LIVING ARTISTICALLY: NIETZSCHE, SAYERS AND TOLKIEN
This talk/article is adapted from my undergraduate dissertation, which had the full title “LIVING ARTISTICALLY: POIESIS IN NIETZSCHE, SAYERS AND TOLKIEN”, but please trust me that’s its worth reading all the same. I could spend some time explaining ways of memorising how to spell the title, but instead I’ll just explain what it means. Basically what I will try to do here is take an idea from Freiderich Nietzsche, an atheist philosopher, that I think is very exciting, that of “living artistically” or being a poet of one’s own life, and show, using some ideas from the writers Dorothy Sayers and JRR Tolkien that if you rework this idea from a Christian perspective it becomes even more exciting. In effect what want to do here is to show that Christianity is not boring, as I will explain.
So, let’s begin.
1. Nietzsche: Man as artist of his own life
I’m starting with Nietzsche because Nietzsche is cool. How can you not be cool with facial hair like that? The truth is, if there is no God, I think everyone should try to live to an extent like Nietzsche. Nietzsche is the person who gives us this grand vision of “living artistically”, or being an artist or poet of one’s own life. (Poiesis or “making”, by the way, is from the Greek “poieo” which means “do” or “make”, which we will come back to). To explain what this idea is, I think the best thing to do is give you a short autobiographical sketch of Nietzsche.
Nietzsche started out his life being intensely religious. His Father was a Lutheran pastor who died when he was only 4, and he grew up a devout Christian, even writing his own spiritual autobiographies as a teenager. Theology featured heavily in his undergraduate studies but, by the time he got to postgraduate level, he had lost his faith, saying that it had been undermined by the new historical-critical approach to the Bible that was emergent at the time. It is arguable that Nietzsche’s was the most formidable mind ever to have gone through this well-known experience of having a childhood faith eroded by University.
So what did he do next? Well, Nietzsche never did things by halves. To summarise things extremely crudely, Nietzsche reasoned that since, as he put “God is dead”, so are all of the boring, soul-oppressing rules, values and morals that came with him. Indeed, in time Nietzsche even went so far as to do away with any sort of Platonic nonsense about “forms”, “metaphysics”, “essences” and so on altogether. For Nietzsche, as for many 21st century Westerners, there is simply nothing beyond what we can see, study and test in the empirical world. He saw himself as a one-man crusade against all philosophical insincerity that tried to pretend that there was anything invisible beyond what was accessible to our five senses, including such bogus invisible notions as “right” and “wrong”, hence he wrote a book called Beyond Good and Evil.
The problem was, once Nietzsche had done away with all the superfluous matter of religion and morals, he was still left with the question: What should he do with his life? The first part of his project is often described as nihilistic, and he saw himself as a big hammer smashing the tables of values that societies had invented for themselves. But what would he rebuild in their place? This is where Nietzsche’s glorious vision of “living artistically” emerges. Since there is no God, and there are no fixed value systems of eternal consequence, Nietzsche says that we should be the god of our own lives (mastering ourselves by a process called “self-overcoming”), and create the values that we desire to live by (“transvaluation”). For only the “deluded contemplative…thinks himself placed as a spectator and listener before the great visual and acoustic play that is life; he calls his nature contemplative and thereby overlooks the fact that he is also the actual poet and ongoing author of life.” (Nietzsche, The Gay Science). Really this is an acknowledgement of how things are anyway, because we are all continually making or creating the action or events of our lives all the time –so why not do it consciously and well, with style, like an artist?
The clearest manifesto for this concept of living artistically that Nietzsche gives is found in Book 4 of The Gay Science, aphorism 290, which runs:
“One thing is needful: To “give style” to one’s character—a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye. Here a large mass of second nature has been added; there a piece of original nature has been removed—both times through long practice and daily work at it. Here the ugly that could not be removed is concealed; there it has been reinterpreted and made sublime. Much that is vague and resisted shaping has been saved and exploited for distant views; it is meant to beckon toward the far and immeasurable. In the end, when the work is finished, it becomes evident how the constraint of a single taste governed and formed everything large and small. Whether this taste was good or bad is less important than one might suppose, as long as it was a single taste! It will be the strong and domineering natures that experience the most joy in such constraint and perfection under a law of their own; the passion of their tremendous will relents in the face of all-stylized nature, of all-conquered and serving nature. Even when they have palaces to build and gardens to design they resist giving nature free rein. Conversely, it is the weak characters without power over themselves that hate the constraint of style. They feel that if this bitter and evil constraint were imposed upon them they would be demeaned; they become slaves as soon as they serve, they hate to serve. Such spirits—and they may be of the first rank—are always out to shape and interpret themselves and their surroundings as “free nature”: wild, arbitrary, fantastic, confused, and surprising -and they are well advised to do so, because it is only in this way that they can give themselves pleasure! For one thing is needful: That a human being should attain satisfaction with himself, whether by means of this or that poetry or art, only then is a human being at all tolerable to behold. Whoever is dissatisfied with himself is continually ready for revenge, and we others will be his victims, if only by having to endure his ugly sight. For the sight of what is ugly makes one bad and gloomy.”
-Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Aphorism 290
I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that this is how most people live their lives. Maybe they don’t do it very well, or realise it, but most people are artistically making their own lives with their selves as god.
So now, as I have said, what I want to do is reposition this idea from a Christian standpoint, using two thinkers.
2. Sayers: God as the Supreme Artist
The first of these is Dorothy L Sayers. Sayers’s thought is useful for this purpose because, as well as writing many excellent detective novels of which I have not read a single one, she also wrote a single brilliant theological treatise called The Mind of the Maker. This work is basically an extended meditation on the idea of God as being like a creative artist. She mentions Nietzsche once in her book, and although it is not clear whether she was overly familiar with him, she is definitely reacting consciously against the kind of secular agenda that he heralded. In response to the atheist who would hold up a new vision of art that is untroubled by the useless fetters of “God” she is saying “No, look rather to Christianity, there you will find the most beautiful vision of art ever conceived, and a true one.”
The way she does this is by arguing that the very activity of art derives its nature from the being of God himself. To express this idea she uses three technical terms: Idea, Energy and Power. I will survey them quickly using the novel as an example of creative artwork (her preferred example also):
The IDEA of a work is the conceptual seed as it exists in the maker’s mind before it is made (basically). In the case of a novel, this is the idea of the story that exists in the author’s mind before it is written.
The ENERGY of the work is the actual material stuff of the work, the idea expressed in artistic form. In the case of a novel, this is the written book.
The POWER of the work is the response that the energy effects in someone viewing, listening to, or receiving the work, including the maker. In the case of a novel, this is the response the work effects in the reader, or the author when he reads it back to himself.
Sayers says that if you examine these three aspects of creative work what you actually have is a miniature model of the workings of the Trinity: The invisible Idea of the work is like the Father, the originator, the Creator of all. (Please note that both can only be known by faith, because of the philosophical “problem of other minds”.) The created Energy of the work is like the Son, who is eternally generated by the Father in orthodox Christian doctrine. And the responsive Power of the work is like the Spirit, who interprets the Son back to the Father, the bond of relationality or love between them.
Coming from this angle, Sayers arrives at her own, quite different, notion of living artistically. For she then maps this threefold relation onto the Universe itself, where the Idea comes from this Trinity, the Energy is creation, and the Power is the response of creation to God. So according to Sayers, the activity of active artwork resembles the being of God, and also resembles the way in which God himself creates the world. Within this framework, she now begins to think about what it could mean to live life as if it were a work of art. “It will at once be asked”, she anticipates, “what is meant by asking the common man to deal with life creatively. If he is required to be an “artist in living”, the only image suggested by the phrase is that of a well-to-do person like Oscar Wilde, stretched in a leisured manner upon a sofa and aesthetically contemplating the lilies of the field. The average man cannot afford this.” But her own vision of living artistically is much grander than that, as she reveals:
“The mind in the act of creation is…not concerned to solve problems within the limits imposed by the terms in which they are set, but to fashion a synthesis which includes the whole dialectic of the situation in a manifestation of power. In other words, the creative artist, as such, deals, not with the working of the syllogism, but with that universal statement which forms its major premise. That is why he is always a disturbing influence; for all logical argument depends upon acceptance of the major premise, and this, by its nature, is not susceptible of logical proof. The hand of the creative artist, laid upon the major premise, rocks the foundations of the world; and he himself can only indulge in this perilous occupation because his mansion is not in the world but in the eternal heavens.”
–Dorothy L Sayers, The Mind of the Maker
In other words, just like Nietzsche, Sayers sees being a poet of life as having to do with bringing a kind of holistic unity to one’s existence. But unlike Nietzsche she advocates basing this unity on some kind of heavenly pattern, as opposed to “the force of a single taste”. The only problem is, though she goes to some length to describe God’s creative work and then our own, she devotes little to no words to thinking about how the two kinds of creativity might relate. For this, one needs to the look to the work of a certain Professor JRR Tolkien.
3. Tolkien: Man as Subcreator
Tolkien knew Sayers, in fact she was the only woman ever to be admitted to a meeting of the Inklings, the famous writers’ group of which Tolkien and CS Lewis were a part. He probably did not read Nietzsche, though there is a striking resemblance between some of the language they each used for talking about God and art, though with diametrically opposed attitudes.
