“Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σιβυλλα τι θελεις; respondebat illa: αποθανειν θελω.”
For I myself once saw the Cumean Sibyll with my own eyes, hanging in a jar, and when those boys asked, “Sibyl, what do you want?” she answered, “I want to die.”
T.S. Eliot once wrote that “if the word ‘inspiration’ is to have any meaning, it must mean just this, that the speaker or writer is uttering something which he does not wholly understand—or which he may even misinterpret when the inspiration has departed from him.” In this he was close to Plato, who in his Apology exaggerates the point. Upon inquiring with the poets about the meaning of their most important works it turned out, “almost all the bystanders might have explained the poems better than their authors.” From this he concludes that poets are inspired by Muses—which is to say that understanding exists in the mind of the god, not the poet who merely writes. While these sound like harsh words, we should keep in mind that Eliot and Plato (both poets themselves, after all) agree that the poets write with inspiration, something many wish could be said of the contemporary (to say nothing of the Christian) art scene. If inspiration leaves us, what is left for Christian artists to do?
In my twenty-second year I helped lead a ministry which received an invitation to attend a “Christianity and the Arts” event. Invitations had gone out to all the local ministries, and with a wide enough net that it was sure to draw a crowd. “The Arts” calls to mind the greats—Michelangelo, Bernini, Rodin, or perhaps Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Constable, or Bach, Chopin. Each age and culture touched by Christ seems to produce art which is brilliant and vibrating with the divine music of the heavens. Yet what, in the early 2000s, in the United States of America, among evangelicals, could this question mean? What are we even capable of bringing forth?
They fit us in towards the beginning, just after the opening act which was a duet singing some version of “Awake My Soul,” the arrangement of which is lost to my memory, but rest assured this long predated both Mumford and Sons’ bluegrass rendition and Hillsong’s Coldplay-esque riff on the rock opera. But already, by looking over the lineup, there was more than a hint of what “art” meant in this community and this moment. Art was something made by others which was reproduced for an audience. The others, the makers of art, were professionals out there, not members of the community. One need not be a follower of Walter Benjamin to note that this is a primary feature of art today. Jacques Barzun said that, aided by media and technology, we no longer need to make art, nor do we need to go to it—art now comes to us. The ability to now present and represent the masterpieces of Art to the public coincided with the determination that Art was something other than the doings of the people themselves. It wasn’t created by the community; it was something we imitated, albeit with lower production value.
Now keep in mind, the college ministry I helped lead was deeply unorthodox. Not in terms of theological positions—we tried to hew closely to the Bible and to the Creed—but in terms of strategy. While most ministries were handing out cookies on the quad and inviting freshmen to have punch in the dorm, and the occasional “cool kids” Christian club was inviting students to have moderate quantities of beer and talk about Jesus at frat parties, we eschewed both and handed out soap, which we had made from scratch and which had been stamped with our email address. When asked why we did this we explained “freshmen tend to need a shower,” and then we invited them to come make more soap with us. We would require that they donned appropriate eye protection and then we’d study Leviticus together while we waited for the sodium hydroxide to saponify the castor oil. We took risks and attracted risk takers in return. Often of the sort who were interested in the Gospel but not particularly interested in thinly veiled group therapy sessions.
Art comes in various forms. The variance is so great, at times, that it isn’t clear what the relation between the various arts is. We take it for granted that portraiture and the symphonic composition are both “arts.” It is worth pausing to ask what unites these activities along with dance, sculpting, mosaic, song, and the rest. Turning to the Greeks we find a helpful start. Ποίησις, or poesis, is a poem or a creation, a fabrication or a production. This expansive definition has often been summarized by saying poesis means “making.” W.H. Auden disagreed, however, insisting that a “poem” was not just any making but a making with words. He can be forgiven for being flinty on the point. Artists tend to love their own creations as parents do their children. However, there is something particular about poesis as poetry. Every human making partakes of poetry in that it exists by extension of the human rational ability. The stage crafter must describe the stage he crafts, at least to himself, just as much as the sculptor must ask herself “what shape am I uncovering in the stone?” Our minds work by reflection on reality, and that reflection is bound up in language; it is a conversation from the self to the self about what we have sensed. This contemplative process is properly philosophical, but we are not just minds passively observing the ether. We are embodied; we find ourselves thrust into time, and time means change. To have a body—to have a rational mind in a body—to be in time and change, this is the human condition. Poesis, art, is the human response to the interrelated realities of our human condition. And art begins with words, even when the words take form in motion, construction, vibration, or constriction. As active beings with the rational faculty we have no choice but to poetize into reality. In poetizing we speak into being even before we begin making—even if we never make it so. Words, languages—we must never forget that they are so much more than information.
