Book Review: L’Engle’s Walking on Water – Overly Lofty

9780804189293In one sense, Madeleine L’Engle’s “Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art,” was pleasant to read and stroked my ego as as a wanna-be writer. Parts of it were inspiring. Overall, however, I found it insipid and overly foofy; it talks of writing and art in the loftiest of idealistic prose, as the highest reaches of human meditation and striving.

In a sense, I agree with most of it. But an idealization of the writing vocation is only a tenth of the story. The other nine-tenths are work, the basic discipline of hitting the nail with the hammer every single day. In this sense, it’s like any other skill or job, one where talent and know-how deepen as experience progresses.

Here’s an example of what I didn’t like:

“The world of fairy tale, fantasy, myth, is inimical to the secular world, and in total opposition to it, for it is interested not in limited laboratory proofs but in truth.” (46)

I love fairy tales and fantasy far more than the average fellow, but science is not something to dismiss. I am not a scientist, but I suspect that a tech-minded reader might react defensively, “Hey that’s what my lab tests are all about–truth.” Of course scientific methodology excludes philosophy, meta-narrative claims, but the whole purpose is to learn true things about how the universe works in order to understand it better. This mentality oversteps when we view ourselves as masters of the universe, meant to tame it. But in general, I would say science and laboratory experiments are at the service to truth, a different approach to understanding our world. I think it throws the baby out with the bathwater to pit science in opposition to truth, as if creative types have some sort of lock on that.

Then there was this:

“In art, we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, among the stars.” (47)

Bleck. I am an idealistic person, and I am sympathetic to what she is getting at, which I take to be that art or creativity is an attempt at knowing or expressing truth. Seeking the fullness of truth can be understood as a sort of prayer or connection with reality aka God. That striving to speak truth can bring the speaker to the heights of human calling.

But. I find L’Engle’s language so over-the-top as to discredit it. It’s as if she divinizes the artist himself rather than showing him as a mere human glimpsing at participation with the divine–which is really the intention. Much of life, and I suspect much of an artist’s life, is spent in murky misunderstanding, darkness and trials, and the prosaic daily activities of buying materials, preparing food and changing sheets. Even the highest peaks of sublimity in creation pass unnoticed because the artist is so absorbed in the act. Never is she really conscious of “moving unfettered among the stars.” Maybe L’Engle is, and that sounds amazing.

But the work of other writers and artists, such as Stephen King and Flannery O’Connor, who have explained their craft, spend more time focusing on the process, on the work, of being surprised by the product despite their best plans. So while the artist does do some amazing co-creation, it is rather unknowable. My concern is not that L’Engle is wrong, but that the tone is deceptive.

Artists are not really a breed set apart for transcendental experience, but rather fellow stumblers along the road. More accurate would be Oscar Wilde who said, “We are all lying the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

To make concrete analogies to other professions, a doctor might describe the highest meta-meaning of medicine as to heal, like Christ the divine healer, to engage in a communion of persons to restore the wounded and injured body as path to healing the soul. That may be abstractly true in a sense, but it would irresponsible to set up expectations of medical students in such a way, ignoring the physical time spent squeezing blood pressure pumps or filling out paperwork and the just plain whiny patients. Then there’s the even more uncomfortable truth that sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes the healing doesn’t happen, and the failures are as real as the successes.

Similarly, a construction worker or architect might describe how she designs art for humans to dwell within, a literal co-creation with God of home, of resting places for souls, blending her work with pieces of raw earth to bring into existence a new reality. Sure, that has a truth to it. But the heaping up of theological terminology feels forced. Construction also involves sweat, support beams, precise measurements and loud jack-hammers. And sometimes, pieces fall down and break.

