The Essential Role of the Arts for Sustainability
In my last year as an undergraduate at Smith College, I read “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop for an English class. In this poem, the speaker catches a large fish while out on the water. Her attention is absorbed by the fish’s appearance, leading her to become intimate with its history and ultimately identifying with it. Bishop describes the “battered and venerable” fish in exquisite detail:
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
– the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly-
She begins with objective observations of the fish’s appearance, but quickly moves to a subjective description of the fish’s experience. Her language allows us to feel what it must be like to be the fish, breathing in the “terrible” oxygen with “frightening” gills. Description quickly turns to emotion. Bishop uses her imagination to penetrate inside the fish:
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
In the alignment of her gaze with the fish’s, Bishop makes another discovery which changes her relationship to the fish entirely:
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
– if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels- until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.
“The Fish” is an instance when one’s encounter with nature becomes a moment of transcendence. Bishop dwells on the fish with an eye appreciative of its beauty, toughness, and vulnerability. She personifies the fish so that it has human qualities. The fish is a hero, a war veteran perhaps, and the lines inside its mouth are “medals with their ribbons,” “a five haired beard of wisdom.” Her attention to the fish has caused her to step outside of herself and become another being; she transcended the boundaries of her own narrow perception and entered the subjectivity of another. The victory at the end is the victory of her changed perception. From a place of fear and distance, Bishop achieves intimacy with another. From a place of joyful domination, Bishop arrives at a place of joyful submission.
Elizabeth Bishop’s active engagement with the fish is a study in the art of submission. Poetry needs solitary contemplation to take form, but it is contemplation that is actively engaged with reality, both interior and exterior. Like the visual artist, the poet perceives reality and renders it through the filter of his or her own imagination. Poetry is not merely words, but the act of seeing and responding to aliveness of world. Jane Ellen Harrison writes, in Ancient Art and Ritual,
If there is to be any true living art, it must arise, not from the contemplation of Greek statues, not from the revival of folk-songs, not even the reenacting of Greek plays, but from a keen emotion felt towards things and people living today, in modern conditions, including, among other and deeper forms of life, the haste and hurry of the modern street, the whirr of motor cars and aeroplanes. (236-237)
The aliveness of Nature evokes a response in us that we are helpless to resist. Who has not been stirred by the coming of spring, when the world announces its rebirth through an outpouring of verdure? The hillside is overtaken by a green fire and the birds and wildlife respond with their own frenzied voices of joy. The inexhaustible vigor of nature awakens something inside us that is also alive and wild and utterly necessary. We cannot help but respond–in music, in poetry, and in art. Of this response, which we can only call the spiritual, The American reformist Jonathan Edwards writes:
This I know not how to express otherwise, than by a calm, sweet abstraction of soul from all the concerns of this world; and sometimes a kind of vision, or fixed ideas and imaginations, of being alone in the mountains, or some solitary wilderness far from all mankind, sweetly conversing with Christ, and rapt and swallowed up in God. The sense I had of divine things, would often of a sudden kindle up, as it were, a sweet burning in my heart; an ardor of soul, that I know not how to express. (Personal Narrative, 284)
In the mountains away from mankind, Edwards opens himself to the influence of nature. The transformation is not willed, created, or even anticipated. Rather, it comes like a visitation, “of a sudden kindling up” and he is but a vessel for its burning. The source of poetry is not creation, but reception—“The opened eye is helpless and instantly filled by the available light” (Donald Revell, Invisible Green). The act of receiving can only be described as a communion with the divine.
“The soul of sweet delight can never be defiled,” said William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The feelings awakened in Edwards on the mountain or with the speaker’s encounter with the fish in Bishop’s poem are unquestionably moral. There is no presence of greed or competition while we are under the influence of such feelings, instead there is peace and compassion. Delight is moral. It is not difficult to derive that the cultivation of delight is also the cultivation of the spiritual impulse, which aims at justice and abhors unrighteousness.
