Wednesday, December 3, 2008

"Pillars of the Earth" by Ken Follett - Life as Art

In the spellbinding novel "Pillars of the Earth" by Ken Follett, the reader is drawn into a tale about the ambitions of a monk to build a cathedral which embroils him in a battle that turns church against state. "I knew it had to be a long book. It took at least thirty years to build a cathedral and most took longer because they would run out of money, or be attacked or invaded", Follett reflects on his website. With a large learning curve, it took him three plus years to write about medieval cathedral construction techniques while interweaving a story inhabited by interesting characters.

I love this book. It has so much texture, nuance and vivid spectacle. The members of the royalty, clerics and village people caught up in this tale play out not just the very plausible details of everyday life in the Middle Ages but sometimes grizzly scenes that made me cringe. Follett, perhaps even unwittingly, elicits for the reader a powerful metaphor of how the complexities of building what is intended to be intrinsically beautiful goes beyond skilled masonry to the very vissicitudes of life.

The metaphor of "Life as Art" comes to mind. Speaking on that topic, is one of my favorite engagements. Audiences relate well to the same metaphysics that readers will. There is something in the human spirit that sees beauty and is instantly awash with awe. A sense of proportion, the intersection of many diffident pieces in one place at the same time. These are ideas that Ken Follett elicits when bringing the work of the stonecutter mason and journeyman alive.

In the preface to "Pillars..", Follett remarks about how he came to be enthralled with visiting the cathedrals of Europe. After studying their architecture, he learned first hand to look with a new eye at the monumental achievement that transformed mere stones into inspiration saying:

"...the stones themselves reveal the construction history. Stops and starts, damage and rebuilding, extensions in times of prosperity, and stained glass tributes to the wealthy men who usually paid the bills. Another story is told in the way the church is sited in the town. .....but a simple question nagged at

Why are these churches built?

There are simple answers: glory of God, vanity of bishops and so on.... The building of European cathedrals is an astonishing phenomenon. The builders had no power tools. The did not understand the mathematics of structural engineering, and they were poor. The richest of princes did not live as well, as say, a prisoner in a modern jail. Yet, they put up the most beautiful buildings that ever existed. And, they did it so well, they are still here hundreds of years later for us to see and marvel at."

This strikes me as a remarkable statement coming from Follett, an admitted non-believer.

So, too, an individual is an astonishing phenomenon. Constructed out of the single cells that begin human life, there are many stops and starts that damage the body and the mind. During times of prosperity, a person might extend themselves. Some construct tributes to those who came before them by dutifully carrying out their lives in the footsteps of the family tree. Others strike out on their own. Others just strike out at anyone and anything. Some use their creativity to set up personal goals. The question about life that some may beg, seems to be whether lives are constructed, as Ken Follett puts it, for the glory of God or vanity? Further, can beauty be constructed on foundations of vain glory whether God inspired or ego driven?

This is where the question of "life as art" comes alive. It is driven not just by our creative thoughts but by our conduct in pursuit of life’s dreams. It is not just the journeyman along his or her life path that builds what a life turns out to be while traversing through life toward death. The mortar used to build what we construct is an important tool in creativity.

The mortar of a single human life is made up of the other characters crossing through that life’s stage. What we chose as the mortar of our lives is related to those other lives and how well they too are made. When things go awry, can that blame be justified when human choice is the master of each day. When choosing friends and lovers, choose wisely.

While it may be that each life has a talent to be displayed, some chisel away at perfecting themselves in ways that reflect a life someone else has decided for them. Others become stumbling blocks to everyone and everything. Still others, make peace within. These types acknowledge that they are not the architect of anything. The talent they have they understand they received but did not devise.

By using our creatvity and individual talent for doing what each does best, we can be part of building something beautiful indeed. We can be the mortar that binds and encourages another while they, too, chip away. Life is not a cathedral built for any of us alone. It is a quarry being mined by the architect of life itself. Each talent is a rod (a medieval unit of measure Follett identifies as used in cathedral building) of creativity that enuciates what is possible when reaching for the sky. A myriad of talents striving together toward perfection can work to achieve fulfillment for the soul...... the cathedral within.

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