RELIGION OF AN ARTIST (2 of 2)
The renowned Vedic commentator, Sayanāchārya, says:
hutaśishtasya odanasya sarvajagatkaranabhūta
food offering which is left over after the completion of sacrificial rites is
praised because it is symbolical of Brahma, the original source of the
According to this explanation, Brahma is boundless in his superfluity, which inevitably finds its expression in the eternal world process. Here we have the doctrine of the genesis of creation, and therefore of the origin of art. Of all living creatures in the world, man has his vital and mental energy vastly in excess of his need, which urges him to work in various lines of creation for its own sake. Like Brahma himself, he takes joy in productions that are unnecessary to him, and therefore representing his extravagance and not his hand-to-mouth penury. The voice that is just enough can speak and cry to the extent needed for everyday use; but that which is abundant sings, and in it we find our joy. Art reveals man’s wealth of life which seeks its freedom in forms of perfection, which are an end in themselves.
All that is inert and inanimate is limited to the bare fact of existence.
Life is perpetually creative because it contains in itself that surplus which
ever overflows the boundaries of the immediate time and space, restlessly
pursuing its adventure of expression in the varied forms of self-realisation.
Our living body has its vital organs that are important in maintaining its
efficiency, but this body is not a mere convenient sac for the purpose of
holding stomach, heart, lungs and brains; it is an image—its highest value is
in the fact that it communicates its personality. It has colour, shape and
movement, most of which belong to the superfluous, that are needed only for
self-expression and not for self-preservation.
This living atmosphere of superfluity in man is dominated by his
imagination, as the earth’s atmosphere by the light. It helps us to integrate
desultory facts in a vision of harmony and then to translate it into our
activities for the very joy of its perfection; it invokes in us the Universal
Man who is the seer and the doer of all times and countries. The immediate
consciousness of reality, in its purest form, unobscured by the shadow of
self-interest, irrespective of moral or utilitarian recommendation, gives us
joy, as does the self-revealing personality of our own. What in common language
we call beauty, which is in harmony of lines, colours, sounds, or in grouping of
words or thoughts, delights us only because we cannot help admitting a truth in
it that is ultimate. “Love is enough,” the poet has said; it carries its own
explanation, the joy of which can only be expressed in a form of art, which also
has that finality. Love gives evidence to something which is outside us but
which intensely exists and thus stimulates the sense of our own existence. It
radiantly reveals the reality of its objects, though these may lack qualities
that are valuable or brilliant.
The I am in me realises its own extension, its own infinity whenever it
truly realises something else. Unfortunately, owing to our limitations and a
thousand and one preoccupations, a great part of our world, though closely
surrounding us, is far away from the lamp-post of our attention: it is dim, it
passes by us, a caravan of shadows, like the landscape seen in the night from
the window of an illuminated railway compartment: the passenger knows that the
outside world exists, that it is important, but for the time being the railway
carriage for him is far more significant. If among the innumerable objects in
this world there be a few that come under the full illumination of our soul and
thus assume reality for us, they constantly cry to our creative mind for a
permanent representation. They belong to the same domain as the desire of ours,
which represents the longing for the permanence of our own self.
I do not mean to say that things to which we are bound by the tie of
self-interest have the inspiration of reality; on the contrary, these are
eclipsed by the shadow of our own self. The servant is not more real to us than
the beloved. The narrow emphasis of utility diverts our attention from the
complete man to the merely useful man. The thick label of market-price
obliterates the ultimate value of reality.