One way to think about the ministry I was a part of would be to say we were a group of artists. We were Christians, and we knew something about art. Specifically the art of soap making. But, for a public presentation like this, something a bit grander was called for. And, unlikely team of artists that we were, we endeavored to rise to the challenge. There was Reid. Reid was an engineering student raised by Y2K preppers in the Arizona desert. He had soft eyes and a quiet, calm demeanor. In soap-making he had been indispensable at calculating the needed ingredients and ensuring safety protocols were followed. There was also Andy and Ian. Andy was a philosophy major by day, and a gamer by night. Andy could think on his feet, and could play the percussion well enough to make Stephen Hawking tap his foot. Ian was a high school student and a family friend. He had just come to town to check out the college for the week, but he could play the guitar and wasn’t afraid to be put in the hot seat. Then there was crazy Michael. Libertarian eccentric and computer engineering student, he had a heart of gold and nerves of steel. His hobby was downhill longboarding at eye watering speeds with no helmet. Beyond them there were the various members of the ministry who volunteered as labor, and, of course, me. Once we knew we were going to present we knew we needed to come up with a plan. We knew that “Christianity and the Arts” was as like as not to produce what we would now call cringe. Those of us who dabbled in art knew that we did not have the technical abilities, taste, or proper formation to produce the kind of first rate art which we admired most. So as Auden put it in another context, we were left to ask “with caution and humor—given our time and place and talents, what, if our faith and love were perfect, would we be glad to find it obvious to do?”
We settled on something long tried and true. Theft. Rather than write our own song or poem we would steal and remix the words of a great and scandalous poem. The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. I had been studying Eliot for my degree and had taken a shine to his early masterpiece with more than a tinge of sophomoric self-satisfaction. It seemed, however, to be an ideal poem for a number of reasons. Not least of these was its structure. It begins in melancholy, as all who’ve read it remember (“April is the cruelest month…”), running right through to the end of the first part. It has a theatrical buildup in the middle portion and it ends in a crackling cacophonous catastrophe, which, in retrospect, can also be pleasantly funny, like an unexpected joke at a funeral. But another reason it was the ideal poem was the epigraph which I’ve included at the top of this essay. Eliot initially intended to have the epigraph to the poem be a selection from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but Ezra Pound convinced him this was not weighty enough for the aspirations of the poem. Eliot then settled on the current line from the Satyricon by Gaius Petronus. Satyricon is a play about the Cumean Sibyll who was “blessed” with eternal life but forgot to ask for eternal youth. At the height of the play the main characters find her, now a shriveled old spider, and the only thing left to her is a death she longs for but cannot bring about. This was a fitting image in its time for the sterile decadence of imperial Roman paganism of the first century AD. And Eliot placed it there to make a shocking statement about the state, and possible fate, of Christian culture in modernity.
These qualities made it seem a suitable candidate to be staged. And Eliot’s later conversion to Anglicanism (to say nothing of his conversion to English-ism) gave the poem enough cover to warrant its worth as something presentable in a “Christianity and the Arts” night. I put this idea, the idea that we could somehow stage a rendition of the poem, to Reid and the guys. Reid immediately saw the potential in it and got to work designing something for the setting, the mood. He also made a schedule to keep us all aware of what needed to be done to pull it off, what volunteers would be needed and when. Meanwhile Andy and Ian put their heads together for some Beatnik-esque music to which I would read the poem. All agreed and we got to work.
The morning to build the set came soon enough and volunteers were at Reid’s yard in shorts and shirtsleeves. In front of us were PVC pipe, chicken wire, used machine-flattened cardboard boxes, and palm fronds. There was also a small platform about three feet by three feet on four wheels. The stage, Reid informed us, was not going to be accessible to us until the moment we arrived, so we had to build whatever background we hoped for on this rolling platform so we could wheel it in when we got there, which means we’d only have about a minute between acts to get it set up and—as all artists but God have learned—we had to do our work inside the constraints we were given. All day we sweated in the sun building under Reid’s direction. PVC pipe connected to PVC pipe with hot glue. Up went a long and narrow pyramid with four sides, the base just fitting on the three by three platform, each corner sending up a pipe that, over six feet off the ground, joined together with the others. Around these was wrapped chicken wire onto which we attached the cardboard. Another wrap of wire to hold that in place and then, from a ladder, several palm fronds were attached to the top of the construction. We had made, with considerable effort, a tree. I would be lying if I said it was beautiful, but it was a tree and we had made it and the shared effort we had put in, as a group, made it admirable to us. The event was the next day. We were ready.
