Tuesday, July 14, 2009

`A Valuable Delusion'

I hope some enterprising editor assembles a collection of the scattered, unsystematic writings of Richard Diebenkorn. The result may amount to no more than a pamphlet but based on the stray samples of the painter’s prose I’ve happened upon, Diebenkorn’s aphorisms are tonic for the intellect, rooted in experience and never theoretical. That one man should possess exceptional gifts in painting (he’s one of the finest 20th-century American artists) and writing seems terribly unfair to the rest of us. In an essay introducing Richard Diebenkorn: Figurative Works on Paper (Chronicle Books, 2003) the painter Barnaby Conrad III quotes a note found in Diebenkorn’s studio after his death in 1993:

“Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.”

The first two sentences are a platitude and a truism, respectively. Few artists worthy of attention know every move in advance. Most accomplishment – this seems particularly true of writing – tempers rigor with serendipity, planning with improvisation. We’re back to the etymology of essay – “to try,” “to attempt.” The beauty lies in the third sentence – learning to recognize and capitalize upon a “valuable delusion.”

I happened to read Conrad’s essay the same day I began reading Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion (1950). His subject is, Knox (1888-1957) admits, “elusive,” and his title amounts to “a cant term, pejorative, and commonly misapplied, as a label for a tendency.” He refers to the schismatic nature of belief in the context of Roman Catholicism – the sometimes fruitful friction between “the charismatic and the institutional.” Thus, Knox examines Montanists, Donatists, Anabaptists, Quakers, Jansenists, Quietists, Methodists and other species of dissenters.

Knox was ordained an Anglican priest in 1912, converted to Roman Catholicism five years later, and was ordained a priest in that faith in 1918. As such, he might be presumed a disapproving chronicler of “enthusiasts.” But something happened over the 30 years Knox worked on his masterwork. He explains in the introduction:

“…when the plan of this book was first conceived, all those years ago, it was to have been a broadside, a trumpet-blast, an end of controversy…here I would say, is what happens inevitably, if once the principle of Catholic unity is lost! All this confusion, this priggishness, then pedantry, this eccentricity and worse, follows directly from the rash step that takes you outside the fold of Peter!”

Certainty, to use Diebenkorn’s phrasing, did not come. Instead, Knox followed a “valuable delusion”:

“…somehow, in the writing, my whole treatment of the subject became different; the more you got to know the men, the more human did they become, for better or worse; you were more concerned to find out why they thought as they did than to prove it was wrong.”

This is admirable less as “tolerance” or “open-mindedness” – Knox remained a stout-hearted Catholic and priest – than as generosity of spirit, sympathetic imagination and something like Keats’ notion of “Negative Capability.” It also makes Enthusiasm compulsively readable, as it would not have been had it degenerated into a denunciatory screed. What could be more attractive than a writer with a first-rate mind examining, with empathy and scholarly care, ideas he personally does not embrace?

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