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The End in the Beginning: Reflections on Making

October 12, 2022

Junius Johnson

It is a fearful thing to make. To begin with, there are the common fears, which I might call social fears: what will others think of what I have made? Will they think it bad, silly, tasteless, or clumsy? Will they look at it and think: “Why did he bother at all?” Then, there are the loftier fears, which only seem to be more noble: what if I’m not actually good enough? What if I can’t do justice to this idea I have? What if my words or images aren’t enough? Or, to go even deeper: what if I mess up the world by making this? What if my art leaves the world worse off than it was before, by damaging faith, lives, hearts, or society? In the midst of these fears, a sort of complex of making, unique to those who feel at least the temptation to make, arises. It is an inner recoiling that happens when we feel the impetus to create.

But here’s the thing: no one feels that recoiling who also doesn’t feel driven to make. Recoiling is not an action, but a reaction. It is hard to protest against nothing, and against that which is not felt we offer no defense. So the fear of making may be, perhaps, the very proof that you ought to be making.

That’s a surprising thought, and it ought to be unpacked. Let me offer just two points in defense of it: telos and authority.


The End Creates the Beginning

“Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,

or some things fair and others ugly deem?”

–J.R.R. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia”

There is a notion in Aristotle’s philosophy that has captured the imagination since he first formulated it 2400 years ago: the notion of the final cause. It is a strange cause, because it doesn’t precede the effect in a straightforward way. It is the reason for which I do something, the telos or goal, and so it is often only aspirational at the time I undertake the work that is to lead to it. For example, the future possession of a certain knowledge or ability is the reason I work at certain studies, even though that knowledge or ability does not yet exist in me. The final cause describes a powerful pull that something that is so far merely possible can place on the soul of an actual maker.

This is, indeed, a common experience for the maker. The work of art that lies at the end of the road of making reaches across the chasm between that which is and that which may be and appears before our mind’s eye with a glory that demands a response. “Look at me,” it says to us. “I may be. You could be my author. Bring me forth into the world.”

Many things may call us, and thus may become the reason why we make things. I would like to offer a simple categorization that I think encapsulates so much of the heart of the maker. Here are four ends for which we make:

The Beautiful. The beautiful is a powerful incentive for making. To be a maker, even if only potentially, is to be one who loves beauty. For such a one, that there should be more beauty in the world is not a proposition that requires an explanation. It is self-evident. So often, the beauty of what we might make captures out attention, and once that happens, the rest is merely pragmatics: hows, whens, wheres, and do-I-dares.

The True. We are drawn to make because we are drawn to express truth. So strong is this desire that even those who admit no absolute truth nevertheless bow to it, for they are still driven to express their own relative truth, to offer their perspective for public inspection. There is in fact a particular delight, peculiar to rational creatures, in expressing true things. We see it in the joy in which children say that which is obvious and which has just been said: it is a delight to speak the truth.

The Good. Goodness is something to which we all not only owe allegiance, but are in fact already devoted. The most rigid moral relativist still feels moral outrage (often at the moral absolutism of the more sensible folk around him); but to feel outraged requires that one not just believe that there is such a thing as the good, but that one also care about it, for outrage is an emotional, and therefore an interested, response. One cannot be dispassionate and outraged at the same time. We love the good, and it is sufficient reason to set us longing to create: Sing to the Lord, for He is good. [1]

The Joyful. That which arouses joy in us or that we think will arise joy in others summons us to its creation. We create for sheer delight. And while delight, rightly understood, has within it the beautiful, the true, and the good, even if we don’t see these things, delight is itself enough to move us. It may be delight in the cleverness of the work, or in its weirdness; in its novelty, or its antiquity; in its greatness, or its humility. Whatever the nature of the delight, it forms a call that places us under obligation.

Art is inherently teleological. Or rather, art inherently strives after teloi (goals/ends). And I, for one, think that art regularly arrives at its goals. But never fully, and never in just the way intended; and never at the goal aimed at alone. For just as there is a mystical unity among the beautiful, the true, and the good, which they receive from their archetype, God, so is there a mysterious union among all the objects of art, such that one can never touch one without also touching several others. This is why the author says more than she intends, why music will not allow itself to be pinned down, why the visual and performing arts can revel in their ephemerality: for only that which is rich in meaning can afford to be prodigal of any particular meanings, such that it can mean this, here and now, and never mean it again.

