Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Artistic Morality

John Ciardi:

It has always been an astonishment to me that people of the highest moral principle in the world's terms will yet abandon themselves willingly to the immorality of the cliché.

For a cliché is not only a sinful slovenliness; it is an enemy of mind and hope, and it is not only a prostitution but a theft. Nor can the case be put, honorably and accurately, in milder terms. Every morality must be bound by both a blessing and a damnation, and on this point, within the morality of poetry, only damnation will serve. Our mass-media journalism, our collapsing educational system, and the insanities of the Madison Avenue-Hollywood axis have already put us in sufficient danger of becoming a mindless generation. If our poets and would-be poets are to be encouraged in such slovenly thefts within their own imaginations, then a primary cultured force for good intellectual order is seriously weakened. The ultimate sin of the mind is the failure to pay enough attention.

It is exactly at this point that one may locate the essential difference between the kind of morality that binds the poet and that which seems to operate in the general culture. The Christian tradition recognizes seven deadly sins, which I take to be another way of labeling seven moral failures. Of them, the culture at large seems to have an adequate sense of pride, envy, wrath, avarice, gluttony, and lust, but seems to be relatively unaware of Acedia. We translate Acedia as "sloth," but that translation tends to blur the essential meaning. "Sloth" tends to suggest mere physical slovenliness. Acedia is quite something else -- it is the failure to pay sufficient attention to one's devotions. It has many faces, but its essence is an intellectual haphazardness that springs from not caring enough. In the Middle Ages, interestingly, it seems to have been the sin most feared by the monks: the fear that they had not paid enough attention to God.

No failure of poetic morality (and of artistic morality in general) can be more fundamental than the failure to pay enough attention to the nature and requirement of one's chosen form. To perform sloppily for high causes and high moral issues is both an affront to the cause and issue, and as thoroughly bad as performing in this way for low causes and issues.

So to the fundamental difference between one morality and the other: the world tends to recognize six deadly failures and to pay little attention to the seventh. The poet, finally, has to care only about the seventh. It is not at all necessary for him to scorn the other six, but granted that he has talent enough, his work will finally live or die on his ability to keep his attention in disciplined and self-consuming order.

-- From "The Morality of Poetry," in The Saturday Review, March 30, 1957.

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