from Seamus Heaney’s “The Digging Skeleton”

Drawings touched with an odd beauty
As if the illustrator had
Responded gravely to the sad
Mementoes of anatomy --

- Seamus Heaney, from "The Digging Skeleton"

Creativity comes with a burst of emotion, some think, or stems from a mystical power that should evoke the strongest emotions.

I’ve had these lines from Heaney sitting in my drafts folder for months now. As an illustrator draws, his pencil gives more than precision. Every stroke responds to what he depicts; he tries to grasp how a body is, and finds each part of that body a sad memento, a reminder of aging, mortality, and the harshness of circumstance. He generates an image from an attempt to apprehend being, and the funny thing is where the truth of art lies. It doesn’t lie in a sort of strict fidelity to how the eyes use light and the brain and nervous system craft an image. Instead, the artist, a human being, responds gravely to another’s tragic situation, seeing it reflected in his physical constitution, and this is the only thing which can be rendered true. We have no objective verification of what the artist saw, only what the artist actually saw.

What’s “odd” about these drawings on which Heaney remarks is that the relation between art and life has revealed itself. We look at things every day and do not quite realize how we are looking at them. From here, Wittgenstein’s statement that moral judgments are indeed aesthetic judgments seems fairly obvious. I know that can be taken too far: plenty of people think that if the culture is a certain way, that makes everyone moral. Heaney’s lines can serve as a corrective to that notion. The heart of any moral sentiment is in the response. Dictation, by definition, would seem in essence to be contrary to morality.

2 Comments

  1. “He generates an image from an attempt to apprehend being…” — I love this. The artist is seeing the Other/ Thou. The Other’s fragility, humanity, weakness. There is compassion in this — honoring the being that he sees.

    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting! Sometimes I wonder if my rhetoric is overblown — it often is — and your response helps me confirm what works.

      More poems coming soon!

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