Without hope in eternal life, art loses a great source of creativity

Titian's Pietà (Wikimedia)

The Nobel-winning writer Günter Grass, who died aged 88 in 2015, published a final book: Of All That Ends. It has just been translated into English, with a blurb telling us that Grass was Germany’s “most celebrated post-war writer” and “a creative artist of remarkable versatility.”

With the publication of The Tin Drum, Grass showed himself to be a master story-teller, vigorous, energetic and powerful. It is a technique he also uses to great effect in his autobiography, Peeling the Onion, where he mixes memories with fiction and where personalities he met in his youth became transmuted into characters in his books. Significantly, he wrote the autobiography because “I wanted the last word.”

Yet these characteristics are no longer in evidence in this final book. It is as if having the last word has become an end in itself and as if the author is not quite aware that that an existential moroseness has crept into his writing. I suspect this is due to his belief that death is actually the end. As he wrote in Peeling the Onion, his restless imagination drove him “beyond the miracles of the Catholic bag of tricks” – yet he has found nothing to replace his discarded faith.

Grass evidently believed that this last collection of thoughts, poems and drawings was worth publishing. I disagree. What one reads are prosaic musings on the passage of time, lugubrious references to physical ailments, worries about his lack of teeth, and occasional dismissive references to God. It is a dismal litany.

Brought up as a Catholic in the then Baltic city of Danzig, in one passage Grass mentions his grandson’s Confirmation, adding “I couldn’t recall…just when my childhood faith began to melt like a scoop of vanilla ice-cream”. In another passage he wonders what meaning prayer has “now that God is dead”. “Since nothing is holy to me” his last remaining tooth “could hardly serve as a relic.” And so on.

Perhaps if Grass had rediscovered his lost faith, or even seriously wrestled with the Grim Reaper, his last book might have had greater depth. It would certainly have given it an added resonance. It might have humbled him. I think of the Venetian painter, Titian, who died in 1576, probably at the same age as Grass. His last painting was a Pietà – one of the most sublime and solemn subjects in Christian iconography – and the figure of Nicodemus, half-naked, frail and very elderly, who is helping to support Christ’s body, is thought to be a self-portrait.

Titian is not afraid to show the ravages of age: his physical weakness; his humility, kneeling before his Saviour’s body; and his compassion for the tragic spectacle in front of him. It is a visual lesson in self-abnegation for the viewer and a world away from the German author, who writes of his final years with banal certitude: “All finished now/had enough now/ done and dusted now…”

Compare this with Titian, who after years as one of Europe’s most celebrated painters, is supposed to have said in his 70s: “I think I am beginning to learn something about painting.” It is often thought that religious faith cripples and oppresses the artistic imagination. Titian demonstrates that it actually expands it. Hope in eternal life can be the spur to deeper self-understanding and creativity, rather than an all-too-human temptation to sterility and despair.