A Literary Saint

When the novelist Philip Roth announced his retirement from writing, his former student Arthur Plotnik wrote, "I can't help feeling as if the Master — the patron saint of fiction for two generations — has let me down." Morgan Meis uses the comment to ponder how artists, in our secular age, have become the equivalent of saints:

How do you have saints without religion? It would seem a contradiction in terms. Not so, said the Romantics of the early 19th century. Let us, they suggested, put the artist into the role of the saint. To be fair, the Romantics didn't exactly consciously plan to secularize saints. But they did begin to speak about artists and to idealize artists in ways that resembled the way people used to speak about saints. "The artist alone sees spirits," Johann Wolfgang von Goethe proclaimed, "But after he has told of their appearing to him, everybody sees them." The artist, in short, has a special and heightened relationship to the world. The rest of us benefit from the wonders that only the artist can reveal. Likewise, the artist, many Romantics thought, has a special relationship to suffering. Everyone knows the trope of the Romantic artist in anguish. Lord Byron said, "The great art of life is sensation, to feel that we exist, even in pain." The saint who once suffered in the knowledge that suffering can bring one closer to God has been transformed into the artist whose suffering reveals the truths of our worldly condition.