Jacques Maritain's

The Responsibility of the Artist

Chapter IV

Poetry and Perfection of Human Life

In the previous chapter I discussed the responsibility of the artist in relation to the human community. The topic of this chapter deals with the responsibility of the artist, no longer to other men, but to himself. In other words, what we have to consider is the relationship between art and moral life within the poet himself, or the inner connection between his effort toward the perfection of the work and his effort, if he makes any, toward the perfection of human life.

I have insisted all along that the aim which art directly intends and which makes art what it is -- that is to say, as the Schoolmen put it, the formal object of Art -- is not subordinate in itself to the formal object of morality. It must be added -- I already touched upon this point, but I would like to make it more explicit now -- that not only the order of formal causality, or the perspective of essences taken in themselves, but also the order of material causality, or the perspective of the concrete subject in which the essences of various qualities exist together, must be taken into consideration.

Ethical realities are of essential importance for the artist inasmuch as he is a man, to be sure; but in concrete life they are of importance for him not only inasmuch as he is a man, they are also of importance for him -- though, this time, in a so to speak accidental manner -- inasmuch as he is an artist, or with respect to the very achievement of his virtue of art. From the fact that art exists in man, moral realities, which concern the artist as man, have also, in addition, a certain impact on him as an artist. In other words morality has to do with the virtue of art in the order of material or dispositive causality. Since this connection pertains to the order of material causality, it is only extrinsic and indirect and subject to any kind of contingency, and it can be at play in various, even opposite directions. Yet, extrinsic and indirect as it may be, it is altogether real and inevitable.

The highest moral virtues can never make up for the lack or mediocrity of the virtue of art. But it is clear that laziness, cowardice or self-complacency, which are moral vices, are a bad soil for the exercise of artistic activity. The moral constitution of the human subject has some kind of indirect impact on his art. "No enmity of outward circumstances, but his own nature, was responsible for Shelley's doom," Francis Thompson sternly wrote.(22) A certain lack of moral and psychological integration, and, as a result, a certain split between sensibility and the creative power of the intellect or imagination, contributed in some way both to the particular beauty and to the deficiencies of Poe's or Hart Crane's poetry. A moral poison which warps in the long run the power of vision will finally, through an indirect repercussion, warp artistic creativity -- though perhaps this poison will have stimulated or sensitized it for a time. At long last the work always avows. When it is a question of great poets, this kind of avowal does not prevent the work from being great and treasurable, yet it points to some soft spot in this greatness.

Furthermore, are not the inner inclinations of the artist the very channel through which things are revealed to him? Is it not in and through himself, through his own emotion and subjectivity, that the poet, in so far as poetic intuition is concerned, knows everything he knows? What is most real in the world thus escapes the notice of a darkened soul. Let us remember Plotinus' remark in this connection. "Just as one can say nothing about the beauties of senses," he wrote, "if one has no eyes to perceive them, so it is with the things of the spirit, if one cannot see how beautiful is the face of justice or temperance, and that neither the morning star nor the evening star is so beautiful."(23) We may understand in this respect why a number of novelists think that "only the marshes are fecund."(24) In any case the work is always nourished by the experience of the man.

Yet the problem we are now considering is still more complicated, because of the fact that the artist is aware of the very impact I just pointed out of his own moral life on his art. Thus he may be tempted to develop, for the sake of his art, a certain conception of moral life itself, or of moral heroism, a certain system of moral values and moral standards and moral imperatives -- all that directed to the good of his work, not of his soul. That's what I would call the temptation of a merely artistic morality. I think that the part played in this regard by Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde in the last century was not insignificant.

Sometimes poetry is depicted as forcing upon man moral obligations the burden of which can never be set down. "We shelter in ourselves an Angel whom we constantly shock," Cocteau said. "We must be the guardians of this angel." Sometimes an artist speaks of the requirements of ethics and purity and self-sacrifice in more exacting terms than any moralist would.

Yet let us be careful! The ethics of which we are being told will perhaps consist in regarding moral law as a plaster on an abscess, or wet paint on a dirty wall -- mind the paint! It stains! What does not stain is the dunghill, because it is full of living ferments. Self-sacrifice will perhaps consist in attempting with one's own soul and body and with the destiny of other human beings any new experiment apt to reveal new human horizons, and in heroically plunging into evil in order to redeem it by poetry.

