THE BLUE GUITAR
One might think that the easiest problem in the complicated act of believing is man himself. After all, he is nearest and we know him from the inside. God may seem far off, vague and elusive, but surely man is close at hand, quite tangible and if anything oppressively inescapable. Yet the truth is, we do not know what to believe about ourselves.
Dust of the earth, troubled by dreams, swept by storms of beauty and madness, lured by inaccessible truths and tor-tured by innumerable illusions, seeking peace and making war, with incredible courage and awful fears, curious beyond measure, saint and devil by turns, man stands at the heart of mystery and finds himself the center of all uncertainties.
Watch him explore the universe, drop his plumb line beside the stars, turn lightening to his use, put chains on the fury of natural power, and in a thousand ways act out his Promethean destiny. Yet at the center of these marvels of ingenuity, he stands muddled-muddled by himself, and the extraordinary contradiction of his deeds.
“Know thyself,” was the admonition of Socrates. “Judge not, that you be not judged,” was the advice of Jesus. They belong together. To know one`s self is enough to cancel the pride of bigotry, but knowing oneself is fraught with the gravest difficulties of being so close we cannot clearly see what we are looking at.
One of Picasso`s most moving presentations of the mystery of man is the “Man with the Guitar,” which hangs in the Chicago Art Institute; it shows a man, somewhat haggard, hollow-cheeked, ascetic-seeming, in the El Greco fashion, sit-ting cross-legged, with a guitar cradled in his arms and a far look, a listening look in his eyes. Is this man-man in the generic sense-a new Homer for our time, a bard for the twentieth century to sing of our odyssey among the stars and mushroom clouds? Is this anything more than a suggestive picture of a man seeking to hear the melody of his own life, to strum the strings of his own being as he listens for over-tones of meaning? Is this guitar anything more than himself, his own sentient, sensitive self waiting to make music under the invisible fingers of beauty and truth?
In his poem “The New Year Letter,” W. H. Auden reminds us that
There are two atlases: the one
The public space where acts are done,
In theory common to us all, . . .
The other is the inner space…
That each of us is forced to own,…
The landscape of his will and need…
Where he patrols the forest tracts
Planted in childhood, farms the belt
Of doings memorized and felt,
And even if he find it in hell
May neither leave it nor rebel. 1
1 Collected Poetry (New York: Random House, 1945), pp. 296-97.
Ever since the Copernican revolution, when the earth was displaced from the center of the universe, man has been in a long, Hamlet-like soliloquy about where he fitted into the nature of things. The Psalmist anciently averred that man was but a little lower than the angels; but the Darwinians reversed the order somewhat, being dubious about the exis-tence of angels, and assumed he was just a little above the apes. Immanuel Kant spent much of his time and genius, or so he said, in philosophizing about mans`s place in the economy of things, while Rousseau, his contemporary, benignly asserted more dogmatically that natural man was good but badly cor-rup^ted by civilization. Opinions began to fly in all directions, descending to the cynical notion that man was only an infec-tious eczema on the epidermis of a second-rate planet, and rising to the lofty idea of the Enlightenment which held that man, because of his divine reason, was of godlike status. As early as the sixteenth century Pascal expressed the ambiguity as well as anyone when he said of man: “What a chimera then is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depository of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error, the pride and refuse of the universe.”
In our day we are much puzzled. Religious tradition would have us reckon with a mysterious and ineradicable image of God, by which we are related to a world beyond us. Science has gone on from Darwin to gather a multitude of clinical facts-physical, social, psychiatric-which makes it plain we are deeply rooted in the world below us. Meantime, we have gath-ered knowledge, increased our power, manipulated nature, invented machines, explored the atom, traveled to interstel-lar space, tightened up the world by a vast web of instant communications, and threatened the peace of the world with such unparalleled destructiveness that the future, which was always a possible hope, has now become the source of our darkest fears. If we only knew what we were! What is our place in the long history of the universe? What are the jobs that human nature is supposed to fill in this world of ours? Are we temporary phenomena or eternal souls? Are we chil-dren of chance or of God? What is our freedom, our response-bility, our hope, our sin, our faith? Should we be praying, or is it hopeless?
