Art Redeems Us

Whenever I start to feel like the world is going to hell in a handcart, I sometimes like to browse through some Anglo-Saxon literature. When people say art isn’t important I can’t help but think these people are a bit short-sighted.

History books tell us some facts and some interpretation of facts by whoever was recording the facts, but art speaks about us as human beings. It speaks to what is best (and worst) and most human about us.

I like the Anglo Saxon literature because it’s the very first literature ever written in English. There are only a handful of poems surviving from the years between about 400 AD to 1066 AD and the language is barely recognizable as English, but the sentiments are very familiar.

This ancient literature reassures me. Humanity hasn’t changed much in 1500+ years. We may think we’re self-destructing, but so did they! They fretted about love and betrayal; they waged wars; they mocked their politicians:

    King Aethelred the “Unready”

We worry about terrorists from the east, they worried about Vikings. They despaired of their children, worried about money and being able to put enough food on the table. They had domestic disagreements. They worked, they grumbled about their bosses (aka liege lords). They had crime up the ying yang just like us – robbery, fraud, murder.

They had a more expeditious way of dealing with it though having decided, I gues, that the idea of prison was a waste of everyone’s time and resources. If you killed or injured or wronged someone in some other way, you had to pay weregild to that person or their family. Every person was evaluated in monetary terms (just like now) and the rate of the weregild was dependant on the crime and the value of the victim. It had the added benefit of making people work harder to up their value in case something happened to them. A win-win arrangement all around.

The Anglo-Saxons had a hard life, but they were all heavily immersed in and appreciative of the arts.  Music was their joy, relaxation and expression of what was in their hearts. They were crazy about musicians and celebrated them at every opportunity:

Instead of TV, they sat around telling riddles and ribald jokes. [What hangs at a man’s thigh and wants to poke the hole that it’s often poked before?][1]

And they had Beowulf (circa 800AD).  Beowulf was the hottest ticket going. This 3,182-line epic poem was memorized by many and recited at every opportunity. (They finally made it into a movie). 

Here’s the first page of an original Beowulf manuscript:

It cheers me up to know that we have such a close connection to people from so long ago. It tells me we, as a society, are okay no matter how many foolish or dangerous things we get up to; that we’ll endure. Because…..well, no one has ever expressed it better than my literary hero, William Faulkner, at the end of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.


[1] Answer to the Riddle: A key!! Bwah ha ha ha ha
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18 responses to “Art Redeems Us

  1. Well said oh ancient artiste.
    The philistines are ever at the door.
    The next generation is forever worse than the preceding.
    And slowly we still make a tiny bit of progress.
    I know we are ending the world again, now because of our failures and yet I saw a 10 day old baby on the weekend and she was not alarmed at the prospect before her.
    We need more poets and painters and musicians, and less soldiers and bankers and certainly politicians but we will in fact, come out of my time a bit better than we entered it.
    And the next generation will do a bit better again.

  2. My thing is ‘the song’. Specifically the passing down of it by rote.

    The whole art is nothing makes me ‘so mad I could spit’!

    Ten years a go when I was in University they were changing the curriculum in the med program because doctors were coming out with much knowledge but absolutely no feelings! They changed the program to allow undergrad arts degrees in as well as having such things as string quartets and choirs in the actual department.

  3. Well done. I wish I could go back in time and reorganize all my high school, college and grad school English classes, and read more Faulkner. Because maybe it’s just me, but I need a class, with an instructor, to understand the depth of his stuff.

  4. Yeah and there’s good old Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor and if you look at what happened this week..oh…okay..hang on… that’s not working…

  5. Bandobras – It has been noticed by some wise men that the western world’s skills in fields like science, math and technology are not keeping pace with those of the eastern world; that we are outsourcing most of the requirements for these skill sets. The wise men further said that we should encourage our children to set career goals in the arts if they intend to pursue a career in the western world in the future.

