Ritual: The Gate or On Having Nothing On One’s Mind, 1925
Have you ever noticed how many essays begin with a beautiful ritual? I mean with a nice rhythm and choice of words—but with no content. I do not criticize this. I applaud it as something quite fitting. For no artist has always begun work full of the Spirit. (And no artist can continue to the end without some stirring of the imagination.) He sits down, the artist, in most cases with nothing on his mind. He goes ahead with the ritual of his art, and if the gods are good to him that day, they will recognize that the ritual as their own proper cloak, waiting, and will come and inform it.
There are two ways in which any work of art is accomplished (to pursue this thought of ritual and content): the first and the commonest, as I have said, is to start the ritual and keep at it until the gods relieve the man. The church, of course, knows this and prescribes ritual, rhythm for the eye and ear and even touch (in the rosary)—constant repetition with desire will ultimately stir the imagination which is a step to the soul. Or if you choose incantation, the chant or a rhythm to the eye will gradually hypnotize, producing in some way that balance between consciousness and unconsciousness which is necessary to imaginative life and “creation.” As I write, repeating phrase after phrase, watching the pen build letter after letter and word after word, our imagination ultimately responds to the rhythm and some kind of vision ensues. What that vision is depends upon our capacity and upon the grace of the gods.
The second way is the way of our rare genius. It is transcendental and a reversal of the first immanent way I have just suggested. The artist in this case is filled with the vision which bursts through the medium from above down. He seems to have a divine disregard for set form and his ritual seems to come incidentally. These men make new canons because they speak with authority. Their clothing is a bare necessity and is secondary. The message and personality of the man are all-important. (But even these men once began with ritual.)
The object of ritual is to invite energy, to make of ourselves an instrument. We revolve the engine to start it. And as it goes it gathers momentum until it seems to go by itself. The bird flaps before it flies, the baby mimics. We go through the motions before we do the thing. The artist draws to draw. The writer writes words before visions. The drinker drinks for thirst until he thirsts for drink. The reader reads before he understands. One must start the engine.
But this energy which all crave, what is its nature and why is man only happy when he receives and uses it? I think this energy is the base of everything. We can analyze its manifestations, and this detail concerns the natural scientist. We can think creatively about it, and this concerns the philosopher. We can crave and love it, and this concerns the mystic. We can accept it when it comes and use it to its fullest, and this concerns the man who is All Alive, the Artist.
The mystery (like every symbol of The Mystery) is triune and cannot be explained by man or apprehended by man. He sees it and believes or he does not. If he has seen it he can make a poor kind of suggestion of it which will be recognized by others who have seen it, but which will be Greek to those who have not seen it
It is possible however to suggest how this happiness may be obtained. On the side of “life” many books have been written telling people how it may be done. On the side of art there seems to be silence and I suppose rightly. For this reason: Art is a reaction from “life.” If in life one apprehends, loves, and enjoys Reality, in art one will play with the symbols naturally. The artist will not in that case mistake natural phenomena for Reality Itself, but will instinctively recognize all phenomena as symbol of Reality. Our great art (the early Egyptian, ancient Greek, and Gothic European) is symbolic because it is the play of men who were alive to Reality, who were true mystics. Art is a reaction from Religion, but one must have Religion to react from. Great art is an exact barometer and contemporary of religion—not religion as the popular historians record it, an exterior thing, the machine, the corporate thing alone, nor as the Puritan records it, the “inner light” alone, an individual disease, but mysticism: the just balance between interior individual communion with God and corporate life in God.
Whenever in the past we have had mystical life and corporate life existing one in the other, a unity with stress laid upon the mystical (that is, Religion) there we have had art. Where there is Life there is art. Where there is true religion art cannot be stopped. Where there is no true religion art cannot be encouraged by a million up-lifters.