Dorothy L. Sayers on the Contemplative Vocation of the Artist

One of my favourite pieces of writing by Dorothy L. Sayers is her 1946 letter exchange with C.S. Lewis.[1] Lewis wrote to Sayers inviting her to contribute a volume to a planned series on Anglican theology for youth, to which Sayers replied that ‘her conscience prevented her from writing for the purpose of edifying readers’. Lewis answered with a mild dig at the idea of ‘artistic conscience’, which set off a series of three lengthy letters in which Sayers defended her understanding of the responsibility of the artist (including the comment that ‘you can’t divide the conscience into “artistic” and the other sort. It’s all one…’[2]).

Two characteristics of the artist strike me as I read Sayers’ letters to Lewis. The first is that the artist works in response to a vocation: ‘One must do what one is called to do’[3]. The artist is called by God to communicate a vision that she sees, or an understanding she has gained, through the medium of art. Sayers does not count any opportunity to edify as a genuine call; she compares artistic creation for the purpose of edification to mixing a medication for those whom one looks down upon. Instead, she writes, ‘You’ve got to come galloping out shouting excitedly: “Look here! look what I’ve found! Come and have a bit of it – it’s grand – you’ll love it – I can’t keep it to myself, and anyhow, I want to know what you think of it”’[4]. This excitement to share, rather than a compulsion to ‘make up a dose’[5], is the mark of a genuine call.

The second characteristic of the artist in Sayers’ letters is contemplation. Sayers does not use this word herself, but she does present the vocation of the artist as one of waiting and listening. Indeed, a better word to describe the artist’s action might be obedire, to ‘listen to’ or ‘obey’. When the artist hears and receives a gift which excites her, she obeys the invitation to share it. Sayers uses the metaphor of a cistern to describe this source of the artist’s creative material. If it is empty – if the artist does not feel she has been given anything to say at the moment – she should

STOP…Get back to something you can tinker at quietly and honestly…till the cistern fills up again. It will fill up. It always does. Always – if you don’t fuss it and get in a stew about it. And if you haven’t been pumping anything into it. And when it does fill up, you will have no doubt whatever about it: you will know what you have to do. You won’t choose it: it will choose you. [6]

For Sayers, the artist is a person who is called to a contemplative vocation, and who delights in sharing the fruits of that contemplation with others through the creation of artworks. Artistic creation is a necessary part of the vocation; a contemplative who is not also a craftsman is not an artist. But contrary to Lewis’ focus on an artwork’s potential value for edification, Sayers focuses on the artist’s inner delight in making as the raison d’être of artistic creation. ‘The only rule I can find,’ Sayers writes, ‘is to write what you feel impelled to write, and let God do what He likes with the stuff’[7].

Do you think that love of creation is sufficient reason to justify making art? Or do you think an artist must also consider whether or not his art will edify? If you are an artist, how do you keep yourself open to hear the words or images you may be given?

***

1. The entire collected letter exchange can be found in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol. 2, ed. Walter Hooper (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2004), pp. 722-31 (23 Jul-7 Aug, 1946), and The Collected Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers, vol. 3, ed. Barbara Reynolds (Cambridge: Dorothy L. Sayers Society, 1998), pp. 252-60 (31 Jul-8 Aug, 1946).
2. Sayers, p. 254, 31 Jul 1946.
3. Ibid., p. 253.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid., p. 254.
7. Ibid., p. 259, 8 Aug 1946.

13 Comments

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Hey Cole, great post! Thanks for bringing this very interesting letter exchange to light. I was wondering if Sayers and Lewis ever discuss the meaning of “edifying.” I sympathize with Sayer’s resistance to “edification,” but as long as “edification” is defined as doing something for the good of someone else then it would seem that there is some sense in which artists must seek to “edify” others. For example, I’m sure that Sayers would agree that artists should not do un-“edifying” things like making works of art that literally kill people. Can the artist really make without any consideration of the “edification” of others? Do you think there is a particular sort of “edification” that Sayers was against and that Lewis was looking for?