That fact that we exist has its truth in the fact that everything else
does exist, and the “I am” in me crosses its finitude whenever it deeply
realises itself in the “Thou art.” This crossing of the limit produces joy,
the joy that we have in beauty, in love, in greatness. Self-forgetting, and in a
higher degree, self-sacrifice, is our acknowledgment of this our experience of
the Infinite. This is the philosophy which explains our joy in all arts, the
arts that in their creations intensify the sense of the unity which is the unity
of Truth we carry within ourselves. The personality in me is a self-conscious
principle of a living unity; it at once comprehends and yet transcends all the
details of facts that are individually mine, my knowledge, feeling, wish and
will, my memory, my hope, my love, my activities, and all my belongings. This
personality, which has the sense of the One in its nature, realises it in things, thoughts and facts made
into units. The principle of unity, which it contains, is more or less perfectly
satisfied in a beautiful face or a picture, a poem, a song, a character or a
harmony of interrelated ideas or facts and then for it these things become
intensely real, and therefore joyful. Its standard of reality, the reality that
has its perfect revelation in a perfection of harmony, is hurt when there is a
consciousness of discord—because discord is against the fundamental unity
which is in its centre.
All other facts have come to us through the gradual course of our
experience, and our knowledge of them is constantly undergoing contradictory
changes through the discovery of new data. We can never be sure that we have
come to know the filial character of anything that there is. But such a
knowledge has come to us immediately with a conviction which needs no arguments
to support it. It is this, that all my activities have their sources in this
personality of mine which is indefinable and yet about the truth of which I am
more certain than anything in this world. Though all the direct evidence that
can be weighed and measured support the fact that only my fingers are producing
marks on the paper; yet no sane man ever can doubt that it is not these
mechanical movements that are the true origin of my writings but some entity
that can never be known, unless known through sympathy. Thus we have come to
realise in our own person the two aspects of activities, one of which is the
aspect of law represented in the medium, and the other the aspect of will
residing in the personality.
Limitation of the unlimited is personality: God is personal where he
He accepts the limits of his own law and the play goes on, which is this world whose reality is in its relation to the Person. Things are distinct not in their essence but in their appearance; in other words, in their relation to one to whom they appear. This is art: the truth of which is not in substance or logic, but in expression. Abstract truth may belong to science and metaphysics, but the world of reality belongs to Art.
The world as an art is the play of the Supreme Person revelling in image
making. Try to find out the ingredients of the image—they elude you, they
never reveal to you the eternal secret of appearance. In your effort to capture
life as expressed in living tissue, you will find carbon, nitrogen and many
other things utterly unlike life, but never life itself. The appearance does not
offer any commentary of itself through its material. You may call it Māyā
and pretend to disbelieve it, but the great artist, the Māyāvin,
is not hurt. For art is Māyā; it has no other explanation but that it seems to be what it is.
It never tries to conceal its evasiveness, it mocks even its own definition and
plays the game of hide-and-seek through its constant flight in changes.
And thus life, which is an incessant explosion of freedom, finds its
metre in a continual falling back in death. Every day is a death, every moment
even. If not, there would be amorphous desert of deathlessness eternally dumb
and still. So life is Māyā,
as moralists love to say, it is
and is not.
All that we find in it is the rhythm through which it shows itself. Are
rocks and minerals any better? Has not science shown us the fact that the
ultimate difference between one element and another is only that of rhythm? The
fundamental distinction of gold from mercury lies merely in the difference of
rhythm in their respective atomic constitution, like the distinction of the king
from his subject, which is not in their different constituents, but in the
different metres of their situation and circumstance. There, you find behind the
scene the Artist, the Magician of rhythm, who imparts an appearance of substance
to the unsubstantial.
What is rhythm? It is the movement generated and regulated by harmonious
restriction. This is the creative force in the hand of the artist. So long as
words remain in uncadenced prose form, they do not give any lasting feeling of
reality. The moment they are taken and put into rhythm they vibrate into a
radiance. It is the same with the rose. In the pulp of its petals you may find
everything that went to make the rose, but the rose, which is Māyā, an image, is lost;
its finality, which has the touch of the Infinite, is gone. The rose appears to
me to be still, but because of its metre of composition it has a lyric of
movement within that stillness, which is the same as the dynamic quality of a
picture that has a perfect harmony. It produces a music in our consciousness by
giving it a swing of motion synchronous with its own. Had the picture consisted
of a disharmonious aggregate of colours and lines, it would be deadly still.
