In Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor speaks of “the habit of art,” a phrase she borrows from Jacques Maritain. She writes,
teaching any kind of writing is largely a matter of helping the student develop the habit of art. I think this is more than just a discipline, although it is that; I think it is a way of looking at the created world and of using the senses so as to make them find as much meaning as possible in things. (“Writing Short Stories”—Mystery and Manners, p. 101)
The habit of art is a habit of seeing. I’m especially interested in O’Connor’s formulation of habit of art as “a way of looking at the created world and of using the senses so as to make them find as much meaning as possible in things.” Within that formulation are two assumptions that deserve particular attention:
First, O’Connor assumes that the things of the created world are shot through with meaning. Things are not neutral, nor is there a clear break between the things of the visible world and the things of the invisible world. Last week I quoted Gerard Manley Hopkins; now would be a good time to quote him again:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
When O’Connor writes of finding as much meaning as possible in things, she’s talking about finding what’s already there, not creating or inventing meaning. The world is already charged with the grandeur of God, whether we notice it or not.
Second, I don’t want you to miss the fact that O’Connor is talking about using the senses to find as much meaning as possible in things. The habit of art is a matter of seeing the surface of things in such a way that you see through or beyond the surface to deeper meanings. To see the surface of things, you have to use your senses.
Art, like faith, is a matter of coming to terms with reality—a means of coming to terms with reality—though I realize that, if you’re looking in from the outside, you may think of art or faith as a kind of escapism, a way of avoiding reality.
As O’Connor put it, “The writer learns … to be humble in the face of what-is. What-is is all he has to do with; the concrete is his medium; and he will realize eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them.”
We’re used to the idea that the writer invents new realities. That’s true as far as it goes. But I want to talk about the artist’s relation to realities that he didn’t invent, his relation to what is.
So, what IS? What realities constitute the world of an artist? I can think of four relevant aspects of reality (and there may be more):
- The concrete world. That is, the aspects of the created world that we perceive with our senses.
- The invisible world. That is, the bigger, deeper realities that we DON’T see with our eyeballs.
- The (non-arbitrary) rules of one’s art form.
- The limitations of the artist as a finite being.
I wrote about that fourth aspect, the limitations of the artist, last Tuesday. I plan (though I don’t promise!) to write about the rules of art next Tuesday. But today I want to discuss aspects 1 and 2 of reality, the visible world and the invisible world.
It is important that we not draw too bright a line between the realities we see and the realities we don’t see. We have already seen that the habit of art requires that we see through the concrete to the mysteries underneath. The visible world is shot through with meaning that originates in the invisible world.
Visible and Invisible Realities
You have never seen gravity. You have only seen things fall down.
You have never seen anger. You have only seen people get red-faced, say awful things, do violence, seethe, get revenge, etc.
The visible world comes to us via the senses, and then our judgment goes to work on that raw material. We make logical connections and moral assessments. We have emotional reactions. It is stating the obvious to say that the visible world comes to us via the senses. It is less obvious to say that a great deal of what you know of the invisible world came to you through the senses as well.
According to Flannery O’Connor, “The eye is an organ that involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it. It involves judgment” (Writing Short Stories”—Mystery and Manners p. 91). In the same section O’Connor writes, “[The beginning writer] thinks that judgment exists in one place and sense-impression in another. But for the fiction writer, judgment begins in the details he sees and how he sees them” (p. 92).
I know this seems counterintuitive. How can judgment be so closely connected to sense-impression? Well, consider this scenario: after waiting for the light, you’re crossing a city street with your baby in a stroller. A large SUV roars through the intersection, against the light, and as the vehicle passes inches from your baby, you notice that the driver is talking on a phone and putting on lipstick. Those are all sensory impressions. But how quickly do you arrive at moral judgments and logical conclusions and strong emotions? Judgment (and emotion) begins in the details you see and how you see them. Where else could they start?
The famous “Show-Don’t-Tell” principle is based on this idea that judgment and sense impression exist in the same place. When you show, you are presenting experience to your reader in the way that experience comes to us in the world God made. Showing engages the reader’s judgment.
The habit of art is predicated on the truth that meaning is IN the visible world—that meaning expresses itself in the visible created order. So the things of earth don’t just point to truths that exist elsewhere. The truths exist here too.
The habit of art, then, is the habit of double vision. You see the surface of things fully, using your senses. You take things seriously as things. But one of the reasons you take them seriously as things is that they participate in the divine life. The surfaces point to mysteries that go far below and beyond the surfaces.
It takes imagination to see that there are invisible things that are even truer than the visible things. But imagination isn’t (or needn’t be) a matter of skipping over the concrete and sensory.
See what you see. Give an account of what you’ve seen. It isn’t your job to make meaning. God has already done that. Do you believe that the world is shot through with meaning? Then you can tell the truth about what you have seen. Not what you thought you were supposed to see. Not what you wish you had seen. Not what you think the reader wants to see or needs to see.