Can Art Save Us in a Time of Pandemic?

Marcel Proust on His Deathbed – Paul Helleu, 1922

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’—that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

                                                                        John Keats – from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

In a time such as this when falconers have lost their falcons and we all look in horror at the blood dimmed tides loosed upon the world, it is not an invalid question at all to ponder if anything at all can save us from the present predicament that we are collectively confronting in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic. On the face of is, the very notion of art as a panacea is patently absurd. Art will not stay sickness. Literature will not vaccinate us from the very real threat of loss. Music is no cure for mortality. When considering the ravages of disease, the humane response is to hope and pray that we can mitigate its damage through medical skill and a common commitment to public health. However, as we navigate the difficult questions that this pandemic raises about our own mortality and the fragility of the social, economic, political, and spiritual world that we inhabit it is not at all inappropriate to turn toward the transcendent for answers. This is where the imperatives of faith and art transect, and while at least to some it would be sacrilege to conflate religion and art, both grapple in the vicissitudes of life and death and meaning, even if from different but related vantages, that afford us renewed perspective and perhaps courage to face the chaotic realities of a world that appears not only indifferent to us but in times like this, far from benign.

            In Four Quartets, composed at the apogee of his poetic career, TS Eliot writes –

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,

The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,

The captains, the merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,

The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,

Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,

Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark…

And cold the sense and lost the motive of action,

And we all go with them into the silent funeral,

Nobody’s funeral, for there is is no one to bury.

I said to my soul, be still, let the dark come upon you

Which shall be the darkness of God…

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be of love for the wrong thing; there is faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

Wait without though, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

Four Quartets, East Coker III

The COVID-19 pandemic has descended upon the global community like an unexpected nightmare. While disease and death have always been the among the warp and woof of human experience, the collective experience of both fear, isolation, and uncertainty have become the most palpable facts of our daily experience of late. In a very real sense we all march into this silent funeral together, knowing that not one of us will come through this pandemic untouched, whether by loss of livelihoods or loss of loved ones or a tragic combination of both. Whatever the world will look like on the other side of this, it is certain that it will not be the world we knew before the virus. From the highest echelons of society to the most common of us, we all are going into the dark together standing at the graveside of a world we must all leave behind. Yet, there is, in this very darkness the hope of catharsis. At the very moment when Heaven seems silent, where the Divine seems cloaked behind the inky veil of midnight, where our hopes and loves and even our faith seems to have all been misplaced in trivialities that cannot weather this present storm; the possibility of light ascends if ever so quietly on the eastern horizon. Perhaps if we can muster the courage to stare into the abyss we can awaken to a kind of second sight that can perceive with faith and hope and love the kind of light that will rekindle our hearts to dancing even while the long night of this pandemic persists.            

So we return to the question at hand – can art save us in a time of pandemic? In a very real sense we must summon the defiant will to say yes, it can, and it must. It is the power of art that points us to the Divine, for in it, as in the words and deeds of holy men, art even in the most refractory sense is imbued with the transcendentals of goodness, beauty, and truth. Perhaps it cannot keep us from suffering under the physical and emotional ravages of disease, and by itself cannot bestow upon us a cure for mortality, but art and music and literature can point us beyond ourselves and the frailties that lead us inexorably to the grave to things that endure, that give shape and sound and texture and meaning to our lives, and that lift us from our loneliness into meaningful connections with one another. Some of us, myself included have embarked upon the tall task of reading Proust, still others share their love of cinema in online groups, others yet share their music and their artwork with anyone who has eyes, ears, and hearts capable of being warmed by them. The invitation is ever before us, even in the most trying times to look to Beauty and therein find, at the very least some measure of salvation.

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