Thursday, April 09, 2009
The Art of Lament
There is no true love save in suffering,
and in this world we have to choose either love,
which is suffering, or happiness....
Man is the more man—
that is, the more divine—
the greater his capacity for suffering, or rather, for anguish.
--Miguel de Unamuno (1864–1936), Spanish philosophical writer
The Lutheran theologian Dorothee Sölle once said in a public lecture, "We must view with suspicion all theology that is pre-pain." By this I presume she means that a theology, or any speech or writing about God, that ignores the practical and omnipresent reality of pain in people's lives is not a theology worth having. This makes me think, tangentially, of Barth's comment about Paul Tillich's theology. Barth said it was bad theology because you couldn't pray it.
The danger of getting lost in the world-within-world of ideas is an occupational hazzard for theologians, or again, for any Christian. You can get lost in the world of activities. You can get lost in the world of feelings. The point is, every one of us faces the constant temptation to escape--to escape life, to escape suffering, to escape it all. Sölle urges us not to escape.
The playwright Samuel Beckett says we have only two options in this world: suffering or boredom. We get to choose which. As he puts it:
"The pendulum oscillates between these two terms:
Suffering—that opens a window on the real
and is the main condition of the artistic experience—
But it's amazing how attractive boredom looks on the days when our suffering feels unbearable. Give me boredom. Give me distractions, wasteful hours, duties, people, noise, internet, or never-ending things to do and accomplish, but please don't make me suffer any more.
I'm thinking about these things not only because it's Lent, and thank God near the end of a difficult Lent in the younger Taylor household, but also because I'm beginning to do research for a seminar I'm teaching at Duke Divinity's summer institute this coming June. My aim is to help participants understand how art teaches us not only about lament but how to lament.
So my question to you, dear reader, is: what art has been helpful to you in a time of sadness? What art has helped you process grief? A song? A painting? Is there a movie that has deepened your lament? Is there a novel that has made it more bearable?
Alternatively, what artworks in popular or high art do you think have helped the masses grieve well? Again, I'm looking for examples all across the arts.
One famous example of a painting that aided an entire community to process suffering is Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim's Altarpiece. Grünewald painted it for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim. The monks took care of people who suffered from skin diseases, and it is believed that Grünewald depicted common physical symptoms of the diseases on Jesus' body.
I think also of Johnny Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," Verdi's Requiem, Tony Kushner's play "Angels in America," Maya Lin's Vietnam Veteran Memorial sculpture, Percey Shelley's "Adonaïs," the electrifying lament of I believe Juliet's mother in Prokofiev's ballet "Romeo and Juliet." And then of course there's the entire elegy of Job.
I want to hear what art has been meaningful to you in times of grief. And I'd love to hear your opinion on what art, from TV to the Tate Modern, has helped people process loss and death.
I end with a statement I wrote for the Stations of the Cross exhibit we hosted at Hope Chapel in 2003.
Suffering is a privilege, a sign of grace, a reminder of God.
Suffering is a fierce, purifying thing, commonplace,
welcomed with holy terror . . .
If it comes in fits and starts,
that is only so as to leave the sufferer more
receptive to the love of God,
to the awful mystery of severe purgation
when one relives the last dose of grace and waits for the next.
(ARTWORK: Phaedra's submission to Hope Chapel's 2005 Lent exhibit, "Loneliness, Departing, Frailty.")