Michael O'Brien

Michael O'Brien

December 2, 2013

OTTAWA – The experience of culture can keep the soul alive amidst fragmentation of modern life, says artist Michael O'Brien.

O'Brien said he has come to know many who survived the Nazi era in Germany and many more who survived communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe.

All of them described the importance culture held for them when totalitarian regimes denied them access to religious faith, distorted it or restricted it to small ghettos few could access, he said. "Culture became the sanctuary through which they knew themselves."

You might find yourself listening to a symphony orchestra playing music with no political, social or anthropological content, and not a romantic piece, "simply a beautiful piece of music," and "suddenly you find yourself weeping and you don't know why."

"Why am I feeling this?" he asked. "Something profound is happening when a work of art is beautiful. Embedded in it is a truth: that man is more than a clever, talking animal."

"Man is capable of falling in love with the beauty he has experienced," O'Brien said. "When he leaves the auditorium he knows himself in a way he did not previously. A buried question has been evoked by the power of true art, beautiful art."

O'Brien, the author of 22 books, including 10 novels, and the painter of religious subjects, spoke at a Nov. 23 conference at Dominican University College marking the close of the Year of Faith.

"By being both beautiful and true, good art tells us about our eternal value," O'Brien said.

Culture is the language of a people expressing its identity in music, visual arts, literature, low brow and highbrow forms, even its jokes, he said.

The best cultures answer foundational questions such as: What is man? Who is he? What are we? Why are we here?

Though these are philosophical questions, one does not need to be a philosopher to ask them, he said.

O'Brien recalled how, in 1961, as a boy of 12, his family moved due to his father's work to an Inuit village then called Coppermine in the high Arctic. The plane landed in a "vast sea of white" in a radically different culture, catapulting him into a world of adventure.


In a town of 200 Inuit and 20 white people, he and his brother had no common language with the Inuit children, yet they developed deeper ways of communicating. He also encountered there the Inuit's powerful language of art.

An old woman used to visit their home for tea. She brought them a carving of a man wrestling with a polar bear. "Why was she making an image like this?" O'Brien asked. "Men in the North do not habitually wrestle with polar bears."

The carving expressed something "deeply intuitive," showing a man "wrestling with the fundamental mysteries of life."

When O'Brien held the carving, he said he could "feel the mystery" it conveyed of man's "condition in the world" and "touch it with the senses."