Such a merely artistic morality or merely artistic system of life is less an articulate doctrine than a practical cast of mind, sporadically developed in a few circles. I would not ascribe to it more consistency than it has. Let me say, nevertheless, that it seems to lay stress on three main virtues of its own: a certain type of sincerity, a certain type of purity, and imperious curiosity.

There is of course a sincerity which is a genuine virtue. I would say that it is not only sincerity with respect to others, but first of all sincerity with respect to oneself -- the sincerity of the knowledge with which a man penetrates into his own interior life: a straightforward, merciless gaze before which the heart spreads like open country, and for which the shames, the social prohibitions and all rules concerning the dialogue with others, are not transferred into the secret colloquy in which God alone takes part, and do not dissimulate anything of what exists in our inner recesses. But the sincerity of merely artistic morality is another kind of sincerity: the sincerity of matter as available to any form. It consists not in seeing oneself, but in accepting or cherishing oneself at each moment just as one is, and refusing to make any choice or moral decision: for this would risk preventing the potentialities of the Ego from freely developing -- both toward God and toward the devil -- and its various aspects to be manifested in the work regarded as a sort of self-epiphany. Gide wrote, at one and the same time, by dint of sincerity, a book expressing a most scrupulous love for the Gospel and a book preaching homosexuality.

As concerns purity, as this merely artistic morality sees it, we might say that it resembles the purity of plants, which, as Aristotle said, having only a vegetative soul, live in perpetual sleep, without being troubled by reason, and have all their aim in the flower. They have their mouth in the heart, and they expose their sex and corolla to the birds of heaven, without any repression. Purity consists in behaving as if evil did not exist. What is pure is a human act that the distinction between good and evil does not even graze, and which no moral standard risks distorting. A crime, a vice, a lie, malice or lust, all this is pure if it is intact, if no turn of reason judges it and interrupts its movement, if it keeps its virginity for poetry.(25)

Curiosity finally is the supreme ethical virtue, because it is the motive power which makes an artist take any risk and confront any disaster, for himself and for others, in order to discover new secrets in things, and first of all in himself. Thus he wants to taste all the fruits and silts of the earth, and to be fully instructed by the experience of evil, in order to feed his art.

To sum up, on the ground that art reflects morality, one insists that art exacts a life which is morally dangerous, and new experiments in morality as in aesthetics -- that is to say experiments to render innocent, thanks to the sorcery of poetry, the very things God forbids. This means, if you like, subordinating art to morality, but to a morality that art has violated.

As regards the work and the artistic result, who can know whether the work would have been better or worse if a given artist had not yielded, to some extent or other, to the seduction of merely artistic morality, and had led a life more true to the requirements of moral law?


What is, then, the truth of the matter? About the relationship between art of poetry and genuine morality, or the true perfection of human life, I should like to submit three tentative remarks, regarding first the impact of a moral change in the artist on his art and his work; second, the aesthetic virtues; and third, poetic experience.

In the order of formal causality -- moral virtues, as we have seen, belong to another sphere than the sphere of art, and are of no use to it. In the order of material causality, moral virtues -- and, more perhaps than them, what may be called the premoral dispositions, deeply rooted in the psychological constitution of the human being, and still more, the supreme love to which a man makes his life appendent -- have an indirect repercussion on the virtue of art. Now, what about the case where an artist, suddenly awakened to the problem of his own destiny, changes his moral life and turns it toward the moral good? Does the fact that the man becomes better necessarily make his work better also?

I said in my previous chapter that this is a melancholy problem: for, as a matter of fact, it happens that the work may become worse. Religious conversion does not always have a favorable repercussion on the work of artists, especially minor artists.

The reason for this is obvious. For a number of years the inmost experience from which the inspiration of a given artist arose was a dark experience fostered by some sinful ardor, and revealing to him corresponding aspects in things. His work made capital out of all that. Now his heart is purified, but his new experience is still weak and, as it were, childlike. He has lost his inspiration of former days. And at the same time great moral ideas, newly revealed to him, and of major importance in themselves, occupy his intellect. Will they not prey upon his art as substitutes for insufficiently deep experience and creative intuition? The risk is serious for the work.