Auden wrote that “behind the work of any creative artist there are three principal wishes: the wish to make something; the wish to perceive something, either in the external world of sense or the internal world of feeling; and the wish to communicate these perceptions to others.” By this he meant that the products of art are intended to be reflected upon. They cast us back to our essential vocation as contemplative beings. This is part of why there is a close connection between the arts and worship, the arts and liturgy. The place that we worship in has to look some way. The ordained minister must wear some thing. The tones we use will be thus or thus and someone ought to consider what is fitting for the season that the congregation is in. We make in order to elicit proper responses in the breast of the audience—to enable and induce, but never to guarantee. Our making is also an act of self expression—a stating of our inner world, to the best of our knowledge, into the external, shared world of space and time. In doing this we expose ourselves in a moment of vulnerability, but we also, if we are adept, expose something true in general which is to say something shared. Great art does this regularly; it is the source not just of reflection and awe, but also of critique. If art that critiques is less timeless than the art of the sublime that is not to say it is valueless. Critique is often required to reorient people to the sublime; critique can clear a path. Eliot put it this way: “a poet may believe that he is expressing only his private experience; his lines may be for him only a means of talking about himself without giving himself away; yet for his readers what he has written may come to be the expression both of their own secret feelings and of the exultation or despair of a generation.”
What, given this, was our tree? What was the song Andy and Ian were cooking up? What was the remixed version of Eliot’s masterpiece of modernism? Were they private statements about ourselves or were they more? And given that this art was aimed at performance, were they anything until they were put together on the stage as the unity each had been designed to be? I had not learned back then to even ask these questions and I do not now know the answer. But in spite of our having fallen short of the ideal, the night came.
I remember my palms sweating, and my heart thumping as we stood backstage. Each moment a fractile of agony which we had to endure. The preceding act seemed to take an eternity. The tell tale signs of stage fright bubbling up inside. What would people think of our odd creation? But then the word came and there was no time to wonder and the rush of events pulled us onto the stage. I walked out with Reid as two or three volunteers wheeled the tree forth, surprised at the effort it required of them. Reid said a few words about the tree as a symbol in Genesis and Revelation then bowed and walked off stage. Meanwhile Andy and Ian set up at the mics behind me with a guitar and a djumba. With Reid gone, there I stood, holding my dog eared copy of Eliot, waiting for the music to start. Slowly a rhythmic melody began thrumming and a pleasant but quiet knocking came from the drum. I began to read.
The playbill for the night, for our portion of the presentation, read “When we look at trees, we see beautiful monuments of the glory of God. Not only are the trees pleasing to look at, but they also provide a habitat for other forms of life.” Our plan, so far as we had one, was for me to read three selections of the poem. Our desired effect was for the mostly evangelical (and mostly unreflectively bourgeois) audience to experience the force of Eliot’s poem as it had been experienced at its first publication in 1922. Conceived in the wake of World War I and spurred to completion by the death of his father, The Waste Land was nothing if not darkly controversial. Was it a bohemian bit of radical nonsense or was it a willful and high brow attempt to reassert conservative values in the face of the meaninglessness of all that modernity had wrought? Ranging as it did over several languages, voices, scenes, styles, and images, Eliot was never perfectly clear either in the poem or in its wake as to how it was intended or ought to be read. And, as an artist, he has a right not to say; in fact that might be the wisest position. However, over the course of a century the shocking and improper side of the poem has given way to its status as a quarry for ever more esoteric research into the arcana of which it is constructed and for pedants, often of the New Critics school, to conjure its “meaning” in terms that only those inducted into its mysteries can obtain. Simply worshiping Eliot and basking in a radiance that understands him is not necessarily the best response to him. Hart Crane, a poet and Eliot’s contemporary, responded by making poetry of his own that applied what he had learned and experienced in reading Eliot, while taking his own aim. Crane is not a man to be imitated in all things, but here he seemed correct to me and still does.
To recreate the effect of Eliot I had to surprise the audience and leave them wondering. In an effort to accomplish this, and to mimic his method, I mined his poem as he had mined the history and culture of the globe, but not for meaning, for content. It also made sense of the time constraints: presenters were given five minutes, conveniently, the amount of time it took to sing an evangelical praise and worship song. Reading the whole of The Waste Land could take a half-hour. I focused, then, on three selections. As the guitar and drum caught the rhythm I skipped the famous opening and began my reading eight lines in: “Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee…” and I read on, keeping pace with the music for about a minute until I arrived, nearly unbroken to the penultimate line of the second stanza, “Looking into the heart of light, the silence.” Here I paused and looked back at my accompaniment who abruptly stopped. We looked at one another silently. Then Ian began a few moments of slow guitar solo in the style of Django Reinhardt, punctuated, at its end, by a loud smack of the drum from Andy.
“DEATH BY WATER” I yelled holding one hand up as the guitar picked up pace, galloping now, the drum working to keep up. And nervous giggles and surprised shouts could be heard in the audience.