    • Cole Matson says:

      Thanks, Jim, for bringing this up! In this case, Lewis and Sayers appeared to be misunderstanding each other at the beginning of the exchange. When Sayers declines the offer (and I should point out that at this point they’re talking about a theological non-fiction work, as opposed to a piece of creative writing), Lewis at first responds by saying that he, too, sometimes feels he “oughtn’t to be doing this kind of thing”, by which he seems to mean that he worries he’s inadequate for the job. He reassures Sayers that she’d be good enough for the job, after which he makes his comment about ‘artistic conscience’: “I wish I knew what place artistic consciences will hold a moment after death. It might be – and then it might be exactly the reverse.” Sayers quickly sets him right by pointing out: 1) that she didn’t say “artistic” conscience, but “conscience”, and 2) that “[o]nce you start, for any reason whatsoever, writing something in which the will does not assent to the undertaking, you are beginning to tell lies.”

      Basically, Lewis seemed to take the position that if he felt he could help others by writing something, and if he had the time and ability to do it, he ought to, as a Christian duty. Sayers saw this attitude as absolutely wrong, because writing solely out of a sense of duty would falsify the whole work. As I understand it, by creating a work, the creator is implicitly stating that she thinks the work worth creating in itself. If she’s creating it out of a sense of duty instead, she’s not creating it because she thinks it worth creating, but for some other reason, and is therefore, at least implicitly, lying to the audience. Sayers definitely believed that this lie would make itself known eventually, as she says in her 31 July letter: ‘The false thing may – I only say may – assist a few souls here and now, but God knows how many it may help to damn at another time. Take shoddy, weak, sentimental religious art: there are pious souls who get comfort out of bad stained glass and sloppy hymns and music (though they might well have got better nourishment out of honest stuff). But thousands of others have spewed at the sight and sound of it, and said “If Christianity fosters that kind of thing it must have a lie in its soul.”’

      Sayers is aware that art may have a good and edifying effect. For example, she mentions the many people who have written to her saying that her Man Born to Be King brought them back to Christ, and also mentions a man who made peace with his wife after a fight as a result of reading Gaudy Night. However, she is very wary of creating art specifically to obtain these results.

      I think that’s the difference between Lewis and Sayers. His duty to the audience loomed larger in Lewis’s mind than in Sayers’s – though I agree that they both would have agreed moral laws such as “do not kill” apply to artistic creation just as much as to other areas of life. Although elsewhere, Lewis is not nearly so utilitarian in his understanding of art as he comes across here. For example, in another letter to a fan who wants to be a Christian writer, he advises her that stories have to be good as stories before they can ever be of use for evangelisation.

      • Jim Watkins says:

        Cole, thanks for this very helpful reply. I think your post has really opened up some very interesting questions about the relationship between art and edification, as the other comments suggest. As I read your reply to my comment, it seems to me that Sayers and Lewis emphasize very different aspects of artistic creation. On the one hand, Sayers insists that art should be made out of desire, and, on the other hand, Lewis insists that art can, and perhaps should, be made out of a Christian sense of duty. I think that duty and desire is probably a false dichotomy, and I wonder what an account of artistic creativity that holds duty and desire together might look like.

        I have one other question about Sayers. I really like the quote “[o]nce you start, for any reason whatsoever, writing something in which the will does not assent to the undertaking, you are beginning to tell lies.” Here again she insists on the essential element of desire in artistic creation, and that it we make a work of art without desire then we are not being honest. In relation to this idea, I think your point later on that Sayers was aware of the good effects that he art can have on others is very interesting. Do you think that Sayers is suggesting that, in order to avoid making art out of duty, one should not allow the edifying effects that one’s art can have to be the reason why one makes in the first place? If so, is she not guilty of another kind of lie by suggesting that one should not work out of a sense of duty? This would be the lie that pretends that artistic making is never bound to duty when it nearly always has an effect, for good or ill, upon one’s audience.

  • Bruce says:

    Cole — thanks so much for this piece…as a painter of four decades, I can say without reservation that Lewis’ well intentioned project is just the sort of thing dear church friends are always dreaming up — and that with Sayers, I’m always flummoxed. That’s not what art is “for”. There are many things that are for edification but art is, broadly speaking, for celebration. Gadamer speaks of beauty as that which is celebrated in play, symbol, and most completely in “festival”. To yoke art to the task of edification is similar to using it for propaganda–and result is something other than art.

