism here, but there is also — faintly at first, but then more persistently, more damagingly — an awareness of heroism. (Only Kafka seems to fully feel his defeat: he is perhaps the most “spiritual” artist among this group, though he treasures his misery too much ever to be released from it.) This flaw — the artist’s pride — is what made the achievement possible, but it is also the crack that slowly widens over time, not lessening the achievement, but humanizing it, relativizing it. Insights that once seemed immutable and universal begin to look a little more like temporal, individual visions — visions from which, inevitably, there comes a time to move forward.

— Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss

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