Art and Music

Myth, Art, and Poetry

Art and Music
Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Joseph Campbell writes: “Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life. . . . Mythology teaches you what’s behind literature and the arts, it teaches you about your own life. . . . I think of mythology as the homeland of the muses, the inspirers of art, the inspirers of poetry. To see life as a poem and yourself participating in a poem is what the myth does for you.” [1] Often, various forms of wordless art and music precede the mythic story. We often know things imaginally, aesthetically, or harmoniously before we know them rationally or conceptually.

As long as humans have existed, it seems that we’ve turned to art to express the inexpressible. Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), Romanian historian of religion, writes that “sacred art seeks to represent the invisible by means of the visible. . . . Even in archaic and ‘folk’ cultures, lacking any philosophical system and vocabulary, the function of sacred art was the same: it translated religious experience and a metaphysical conception of the world and of human existence into a concrete, representational form. This translation was not considered wholly the work of man: the divinity also participated by revealing himself to man and allowing himself to be perceived in form or figure.” [2]

In my opinion, whenever we see an iconoclastic form of reformation, it is an angry regression and an overreacting constriction. It is not good news. Examples include 8th century Orthodoxy, most 16th century Protestants, and presently ISIS. This is not to say that both the Orthodox and the Catholics did not substitute lots of mass produced madonnas with cherubs and predictable icons for the kind of art that shouts “You must change your life!” as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke describes in “Archaic Torso of Apollo.”

We don’t need a reason for art. Beauty is for beauty’s sake. Art and music are not simply objects, but an experience of opening to mystical awareness. In David Loy’s words, “. . . perhaps the profound pleasure we sometimes experience from listening to a Bach fugue or a Mozart piano concerto is not a distraction from that process of attuning, nor even a side-effect of it, but is that attuning. What is the non-dual experience if not such an attunement? Nor need that enjoyment be understood subjectively. If the whole of creation groans and travails in pain together (Romans 8:22), does it not also leap for joy together, in us—or rather, as us?” [3]

My first thirteen years of Franciscan formation included daily, well-disciplined singing of magnificent Gregorian chants. People would arrive early in the dark morning just to listen to the friars climb and descend our calm but mellifluous scales of pure tonality, and often left when we started the wordy parts of the service. They had already received the healing message—it is a good and coherent world and I am a part of it.

Gateway to Silence:
“To see a world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower.” —William Blake

[1] Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth (Anchor Books: 1988), 5, 14, 65.
[2] Mircea Eliade, edited by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, Symbolism, the Sacred, & the Arts (Continuum: 1992), 55.
[3] David Loy, Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy (Harmony Books: 1998), 302.

Image credit: The Winged Deer (tapestry detail), French School, (15th century), Musee des Antiquities, Rouen, France, Peter Willi, The Bridgeman Art Library.