Tolkien’s thought is useful here because he actually explicitly says that his work has to do with the problem we are now considering. In one of his letters he writes “The whole matter from beginning to end is mainly concerned with the relation of Creation to making and sub-creation (and subsidiarily with the related matter of ‘mortality’).” (The Letters of JJR Tolkien p188)
Where Nietzsche tells us what it is like for a man to live artistically, and Sayers tells us how God is like a creative artist but does not really flesh out her own version of living artistically, Tolkien tells us that his work is basically concerned with the relation between the two ideas.
As such, there is an awful lot of material we could look at here, as Tolkien wrote an awful lot, but in the interests of space I will look at just one piece, his short story Leaf by Niggle. This was the only bona fide allegory that Tolkien ever published as a popular work, and is a semi-autobiographical story about a man could Niggle. Tolkien once said in another letter “I tried to show allegorically how [artistic subcreation] might come to be taken up into Creation in some plane in my ‘purgatorial’ story Leaf by Niggle.” (The Letters of JRR Tolkien p195)
In the story, Niggle spends his entire life working on a painting of an enormous tree in his garage, which becomes more and more detailed as he gets lost in the background of it, but which he can never finish because he is distracted by more practical matters, such as looking after his neighbour, Mr Parish. Eventually he is forced to go on a train journey (death) to a far-away country, where he has to serve a stint in a work-house (purgatory), before he arrives in a beautiful new country. He is amazed to discover that this beautiful new country resembles the painting he has been working on his whole life, only now transformed perfectly and real, extending beyond its original pictorial borders, with more to discover. In other words, he finds that he has played a part in the creation of the “new heaven and the new earth” as it is called in the Book of Revelation.
Here Tolkien is taking very seriously St Paul’s idea that “we are coworkers with God”. (1 Corinthians 3:9) What he is saying is that, from the Christian perspective, the best way to be an artist of life, or as he would say the best way to choose to subcreate, is with a view to the great Creation that the Supreme Artist is working out alongside us. One day, says Tolkien, all of our small efforts of creativity in life will be transfigured, and become more real and glorious than we could ever have hoped –those works in which he was cooperating with the Divine Artist will be remembered eternally by the heavenly landscape, and even those places where we made mistakes or failed to cooperate with him will be erased or will perhaps even become beautiful in the context of the whole. He says as much in the last lines of his essay On Fairy Stories, which deserve quoting in their entirety:
“The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; 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.”
-JRR Tolkien, Epilogue to On Fairy Stories
So, Sayers and Tolkien have now given us the tools to return to Nietzsche’s manifesto for “living artistically” and see what it looks like from the Christian position:
4. Living Artistically (Christian version)
I think Sayers and Tolkien show us that it is possible to live as a poet of life as a Christian, but there are three main differences. Interestingly, Nietzsche holds that if Christianity were to become acceptable to him again it would need to appeal to his taste. Personally, I think that when compared with the secular-atheist vision of living artistically, the Christian vision is far more aesthetically appealing. The differences highlight this:
4.1 It is about other-love, not self-love
Nietzsche said that
“Everything that is thought, written, painted, composed, even built and sculpted, belongs either to monologue art or art before witnesses. The second category must also include the seemingly monologue art involving faith in God, the whole lyricism of prayer; for solitude does not yet exist to the pious -this invention was first made by us, the godless. I know no deeper distinction in an artist’s entire optics than this: whether he views his budding artwork (‘himself’) from the eye of the witness, or whether he has ‘forgotten the world’, which is an essential feature of all monologue art -it is based on forgetting; it is the music of forgetting.”
–Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Aphorism 367
Here we find Nietzsche openly and exactly admitting the way in which his brand of poiesis differs from that of Sayers and Tolkien. For the überman, Nietzsche’s “superman” who embodies his philosophy and his vision of life as artwork, art is not for another, or for God, it is for himself, and himself alone. He has no artistic empathy for others or for the Other, since he has “forgotten the world”. But the art of the Christian, as Sayers and Tolkien would have it, is not for herself, and herself alone, but for God, and so for others. The Christian must not and cannot forget the world, because she is committed to working in harmony with a sublime Witness who had made and is making the world anew and has its best interests at heart.
It is Sayers who highlights this contrast most articulately when she says in The Mind of the Maker “the creator’s love for his work is not a greedy possessiveness; he never desires to subdue his work to himself but always to subdue himself to his work.” “Subduing his work to himself” is a very good description of what Nietzsche aimed to do and the kind of creation that he stood for. Sayers and Tolkien stand for a different kind of creation, which subdues itself to what it creates, and at the same time subdues itself to God. Its love of the created work is not an expression of self-love but of love for another, the Other. This is the most fundamental distinction to be made between the two different versions of living artistically.
