On art as divine frenzy

David Bentley Hart dismisses any theory of the arts that leaves out inspiration.



David Bentley Hart dismisses any theory of the arts that leaves out inspiration.


I think that all the greatest artists – I mean even those in the most jealous rational control of their materials acknowledge that they don’t know exactly what’s happening when they create. We find the same thing actually among mathematicians of the best sort as well, a sense that they’re in touch with something that’s not fully in their control, but that comes to them in the form of inspiration.

I have very little use for any theory of the arts that doesn’t talk about inspiration. Whether that inspiration is reducible just to a sort of psychological state or not, I wouldn’t argue one way or the other. But it is interesting that even, say … well, for instance, someone as, say, unreligious, areligious as Proust still experienced or spoke of the experience of art – more in music than in his writing – but the experience of art as a kind of priestly or prophetic experience.

And of course, we have this tradition that at least goes back in the West to Plato, of thinking of the poet as someone who is overtaken by a divine frenzy. For Plato, not the happiest of conditions, something to be distrusted, at least in The Republic. But for instance, the English and German Romantics saw as, you know. And it’s interesting that in Latin the single word vates can mean either poet or prophet. 

I think that both the creation of art and the experience of art is irreducible purely to immanent causes or immanent ends. I mean, it’s simply – we can deny it, we can psychologise it away, we can make banal observations upon cultural conventions of valuation, whatever. Nonetheless, in the moment of the experience, of either the artist or the person who’s beholding or hearing, experiencing that art, there is clearly a knowledge, an immediate knowledge of more than the immediate. And it’s … at least, how to describe it phenomenologically, that’s difficult, but one way or another, it is clear to me that the structure of the experience, of aesthetic experience, is an experience of the transcendent. 

Now, it doesn’t mean I can convince you by the arts that the transcendent is real, but whether you like it or not, when you love Bach, you love God.