The Debate About Beauty

Kazimir_Malevich,_1915,_Black_Suprematic_Square,_oil_on_linen_canvas,_79.5_x_79.5_cm,_Tretyakov_Gallery,_Moscow I’ve been engaged in an ongoing wrangle with Gregory Wolfe about the status of Christian intellectuals in the public sphere. We got a bit stuck on the question of T.S. Eliot and the worthiness of New Criticism. Mr. Wolfe has helped to un-stick the conversation with a rather devastating reply to my last post.

Pointing out that Eliot wrote his earlier critical works before he’d become a practicing Christian, Wolfe noted that by the time of Four Quartets “Eliot’s perspective had changed a great deal.”

His own childhood, family history, and other personal experiences become central to the poem’s meaning—indeed, become the names of the four sections. Eliot is incarnate in this poem but more importantly, his shift in 4Q, perhaps influenced by Maritain or in tandem with Maritain, signaled a growing awareness by mid-century Christian intellectuals that the modern “self” could not simply be ditched.

I acknowledge defeat. I was trying to fit Eliot into a tight box of anti-incarnational thinking in order to make my greater point, which was that Eliot is responsible for the intellectual and theological failures of New Criticism. In fact, Eliot—both as thinker and as poet—is too complex and rich a figure to be diminished and stuffed into such a restrictive box. [Read more…]

When the Matches Go Out

When Marie-Henri Beyle visited Florence, that city named for its place among waters, he thought the art he came across might kill him. Visiting the Basilica Santa Croce in 1817, he wrote that he “was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart…the wellspring of life was dried up within me. I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground.”

When I first heard of what is now called Stendhal’s syndrome (Beyle’s penname was Stendhal), I was overcome myself, with envy. I was studying English literature and art history in college, but I had never been so undone by my subjects.

The summer after learning about Stendhal’s syndrome, I bought a collegiate Eurail pass, starting my travels in Italy. I went to Rome and Florence. I saw the Sistine Chapel, and I thought it was beautiful, but other than slight nausea from the summer heat and dehydration, I had no physical reaction. I considered my failure to experience this ecstasy a deficiency; a true art lover, surely, could have brought herself to such a place with the appropriate knowledge and awe.

I left my art history on the sun-soaked campus in North Carolina when I joined the Army. The art I carried with me was music, from one choir to the next in North Carolina, Bosnia, Korea, Texas, and finally Seattle.

[Read more…]