Some extraneous elements make it still greater, because religion offers to the artist a double temptation of facility. On the one hand -- religious feelings being lofty and beautiful emotions -- he may be tempted to satisfy himself in expressing his emotions as subject matter or psychological phenomena (which is the opposite of obeying intuitive or creative emotion). On the other hand, community of faith puts him in immediate communion with his fellow-believers, and here again he may be tempted to substitute this easy communion for that communication, more dearly paid, or even that solitary expression of poetic intuition which art alone can provide.

Well, we must realize that all that is accidental. None of these unfortunate drawbacks would have come about if the artist in question had been possessed of a greater and stronger virtue of art, if he had understood that his very faith requested him to be more exacting in his art and more attentive guardian of this Angel within him, and especially if he had been more patient, and had asked Time, the redeemer of the work, to make his new experience and inspiration deeper and more mature, more comprehensive and more integrated. Neither the work of Francis Thompson, Hopkins, Chesterton or T. S. Eliot, nor that of Léon Bloy, Claudel, Sigrid Undset, Gertrud von Le Fort, Bernanos, Julian Green, Mauriac or Max Jacob have been impaired by their faith and the fact of what can be called, in one sense or another, their conversion to God.

My second remark deals with the virtues which Art and Poetry demand in their own sphere, and which may be termed aesthetic virtues.

The artist is subject in the sphere of his art to a kind of asceticism, which may require heroic sacrifices, I mean this time genuine heroic sacrifices. He must be always on his guard not only against the vulgar attractions of easy execution and success, but against a host of more subtle temptations. He must pass through spiritual nights, purify his ways ceaselessly, voluntarily abandon fertile places for barren regions full of insecurity. In a certain sphere and from a particular point of view, in the sphere of the making and from the point of view of the good of the work, he must possess humility and magnanimity, prudence, integrity, fortitude, temperance, simplicity, ingenuousness. All these virtues which the heroes in spiritual life possess purely and simply, and in the line of the supreme good, the artist must have in a certain relation, and in a line apart, the line of the work. His virtues as an artist imitate -- they are not -- the virtues of man as a man. Most poets, probably, like most saints" -- Francis Thompson wrote -- "are prepared for their mission by an initial segregation, as the seed is buried to germinate: before they can utter the oracle of poetry, they must first be divided from the body of men."(26)

I spoke a moment ago of the spurious purity of merely artistic morality superseding true morality. But in the sphere or art itself there is a genuine purity, which is concerned with the making of the work and the duty to remain true to creative intuition. The purity of the artist is an authentic purity, paid for by the weight of the sufferings of a created mind, and which is an emblem of a truer purity; and which, in emblematizing it, prepares it. In his Art Poétique Max Jacob asserted that the virtues required from the artist, especially the modern artist, are, as aesthetic, not moral virtues, evangelic in nature. "Voluntary poverty," he said, "is an aesthetic virtue. Soberness is an aesthetic virtue. Chastity is an aesthetic virtue. Respect is an aesthetic virtue." "Fortitude, renouncement, obedience, order, humility" are aesthetic virtues in the realm of art, as they are Christian virtues in the realm of moral life.

All this means that the virtues of the artist as an artist are in a relation of analogy with the virtues of man as a man, and more especially perhaps with Gospel virtues. With respect to man they are ambivalent. While going their way, they may replace, for the artist, human and Christian virtues properly speaking, or they may create in him a sort of appeal to these virtues. But it seems to me to be clear that, ambivalent as they may be, they are of themselves congenial, as it were, with the universe of genuine love and moral perfection. Naturally and spontaneously, if man were not divided unto himself, they would incline the poet toward their sister-virtues, and prepare him to listen to their music.

The same can be said about poetic experience. Poetry has its own spiritual mystery, by virtue of which it resembles and foreshadows a greater mystery, and symbolizes with grace-given gifts without penetrating into their domain. And poetry's spiritual mystery is available to Heaven and to Hell as well. Poetic experience is a brooding repose which takes place at the center of the soul and in which the world and the subjectivity are obscurely known together in a non-conceptual manner. This experience is not mystical experience. It is busy with the created world and the enigmatic relations of things with each other, not with the principle of things in its own supra-mundane unity. The obscure knowledge that it implies comes about through emotion, not through love of charity. Poetic experience is from the very start oriented toward expression, and terminates in a word uttered or a work produced, while mystical experience tends toward silence, and terminates in an immanent fruition of the absolute.