Art (understood as any object of making, poiesis) therefore calls to us, the end in the beginning. Before I have started—indeed, before I can start—the end product reaches out of the infinite sea of  possibility in which it swims and seizes hold of me, demanding that I make it without forcing me to make it. For no one can make apart from choice: to become a maker, to become the author of a thing, requires acquiescence. But this is my point, and it is different from the image we so often get of the maker: she is not some romantic genius who climbs the heights of fancy, only there, at the very summit of human knowing, to steal forbidden fire from the gods and bring it back to us mere mortals. Nor is she one has been struck as if by lightning. Rather, she is one who has been astounded, arrested from across the room by a gaze. This is not a gaze of first love, for it is impossible to love where there is not yet knowledge (even if one never fully comes to know something unless one love it). No, it is the gaze of the possibility of love. She must surrender, and in humility cross the near infinite space that lies between in order to investigate where this strange encounter might go.


The End Grounds the Beginning

“Though all the crannies of the world we filled

with elves and goblins, though we dared to build

gods and their houses out of dark and light,

and sow the seed of dragons, ’twas our right

(used or misused). The right has not decayed.

We make still by the law in which we’re made”

–Tolkien, “Mythopoeia”

To return to the fears with which we began, they may all be boiled down to this one question: “By what right do I make?” What gives me the right to think that it is OK for me to make this thing? Who do I think I am? It is, therefore, a question of authority, and whether we have the right sort and enough of it to qualify for that most vaunted of all titles: an author.

This entire line of questioning rests, I would like to suggest, on a misconception. Authority is not something that is required in order to be a maker: it is something that exists as a result of being a maker. To see this, let’s reflect a bit more on that word, “authority.”

“Authority” comes from the Latin word auctoritas, which is an abstract noun meaning “the state of being an auctor.” But auctor in Latin indicates one who enlarges. Enlarges what? The world, I would say. When we create, we increase the sum total of things there are in existence. But it is more than this: for merely quantitative addition is unworthy of the word poiesis. We add to the world just where it is most itself, where it is most desirable, and where it most in the image of God: its beauty, truth, and goodness. To make is to increase either the truth, goodness, or beauty of the world. Or rather, since these three cannot be fully separated, it is to increase all of them. And to make the world more true, more good, and more beautiful, is to make the world by all relevant analyses better.

It is not that we can actually create beauty, truth, and goodness, for the world is already stuffed full of all these things from its creation. But they were laid within it in both actual and potential form, and human making releases into actuality that which was merely potential before. [2] Auctoritas is the fact of having enlarged the world by our creative efforts, our poiesis.

And so authority can be seen in a different light in the case of the poets, the novelists, the musicians, the artists, the gardeners, the chefs, the craftsmen, and so on: it grounds their making, but it does not do so as a thing possessed ahead of time on the basis of which they have earned the right to make. Rather, the right to make is conferred by the object made. “By what right do you consider yourself a poet?” “By the right of this poem I have just finished.” There can be no other meaningful measure: anything other than the work itself is an arbitrary, external, cultural imposition. 

The poet cannot establish that he is a poet, even in his own eyes, apart from actually writing some poetry. If he sits down before he has done any writing to figure whether he is a poet, he will still be sitting there till the end of time, unable to come to any satisfactory conclusion. He must get up and write a poem, and then he will be a poet, whatever anyone might say. The only question left at that point is whether he is a good or bad poet.

This last question, whether one is good or bad at the making, also torments the maker before he or she even begins; but it must be remembered that it is a question with no determinable answer. Unless one is the absolute best or the absolute worst (and perhaps not even then), there will never be agreement about the answer. Whatever the case, it is a discussion in which you, the maker, have no agency. It will happen apart from you, and will continue for as long as your works survive, and the only thing you are allowed to contribute to it is the work itself. Fear about reception is no valid excuse to deny existence to the possibility that has called out to you: your responsibility doesn’t extend to how it is received, only to insure that it exists.

As makers, then, we need not and must not get hung up on credentialing, or on defending our right to make: such arguments will always be lacking in the eyes of the skeptical. We must show: we must make by the law in which we are made: that is, the teleological law. We must reach into the future where we have made something, and from there bring the desired end into the present; in so doing, we will prove that we are makers, that we have authority, and that our suffering was not in vain. We are not the Ultimate, we do not sit on the throne of the universe. All authority here below is derived from that place where authority and identity are one. Thus, any authority we can have must be received from above. Authority, in the final analysis, is something that can only be conveyed on an act of faith.

[1] Cf. Psalm 136:1

[2]  For a deeper look at how this works, see my essay “Who Is the Author of the Dragon.

Featured image is courtesy of Aaron Burden via Unsplash. We are grateful for his generosity.

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  1. Tresta Payne says:

    Beautiful, Junius. This kept bringing Hopkins’ “Kingfishers” to mind…’Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
    Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;’.
    I will come back to this on “those days”.

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