Towards the end of his life the American poet Robert Lowell made a poem to be a kind of postscript for a sequence of poems entitled “Day by day.” In it he writes about how he wants to be imaginative but keeps getting stuck in facts. Then he thinks of the paintings of Vermeer, in which accuracy serves imaginative power:
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.
Apart from being very beautiful, Lowell’s words point to a spiritual discipline which is useful to me, for I have always been tempted to use my imaginative talent, the gift of fantasy, to avoid the facts of the world and of my own life. I have a sense of the shape a story ought to take, and sometimes bend the facts to fit that shape rather than, like great artists, create a shape to fit the facts. Giving each figure in the photograph his living name, even if, in my own case, that name has to be “dickhead”, makes possible the beauty which comes from truth.
I should pray for the grace of accuracy, so that my turning towards God can be the real and painful venture it is meant to be, and not mere religious posturing. My thinking about God, my theology and that of the Christian Church, would also benefit from this grace, for any theology that lacks it, has ceased to represent the God who became a poor passing fact in Jesus of Nazareth. Most crucially a precise commitment to accuracy is required if I am to do justice to my neighbour’s need. If for example his exhaustion comes from carrying me on his back – as in the case of low paid Amazon staff who make possible the cheap, quick purchases we all demand at Christmas- then I’d be better to get off rather than referring him to a foodbank.
John Berger in his book ” Another Way of Telling” argues that photographs can teach us the language of appearances, because although the camera can also lie, it does record the fabric of reality, and challenges us to imagine a story based on the details of what we see. It’s not that imagination is inferior to fact, but that it has to start with the fact if it is aiming at truth. All of Berger’s imaginative writing has exhibited the grace of accuracy, achieved by a painstaking discipline of seeing the details of experience without sidelining their moral, political and ecological aspects, and an imaginative purity in representing them in his stories. His novel “To the Wedding”, for example, chronicles unsparingly the effect of AIDs on a young woman’s life, but includes the beautiful and triumphant story of her wedding. The ravages of the disease and the details of the Italian wedding cookery are recorded with equal accuracy.
I have a friend, a fellow believer, who tells me that we should not be dismayed if we find that none of the gospel details of Jesus are factual. We live, after all, by the story. I find myself replying that I don ‘t quite agree: I don’t mind if none of the details is historical fact, but that I want to trust that all the narrated details have been chosen by the writers and their sources to represent as accurately as possible, their community’s memory of Jesus. As Lowell asks, why not say what happened? It is only when we who are poor passing facts, recollect with modesty the life of that other poor passing fact, Jesus Messiah, that we can give him and ourselves, a living name.
* paintings by Vermeer