To give someone or something a proper name: to my mind, this is what great art does. Art removes us from our petty selves and opens us to the unique reality of the other. In this sense, a religious impulse is at the core of all great art. Like the God “Who numbers each particle / by its Proper Name,” art attends to the miracle of the particular…
Auden was acutely aware that he rarely lived the commandment to love one’s neighbor. But holding the commandment front and center kept him honest about his moral lapses into ego-driven self-regard.
The commandment was also, Mendelson adds, behind Auden’s statement that the purpose of art, to the extent that it has one, is to make self-deception more difficult, and “by telling the truth, to disenchant and dis-intoxicate.”
My friend linked to this article by Peggy Rosenthal, in which she revisits her first post for Good Letters, in which she had read, “in The New York Review of Books… a review-essay, ‘Auden and God,’ by Auden’s literary executor, Edward Mendelson. The book under review was Arthur Kirsch’s Auden and Christianity.”
The bits above are the bits that especially stood out to me in the article.
First, I have to complain. People, especially in the church it seems to me, often talk about “self” in a sort of sloppy way, not sufficiently specific to my taste. In conversation with my friend and various others, I have come to recognize that I am splitting a hair that most people never notice or find bothersome. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to keep trying to articulate the problem I see.
What is this “petty self” that art removes us from? What is the “us” that is removed? Is not “us” the “self”? So is the “petty self” a particular part of the self, and the “us” some other part? Why not just talk about pettiness? Why not just say that art turns our attention away from pettiness?
The next such phrase, “ego-driven self-regard,” is a little more explicit. Self-love in Scripture is a high standard, not a low one — to love one’s neighbor as one’s self requires loving one’s self in the same way that we think we are to love our neighbor. It is not an either / or, but a both / and. And so, “ego-driven self-regard” cannot refer merely to self-love. It probably refers to putting self-love above love of neighbor — “me first,” “look out for number one,” considering oneself better than others, and that sort of thing.
Now let me say what I find beautiful in these quotations. Particularity!
I have another friend who leans Pagan, with some Buddhist influence — on Facebook she’d quoted Ram Dass saying “Being love, rather than giving or taking love, is the only thing that provides stability.” In the comments, we discussed what this means — and whether this idea of love allows for particularity. In the end, she said that it’s about going beyond ego, beyond particularity, even when the giving of love is reciprocal.
There is some good stuff in Buddhism that I have found through yoga and DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy), stuff about mindfulness and radical acceptance. But I can’t quite go so far as to embrace the loss of particularity.
I love the point in that first quotation, about proper names and particularity, that God does in fact see us, and every other thing he has made, in glorious particularity, individual, unique, known and named, not statistics, not undifferentiated members of a group, not drops of water absorbed into one ocean.
Like Auden, I’m aware that I don’t love my neighbor as well and as often as I ought to. This emphasis on particularity helps me to reach for love of neighbor without negating my self. I do not have to stop being particular me in order to love others. In fact, it is only particular persons who can be in real loving relationships. No one wants to be loved by an empty vessel, to be served by a mere robot. I can learn to focus my attention, to listen without having my own desires and needs foremost in my mind, and still be fully me, as particular and properly named as the neighbor I am looking to love.
In being fully myself, I can also receive love. When the emphasis is only on loving one’s neighbor, it is tempting (for some of us — a minority, it seems) to think that negation of self is required. That my particularity must be minimized if not entirely erased. That makes it very difficult, uncomfortable, awkward, to receive love, to be an equal partner in relationship.
The final quotation points to the distinction between true and false self that Fr. John emphasized throughout his sermon series on sin this Lenten season, that Joe Bauserman discussed often with me, that Masterson and Merton both wrote about. Perhaps the “petty self” and the “ego-driven self-regard” are aspects of the false self that we build in competition with others, in effort to create ourselves, defensively hiding or covering our vulnerable core or our emptiness, deluded about our autonomy apart from God.
Let art — visual, musical, theatrical, literary, even God’s art of natural beauty — indeed be often a voice of the truth that reveals the false self and its falsehood and breaks its hold on us, that we might more and more become our true self, the one God knows.