But different in nature as they may be, poetic experience and mystical experience are born near one another, and there is between them a kind of congeniality.(27) As a result of some basic choice accomplished in the heart of man, poetic experience can either mimic or call for mystical experience. Either it may turn the poet toward that ecstasy of the void and nothingness and that enticement of magic which Mallarmé and some other poets and still more the surrealists have experienced. Or it may turn the poet toward God-given mystical experience. And of itself, naturally and spontaneously, it is for this genuine spiritual contemplation that poetic experience would obscurely predispose the poet, if man were not divided unto himself, and if he did not at times warp poetic experience through some egotistic yearning for power.


I am afraid I can propose only inadequate views on the problem I must discuss in the last part of this essay, for competence in such a problem would require experience more than theory. Yet, willy nilly, I am obliged by my subject-matter, and by poets themselves, to tackle this problem, the problem of Art and the Perfection of human life.

Not to speak of Michelangelo or Racine, of Henry Vaughan or George Herbert, this problem worried many great artists, at least as long as poets and writers were not induced to make themselves into the prophets and the saints of the modern world. Some contemporary novelists have been led, under the pressure of their inner difficulties and conflicts as men dedicated to literary work, to pose the problem in the most decisive terms.

Let us think of the particular situation of the novelist with respect to his work. He is a kind of god muddled with the weaknesses of man. He deals with the world of characters whom he creates but who are sometimes stronger than himself, and whom he knows through himself but whose freedom is an imaginary freedom: unlike God, he is the author of the evil committed by his creatures. And this imaginary evil, in which the novel is seated, just as our real world is "seated in wickedness," as St. John puts it,(28) is in a strange intimacy with the real evil of our real world -- it is an image and sign of this real evil, but an operative sign, which may, as occasion arises, stir in actual existence that which it represents.

Dealing with this particular situation of the novelist, and the relationship between his work on the one hand, and, on the other hand, his own soul and the souls of others, but especially his own soul, Mauriac wrote: "Il faudrait être un saint . . . Mais alors on n'écriait pas de roman."(29) "One would have to be a saint. But then one would not write novels."

Thus the question is posed by Mauriac in terms of the supreme perfection of human life, or of sainthood. For Léon Bloy it was obviously posed in these terms. "If Art is part of my baggage," he said, "so much the worse for me! My only recourse is the expedient of placing at the service of Truth what has been given me by the Father of Lies."(30) To one degree or another, we find the same sort of anxiety in Bernanos, in Graham Greene, still more in Julian Green. Among critics Charles Du Bos was very much concerned with the problem. Charles Morgan, in a chapter of his book The Liberties of the Mind, also touched on it, though he did not consider it in all its dimensions.

Well, Mauriac's statement is one of those statements which seem cogent at first glace, but which, on further consideration, leave the mind in a state of perplexity. One would have to be a saint. But then one would not write novels. Cannot everybody say the same thing with regard to his own particular vocation in the world? One would have to be a saint. But then one would not be a politician; one would not be a judge, a doctor, a banker, a businessman, a newspaperman, or anything here below, save perhaps a monk, and still the job is not secure.

Every human occupation has its own hardships, entanglements or temptations which run against the perfection of human life. The question is: are the moral hardships and entanglements involved in the calling of an artist especially serious in this regard?

Yes, they are, in many respects. That's what the various points made in this essay prompt us to answer. I utterly disagree with the conclusion which is sometimes drawn from this fact. But the fact itself must be simply acknowledged.

First, the artist, in his most intimate creative activity, lives on the senses and the delights of the intelligence-permeated sense. It is through emotion that the world penetrates into him. He is sensitized to the world and all the vagrancies of beauty. As Léon Bloy puts it, "The artist's master faculty -- the imagination -- is naturally and passionately anarchic."(31) The poet is both a madman carried along by irrational inspiration and a craftsman exercising for his work the shrewdest operative reason. How could you expect from him that stable balance and constant attention to the rule of reason which perfection in moral life seems to require?

