Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Reflections: The Elusive Butcher Knife of Love

In yesterday’s Quote du Jour we saw Iris Murdoch finger the ego as the enemy of the moral enterprise. Today we quote, from the same essay, her identification of the ego’s chief product, fantasy, as the antagonist of excellence in either the moral, or the artistic life:

The chief enemy of excellence in morality (and also in art) is personal fantasy: the tissue of self-aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from seeing what is there outside one. Rilke said of Cézanne that he did not paint ‘I like it’, he painted ‘There it is.’

Murdoch is here again speaking in terms of Simone Weil’s concept of attention; attention as the form of prayer:

Prayer is properly not petition, but simply an attention to God which is a form of love. With it goes the idea of grace, of a supernatural assistance to human endeavor which overcomes empirical limitations of personality.

Through attention one transcends the ego. Through attention one defeats the runaway imagination. Through attention one approaches the Real, the ‘There it is.’ A bit further on Murdoch states:

Almost anything that consoles us is a fake…

Consolation, then, is a function of the imagination; an attachment to and reliance upon the unreal.

Several days ago, as I was looking for a roll of tape in one of those catch-all drawers of which there are several in almost every human dwelling, I came across a 3x5 card, yellowed with age, upon which I had many years ago scribbled a quote by Canadian novelist, Robertson Davies. The card has been clipped to the monitor of this computer since I found it. It reads:

The business of art is not beauty. The business of art is to butcher whatever coddles the mind.

Remarkable, is it not, how this card turned up just in the nick of time, to add a layer of understanding to my reading of Murdoch’s essay?

The message, then: Truly objective art, made possible by attention, “butchers” false consolation—that coddler of daydreaming minds—and, like supernatural grace, renders the moral agent capable of love.

Ah, but if one still has God in this decadent age, that attention is known as prayer.
Note: The Davies quote is probably taken from The Deptford Trilogy