Is man a highly ingenious animal, or a real soul incarnate in flesh; is he a fool deceived by time, or a saint on pilgrimage with a real destination; is he a slave to be finally mastered by death, or a master of time and a child of eternity; is he a handle for operating gadgets, or a probe into freedom and worlds to be born; is he merely a cog, a computer, a victim, a joke, or really a man with a function to perform in the mysteries of creation and the long, long accomplishments of human destiny?
The massive pressures of our time have converged to produce such a burden on the ambiguous creature that he has been much disillusioned with himself. His highest ideals have come to look a bit silly in the light of recent wars, gas chambers, absorption bombing, Freudian analysis, literary cynicism, and the threat of nuclear warfare. It is hard to be pompous or piously optimistic in a world as well lighted-down to our deepest secrets-by the lightning of recent epochs. We have been x-rayed, and there is little in us which has not been made public on a large and irrefutable scale.
Moreover, the Copernican revolution was not the only force which shoved man far out of the center of things. Indeed, the development of western culture in the last three or four centuries may be summarized as the progressive loss of the human center. Man may not have been aware of what was happening to him, but slowly and imperceptibly he was being pushed out of the center, until now he feels his reduced re-sponsibility quite forcibly. He tends now to adjust himself to whatever it is that has taken the central place, the locus potentiae.
Science has taught him to step aside from the vital center. In the prescientific age he tended to give things the meanings he wanted them to have, often to such an extreme the he foisted on them meanings which they did not possess and which betrayed their intrinsic character. With Science, man became much more modest and let things speak in their own intrinsic character, but he turned the method around and tried to learn as much as possible about himself by the same objective method of disregarding the self. When everything in man was thrown out which could no longer be known as objective fact, the human center was lost. When man becomes the passive recorder of instrument readings, and only that, he has been dislocated for the time being from his essential self. We expect to accomplish the truth by withdrawing ourselves in an act of observation.
Or look at the advent of the machine. A tremendous slave for man, carrying him, speeding him through the skies, serving him in a thousand ways, entertaining him, making life easier, faster, freer. And yet, having done all this the machine, once his slave, now tends to enslave him, to absorb his ener-gies, and to dictate his values. Not only does the machine stand at the center of his life, but it tends to be master, deter-mining his tempo, his way of living, his priorities and values. The machine now becomes the pattern of the good society, efficiently organized, men becoming socialized and inter-changeable parts. As technological culture progresses, Rod-erick Seidenberg says, the individual will inevitably decline. The movement is definitely toward a kind of termite colony where we can expect to achieve all human ends by means of techniques or easy methods in which we need not involve ourselves.
Or perhaps we should see the peculiar effect of what we may call the massive inundation of the human being by things. Of course, we have always been subject to the threat of crass materialism; but we have never before in history been in the position of the Sorcerer`s Apprentice, with the unimaginable productiveness of machines flooding our lives with an inces-sant storm of things and encouraging us by a whole system of highly developed advertising-suggestive, alluring, insinuating-to increase our wants to incredible dimensions. In order to make room for the new, we must have built-in obsolescence in order to quickly discard the old. We are, as Gabriel Marcel has said, being “thingified,” We expect to satisfy our human hunger by multiplying things.
What if a man gain the primal powers of creation and destruction and can make machines do everything he wants done, and fill the world with such a clutter of things that he cannot get through them, and yet lose his place or, perhaps in the ultimate reckoning, lose himself; what will it matter? Suppose this pseudoscience squeezes him free of all subject-tivity, of all sense of freedom and responsibility, and he becomes increasingly adjusted to a mechanically organized and manipulated society; will he still be man? You remember that unforgettable picture of the little man in the first chapter of Dostoevsky`s Letters from the underworld-the little man so insignificant that Dostoevsky suggests that he has crawled out from between the floorboards. He has been observing the effect of science and efficiency, of organizations and order in the world:
I should not be surprised if, amid all this order and regularity of the future, there should suddenly arise, from some quarter or another, some gentleman of lowborn-or, rather, or retrograde and cynical-demeanor who, setting his arms akimbo, should say to you all: “How now, gentlemen? Would it not be a good thing if, with one consent, we were to kick all this solemn wisdom to the winds, and to send those logarithms to the devil, and to begin to live our lives again according to our own stupid whims?.2
2(New York: E. P. Dutton, 1913), pp. 30-31.