Second, when it comes especially to writers, they need to know the recesses of evil as well as those of the good in the human being, and not through an abstract and theoretical knowledge, as an author of treatises in moral theology does, but by experience and in concrete existence. Are they not obliged, then, in order to be good writers, to make the devil their assistant, at least on a part-time basis, and to seek after that experiential science of evil which is the privilege of sin?

In the third place, and this is a still more insidious problem, the novelist or the playwright knows his characters by means of that kind of knowledge which is called knowledge through inclination or congeniality -- through the very passions, inclinations or instincts that he shares with his characters, even when he hates them with that lucid hate which makes a man know his enemy as himself. In other words his characters are virtual aspects or possible developments of himself -- "Turelure, c'est moi," Claudel said one day, That's why the novelist is capable of foreseeing what his characters will do. Now is it possible to use such knowledge, especially in the total intimacy meant by creation -- without entering into a kind of complicity or connivance with the imaginary being in question, and without suffering in oneself a repercussion of their own diseases or inferno?

I think that I have stated the difficulty in all its force. What I am denying is not the factual situation on which these arguments rest, it is the conclusion that they claim to establish. Before trying to discuss them, I feel it is relevant to consider a little more closely the concept used by Mauriac when he said: One would have to be a saint, or by Léon Bloy when he said: There is but one sadness, and that is for us not to be saints.(32)


The words of our language, especially the most important ones, both manifest and obscure the reality that they signify, because they remain laden with inevitable parasitical connotations. Christians have borrowed from Greek philosophers the word contemplation, to signify something utterly different from what Greek philosophers meant by the same word. The word sainthood, it seems to me, has similarly been laden by its past with possibly misleading accidental connotations. It was first used, in pre-Christian societies, in the sense of sacred, or separate, meaning a particular function -- ritual or priestly -- in the community. With Christianity the sense shifted from this particular social function -- obviously reserved for a certain category of consecrated people -- to the inner purity of the heart, and the internal separation from evil and internal dedication to God. This was a change of immense import. But something of the old meaning was to remain now and then accidentally. So, for many people in the baroque age it was an accepted opinion that, monks being dedicated to perfection, laymen are by the same token dedicated to imperfection, and would fail in their duty if they had higher aspirations than making themselves fit to be saved by the prayers of monks, especially by endowing monasteries with some pious foundations.

This happy division of labor was unfortunately heretical in nature. Christian sainthood is not a restricted resort. According to the Gospels and to Thomas Aquinas, it is a far-off goal toward which everyone must tend to the best of his ability. All right, but the word immediately met with a new misfortune, namely the canonization of saints. The connotation canonized or canonizable crept into its meaning. And this connotation may possibly be misleading, to a greater or less extent. Let me tell you a story in this connection. One day George Duhamel was received by Mussolini, and in the course of the conversation the dictator told the writer of his high regard for spiritual values, of course, and especially for the spiritual discipline of the Church and for her saints. And he went on to say: "What moral strength and inspiration a man must receive when, getting up each morning he says to himself: Be good, my boy, one day you will be canonized!" This was a typical Mussolinian interpretation of the glories of canonization. But it shows to what degree these glories are able to alter accidentally the simple meaning of sainthood.

The fact is that not all saint are canonized or canonizable, but only those endowed with such poise and heroism that they can be offered as beacons to mankind. I am ready to admit that artists and novelists who had the same concept of sainthood as Mussolini's would be disappointed in their ambition. If there are no or exceedingly few canonized artists, there must be good reasons for this; moreover artists cannot have everything, and they are already beacons for mankind in relation to quite other shores and other high seas. The kind of sainthood to which they can aspire is not, I think, of the canonizable type -- but rather of the type pointed to by Kierkegaard when he imagined sainthood in the shape of the most ordinary, unrecognizable man, Disguised in life's most hodden-grey, / By the most beaten road of everyday, as Francis Thompson said of the poet's vision.(33)

How, then, can we get rid of the parasitical connotations I have mentioned? I would suggest that for the clarity of our discussion we simply leave aside the word sainthood, and that instead of saying: "one would have to be a saint" -- moreover the question in such matters is not to be, but to be on the way -- we simply say: "one would have to strive after perfection." It is enough, it seems to me, to say perfection of life, though for other reasons this expression may also seem unsatisfactory in some respects.

