In my last posts, I looked at two of the most important artists of the 20th century, Dimitri Shostakovich and John Updike, in their relation to one of the driving forces of their work: the fear of death. And now, looking again, I wonder how they can both be denizens of the same world. They’re so different. Shostakovich was so despairing, Updike so hopeful, never mind the ways in which they expressed themselves.
And then, I’m reminded of a poem Updike wrote early on in his career. I’m sure Shostakovich would have had none of it.
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body:
If the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence,
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
It’s a passionate poem, almost convincing, and then I get angry: what’s this, metaphor and parable are feeble ways of understanding that belong to the past? To me, the poem not only defends the bodily resurrection of Christ as central to Christianity, but surrenders to a materialism that I think should be a thing of the past. I don’t pretend to understand modern physics, but I do know that nothing is what it seems: a whir of electrons, a universe full black holes-that is a universe shot through with nothingness-the list goes on and on. Except for mathematical formulas, there is no way human beings will ever understand any of it without metaphor, and perhaps even parable.
It is said that in the not so distant past, the visible world was never taken literally. Nothing was what it seemed to be; everything was symbolic of another, a sacred reality. The sturdy literalism that too many of us live by today where a table is just a table and to kick a stone and stub your toe is sufficient proof of it, wasn’t even on the radar. Today, again, we know that whatever reality is, it’s not what it seems. It’s multi-dimensional and mysterious, and has only incidentally and in one small dimension to do with tables.
Which gets us back to the other force that feeds our creativity: the awesomeness of it all. And so I say, hail to the metaphor, which is the only way I can pretend to grasp anything, and the essence of art to boot.
So there, take that, John Updike!