4.2 Mistakes can be erased
At the start of this talk/article I asked you to imagine how you would feel if a demon came to you and told you that your life was going to repeated again and again, exactly as it has happened, eternally. This is actually an idea that Nietzsche calls upon in order to show us how we should live artistically: “Live” he says, “as if that demon were real, as if every action of your life were going to be repeated again and again ad infinitum, and you would rejoice, not cower, at the prospect.” Here Nietzsche most starkly reveals the selfishness of his world-view, because the key criterion for action here is clearly our own desire and fulfilment, or in his words the sublimation of our will to power.
The problem is, I don’t think there is a single person in the world who, if that demon came to them, wouldn’t be terrified at the thought of all of their lives endlessly repeating forever, though I may be wrong. The reason for this is that we have all made mistakes, we have all got things terribly wrong at times, and we have been the victims of others’ mistakes or even just circumstances which have caused us untold pain, and were time to recur endlessly we would have to live through these things again and again. But this is where the Christian life-poet has hope. He has the Master Poet working alongside him to somehow redeem all these things and bring about a joyful conclusion. He has the promise in Romans 8:28 that “all things work together for the good of those who love God.” To live artistically as a Christian means to know that has Jesus sacrificed himself in order to blot out with his blood all the mistakes we have made or ever will make so that they won’t be a part of the finished artwork.
4.3 It doesn’t have to end
One day, possibly because of an illness, possibly because of psychological strain, Nietzsche had a breakdown. He ended up embracing a horse that was being whipped in the street and weeping over it, just like Raskolnikov’s dream in Crime and Punishment. He lived out the last of his ten or so years as a recluse, in silence and madness. If Nietzsche’s demon were real for him, he would have to relive those ten years over and over for eternity. What a horrible thought. Although his life would eternally recur, so would his death. He would have to die in confusion and misery time after time after time. The Christian poet of life need not fear this. Rather than living as if life and death will eternally repeat, he or she lives as if after death life will one day eternally continue, in the most glorious and wonderful way, in the presence of God, at whose right hand there are pleasures for ever more. This is the third major way the Christian vision of living artistically differs from that of the secular-atheist; it doesn’t have to one day arbitrarily stop, it looks forward to a time when art will be made perfect, and even go on and on in a perfect manner.
To end, I’m going to present Nietzsche’s manifesto again, but this time I’m going to present a version that’s been reworked using Tolkien and Sayers’ language, to give instead a Christian manifesto for living artistically. I just want to note that what I haven’t been doing here is defending one of these visions against the other on any rational-analytical grounds, what I’ve tried to do is to show how you can take Nietzsche’s idea of living artistically and transplant it into Christian soil for it to grow just as healthily. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which version is more exciting and appealing and to look elsewhere to discover if there is any truth in the Christian vision, as I believe there is.
“One thing is needful. To ‘allow style to be given’ to one’s character -a great and rare art! It is practised by those who survey the strengths and weaknesses their nature has to offer and then allow them to be fitted into the Artistic Plan until each appears as art and reason and even weaknesses are covered over with crimson. Here a great mass of second nature has been added; there a piece of first nature removed -both times through long practice and daily work at it. Here the ugly that could not be removed is atoned for; as such it is transfigured into sublimity. Much that is vague and resisted shaping has been saved and employed for distant views -it is supposed to beckon towards eternity. In the end, when the work is complete, it becomes clear how it was the force of a single Taste that co-authored and shaped everything great and small -the Taste was Godly, and its work was very good! It will be the strong and domineering natures who experience the most discomfort under such coercion, in being bound by but also perfected under their own law; the passion of their tremendous will becomes redirected in the face of stylised self, love-conquered and serving self; even though they have palaces to build and gardens to design, they will learn to let God have free rein. Conversely, it is the weak characters with no power of themselves who most readily love the gift of stylisation: being poor in spirit they are most acutely aware of their need for it -they become slaves of love as soon as they serve; they love to serve. Such minds -and they may be of the first rank- are always out to shape or interpret their environment as though it were in the hands of God -wild, arbitrary, fantastic, disorderly, and surprising though it may seem at times -and they are advised to do so, because only thus is their own selfishness overcome! For one thing is needful: that a human being should learn to be a lover -be it through this or that poetry or art; only then is a human being at all tolerable to behold! Whoever is dissatisfied with himself is continually prepared to let himself be redeemed, and we others will be his beneficiaries if only by having to endure his sight. For the sight of something beautiful makes one good and joyful.”
-Nietzsche, The Gay Science, aphorism 290, entirely rewritten by the present author