The World Within the Word: Maritain and the Poet
by Samuel Hazo
Franciscan University Press, 2018
Review by LeighAnna Schesser
What is art? What is beauty? What is a poet (an artist), and how he does he know what he knows and make what he makes? What is beauty for? How is the poet to understand art and beauty in relationship to his faith, and faith to his art? In The World Within the Word: Maritain and the Poet, Samuel Hazo presents Jacques Maritain’s philosophical answers to these questions with admirable lucidity and meticulous attention to detail. This brief and understated little book packs an enormous power. It is exactly what the fractured and disoriented art world at large, and especially the bourgeoning Catholic cultural renaissance, needs: an electrifying, galvanizing, well-aimed kick in the artistic pants.
It is hard to imagine a more timely publication for The World Within the Word than 2018, though it was written sixty years ago. It is a bright light in the current fog of artistic discourse, a lighthouse beyond our current tempest. It is difficult to overstate the importance of a book that is both a loving and careful explication of art within the Catholic worldview and a practical guide for the artist himself as he seeks to know and understand himself, as artist, as a Christian artist, and his work itself in the midst of today’s unprecedented cultural confusion.
While any one of these essays alone is worth the purchase price of the book—in particular James Matthew Wilson’s comprehensive introduction and the chapters “The Concept of Beauty” and “The Concept of the Poet”—two of the most dense chapters, “The Concept of Poetic Knowledge” and “The Role of Creative Intuition,” are perhaps the most important. Because of their density, this section might be easily skimmed over by the non-philosopher, yet these two essays may be the most rewarding reads for the poet himself as he enters deeply into the how, lived and understood, of his art. Hazo patiently teases out the complexities of Maritain’s terms and the process, by nature veiled, of conceiving and bringing forth a work of art: what poetic knowledge is and how creative intuition helps bring it to fruition as a work of art.
Hazo’s presentation is the only one which Maritain himself approved, and his brief foreword, dated 1958, explains why. Hazo writes not as a philosopher but in the field of literary criticism, so the impact of Maritain’s insights is seen in practice, in real time, as it were. He does this in part by explicating Maritain by using less philosophical, more imaginative terms and images from poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, mapping out the overlap of their theories and showing them in action in example poems. Thus Hazo brings Maritain’s philosophy art to life for both the poet himself and the reader.
Hazo also situates Maritain’s inquiry within the Scholastic tradition, showing where this understanding of poet and poetry fit into Thomistic metaphysics, and therefore, the whole Catholic worldview. Built as it is into the whole framework—what is beauty, what is the making of art and what art is for, and particularly, how does the Christian understand this and work within it—Maritain’s explication of the how of artistic creation also illuminates what art can and ought to be, suggesting natural and organic, not preferential and imposed, shapes to content, as well as answers to burning contemporary questions about, for example, suffering and “realism.” Moreover, especially in a time where art is treated as self-therapy or the “creative” exposition of one’s emotions, this careful, step-by-step look at the genesis and nurturing of a work of art can help today’s poets clarify and purify their understanding of what they are doing, and why. At the other extreme, this loving and serious treatment of the poet’s nature and poetic-making are an antidote to the formulaic and mechanized understanding of art all too often propounded to students (both young and the graduate) where a tinkering of technique is substituted for the actual experience of encountering and engendering beauty.
Maritain understands the Christian poet’s calling to be the most wonderful and terrible of all: it is often more difficult for the Christian to produce good art. The Christian’s moral calling, to sainthood by submitting to grace, and his artistic calling, to create a perfect work that expresses his poetic knowledge by submitting to creative intuition, can and ought to overlap, but achieving this synthesis is extraordinarily difficult. Maritain’s description of the difficulty of writing poetry at all applies in a special way to the Christian poet: “No one is expected to do the impossible; that is what the poet is required to do” (p. 52). This task is made possible by great interior dedication and self-sacrifice; the poet must follow Beauty’s guiding light. Beauty for beauty’s sake is a self-defeating program, because it is “a radiance without reference.” Only by following the demands of his dual vocation as Christian and poet to their proper end, Beauty Himself, the Triune God, to whom all lesser and partial beauties point, can the poet’s work and his soul truly become what they are meant to be. It is a question of striving more and more fully to know, work, and express poetic knowledge in, with, and through “undeviating love”: “To remain faithful to this ideal of art, the poet must be unrelenting in his acquisition and exercise of those attitudes, virtues, and sacrifices that art imposes on him … The work will be Christian in proportion as the love is alive” (p. 114, 143-4, 147).
The value of this little book as guide, explanation, and philosophical foundation for today’s fractured art world cannot be overstated. Especially as presented in so clear, concise, and penetrating a way, Maritain’s philosophy of art has the potential to be a sure and solid footing for today’s Catholic artists as they wrestle with form and virtue, to expand and encourage this cultural revival. And, perhaps most importantly, to show us what to do with beauty, as artists and as art lovers, when we recognize it for what it is.