  • bruce herman says:

    Cole and Jim — I tried to post a comment earlier, but somehow it failed…here’s a second try: as a painter working for four decades I can say without reservation that Sayers’ objection is right — yoking art to any other purpose than its own innate telos results in the production of something other than art. Making this distinction is important for lots of reasons, but the simplest one is this — that art is not actually “for” anything else, including worthy things like “edification”. I cannot count the number of times over the years that dear fellow Christians have asked for something like edification – some excellent “message” or uplifting purpose that in itself is utterly worthwhile. But art (poetry, painting, music) is an end in itself, and service to other ends may be incidental to it, but can never be its primary purpose. Otherwise something other than art results — propaganda, illustration, etc. This can begin to sound dangerously like the Romantic notions about the salvific potential of art, but that is not what I am saying. I am simply registering agreement with Sayers’ point that art is purposeful in its own right. Gadamer’s essay THE RELEVANCE OF THE BEAUTIFUL has a wonderful insight into the telos of art — and he breaks it down lucidly into the three categories of PLAY, SYMBOL, and FESTIVAL. The central point is that the beautiful has a place in our being that is irreplaceable and that it needs no other purpose for its justification. Perhaps Lewis was not thinking that literature needs any justification, and his request was a harmless one — but I think Sayers’ response was right — to point out that any other use for art leads the church into a wrong headed understanding of arts value among us.

    • Cole Matson says:

      Bruce,

      I think you’re absolutely right in that Sayers had a greater willingness to see beauty as good for its own sake. I think Lewis relaxes a bit as he ages, but early on in his conversion (see his essay on “Christianity and Culture”) he sees art as justifiable because it can be an innocent activity which brings delight (and pays the bills), but not much more than that. Contrast this to later writing such as Experiment in Criticism in which he sees art as powerful and good for its ability to introduce us to new worlds and new experiences, which we want to enjoy for their own sake. (Even philosophically depraved works like Voyage to Arcturus, which he calls “so Manichaean as to be almost Satanic”, can bring a certain pleasure of aesthetic experience, as long as they’re sampled with prudence.)

      Here’s a key passage from Sayers’ Aug 5 letter: “I think one of the causes of misunderstanding between us is that the only kind of love I understand at all is the kind that you put the lowest – the love of the artist for the artefact. That means that all my values seem to you to be very low-grade… “[O]ur Father” would only suggest to me the mildest of mild affections, whereas “our Maker” really is a “lord of terrible aspect”. Nobody needs to tell me why God should want to make a thing, or why He should want to make it with an independent will (that’s what we’d all like to be able to do) or why He should be distressed when it went wrong, or wallop it savagely back into shape, or why the only means of getting in contact with it would be to make Himself part of His own fiction: I know all that from the inside, so to speak.”

      I think Lewis really loved creation, as well – otherwise he wouldn’t have spent so much of his time doing it, starting in young childhood. In letters, he sometimes speaks of writing as something that he “must” do. But he seemed much more hesitant than Sayers to claim that this desire to create was legitimate justification for creation on its own – probably because he had seen what happened when “art for art’s sake” was used as a justification for immoral or childish behaviour, and art which was genuinely harmful to its audience.

      It’s a very fine line, I think, between saying that art needs to be justified because it’s helpful to a non-aesthetic end (utilitarianism) and that art justifies itself, and therefore has no rules which govern it (antinomianism). Lewis and Sayers seem to think the other might be erring on the opposite side of this line.

      This is a conflict I admit is still very much at the front of my awareness as an artist myself, which is partly why I find this letter exchange so fascinating.

  • ryan stander says:

    I had similar questions as Jim about the meaning of edification. What do they mean? If edification is akin to devotional art, then no. The little that I have read of Sayers, I’ve thought her to be a bit intentionally provocative, which might suggest that she would prefer approaching things from a critical or irenic sort of position. But if we consider “edification” to encompass meanings of critique to inspire reform, then yes.

    I will admit the idea that the idea of necessity of edification for the Christian artist gets me a little too close to reducing art to a spiritual utility, and opens dangerous doors for censoring anything that does not edify. I’m not saying that art should harm, but it should be able to provoke and challenge, not just affirm what we already believe.

    Are Sayers and Lewis on cross definitions and purposes about art? If so we could also say that there are differing purposes/kinds of art. While they may all be forms of creative expression, liturgical/devotional art serves other purposes than “museum” or “gallery art.”

