Wisdom on Wednesdays (Thursday edition)—It’s Personal

“Men when they gather together are not up to much good unless they gather together for prayer.  In fact there is no such thing as ‘mass prayer’ unless the mass become one in the Personality of Christ, under personal direction.”  (1942)

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Untitled (Sermon on the Plain), etching, c. 1920s

Wisdom on Wednesdays—The Revolt against Nature

More from Carl Schmitt’s essay “Room (with Bath) at the Inn” (1941):

“One might call our present mess ‘the Revolt against Nature’: the insult to everything human.  When a human revolts against his humanity, the person against personality, he of course revolts against God.  The point is, however, that the revolt is dishonest.  We can be saved even if we spit in the face of the Deity.  We do nothing as honest or positive as that.  We prefer the sterile and hopeless course of waiting until we have money enough to worship God properly before worshiping him at all.”

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Madonna and Child, print, 4 x 5 in.

Mysticism on Mondays—“Everyone is a mystic”

“Mysticism is of no value if it is an escape into unreality.  It is unfortunate that the word mystic suggests mist. Mysticism should be a vision of something more real, more subjective and objective than the natural senses have experienced.”  —Carl Schmitt, c. 1931

For Carl Schmitt, mysticism was not a daydream, an ineffable reaching for a spiritual unknown.  He saw this kind of quest as a hallmark of the philosophies of the East.  “The Eastern Nations have stressed the dream, desired too much, and have tended to eliminate the active. The desire is an opiate and is mistaken constantly for mysticism.”

Far from being an attempt to escape reality, mysticism is an active search for the real.  Indeed, “mysticism begins with the desire to experience reality.” In this sense, “everyone is a mystic,” as everyone seeks to experience reality.  This search is not limited to our sense experience, and in fact, must go beyond it if it is to get at the deepest reality of things.  “Mysticism should be a vision of something more real, more subjective and objective than the natural senses have experienced.”

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Eggs and Copper, oil on hardboard, 12 x 15 in.

We tend to think of mysticism as a religious phenomenon, and Schmitt certainly acknowledged this side of it.  But as an artist he also recognized an “aesthetic” mysticism—one of the imagination—which paralleled the more familiar “spiritual” mysticism. This was based on his insight that “materiality or art or imagination is the exact symbol of spirituality.”

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Untitled, conte crayon on paper

Seeing this parallel between religious mysticism and aesthetic mysticism, Schmitt made an intensive study of the former as the basis for his thought on the latter.  The path taken by the religious mystics, one based on what Schmitt called the “mystical virtues” of poverty, purity, and humility, finds a close correspondence in the journey of the artist along the path to full aesthetic vision.  From seeing merely the appearances of things (what he called the “lyric” stage), the artist must move on to beholding them in time and space (the “epic”), all the way to the perception of their full reality, their form (the “dramatic” vision).

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Tagliacozzo, pen and ink on paper, 1939, 20 x 15 in., signed “Carl Schmitt”, lower right.
Schmitt stayed in this town in the Abruzzo region of central Italy while recovering from tuberculosis in the late 1930s, capturing its beauty in a series of memorable drawings and paintings.

We have seen that this development must be complemented by the maturation of the artist himself, in his capacity to “see” more and more deeply into the things he depicted in his art.  Schmitt called this full development “personality,” the “potential of form.” In the coming weeks we will trace this development, which, as we have written in previous posts, is based upon Schmitt’s own account of the “three realities of the imagination,” the lyric, epic, and dramatic.  As with all of Schmitt’s thought, the material and the spiritual, the senses and the soul, sight and vision, art and religion, while not interchangeable, closely parallel each other and must be understood together if one is to grasp the full truth of things.

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Eggs and Copper, detail

My refreshment in servitude

We have seen that for Carl Schmitt, an artist will produce great and lasting work only in so far as he himself has been “worked on” by One higher than himself.  “It is the instinct of the artist to make, that is, to operate on some material vastly inferior—less willful—than himself,” he wrote in 1933. “The artist knows that he cannot operate successfully upon such matter unless he has previously been operated on as a vastly inferior being.

In a paradoxical way, this “being operated upon” finds a necessary complement in the artist’s self-criticism and self-discipline: God and man work together to form a mature artist.  As he wrote in 1922, “The perfect attitude for the artist is the continual companionship of God and unceasing toil.  To dream of Eden before the Fall: to work in the world by the sweat of his brow.”

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Adam and Eve, oil on canvas, 1931

In Schmitt’s life this “attitude” expressed itself in a conscious effort to realize the graces offered to him in his vocation as an artist.  “All art, like spiritual progress, is dependent upon grace: ‘Artist by the grace of God,’ as my father used to say.”  His ideas linking the channels of grace, the sacraments, to the various fine arts were not just theories, but attempts to penetrate the reality he lived in his own life as an artist.

In another paradox, Schmitt refers to the state of the artist as “servitude” —to reality, and ultimately, to God.  He did not see this as an enforced or bitter slavery but rather a free subordination of one’s life to higher realities.  And, as he reflected in the early 1930s, it was not without its own rewards: “The natural condition of Artistic Creation is servitude—but servitude voluntary, supported by charity, surrounded by leisure!”

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Black Bottle and Two Eggs, oil on hardboard, c. 1935

Schmitt conveyed all this in a striking way in a poem dating from 1925, where “mastery” (of oneself) and “servitude” (to God) are inexorably joined in a complete personality.

By virtue of the Dear God Which is within me,
I will master my body in its every function.
As much as I master my body so much will my God master me.
And I am happy only in this servitude.
My labor is in mastery.
My refreshment in servitude
Without mastery, I am without servitude.
Without servitude:
I am a coward, hopeless, without joy.
Restless, without the peace of faith,
Sorrowful, without happiness.
With mastery, by virtue of my God within me,
I am a slave to my God above.
My slavery opens my soul at the top,
Admitting my Infinite God as a sharp wedge driven through ice.

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Back Bottle and Two Eggs, detail