The Artist’s Duty to Contact the Timeless in Tumultuous Times
“Now it has become impossible to guard one’s soul… we are forced to read the papers, and yet… our job is somehow or other to be above the mêlée, or so deeply in it that one comes through to something else, something universal and timeless.”
“I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence,” Toni Morrison wrote in her electrifying piece on the artist’s duty at times of crisis. That refusal can take many forms, but at its richest, it is more than mere resistance — it is, rather, a commitment on behalf of the artist to serve not only truth but beauty by remaining in contact with the timeless and the eternal; to fortify us against the urgencies of a turbulent present and embolden us to transcend our primal reflex of fear, so that we may lift not only our spirits but the whole of our consciousness and continue to evolve toward a more humane humanity. This has always been the duty of the artist, and fragments of it can be found in every single work of art that has endured and has helped humanity endure over millennia of tumult. James Baldwin captured this memorably in his beautiful essay on the poet’s role in a divided society: “It is said that [Shakespeare’s] time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it.”
We tend to forget this sometimes, besieged by the news and blinded by media’s marketable myopia.
On January 7, 1939, as the seething Nazi cauldron of hate and destruction was coming to a boiling point in Europe on the cusp of WWII, the great British poet, essayist, playwright, and publisher T.S. Eliot announced in the Times that he was shutting down The Criterion — his influential literary journal, in which he had first published The Waste Land seventeen years earlier and which had grown to be a unifying force for the creative and intellectual life of Europe. This is what Eliot wrote:
In the present state of public affairs — which has induced in myself a depression of spirits so different from any other experience of fifty years as to be a new emotion — I no longer feel the enthusiasm necessary to make a literary review what it should be. This is not to suggest that I consider literature to be at this time, or at any time, a matter of indifference. On the contrary I feel that it is all the more essential that authors who are concerned with the small part of “literature” which is really creative — and seldom immediately popular — should apply themselves sedulously to their work, without abatement or sacrifice of their artistic standards or any pretext whatsoever.
Across the Atlantic, the young poet, novelist, essayist, and diarist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) was stirred by Eliot’s words, which gave voice to what so many were feeling, and deeply troubled by the demise of The Criterion, which, as she wrote to a literary kindred spirit, gave her “a deathly shiver — as much as the end of a world — small perhaps but containing an essential grain of the human spirit — as, let us say, the fall of Barcelona.”
A week after the news, Sarton decided to contribute what she could and helped organize an auction in New York for an organization devoted to caring for refugees from Germany. “Never has there been a year when one needed more to be born again,” Sarton wrote to none other than Virginia Woolf — who had published the first English edition of Eliot’s The Waste Land in book form under her independent Hogarth Press — in a letter found, in the immensely enlivening and poetic May Sarton: Selected Letters, 1916–1954 (public library). Sarton asked if Woolf would be willing to donate one of her manuscripts for the action, because she believed that “people would almost sell their souls for a single page of [Woolf’s].” “It would be a good deed in a naughty world,” Sarton wrote, and closed the letter with her disarming self-conscious sincerity:
Dear Virginia Woolf… I wish you were near and that I could send you the primroses that I saw in a shop and gave to my mother instead.
Two weeks later, still grieving the death of The Criterion, Sarton found solace in the existence of the literary journal Virginia Quarterly Review, edited at the time by the young idealist Lawrence Lee. In a letter to Lee from January 26, she offers a most exquisite articulation of the artist’s duty, to herself and to her audience, in troubled times:
I find my position as a poet today a curious one… For a long time I have maintained that the poet’s affair was the individual human soul, the story of it in one man, in my case the transforming of personal emotions into written events. Now it has become impossible to guard one’s soul — death to do it — we are forced to read the papers, and yet I still believe that our job is somehow or other to be above the mêlée, or so deeply in it that one comes through to something else, something universal and timeless.
She adds that while there is a place for poets who deal with the pressing political realities of the day — poets like her contemporaries Muriel Rukeyser and W.H. Auden(who mere months later would write his timeless and tragically timely masterpiece “September 1, 1939”) — “there is an even greater need perhaps for Rilke, for Blake.”