When a Heart is Really Alive: Erich Heller, The Inklings and The Way of Art

I am not sure how many still read the essays of Erich Heller, scholar and critic, insightful student of Goethe, Nietzche and Rilke. Reading them now, I wish that while he lived Professor Heller had turned his attention to the works of Professor Tolkien and his fellow Inklings, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams. There would have been a sympathy amongst these men, I am almost sure of it. In a collection of essays on Goethe, Nietzche, Rilke and Thomas Mann, The Poet’s Self and the Poem, Heller looks again and again at the modern dangers of losing oneself in a world of lifeless, unlovely things. The Inklings shared this concern and, in their own art and their understanding of the meaning of Art, they tried to show us a way out of the danger.

Heller takes his faith in art from, among others, Arthur Schopenhauer who wrote that the genius of art is in its “perfect objectivity” achieved through the artist’s “pure contemplation,” uninfluenced by individual, idiosyncratic drives and desires. An artist who produces true art does so by entering into a state of contemplative surrender that allows one “to disown for some time one’s own personality and exist alone for the sake of knowledge as a means of lucid vision.” Schopenhauer valued this objective vision the most when it was trained on its opposite phenomenon, human subjectivity. When suffering becomes the object of art, it ceases to be suffering and becomes sublime. Our worst moments, as individuals and as a species, seen through the eyes of art are revealed to be as exquisite as our best, though no less terrible for that.

What Lewis wrote of the function of myth in general and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in particular could just as easily be applied to art.

The value of myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity’… If you are tired of the real landscape, look at it in a mirror. By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves. [The Lord of the Rings] applies the treatment not only to bread or apple but to good and evil, to our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys. By dipping them in myth we see them more clearly.

The Inklings understood the artist’s alchemy that turns the suffering into the sublime. Tolkien wrote in his letters of his cordial dislike for allegory, a mode of story-telling in which one thing is made to merely stand in for another thing (be it object, feeling or idea). Surely the point of non-allegorical art is to get us away from thingness all together. Tolkien believed that our primary means of encountering the world is through “appropriation,” the tendency to regard everything in terms of ourselves, as something we love or hate, as a tool or a toy.  This narrowness of judgment precludes us ever seeing anything in terms that are not selfish and small. Divested of our selfishness, perhaps even our own lives would take on an extra-personal significance.

In The Poet’s Self and the Poem, Heller remarks upon the great personal sacrifices undertaken by the true artist. He recounts that, absorbed in his painting, Paul Cezanne failed even to attend his own mother’s funeral. Heller considers such devotion to art to be “inhuman” or perhaps “superhuman.” It is not the soul of the artist that expresses itself in the fruit of pure contemplation but the soul of Nature, Herself. Heller suggests that the true artist strives “to say through his paintings not ‘Look here! I love this,’ but simply: ‘Here it is, is as the apple exists, not in order to delight in the palate or the eye…but to reveal its own being, its indestructible form.” If the same can be said of injustice and pain, that it is, perhaps, we could learn to see these states as somehow perfect in themselves. The mountains do not love the sunlight more than the storm. The painter finds equal fascination in the furrows of age and the smooth brow of youth. The storyteller delights in the villain as much as in the hero. Stories with no sadness or peril are not stories at all. They are wishes and nothing more.

Heller wonders if the kind of insight that serves to emancipate things from their thingness and turn pain into poetry can only be achieved by the artist who is willing “to give up everything, even life itself, to become so poor that the picture can shine with ‘the great radiance from within’ that may be the reward of chosen poverty.” Here Heller is quoting the poet Rainer Marie Rilke who, when he wrote these words, believed that to gain the world, the artist must lose it. If this is true, it must also be true that, when the artist’s objectivity surveys the inner landscape of joy and suffering, the artist loses himself and is never more himself than when he does.

In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis recommended a similar attitude of surrender on the part of the audience to the art of fiction or poetry. (Modern poetry, in fact, presents an extra-special case because to appreciate it one must enter into very nearly the same state of consciousness that the poet was in when she produced it). Lewis advises that we let go of any impulse to use a work for our own ends, to be entertained by it, to torture a lesson out of it, to analyze it in a way that reveals our own cleverness. Instead we should give ourselves over to the work, making room for it to reveal itself to us.