Let us introduce, furthermore, an auxiliary concept, closely related to that of state of life, may I be allowed to say the concept of the occupational stream. This concept, as I see it, refers to the typical conditions, both external and psychological, involved in a certain state of life or a certain vocation, in relation to moral progress and the perfection of human life.

A monk has given up everything to enter a state of life dedicated in itself to the pursuit of perfection. I would say that whatever his personal behavior may be, the occupational stream in which he is engaged runs in the direction of the perfection of human life.

And I would say that in the scale of the states of life which have to do with the spirit, the occupational stream of the artist is at the opposite extreme of that of the monk. The state of life of the artist is in itself dedicated to the world and the beauty and mystery and glory of the world. For the reasons I have outlined, and doubtless many others, his occupational stream runs, I think we must admit, in a direction contrary to or estranged from the perfection of human life.

But this means in no way that the artist is necessarily carried along in the same direction. When it is a question of Man, any external and psychological conditioning makes sense only with reference to the freedom of individuals, which no stream can force. Streams can be swum against; they were even made to be swum against, and all of us would be lost if we were unable to swim up-stream. Even a monk, if he does not have to swim against his occupational stream, at least has to swim faster than the stream.

If the artist has to struggle against a particularly strong occupational stream, he also has particularly strong assistance: I mean to say those aesthetic virtues of which I spoke in the first part of this chapter, and that poetic experience, which of themselves, despite the difference in nature, are congenial with the virtues and experience of the saints, and tend to prepare the artist, if he wants, for the superior achievements of moral and spiritual life.

In contrast to Gide's famous statement, let me read a passage from Francis Thompson's Essay on Shelley:(34) "The devil can do many things," Francis Thompson says, "But the devil cannot write poetry. He may mar a poet, but he cannot make a poet. Among all the temptations wherewith he tempted St. Anthony, though we have often seen it stated that he howled, we have never seen it stated that he sang."


At this point we are able, I think to grapple with the three arguments, which I mentioned some moments ago, of those who claim that no hope is left to the artist except to serve Mammon.

In the first place, we may observe that the perfection of human life does not consist in a kind of athleticism of man-made virtue, and does not depend only on the effort of Reason. According to the views of Thomas Aquinas I mentioned earlier, the perfection of human life might be described as a certain fulness in the freedom of divine love to expand in a human soul and do there as it pleases. Everything, then, finally boils down to a relationship of person to person between the uncreated self and the human self, and to the fact of man loving always more -- and, each time he fails, loving still more. What is demanded of us men is not to have reached, but ceaselessly to tend. And who could claim that the road is not open to the artist as well as to his equally weak fellow-men? His vulnerability to the arrows of the senses makes him vulnerable also to more spiritual arrows. If it were a question of becoming an impeccable Stoic sage, he -- and everyone -- could only throw in the sponge. But it is a question of growing in love in spite of peccability. The perseverance of a Max Jacob in starting again every day the story of the Penitent Thief, prepared him to accept the supreme sacrifice with saintly sweetness, and to die as a wounded lamb.

Neither the senses, moreover, nor the delights of the intelligence-permeated sense are impure in themselves. In dealing with them the heart of man can always endeavor not to be bewitched by them, and grope after its own purity. If the poet is torn between passivity to irrational inspiration and sagacity of working reason, this is but a sign that he needs more than anybody else that unifying contemplative repose of which his experience as a poet is an ambiguous image. If he is busy with the world and its mysteries, this is but a token that his love may offer the world to his God as his work offers it to men.

In the second place, it is, we must say, a childish notion to think that a novelist or a playwright, in order to know that of which he speaks, needs to steep himself in the sins of men and to hunt after some personal experience of the various kinds of troubles and diseases his characters will suffer. It is enough for him, to be sure, to look at his own inner universe of repressed tendencies, and at the various monsters which are latent in his heart. Introspection, more than any poor and always limited experience of sin, is the best teacher in the geography of evil.