Poetry is a manner of paying attention as to fall in love with the object of attention. Whether it is a person, an object, or an idea, we make ourselves receptive to that object without judgment. We allow our response to that object to blossom and transform us. The act of writing or painting is merely recording the process of that transformation. Elaine Scarry, in On Beauty and Being Just, describes this process as “decentering”:
At the moment we see something beautiful, we undergo a radical decentering. Beauty requires us ‘to give up our imaginary position as the center…. A transformation then takes place at the very roots of our sensibility, in our immediate reception of sense impressions and psychological impressions’….We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us (112).
If injustice means to conquer and dominate others, then love is to make ourselves submissive to the beloved. When we love something or someone, we elevate it in our hearts and humble ourselves in relation to it. We become adjacent, even subordinate, to beloved. How often do we hear lovers say to their beloved, “I am yours,” or, “I give you my heart.” When we are in love, we are inclined to say, “He or she is a better person than I am.” “It is as though one has ceased to be the hero or heroine in one’s own story and has become what in a folktale is called the ‘lateral figure’ or ‘donor figure.’ It may sound not as though one’s participation in a state of overall equality has been brought about, but as though one has just suffered a demotion” (Scarry 114).
But rather than injury as a result of our demotion in relation to the beloved, we experience it as pleasure:
A beautiful thing is not the only thing in the world that can make us feel adjacent; or is it the only thing in the world that brings a state of acute pleasure. But it appears to be one of the few phenomena in the world that brings about both simultaneously: it permits us to be adjacent while also permitting us to experience extreme pleasure, thereby creating the sense that it is our own adjacency that is pleasure-bearing…. It is clear that an ethical fairness which requires ‘a symmetry of everyone’s relation’ will be greatly assisted by an aesthetic fairness that creates in all participants a state of delight in their own lateralness” (Scarry 114).
The pleasure that we feel at being in love is the pleasure of giving up our own position at the center to make it available for something else. Love makes us realize our own deficiency and the merit of others who are not like us. The value we obtain from the beautiful person or object is not its utility, but something finer that the thing offers as itself, without our interference. Beauty awakens in us the realization that others have something to offer to us simply by being themselves. We do not wish to alter or control the other because their otherness is what makes them beautiful, and to mold them to our requirements destroys their beauty.
Bertrand Russell said, “It is only in so far as we renounce the world as its lovers that we can conquer it as its technicians.” Similarly, Rachel Carson wrote, “It is not as important to know as it is to feel.” Knowledge implies that we have reached the limit of our understanding. However, beauty requires that a thing be unknowable; that it be mysterious and inexhaustible. The beautiful person or object cannot be “captured,” or “reduced.” Its unknowability is what makes it desirable. The beloved’s beauty awakens in us the realization that our world was previously incomplete, and that the beloved contains something that we have been searching for and was unable to find in ourselves. We desire the other person so that we may be closer to that mystery, and yet desire requires that the beloved always be unknowable. Once we have felt that we know everything there is to know about someone, it is usually impossible to continue loving them with that same passionate devotion.
The study of literature is always an exercise in submission. In reading fiction, we enter a narrative with a willing suspension of disbelief, an active casting aside of our own perspectives and prejuidices. We enter the subjectivity of another and experience the world from his or her point of view. This experience is profoundly moral because only when we are able to put ourselves in another person’s shoes can we understand and care for them. The frequent exploration of another’s subjective experience helps to reveal our prejudices and cultivate compassion. Consider the anti-heroes of literature: Catherine and Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights, the protagonist of Notes from Underground, Jay Gatsby of The Great Gatsby; we may not like them or share their values but we powerfully experience their subjectivity and respond to their inner struggles. These characters come alive for us despite their distance from us in time period, cultures, actions, and morals. We come to learn that even the most vile and criminal among us have desires and longings that we all identify with, that the frailties they exhibit are a result of being human, that even the most sane and moral among us have a touch of madness. If literature can help us sympathize with those who are farthest removed from us in terms of culture, language, time period, and morals, how much more can we sympathize with the less fortunate of our own age, whether they are poor, disabled, or a minority? The cultivation of morality is not merely the understanding of laws and rights, but the ability to feel another’s suffering as own by seeing the world through their eyes.