In his posthumously published novella, Night Operation, Barfield allows one of his characters a revelation as he emerges into the open air from a life of confinement in a spiritually-stunted underground society. As the character begins to learn to pay careful attention to the world above, becoming able to say as he looks at a particular flower “this is this flower and no other,” he realizes that “[t]here are two kinds of seeing. There is just seeing and there is being shown.”  Being shown, releasing our hold on the world so that it can show itself to us and even show us to ourselves, is what true art is all about. As his essay on Rilke progresses, however, Heller begins to wonder if achieving true art really requires the artist to skip his mother’s funeral.

The tug-of-war between creative life and family life is a theme that runs through the biographies of each of the four central Inklings. In his only concession to allegory, Tolkien cast himself as Niggle, a frustrated artist who is very good at painting leaves but not as good at painting trees. He can never quite muster the skill to do justice to the fullness of his vision but, more importantly, he can never quite wrest the time away from other obligations to devote himself to his great work. It all turns out just fine in the end, however.

First, the little artist learns the value of simple work and, thus, becomes the master of his hours and days. Next, he finds himself able to collaborate with the being he had once found most distracting to realize his art in a way that is more perfect and complete than he ever thought possible. The fact that this completion is not made manifest in the earthly realm in which Niggle began his work should not be read as a warning. Nature expresses Herself through the artist in Her own time and place. During his otherwise negligible life, Niggle managed to leave behind a single image to serve as a window into the depths that are only skimmed by the whole of the life of our world.

Is the greatest sacrifice an artist must make the acknowledgement that her life of work will be one of personal failure even at the same time as it is one of cosmic success? Like Cezanne painting away while his mother was mourned, Frodo in The Lord of the Rings commits his whole being to resisting the inertia of appropriation. “I will take the Ring,” he says, “though I do not know the way,” and though he wished the Ring had never come to him. It is arguable that there was not a step of his journey to Mount Doom in which Frodo wholly succumbed to hope for his personal future and there was not a step when the Ring did not attempt to exploit that hope to turn Frodo from his noble course. This remained true right up until the end when Frodo claimed the Ring as his own, forgetting all about his quest, because that is what we all would do in the end.

Heller explained that even Rilke reached the conclusion that “such renunciations of the self as he sought…are impossible.” In Heller’s words, Rilke realized that there was “a limit to his loveless contemplation of things.” Rilke began to sense that the things he had sought to portray in such perfect objectivity “desired to prosper in the artist’s love.” There is an inwardness to human experience that lies deeper than appropriation just as there is an inwardness to a landscape beyond what can be depicted on a pretty postcard.

When Cezanne set out to astonish Paris with his apples, he found himself painting apples in a way that revealed their soul but, without consulting his own soul, he could never have accomplished this. Cezanne’s apples became something in his paintings that apples are not in the mundane world. By passing through the artist’s imagination on their way to the canvas the apples became more themselves; they became somehow fulfilled. Nature spoke through Cezanne but Cezanne provided the accent.

The idea that the personality and emotions of an individual can somehow commune with the personality and emotions of the contents of the natural world can be regarded as a Romantic view. The idea that the individual must set aside his personality or very soul in order to allow the soul of Nature to speak through him can be regarded as an anti-Romantic view. The idea that the individual and the contents of the natural world are both of Nature and, thus, meet and fulfill one another within the soul of Nature is a neo-Romantic view. The Inklings were neo-Romantics. Their romanticism was, in the words of Barfield, a “romanticism come of age.”

Lewis wrote that, for every phenomenon in nature, there is an appropriate emotional response. These emotions are not ego-driven. They are not personal but universal. It is the personality that prevents us from experiencing them, that allows us to look on beauty and remain unmoved. When Rilke undertook his “loveless contemplation of things,” it is likely that what he found was not an absence of love but a love so objective that it causes even the most personal heartbreak to take on the aura of universal beauty. First, however, he had to strive for “pure contemplation.” He had to get his small self out of the way so that his universal self could begin to see truly and to communicate what it saw.

