Sunday, November 26, 2006

Robert Farrar Capon, "The Oblation of Things"

I take my children to the beach. On the north shore of Long Island it is a pretty stony proposition. The mills of the gods grind coarsely here; but, in exchange for busied feet and a sore coccyx, they provide gravel for the foundation of the arts. Every year we hunt for perfect stones: ovals, spheroids, lozenges, eggs. By the end of the summer there are pebbles all over the house. They have no apparent use other than the delight that they provide to man, but that is the whole point of the collection. The very act of hunting them is an introduction to the oblation of things. Look at this one! Do you think it will split evenly enough for arrowheads? What color is that one when it's wet? Lick it and see. Daddy wants a big flat round one to hold the sauerkraut under the brine. Will this one do? We walk down the beach lifting stones into our history: we are collectors, ingatherers of being. Man is the lover of textures, colors and shapes – the only creature in the whole world who knows a good pickling stone when he sees one. The arts go way beyond that; but that is where they begin.

The child who runs the satin binding of his blanket between this fingers, the boy who carefully oils his collection of ball bearings so they will not rust, the woman who loves to handle thick braids, the man who opens his pocket-knife just to hear the satisfying click with which it closes – all these are priestly builders. It is in his simplest oblations that man is at his historical best. When he rises higher, he makes more mistakes – he diagrams and spiritualizes what should have been loved and offered as a thing; but at these low levels he is a success. The world has seen few badly offered blanket bindings, few profaned ball bearings. As long as man can hunt stones, he will know that the fire of his priesthood has not gone out.

But the oblation of things goes far beyond such simplicities. It is in the arts and the crafts that man most displays his priestliness and historicity. ...

It is a common error to suppose that the artist does what he does for himself – that he is a peculiar being who loves certain things in a way not open to others. It is also common to dismiss the craftsman as a fellow who does things for money. To some degree, of course, that is all true. Artists are usually a little odd; the laborer commonly, and legitimately, looks forward to his hire. But after that it falls short. For each is engaged in an offering of things not simply for his own benefit, but for the sake of the things themselves – and for the sake of other men. The painter paints because he loves the way things look and wants to offer his sight of them to others. The poet speaks because he loves words and longs for them to be heard as he hears them. And the cabinetmaker fashions and the joiner joins, and the chef cooks and the vintner toils because they love the conjunctions of things and will them to be moved into the weaving of the web. All arts come from having open eyes; and all arts are performing arts. Even the solitary artist in the cave draws to be seen, offers up what he looks at as a priest for other men. It is only in bad drawing, bad writing and bad woodwork that motives other than priestly ones become primary. It is when man stops loving what he does and stops caring whether others see that he becomes guilty of artistry that is not art and of craftsmanship that is only shoddy. ...

If speech is the crowning gift of man, then the arts of language probably qualify as the most nearly universal. Not all men can draw, many men cannot sing, and the world is full of cooks who ought to be allowed to rise no higher than the scullery; but all men speak, and practically no one is immune to the delights of rhyme and reason. The child, as soon as he learns words, plays with words. The teen-ager, with his stock of current clich├ęs and his mercurial pattern of jargon, is a poet. He may recite only commercial slogans and comparable idiocies; but he recites them, at least partly, because he loves the way the words rattle. And somewhere along the line he will, unless he is starved to death, come to love some very grand rattles indeed.

I remember the first time I read Shakespeare's sonnets. "Lillies that fester smell far worse than weeds" stuck in my head for weeks – not so much for its meaning as for its marvellous wordiness. The city of speech is old and new, and rich beyond counting. ...

That only a few have the craft to forge such words takes nothing off the edge of the marvel by which man can sense the priestliness of their oblation And it is not only the grand and the gorgeous that qualify. ...

Speech is no mere tool of communication; it is a joy in itself. ... Speech should indeed inform, as food should indeed nourish, but what sane man will let either subject go at that? ...

Man's failure in music is like his failure in all the arts – a failure to make them really priestly, a penchant for non-historical and irrelevant forms. Far too much of the music we now have is only heard, not played or sung. It makes no demands, does not ask to be lifted; it just hangs around. We have canned music, background music, and music to do everything but listen to music by. But music cannot be only entertainment any more than speech can be only communication. We aim too low. Both are major oblations, and they will settle for nothing less. Neither can be merely used: they must be played.

Thank God for wine. Without it we would have almost no singing at all. Practically the only place where men now sing when they are cold sober is in church; and, to tell the truth, it sounds like it. As a professional religionist, I wish I could make a more glowing report; but, by and large, it is wretched. It is a triumph of use, not play. And for every man in church who sings, there are five who stand aloof from the whole business as if it were faintly disreputable.

Why? Because they are embarrassed by the sound of their own voices: they are ashamed of their priesthood. The city of music, which fairly cries for lifting into their history, is firmly and permanently locked out. I think that secretly, in their heart of hearts, perhaps, they envy people who play. But they do not show it often. If only they would. It isn't a matter of working themselves into miniature Isaac Sterns; the harmonica will do if it comes to that – or even tenth-rate four-part harmony. They underestimate the power of the arts. A man can practice for weeks on the strength of one-chord progression. Even the smallest oblation will lift the priest as he makes it; even a little attention to what is really there will be a historical triumph.

from An Offering Of Uncles: The Priesthood of Adam and The Shape of the World
by Robert Farrar Capon