Saturday, August 31, 2013

Surrendering to Artworks

Bertolt Brecht
The following lines are from the poem “Remembering Marie” by the German poet Bertolt Brecht (1898 –1956).

It was a day in that blue month September
Silent beneath the plum trees’ slender shade
I held her there
My love, so pale and silent
As if she were a dream that must not fade

Above us in the shining summer heaven

There was a cloud my eyes dwelled long upon
It was quite white and very high above us
Then I looked up

And found that it had gone

Even in translation, this portion of Brecht’s poem is profound. When the subject looks up and finds that the cloud has vanished, there is a sense of sadness that hits the reader, though it’s hard to explain just why. One is impressed, on a very deep level, by the transience of time and love. “Remembering Marie” moves us if we let it, yet it does not have any immediate functional value for the Christian life. The value that it has is artistic, not pragmatic.

If we surrender to these types of works and let them work on us as people, we become richer and deeper men and women, and so there ends up being a certain functional value. But that is not where we start. We start by learning to surrender to the artwork and letting it change us in undefinable ways. 

When we surrender to works of art - whether a song, poem, film, novel, painting or ballet – and let the artwork stir our imagination, we are often changed in ways that are hard to quantify. Often the experience may be difficult to articulate and may actually lose something if we try to put it into words. This is what I experienced when I watched the foreign language film The Lives of Others. 

Sometimes we have to simply let ourselves experience a work of art before we try to explain it, to let ourselves surrender to it in a way analogous to our approach to persons. The way to get to know a person is not to begin analyzing him or her, but just to enjoy the relationship, to listen to what the person has to say, to empathize with the person, to allow ourselves to experience life through our friend’s perspective. In doing this, the horizons of our own personhood are expanded. It is the same with literature.

At least that is what I argued in an article I wrote last year for the Colson Center, titled 'Literary Criticism and the Biblical Worldview Part II.' To read the article, click here.

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