Let me suggest three functions of man, three places where he fits into the economy of things, three levels of activity through which the world is-if I may use a religious word-redeemed. The first of these is to provide a focus where the rich diversities and contradictions of the world may be cen-tered and find unity. Man is the most permeable of all creatures. All time and space, stars and dust, atoms and galaxies, dreams and destiny, the distant and the near-everything flows through his senses, his thoughts, his experience. He is host to the universe, and host at every level of its many-levelled life. Beauty and being, truth and terror, flesh and fear, sight and sanity, mercy and mirage, peace and passion, sin and sublimity, horror and heaven-all the notes this world can sound touch manwith their distinctive pitch; and in him they may be so handled, so arranged in chords and sequence, as to produce music. No other creature reflects so much of the world, so many dimensions and directions of its life, as man. He alone of all God`s creatures matches the manifold aspects of creation with a responsive capacity, a breadth and depth of resonance of such adequacy as to suggest that the two were meant to fulfill each other. The world is focused nowhere as fully as in man.
Indeed, in a sense, this is his torment. If he could only choose what he wanted to reflect and deny everything else! Some people manage to do just that. But most of us take it all in-and ask for more! High and low, good and bad, bright and dark, birth and death, love and hate, comic and tragic, sunlight and tears, lust and love-it all comes in and we are caught with it all, trying to make some sense out of it, sorting it all out, putting it in place, and wrestling with it in fear and trembling to uncover its true significance. It is not an easy thing to be human; to bear the burden of contradic-tions; to feel all manner of opposites in our own nature; to struggle with such embarrassments all our days; to will one thing and to do another; to suffer all sorts of mysterious circumstances and to try to get to the heart of them; to meet tragedy head on and to find no way around it; to carry sorrow in our hearts and to see injustice; to know loneliness and to find ourselves unable to think of it religiously; to lift our spirit towards faith, and then to find ourselves baffled and not imag-inative enough to think of God; to bear in our life a strange mixture of sophistication and stupidity, of freedom and fear, of joy and despair. No, to be human, to take our place and match the world, to be hospitable to its variety and contradict-tion is not easy; yet this is our task. When we turn our back on this, we turn our back on sanity, on science, on art-on reality itself.
But there is an intimation in what I have already said that we are more than reflectors for the realities of this world. The world is focused in man, richly and abundantly at many levels, providing him with a kind of universe within the universe. But added to man`s permeability, or hospitality if you will, there is a whole level of consciousness in man which provides the world with a new margin of meaning. Man`s freedom is that level in which the world`s realities, its events and circumstances, may be transformed. The world is always waiting-dumbly or not so dumbly- for a man alert with freedom, bold with imagination, yearning with hunger, ready to receive it, wrestle with it, exalt it, and remake it at a higher level where it may be fulfilled.
So it is that poets lift a leaf skyward and fill it with a myriad of stars and drift it along the winds from outerspace and let it fall upon the earth as no other leaf had fallen and all men`s sorrows were gathered together in this solemn symbol. So the saints touch the soiled heart of a sinner, and all the mercies of God gush forth as from a great Niagara of compassion, redeeming life of all its dusty boredom and its stony hate. So the artist watches an old woman peel her nails and, in colors grander than the grandest sunset, dis-closes the dignity and wonder of age when pain has furrowed the face and labor roughened the hands, and an enduring mystery lights the eyes with sight of something far beyond her own hands.
One of the most moving sections of Wallace Stevens`poem “The Man with the Blue Guitar” is as follows:
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”
The Man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”3
3The Collected Poems of Wallace Stephens (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1954), p. 73.
You and I are forever strumming this strange instrument of sense, of mind and imagination; and what things are, or seem to be, we change upon the blue guitar. We are not merely reflectors-the mirror in which reality sees itself-but we are freedom in which reality is changed, transformed, turned in new directions, molded in new shapes, fashioned for new uses, and even glorified.