In writing, there are the dragging hours spent staring at a blinking cursor that refuses to move itself, the typos, the dead-end plot arcs, the flat characters, the unwieldy theses, the fumbling for connotations and the general suspicion that all this is wasted time anyway. In all L’Engles soaring prose, I’m left looking for the meat, the substance that’s both hard to chew and truly nutritious. So while I appreciate her sentiments in this new edition of Walking on Water, most of it is just that—sentiments.

Now then, after this demolition of L’Engle’s vulnerable thoughtfulness, here is what I did like:

“By his wounds we are healed. But they are our wounds, too, and until we have been healed we do not know what wholeness is. The discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose, write, is an effort towards wholeness.” (61)

Here’s where I’m a hypocrite. I do kind of like it. This sounds awfully similar to the mocking descriptions I just wrote above. Well yes. There is a sense in which any true dedication or discipline to truth will be transformative for the person doing it–it can be in the martial arts, in math, in caring for a sick person, and even in creativity, anywhere really. I do believe that if we can excel in an area to the point where that excellence (or virtue, to use classical speak) starts to flow out and connect to other areas of our lives, we grow immensely. To learn to see the inter-relatedness of concepts, skills and of our inner-selves to those outer disciplines, is to see also our own holes and weaknesses. By seeing the whole picture and acknowledging our tiny place in it, we slowly learn to fill in those gaps inside us (or learn to ask God to heal them), and this is what I think she means by “healing.”

I agree that to create is to try to understand and make sense of the world, to bring order and meaning to our experience and to share that with others. And as we find meaning, we do find patches for those inner gaps and bandages for the wounds that all of us carry. Her connection here to a Christian vocation in art makes the most sense to me, even though I still wish it was more grounded.

I also enjoyed her description of dealing with the pain of rejected manuscripts even after early success. She quotes from the poet Rilke,

“Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you to write; find out whether it is spreading out roots in the deepest places of your heart…ask yourself…Must I write?…if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple, “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity.” (25)

I like the imagery of roots in the heart.

In the end, I am sorry to write a mostly negative review of this book. I wanted to like it, and I did identity and agree with a lot of it, but many passages left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth somehow. Maybe that’s a reflection on me, that I see my own views in hers and do not allow myself to hold such things. I am balancing on the fence, after all.

On the other hand, I am generally happy to call myself an idealist and to expound lofty views. My concern is that her tone is so reverent towards the artist that his or her humanity is lost or at least obscured. I prefer to acknowledge the grimy gutters that always coexist alongside the untouchable stars.

[Note: I got this book for free from Blogging For Books. All thoughts in the review are my own.]

Thoughts? Was I too harsh? Have you ever read or heard an artist (of any kind) speak about the process of making his or her work and what it means to him or her? Did you find that view compelling? In what aspects of your own life do you identity with the processes described of attempting something worthwhile but difficult?


2 thoughts on “Book Review: L’Engle’s Walking on Water – Overly Lofty

  1. Hi Stephanie,
    I have recently read “Walking on Water” for the first time and I have to say that, like you, I found myself appreciating her sentiments. Rather rather than a bitter aftertaste, however, I found her beatific writing left me soaring.
    Perhaps our different experiences come down to our goals in reading. I was not looking for an instructional book on the craft of writing, although I have quoted her ideas of discipline to everyone who will listen. I was looking for the heart of art.
    I think the second quote you refer to is one of my favorites and I did not react the same way to her language here; walking on water, talking with angels and moving among stars are all recurring motifs throughout, what could be considered, a single, long and beautiful essay.
    Just a few thoughts.

  2. Dear Naomi, Thanks for your comment. I’m really glad you enjoyed L’Engel’s book. And you have a good point that we likely had different goals in reading. While there is a part of me that appreciates her language, there is a big part of me that reads it and thinks “well, I don’t soar with angels, so am I doing it wrong?” . I think the experiences of art that different people have and what encourages them is different. I suppose I prefer a more down-to-earth, nuts and bolts type thing. But again, I’m really glad you liked her book, and I hope it moves you to do and to write great things! 😉

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