    Helen – When the anti-artsies think of The Arts, they think of hoity-toity folk in tuxes attending an opera at $500 a seat and see no reason to support that; they don’t see our architecture, our communications media, the colours and designs of our cars, clothes, food; they don’t hear the folk singers in the local pub, the crowds of regular folk in the park listening to a jazz band; the thousands of ways art is entwined with our every day lives; they don’t see the chronicling of our humanity in our literature, paintings, music.

    Ellie – Start with As I Lay Dying. That one is very accessible. It’s a good intro into the whole Yoknapatawpha County series. Absalom, Absalom isn’t too difficult. The Reivers was made into a movie — the later stuff, I think isn’t too bad. Sound and the Fury, on the other hand is insane, but spectacular. If you can find an instructor who can discuss Faulkner in the way he was meant to be discussed, let me know. There are probably some excellent Faulkner scholars in Mississippi? What I always think is key, yet confusing, about Faulkner is that he intensely dislikes most people, yet passionately loves the human spirit.

    Lebowski – Very good.

    Misssy M – See now, what happened this week totally rocked. Here we were all glum and miserable because some fat cats were going to get bailed out of their screw-ups while the rest of us just keep getting screwed. We had resigned ourselves to the inevitable. And then? And then the people in whom we’ve lost so much faith, stood up and said NO! Well now maybe the world isn’t quite as insane as we thought. There’s hope again.

  6. have you read margaret atwood’s response to Harper? inspiring. ummm, here it is, it’s long but it’s well worth taking the time to read it. thanks so much for this post. as someone who works in “The Arts”, it’s nice to feel loved.

  7. Meanie – Thanks for this. I’ve deleted the whole long article, but linked to it through your comment just because it’s tidier that way.

  8. Naturally, I did not think the answer was “a key” since YES I am that kind of mind-in-gutter girl.

    Life currently going to hell in a handcart. I’ve got to grab myself some Anglo-Saxon literature! A wee bit of reassurance would be…(wait for it)…KEY.

    Great post! I’m smarter now! (This probably won’t last long DURRRR.)

  9. Lovely post. Very true. That’s why Shakespeare still speaks to us today. As my mother loves to say “Plus ça change plus c’est pareille.”

  10. I’ve always thought that people go through the same things over and over. I’ve always loved reading essays from the early 1900’s that sound just like someone today complaining about “our youth, and their outrageous clothes and terrible music.”
    Art is very soothing. I love to go into my guest room and stare at “The Shepherdess” when I want to really relax. It makes me happy.

  11. Brilliant post. The kind of post I wish I could have written and probably could have written but only once I read yours. Duh! My husband can recite poetry in old english. It is a very attractive feature!

  12. Lost – Well, many of us are ancestors of them anyway…

    Lesley – Ah, Lesley… if only you lived in my town. We could be sitting over large goblet of mead right now yukking it up. I think that would be a whole lot of fun. Maybe after the election???

    Nat – A wise and lovely mother you have.

    Geewits – You are a kindred soul. Not enough people stop and do things like this. We’d all be much better off.

    Loth – Thank you so much and thank you for visiting. Old English has a lovely cadence, doesn’t it? Does he have the nice Germanic pronounciation? Does he almost sing it?

    Jobthingy — I take it you are referring to the “key” joke?? They were quite the racy folk back then. AND they had no Christianity to hold them back. Pagan all the way!! Whoo hoo!!!

  13. I wasn’t familiar with “The Sheperdess” so I looked it up. Very nice. I can see how Geewits is soothed. (I even get an education here from your readers!)

    I would love to yukk it up with you over mead or anything else for that matter! Maybe after the election sounds good. When there is suddenly a huge influx of Americans into your lovely country.

  14. Lesley – It IS a lovely painting, isn’t it? I shall await the influx of liberal Americans. It will be a fun Christmas surprise.

    DP – Faulkner rocks the casbah.