Finally, that knowledge through inclination or congeniality by means of which a novelist knows his characters, is as is every kind of knowledge, spiritual in nature and intentional, as the Schoolmen put it: that is to say, it causes the thing known to be present in the knower immaterially, without any real mixing-up of the being of the one with the being of the other. The kind of inner mimicry of his characters which is peculiar to a writer tends of itself only to foster creative intuition. Deep as this inner mimicry may be, it remains by nature an instrument for immaterial knowledge, it does not involve or entail of itself any insidious complicity or connivance with, or any participation or delectation of the heart in the depravity of the imaginary creatures which are the children of the author's mind


Let us consider that one of Dostoievsky's characters who most resembles his own confession, Stavrogin of The Possessed. Dostoievsky "contrives no alibi in behalf of him, he leads him to his miserable suicide with a severity, a clear-sightedness, a logic without pity. He loves him, however, for it is himself, or at least the dark face of himself. But it is exactly here that best appears, to my mind, the transcendence of Dostoievsky's genius as a novelist. His work is similar to the living universe, there is in it a sort of metaphysical pathos because the beings who move about in it are, -- to a particularly high degree -- in the same relation to the thought that creates them, as men are to God. He loves his characters, more tenderly perhaps than does any other artist, he puts himself into them more than does any other; at the same time, he scrutinizes them and judges them inflexibly."(35)

It may happen, to be sure, that in the process the intentional union by knowledge shifts to some union by real influence, and that the character contaminates, as it were, the author, awakening in him, in actual existence, and in the manner of some involuntary movement or inclination, the same fire with which this character is burning. Similarly a good actor always undergoes to some extent in his own being the hold of the character whom he incarnates on the stage. All that, however, is but accident, and more often than not pertains only to the temptations which are inevitably linked with the exercise of any kind of vocation.

Thinking of certain pages in the early volumes of Julian Green's admirable Diary, I wonder whether some of the artists who are most concerned with this problem, and seem to believe that they are really accomplices of their characters, are not victims of the old Lutheran illusion, which considered any disordered movement or storm of the sensibility -- very strong perhaps but involuntary and not consented to -- to be a sin.

Let me add that the highest form of knowledge through inclination or congeniality is provided by that kind of presence of the one within the other which is proper to love. If the novelist is the God of his characters, why could he not love them with a redeeming love? We are told (it is irrational, but it is a fact), that Bernanos could not help praying for his characters. When a novelist has this kind of love even for his most hateful characters, then he knows them, through inclination, in the truest possible way, and the risk of being contaminated by them still exists for him, I think, but to a lesser degree than ever.


I have said again and again that Beauty and Poetry are an inexorable absolute which requires a total gift of oneself and which suffers no division. Only with God can a man give himself totally twice at the same time, first to his God and second to something which is a reflection of his God.

When the love on which the perfection of human life depends, and which tends to the self-subsisting Absolute, is integrated in the creative source itself, it brings no division in creative activity, because it penetrates and activates everything, and the very love of an artist for the particular absolute he serves.

The most defective comparisons are sometimes the most instructive. It is well known that up to a few years before his death Utrillo was mad for drink. One of his biographers tell us: he painted only to drink.(36) And what admirable paintings he painted!

The merely physical passion of drinking is simple enough to incite a painter without introducing in his art an extraneous element.

At the other extreme, the transcendence of the supreme love, which makes this love nowhere extraneous, enables it, when it quickens the creative source, and animates the virtue of art from within, to do so in a superior, infinitely delicate manner, and without any of the risks which human motivations my involve of bending or blurring this virtue.

If a painter, intoxicated with another wine than that of our vineyards, paints only to please God, he can be a good or a bad painter, and he does not become a better painter by the very fact, but he is put in a position to use his virtue of art in the purest and freest manner.

For all that I think that the condition of the poet, which obliges him to swim up-stream if he wants to advance toward the perfection of human life, places his mind in a particular sort of obscurity as to his awareness of this very advance. I imagine that any poet or artist who has long striven toward the true end of human life will probably say with Léon Bloy: "I could have become a saint, a worker of wonders. I have become a man of letters,"(37) at the very moment when his soul is most deeply transformed by love.

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