In perfect rhythm, the art-form becomes like the stars which, in their
seeming stillness, are never still, like a motionless flame that is nothing but
movement. A great picture is always speaking, but news from a newspaper, even of
some tragic happening, is still-born. Some news may be a mere ‘commonplace in
the obscurity of a journal; but give it a proper rhythm and it will never cease
to shine. That is art. It has the magic wand, which gives undying reality to all
things it touches, and relates them to the personal being in us. We stand before
its productions and say: I know you as I know myself; you are real.
A Chinese friend of mine, while travelling with me through the streets of Peking, suddenly, with great excitement, called my attention to a donkey. Ordinarily a donkey does not have any special force of truth for us, except when it kicks us or when we need its reluctant service. But in such cases, the truth is not emphasised in the donkey but in some purpose of bodily pain exterior to it. The behaviour of my Chinese friend at once reminded me of the Chinese poems in which the delightful sense of reality is so spontaneously felt and so simply expressed.
This sensitiveness to the touch of things, such abundant delight in the recognition of them, is obstructed when insistent purposes become innumerable and intricate in our society, when problems crowd in our path clamouring for attention, and life’s movement is impeded with things and thoughts too difficult for a harmonious assimilation.
This has been growing evident every day in the modern age, which gives
more time to the acquisition of life’s equipment than to the enjoyment of it.
In fact, life itself is made secondary to life’s materials, even like a garden
buried under the bricks gathered for the garden wall. Somehow the mania for
bricks and mortar grows, the kingdom of rubbish dominates, the days of spring
are made futile and the flowers never come.
Our modern mind, a hasty tourist, in its rush over the miscellaneous,
ransacks cheap markets of curios, which mostly are delusions. This happens
because its natural sensibility for simple aspects of existence is dulled by
constant preoccupations that divert it. The literature that it produces seems
always to be poking her nose into out-of-the-way places for things and effects
that are out of the common. She racks her resources in order to be striking. She
elaborates inconstant changes in style, as in modern millinery; and the product
suggests more the polish of steel than the bloom of life.
Fashions in literature that rapidly tire of themselves seldom come from
the depth. They belong to the frothy rush of the surface, with its boisterous
clamours for the recognition of the moment. Such literature, by its very strain,
exhausts its inner development and quickly passes through outer changes like
autumn leaves—produces with the help of paints and patches an up-to-dateness
shaming its own appearance of the immediately preceding date. Its expressions
are often grimaces, like the cactus of the desert, which lacks modesty in its
distortions and peace in its thorns, in whose attitude an aggressive discourtesy
bristles up suggesting a forced pride of poverty. We often come across its
analogy in some of the modem writings, which are difficult to ignore because of
their prickly surprises and paradoxical gesticulations. Wisdom is not rare in
these works, but it is a wisdom that has lost confidence in its serene dignity,
afraid of being ignored by crowds, which are attracted by the extravagant and
the unusual. It is sad to see wisdom struggling to seem clever, a prophet
arrayed in caps and bells before an admiring multitude.
But in all great arts, literary or otherwise, man has expressed his
feelings that are usual in a form that is unique and yet not abnormal. When
Wordsworth described in his poem a life deserted by love, he invoked for his art
the usual pathos expected by all
normal minds in connection with such a subject. But the picture in which he
incarnated the sentiment was unexpected and yet every sane reader acknowledges
it with joy when the image is held before him of
a forsaken bird’s nest filled with snow
its own bush of leafless eglantine.
