They say all great men have a morning routine, so I figured I ought to rush right out and get me one of those. I’ll belabor the elements of that routine while subtly flattering myself for it some other time; the point today is that it often includes listening to Writer’s Almanac while I make breakfast. Yes, I know some of my right-leaning readers aren’t Garrison Keillor fans. His apology for mentioning Jesus Christ in a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, his encomium to the journalist John Reed that neglected to mention Reed’s payola from Moscow, his selection of American pioneers that seems as if it’s passed before a review board comprised of New York Times editors and Berkeley political scientist professors—I get it, I really do. But find me even one person on the Right who has done more to elevate poetry—good poetry, not the navel-gazing intentionally obscure stuff that trained most of us to look for the exit when someone threatens to pull a poetry book off the shelf—and I’ll listen to that guy’s podcast too.
The fact of the matter is that I love Garrison Keillor. I love the tender mournful tone he takes on when he says, “Here’s a poem for today.” I love his humor and his humanity. I make no apology for any of this.
But I come not to praise Keillor, nor to bury him, but to give you something to ponder. Today, I learned from Writer’s Almanac, is the birthday of both Bertolt Brecht and Boris Pasternak, and what an interesting contrast. Brecht was a poet and playwright who escaped Hitler, got himself on the Hollywood anti-Communist blacklist, and eventually moved to East Berlin to run a theater company while writing crappy Marxist plays and decent poetry. (See how easily our biases emerge when we’re pressed for space and time?) And so here’s the Brecht quote Keillor provides on today’s Writer’s Almanac:
“Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”
How very ugly and brutal and Stalinesque, no? At least it seems to me, now that I’ve had my coffee and mulled it over. But I confess at first, as I shoved my eggs around in their pan and listened to Keillor’s grandfatherly voice express this sentiment on behalf of Brecht, that I nodded in agreement. Yes! That is how we’ll fix the world! With a goddamned hammer!
But we’ve all seen art wielded like a hammer, haven’t we? It’s Christian fiction, it’s the unsubtle modish moralism of TV shows trying to make us more Progressive, it’s preening entertainers haranguing us about our retrograde beliefs. And whether the beliefs which art-as-a-hammer wants to beat into us are right or wrong, the hammer is itself wrong. It feels false and forced to anyone who didn’t show up with the intention of having himself pounded feet-first into the socially-appropriate peg-hole.
Even the Marxists understood this at some level. They knew people were more influenced by the dramatic picture of Lenin lecturing a rapt crowd than by his words. It’s why they pioneered techniques to airbrush people in and out of pictures like that based on their standing with Party rulers. It was deceptive and cruel and that’s art as a hammer for you.
And so then we have Pasternak, who was persecuted by the same people whom Brecht held in high regard, who had to hide himself away after the publication of Doctor Zhivago, who was barred by the Soviet Communists from receiving his Nobel Prize in literature. Keillor tells us Pasternak said this:
“I always dreamt of a novel in which, as in an explosion, I would erupt with all the wonderful things I saw and understood in this world.”
I can’t make any claim to understand the essence of art, but I keep coming back to the notion that we are all of us crafted in the image and likeness of an artist. We have become broken and short-sighted, but we still have within us something that grasps for the canvas, tubes of paint in our shaking hands, to try and portray not just what we see but what might be seen beneath the seeable.
It’s an impulse born of wonderment, and sometimes we are reminded that it dwells within us when we write or sing or make a loaf of bread with our own hands. When we screen in our porch or tar our chimney flashing or show a child how to bait a fish hook. We feel it well up within us when we shut up and shut off our electric distractions and consider the slant of light as the sun sinks behind the trees.
It’s a sense, in those rare moments, of the life of the world to come. Given all that we’ve done to this world, perhaps we should thank God that our mean little hammers aren’t what will shape the final frame.