Norman Mailer, in his generally scathing review of American Psycho, wrote “Art may be needed now to provide us with just those fearful insights that the uneasy complacencies of our leaders do their best to avoid. It is art that has to take the leap into all the truths that our media society is insulated against. Since the stakes are higher, art may be more important to us now than ever before.” Or as one wag on Twitter put it relative to algorithmically generated images: A.I. art is really art because people get mad at it. I don’t fully subscribe to this; art does more than shock, but it does also shock, and it does so particularly harshly to audiences and in ages that forget themselves. And this is a part of the prophetic function of art. Artists are not prophets in the proper sense; but both prophets and artists, when they are performing their task well, are inspired. Inspiration always shocks the one to whom it comes.
The gasps, giggles, and yells came because, as I began “Death by Water,” the fourth section of The Waste Land which is a mere ten lines and which I read as loudly as I could in full, the tree itself came crashing down across the stage. Just as “Phlebas the Phoenician” “forgot the cry of the gulls and the deep sea swell” so too the audience had forgotten that an “Art Night” might actually contain art. Or at least an attempt at it. They had forgotten that while the tree is pleasing to look at, they also provide a habitat for other forms of life. And out from the fallen tree crawled crazy Michael, wearing a bee costume a size too small. He leapt onto the stage and danced in circles before bending down to return the tree to its standing position, right as I read “Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.” At the end of this section both I and the music paused again. The audience relaxed, feeling they must now be in on the joke. Michael and I looked at one another, the whole room silent, waiting for how we would end, or otherwise waiting for us to bow and walk off stage. I wondered, would there be applause for this odd performance? I nodded to Michael and, with all the gravitas I could muster while looking at a man dressed in a child’s fuzzy black and yellow bee costume, I read the title of Eliot’s final section, which deals with judgment.
“What the Thunder Said.” And Michael started to move, the music had stopped, but we weren’t done. “After the torchlight red on sweaty faces/After the frosty silence in the gardens/After the agony in stony places…” Reaching down, Michael pulled out the baseball bat which had been taped under the platform upon which the tree sat. As I read the word “agony” he pulled back and took his first swing, the music kicked back in as the tree fell, shattered; I read on, the music chaotically banging away, no longer rhythmic or beautiful. The nervous laughter was gone, as was the gasping—what was happening was simply unbelievable as Michael leapt onto the tree which lay on the ground. He looked like a WWE professional wrestler attempting to subdue a helpless victim. Bits of ripped cardboard went flying into the audience, and a piece of PVC pipe hit me too, as I finished reading the stanza. He stood, I stopped reading, and the music ended. We bowed, shook hands, and walked off stage.
The juvenilia of most men contains an element of the unruly. The wisdom of Paul to Timothy to “flee the evil desires of youth” takes time to sink in. I was no exception even if I did spend quite a bit of time trying to pursue the things of God. But the mermaids were still singing for me. I will never forget the young man who got on stage after us. He was billed to sing Point of Grace’s 2001 hit “You Will Never Walk Alone.” He was trembling violently and (fittingly) he wasn’t alone. A sense of fear hung over the place as everyone, including me, wondered for the first time that night “what will happen next?”
This is a healthy response to decadence. Jaques Barzun wrote,
All that is meant by Decadence is ‘falling off.’ It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.
Looking back, I will not claim to comment on the meaning of the event. But I will echo a theme I have noted in Eliot’s work. One proper response to decadence is the slap across the face. The wake up call. A culture that is static, and sterile, that refuses to present itself and instead merely represents itself is declaring in thousands of subtle ways “I want to die.” As believers in the risen Lord we are required to resist that impulse whenever we see it and as strenuously as possible. Death comes as a result of a curse. Christ descended, died, and rose, to break that curse. He died that we might have abundant life. And in life we live in hope and expectation and longing for newness, freshness, youth, vitality, vigor. We must stir up that longing, we must look ahead and train our eyes, our ears and our every bodily sense to the wonder of “what will happen next?”
I still consider it a question worth asking.
Colin Chan Redemer is Vice-President of The Davenant Institute, Poetry Editor of Ad Fontes, co-founder of Davenant Hall, and Adjunct Associate Professor at Saint Mary’s College of California.
 T.S. Eliot, “Virgil and the Christian World,” The Sewanee Review (Winter 1953), 3.
 Plato, Apology, trans. G.M.A. Graube, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), line 22b-c.
 Jacques Barzun, The Use and Abuse of Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 8.
 Quoted in Roger Kimball, “The permanent Auden,” The New Criterion, May 1999, https://newcriterion.com/issues/1999/5/the-permanent-auden.
 W.H. Auden, The Oxford Book of Light Verse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1938), vii.
 Eliot, “Virgil and the Christian World,” 3.
 Norman Mailer, Mind of an Outlaw: Selected Essays (London: Random House, 2014), 438.
 Jacques Barzun, Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (London: HarperCollins, 2000), xvi.