To turn to another poet, Rainer Maria Rilke calls this task of man “the transformations of love.” He says, “We are the bees of the invisible. We frantically plunder the visible of its honey, to accumulate it in the great golden hive of the in-visible.” By such arduous work we take the simplest circum-stances and the most routine events and convert them by the slow and inexorable labours of the soul into a hundred times their original worth.
This surely is the very essence of our nature as human beings. The world is changed in us; and therefore Dante never can be mistaken for Homer, or Rembrandt for Memling. Each of us plays upon the blue guitar the music of this life in such a way as to say what is in out heart, shaped and heard by the mysteries of our own peculiar being.
This surely is where one must speak not only of poets and painters but of saints. Here the image is obscured by animosi-ties and prejudices of time and faith. We can see how poets and artists transform the material of this world, creating a new reality out of the old. But we have not always been as perceptive in our observation of those exceptional human beings who may pay little attention to vision or song but, looking at life itself, at the souls of men, are able in their freedom to do for them what poets do for nature or painters for the sight of things seen. They take the whole of life, with all its contradictions and embarrassments, all its shame and doubt, all its tragic sorrow and blasted hope, and, holding it together by an alchemy of the spirit and the pain of their compassion, embrace it and transform it by revealing a glory few could have seen who stood far off.
Lionel Trilling, in writing of Keats, has described this rare power:
A great poet (e.g., Shakespeare) looks at human life, sees the terrible truth of its evil, but sees it so intensely that it become an element of the beauty which is created by his act of percep-tion-in the phrase by which Keats describes his own experience as merely a reader of King Lear, he “burns through” the evil.4
4Lionel Trilling, The Opposing Self (New York; The Viking Press, 1955), p. 36.
But if this is true of Shakespeare-and I believe it is-how much more so is it true of Jesus? Here a man stood in the midst of every baffling contradiction man knows, held every embarrassment of this life within his heart-the height of heaven and the depths of hell, the joy of the kingdom and the pain of death, the freedom of faith and the bitterness of hate, the spirit and the flesh, angels and devils, hope and despair. But look at what he made of them: a new dimension of consciousness for man, a new order of society, a new way of life and a new sense of God.
I do not wonder at the general tendency in any age, and particularly in this easily distracted one, for man to absolve himself of this heavy responsibility to resolve contradictions. To take upon himself the burden even of reflecting the man aspects of this world`s reality is difficult enough, yearning as he does to find some unity in it, make some sense out of it. But to enter more deeply, to do more than reflect, to actually grapple with the contradictions, to thrust one`s fist through appearances, to wrestle with mystery in the dark of doubt and despair-this is harder still. Yet this is our destiny; this is the human center, the locus potentiae. This is our function as human beings.
Our task, as J. Robert Oppenheimer has so well said, is to
Keep our minds open and to keep the deep, to keep our sense of beauty and our ability to make it, and our occasional ability to see it in places remote and strange and unfamiliar; we shall have a rugged time of it, all of us, in keeping these gardens in our villages, in keeping open the manifold, intricate, casual paths, to keep these flourishing in a great, open, windy world; but this, as I see it, is the condition of man; and in this condition we can help, because we can love, one another.5
5Man`s Right to Knowledge (New You: Columbia University Press, 1954), p. 115.
Let me conclude with another set of lines from Wallace stevens:
Ah, but to play man number one,
To drive the dagger in his heart,
To lay his brain upon the board
And pick the acrid colors out,
To nail his thought across the door,
Its wings spread wide to rain and snow,
To strike his living hi and ho,
To tick it, tock it, turn it true,
To bang it from a savage blue,
Jangling the metal of the strings . . .6
6From “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” The collected poems of Wallace Stevens, p. 74.
Jangling the metal of the strings! To bring forth the sound of music never heard before, to elicit from mind and heart the symphony of your life, affirmed in faith and resonant with the vast voices of this mysterious world-this is your task. Make something not only of yourself, but of the thousands-aye, tens of thousands-of this life`s possibilities. Be salt to the earth, light to the world-be man, and join this world with God`s intention.