    Also, Cole, you ask, “If you are an artist, how do you keep yourself open to hear the words or images you may be given?” Would you suggest that the creation of art is moved by spiritual “inspiration” or “revelation”?

  • Cole Matson says:

    Ryan,

    It’s funny, Lewis is clear in his letters and essays that he does not have a utilitarian view of art – it’s not useful simply for the evangelistic or devotional benefits it may confer. And if you go into a piece of literature, for example, solely to get these benefits out of it, you’ll miss out on both those benefits, and on its aesthetic pleasures. Yet, most of his fiction is clearly Christian, and often seems to have more of a clear message to it than does the fiction of his Inklings friends which he enjoyed. (A notable exception is Till We Have Faces.) I think it likely that Lewis was so naturally a teacher that that’s just the way his stories came out. I think that in this exchange, Lewis and Sayers are talking about edification as “setting out to teach or do a good deed for someone”. I think they would both agree that art should help, and not harm, the audience, so in that way they would both be for, and not against, that wider definition of edification. However, I think Sayers more likely than Lewis to protest that if you set out to “teach or do a good deed for” your audience, you’re likely actually to harm him rather than help him, because the work will be false. I think Lewis would see that intention as less likely to harm, even though it might not lead to the most aesthetically satisfying work. I think, also, he comes a bit closer to Sayers’ view as he gets older, even if I’m not sure he ever gets completely there.

    Another key passage on edification (i.e., teaching) as a motivation for artistic creation, from Sayers’ 5 Aug letter: ‘”But it does seem to me that all you religious people trust God so little. You can’t wait to see what He wants to do with a soul or a talent. You must drag the eggs out of the goose before the shell’s on, or dig up the plant to teach it to grow. No sooner does some poor mutt announce, “I’ve found a bit of truth”, than you’re all round like daughters of the horse-leech: “Go on, hand it out! Exploit the vein! It’s your duty to go on talking!” By the bones of Balaam’s ass, it is no such thing. When the time comes to speak, we shall speak, since that is what we are made for. In the meantime it’s no good beating us or shouting at us till we can’t hear what communication is trying to come over.’

    As for your last question, I think it can be, although I don’t think it must necessarily be. Lewis certainly wrote that all his stories began with pictures, which “bubbled up” in his imagination, which sounds like inspiration to me. He then had to do the work to flesh them out, and craft stories around them. Sayers talks about a similar process of craft building upon inspiration. For my own part, my best work I think has come when I’ve felt I’ve received a story, or a germ of a story, from outside, and am pulling it out to see how it grows. And I’ve heard others say the same. On the other hand, I don’t want to say for certain that everyone’s creative process works best that way.

  • Will Vaus says:

    Dear Cole,

    How amazing you should post this blog today. I have been at the Wade Center for the past two days and, among other things, just read some of Sayers’ letters to Lewis, including the ones you mention here.

    Hope you are doing well. Sounds like you are quite busy!

    Blessings,
    Will

  • Andrew Finden says:

    Interesting stuff.

    Do you think that love of creation is sufficient reason to justify making art? Or do you think an artist must also consider whether or not his art will edify? If you are an artist, how do you keep yourself open to hear the words or images you may be given?

    Hmm… as a performing artist, a re-creative artists in many ways, perhaps the dynamic is slightly different, and more so because I’m paid a salary to do it! I’m fairly well obliged to do what I’m asked to do. Even so, there’s a real sense of doing things that we want to do, and consequently that will edify an audience. If I really want to sing Billy Budd, for example, because I’m drawn to the music and the character, while it’s primarily about my own artistic satisfaction, I would hope that the audience is drawn to that and edified by it.
    Maybe I’m more of a craftsman than an artist in that sense?

  • Ric says:

    Thanks so much for this post. It resonates deeply with my own emerging understanding of who I am called to be as an artist/contemplative.

    Every blessing,

    Ric

  • Diane Tucker says:

    This raises so many wonderful questions I don’t have time to address right now. All I need to say is that Dorothy Sayers always seem to me a breath of the freshest air! How wonderfully astringent she is, how free from pious sentimentality and the plague of religious utilitarianism.
    For decades now I have been looking forward to, in heaven, what I mentally refer to as “a ten-thousand-year cup of tea with Jack”; now I realize I want one with Dorothy too. Please stop by for a century or two, Cole, and join us!

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