On the other hand, I have read some modern writing in which the coming
out of the stars in the evening is described as the sudden eruption of disease
in the bloated body of darkness. The writer seems afraid to own the feeling of a
cool purity in the star-sprinkled night, which is usual,
lest he should be found out as commonplace. From the point of view of
realism the image may not be wholly inappropriate and may be considered as
outrageously virile in its unshrinking incivility. But this is not art; this is
a jerky shriek, something like the convulsive advertisement of the modern market
that exploits mob psychology against its inattention. To be tempted to create an
illusion of forcefulness through an over-emphasis of abnormality is a sign of
anaesthesia. It is the waning vigour of imagination, which employs desperate
dexterity in the present-day art for producing shocks in order to poke out into
a glare the sensation of the unaccustomed. When we find that the literature of
any period is laborious in the pursuit of a spurious novelty in its manner and
matter, we must know that it is the symptom of old age, of anaemic sensibility
which seeks to stimulate its palsied taste with the pungency of indecency and
the tingling touch of intemperance. It has been explained to me that these
symptoms mostly are the outcome of a reaction against the last century
literature, which developed a mannerism too daintily saccharine, unmanly in the
luxury of its toilet and over-delicacy of its expressions. It seemed to have
reached an extreme limit of refinement, which almost codified its conventions,
making it easy for the timid talents to reach a comfortable level of literary
respectability. This explanation may be true; but unfortunately reactions seldom
have the repose of spontaneity, they often represent the obverse side of the
mintage which they try to repudiate as false. A reaction against a particular
mannerism is liable to produce its own mannerism in a militant fashion, using
the toilet preparation of the war paint, deliberately manufactured style of
primitive rudeness. Tired of the elaborately planned flower-beds, the gardener
proceeds with grim determination to set up everywhere artificial rocks, avoiding
natural inspiration of rhythm in deference to a fashion of tyranny which itself
is a tyranny of fashion. The same herd instinct is followed in a cult of
rebellion as it was in the cult of conformity and the defiance, which is a mere
counteraction of obedience, also shows obedience in a defiant fashion.
Fanaticism of virility produces a brawny athleticism meant for a circus and not
the natural chivalry, which is modest but invincible, claiming its sovereign
seat of honour in all arts.
It has often been said by its advocates that this show of the rudely loud
and cheaply lurid in art has its justification in the unbiased recognition of
facts as such; and according to them realism must not be shunned even if it be
ragged and evil-smelling. But when it does not concern science but concerns the
arts we must draw a distinction between realism and reality. In its own wide
perspective of normal environment, disease is a reality, which has to be
acknowledged in literature. But disease in a hospital is realism fit for the use
of science. It is an abstraction which, if allowed to haunt literature, may
assume a startling appearance because of its unreality. Such vagrant spectres do
not have a proper modulation in a normal surrounding; and they offer a false
proportion in their features because the proportion of their environment is
tampered with. Such a curtailment of the essential is not art, but a trick which
exploits mutilation in order to assert a false claim to reality. Unfortunately
men are not rare who believe that what forcibly startles them allows them to see
more than the facts which are balanced and restrained, which they have to woo
and win. Very likely, owing to the lack of leisure, such persons are growing in
number, and the dark cellars of
sex-psychology and drugstores of moral virulence are burgled to give them the
stimulus, which they wish to believe to be the stimulus of aesthetic reality.
I know a simple line sung by some primitive folk in our neighbourhood, which I translate thus: “My heart is like a pebble-bed hiding a foolish stream.” The psychoanalyst classify it as an instance of repressed desire and thus at once degrade it to a mere specimen advertising a supposed fact, as it does a piece of coal suspected of having smuggled within its dark the flaming wine of the sun of a forgotten age. But it is literature; and what might have been the original stimulus that startled this thought into a song, the significant fact about it is that it has taken the shape of an image, a creation of a uniquely personal and yet universal character. The facts of the repression of a desire are numerously common; but this particular expression is singularly uncommon. The listener’s mind is touched not because it is a psychological fact, but because it is an individual poem, representing a personal reality, belonging to all time and place in the human world.