George Macdonald, the man Lewis called Master wrote, “ When a heart is really alive, then it is able to think live things.” The process undertaken by the true artist is one of restoring life to the heart so that the pictures it paints can participate in the life of the world. Our hearts become mummified by selfishness so that we no longer see the world as it is in itself; we see it only as it relates to us. The word Tolkien used for the shedding of our selfishness is Recovery or “a regaining of a clear view.” Frodo’s journey to destroy the Ring of Power provides us with a picture of the journey to Recovery.

Frodo’s journey actually began with his cousin Bilbo who was roused from his sleepy existence in the Shire when he was chosen by the wizard Gandalf to go on an adventure. When it was Frodo’s turn to set off on his own adventure, he did not leave right away. He, too, had to be roused from sleep, a sleep that was cast upon him by his love of home. Still, set out he did and he committed his whole being to his task, utterly without ulterior motive. Thus, he was able to save his home by abandoning all hope of seeing it again.

In a sense, Frodo did more than save the Shire; he restored it. Frodo brought Recovery first to his hobbit companions and then to many more of his people, leading them into wakefulness and the wider world. “You are grown up now,” Gandalf told the companions as they left him for home, “Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.” Armed with the wizard’s confidence and their new maturity, the companions go on to stir the hearts of their fellow hobbits, giving them the strength to shake off the ugly uniformity into which they had fallen.

Still, Frodo failed. He failed at Mount Doom, succumbing in his broken state to the pull of appropriation he had resisted with all his might. It was not he but Providence in the form of Gollum that cast the Ring into the fires. In a sense, he failed in the Shire as well where he was unable to communicate enough of his vision to prevent violence in the hobbit uprising and where he eventually fell back into anonymity. The Shire went back to sleep but, even in his failure, Frodo shows us the proper way of the artist. Every artist fails.

Every artist fails because the insight that comes from pure contemplation is too vast to grasp, let alone convey. If we were inhuman or superhuman as Heller suggests a great artist perhaps should be, we could become transparent enough for the world to shine through us in all its glory but we would no longer be of the world. The precious human part of the picture would be elided. Frodo’s frailties reminded him and remind us that it is for the Divine through Nature to see to the ultimate disposition and revelation of all things. If, however, we humbly and thoroughly pledge ourselves to the task, we can succeed as Nature’s agents. It is not for the artist to know how his work will be received, who will be awakened by it and for how long. It is his place only “to assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation,” in his own small way. “All tales may come true,” Tolkien explained, “and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.” It is not for us to say.

Frodo was the only one who could take the Ring to Mount Doom just as probably Cezanne was the only one who could paint his apples. Frodo saved the Shire and all of Middle-earth for a time but his deeds were not eternal. For a time, the artist pokes a hole in the mundane so that the eternal, even the eternal self, can shine through. It shines through ignorance, pettiness, fear and selfishness but these things always rise again within the circle of the world. That does not mean that art is futile. It is a noble calling, as noble as any quest ever undertaken by a brave but tiny hobbit.

6 thoughts on “When a Heart is Really Alive: Erich Heller, The Inklings and The Way of Art

  1. Very interesting read! I don’t see how this paper “got away from you”, it comes together pretty nicely. I really don’t have anything to add, possibly there could be a few more sentences on romantics and their view on artist and nature and how a neo romantic differs a bit..but I honestly don’t know how needed it is. Possibly if you are fairly unfamiliar with the expressions.
    Thanks for this!

  2. Reading this essay, as with other writings that you have posted on the Grey Havens blog, I find myself falling into a meditative and enigmatic frame of mind. There are meanings here that are very powerful. Perhaps you shouldn’t really expect any of us to respond to your magic with anything like a verbal explanation of what we feel. We can only look with our eyes upon the wonderful mystery and magic that happened, and we can tell ourselves along the way that we will forever treasure this feeling in ways that you can never know of us, because this entire experience happens in the secret places where we go to become ourselves, far away from the rest of the world. Or at least, if I could say what I really mean, I’d say something like this.

  3. Pingback: The Scrolls of Badgaladriel | The Grey Havens Group

  4. Very thought provoking…I will have to revisit this when I have more time to fully contemplate its implications…and apparently add Heller to my list of subjects of study. Thanks for drawing my attention to it.

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