Works of the Spirit

In my post on anti-materialism I differentiated between two types of works: works that focus on the material, i.e. all the ephemeral pleasures of consumer society, and those that focus on the spiritual, i.e. the kinds that elevate the mind to higher planes of existence.

A great example of the latter is a good book, for, according to Proust, the value of reading begins where the book ends, in the contemplation and thought that it initiates. I think this idea of a work being the spark that ignites contemplation is the essence of a spiritual work, and it applies to many other things besides books. Architecture is said to be frozen music, and the music that resonates from the walls of a Gothic cathedral is quite different to the dull tones of a modern office. The cathedral is designed to initiate contemplation. The lines of its arches and its columns guide the eye upwards towards the heavens, where, through its high walls, light penetrates a stained glass window that gleams and glows like a gemstone bouquet. Through the beauty of its decoration, through its imposing size, and through the stories of its statues, its tapestries and its murals, the architecture of a cathedral brings the mind to a moment of contemplation, inviting it to take a step onto a higher plane of thought.

Some architecture, like the typical office building or a warehouse, is designed to step back, step out of the way. It performs its function, but no more. Some buildings are functional, like an airport, but are also dressed in a coat of advertising screens and posters. They too perform their function, but their walls, adorned by advertising, submerge the mind into the waters of consumerism.

The music of architecture is the music of design, and this music can be heard in every good, large or small, to varying degrees. To give an example, consider the table lamp. A typical desk lamp is utilitarian in nature: its purpose is to provide light to an area. It does this, and nothing more. A stained glass Tiffany lamp is functional, but it is also mesmerizingly beautiful. The nature of these lamps is such that machine manufacture is difficult, if not impossible (nor desirable); they have to be made by hand. Instead of simply providing light to an area, the lamp radiates two more things: the value of beauty and the value of craftsmanship, the combination of which acts as a beacon of excellence, preventing those onto whom its light falls from squandering their creative energies on poor or unworthy work. Working under its light puts you in relation to its craftsman, making any thought of compromise in your own work unacceptable.

The nature of an object will define our feelings as we use it. A shoddy object projects disrespect, plainly telling us what the maker believes us to be worth. The well made utilitarian object projects the nature of our lives, telling us our place in the structure of our society. Unconsciously, it communicates to us the primacy of utility, the need for absolute efficiency, the sort of Taylorist ethic that desires to eliminate every ounce of inefficiency and every moment of unnecessary pleasure. The spiritual work must also be practical, but it must also be more. It cannot be shoddy, for disrespect is the quickest way to kill any connection with the user. It must perform its function adequately, for if it does not it will be useless. But it is also more. It is art. It is a work imbued with the love and care of its craftsman, a work imbued with the spirit of its maker. This spirit, contained in the design and projected onto all who see it, is the very thing that makes the work truly human, crystallizing in it the essence and energy of life.

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“For even falsehood, uttered by the tongue of man, seemed like truth and light before this hopelessly-deaf and unresponsive silence.”

My new book: a translation of selected short stories by Leonid Andreyev, the father of Russian Expressionism from the Silver Age of Russian literature. A piercing, pitiless glance into the heart of the human condition.

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Further Reading

Proust wrote that the true voyage of discovery is not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold a hundred universes that each of them beholds. Thus, in the words of Ruskin, what good books give us is not mere knowledge, but sight.

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