But this is not all. This poem no
doubt owed its form to the touch of the person who produced it; but at the same
time with a gesture of utter detachment, it has transcended its material—the
emotional mood of the author. It has gained its freedom from any biographical
bondage by taking a rhythmic perfection, which is precious in its own exclusive
merit. There is a poem which confesses by its title its origin in a mood of
dejection. Nobody can say that to a lucid mind the feeling of despondency has
anything pleasantly memorable. Yet these verses are not allowed to be forgotten,
because directly a poem is fashioned, it is eternally freed from its genesis, it
minimises its history and emphasises its independence. The
sorrow, which was solely personal in an emperor, was liberated directly it took
the form of verses in stone, it became a triumph of lament, an overflow of
delight hiding the black boulder of its suffering source. The same thing is true
of all creation. A new drop is a perfect integrity that has no filial memory of
When I use the word creation, I mean that
through it some imponderable abstractions have assumed a concrete unity in its relation
to us. Its substance can be analysed but not this unity, which is in its
self-introduction. Literature, as an art, offers us the mystery which is in its
We read the poem:
seek to tell thy love
that never told can be;
the gentle wind does move
told my love, I told my love,
told all my heart;
cold in ghastly fears
she did depart.
as she was gone from me
traveller came by;
took her with a sigh.
It has its grammar, its vocabulary. When we divide them part-by-part and
try to torture out a confession from them the poem which is one, departs like the
gentle wind, silently, invisibly. No one knows how it exceeds all its parts,
transcends all its laws, and communicates with the person. The significance,
which is in unity, is an eternal wonder.
As for the definite meaning of the poem, we may have our doubts. If it
were told in ordinary prose, we might feel impatient and be roused to contradict
it. We would certainly have asked for an explanation as to who the traveller was
and why he took away love without any reasonable provocation. But in this poem
we need not ask for an explanation unless we are hopelessly addicted to
meaning-collection, which is like the collection mania for dead butterflies. The
poem as a creation, which is something more than as an idea, inevitably conquers
our attention; and any meaning which we feel in its words, is like the feeling
in a beautiful face of a smile that is inscrutable, elusive and profoundly
The unity as a poem introduces itself in a rhythmic language in a gesture
of character. Rhythm is not merely in some measured blending of words, but in a
significant adjustment of ideas, in a music of thought produced by a subtle
principle of distribution, which is not primarily logical but evidential. The
meaning, which the word character contains, is difficult to define. It is
comprehended in a special grouping of aspects, which gives it an irresistible
impetus. The combination it represents may be uncouth, may be unfinished,
discordant; yet it has a dynamic vigour in its totality, which claims
recognition, often against our wishes for the assent of our reason. An avalanche
has a character, which even a heavier pile of snow has not; its character is in
its massive movement, its incalculable possibilities.
It is for the artist to remind the world that with the truth of our expression we grow in truth. When the man-made world is less an expression of man’s creative soul than a mechanical device for some purpose of power, then it hardens itself, acquiring proficiency at the cost of the subtle suggestiveness of living growth. In his creative activities man makes nature instinct with his own life and love. But with his utilitarian energies he fights Nature, banishes her from his world, deforms and defiles her with the ugliness of his ambitions.
This world of man’s own manufacture, with its discordant shrieks and swagger, impresses on him the scheme of a universe which has no touch of the person and therefore no ultimate significance. All the great civilisations that have become extinct must have come to their end through such wrong expression of humanity; through parasitism on a gigantic scale bred by wealth, by man’s clinging reliance on material resources; through a scoffing spirit of denial, of negation, robbing us of our means of sustenance in the path of truth.
It is for the artist to proclaim his faith in the everlasting yes—to
say: “I believe that there is an ideal hovering over and permeating the earth,
an ideal of that Paradise which is not the mere outcome of fancy, but the
ultimate reality in which all things dwell and move.”
I believe that the vision of Paradise is to be seen in the sunlight and
the green of the earth, in the beauty of the human face and the wealth of human
life, even in objects that are seemingly insignificant and unprepossessing.
Everywhere in this earth the spirit of Paradise is awake and sending forth its
voice. It reaches our inner ear without our knowing it. It tunes our harp of
life which sends our aspiration in music beyond the finite, not only in prayers
and hopes, but also in temples which are flames of fire in stone, in pictures
which are dreams made everlasting, in the dance which is ecstatic meditation in
the still centre of movement.
Religion of Man,
Allen & Unwin.
Allen & Unwin.
to a Friend,
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Allen & Unwin.