The Beauty Dialogues, Part 2

Maddalena_di_Donatello_Opera_Duomo_Florence_n03The following is a response to Morgan Meis’s letter posted yesterday.

Dear Morgan:

Thanks for throwing down this particular gauntlet. Yes, we adopted Dostoevsky’s phrase from The Idiot, where one of the characters attributes the saying “beauty will save the world” to the eponymous hero of the novel, Prince Myshkin.

I’m well aware that any slogan or mantra can quickly become a stand-in for real thought, for Jacob-and-the-angel wrestling with difficult, complex subjects. Neither I nor the extended Image community is immune from that sort of danger.

We acknowledged that a while back when we published an entire symposium on the topic of “The Word-Soaked World: Troubling the Lexicon of Faith” in issue #75. The purpose there was to interrogate and “trouble” frequently invoked terms (art, faith, mystery!) that had become anodyne through thoughtlessness and over-usage.

And just for the benefit of readers wanting to pursue these issues further, I would point out that I’ve dealt with some of your challenges in essays like “The Wound of Beauty” and “The Tragic Sense of Life.”

Given the large amount of historical baggage attached to the word beauty, it is never going to be a word that we can use without qualms and qualifications. That’s why T.S. Eliot once wrote:

We mean all sorts of things, I know, by Beauty. But the essential advantage for a poet is not to have a beautiful world with which to deal: it is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory. [Read more…]

The Beauty Dialogues, Part 1

bwstw sticker winterToday Morgan Meis continues his periodic exchanges with Image founder Gregory Wolfe.

 Dear Greg,

When we first started our conversation (see posts here, here and here for background), I thought we were having a debate about the declining relevance of religious intellectuals in today’s public realm. But that’s not what it was really about. At its heart, this conversation has always been about beauty.

So, I think we should get right to that, to beauty. I don’t know the story of how “Beauty Will Save the World” became a motto for Image Journal and for The Glen. I’m assuming it is a reference to Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot.

I think I remember reading somewhere, in one of your essays (but I forget which one) how you’d come across the idea of beauty saving the world through Solzhenitsyn. Was it from Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Prize Lecture? In the lecture, Solzhenitsyn says:

One day Dostoevsky threw out the enigmatic remark: “Beauty will save the world.” What sort of a statement is that? For a long time I considered it mere words. How could that be possible? When in bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything? Ennobled, uplifted, yes—but whom has it saved?

The next sentence in the lecture reads as follows:

There is, however, a certain peculiarity in the essence of beauty, a peculiarity in the status of art: namely, the convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and it forces even an opposing heart to surrender.

Is that what you were getting at? Is that how beauty will save the world? Are we after a “peculiarity in the status of art” by which it becomes “irrefutable?” I’m curious as to how you would define that peculiarity, where it comes from and what it means. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “A Christmas Story”

oxford-snow-by-tejvan-pettinger-on-flickr

In “A Christmas Story,” Robert Cording evokes Aleksander Wat (1900-1967), a Polish poet that converted from Judaism to Christianity while imprisoned in the Soviet Union. During a brief moment out of prison walls, the poem explains that Wat was awestruck by a simple street scene: a beautiful women in a green dress, the “bell of a bicycle,” blue sky. “It was all thrilling, achingly alive, a feast/ happening right there on the street between / the prison and the government office/ nothing else mattering.” Interestingly, the Christmas story in this is poem is, in fact, the retelling of this moment at a dinner party to a know-it-all, “young professor whose field of expertise / seemed to be ironic distance.” While the weight of Wat’s revelation is amusingly lost on the guest, as a reader we are reminded to stay open to surprise. During this season of expectant waiting, I always seem to experience objects and sensations more intensely. The pearly, full moon rising, frost laden branches, the smell of wood smoke, trumpeter swans flapping overhead. For me, Advent ushers in a new kind of awareness that is both felt and known, surprising and familiar. Similar to Wat’s experience, the practice for the season is to be awake and grateful enough to receive.

—Jessica Gigot

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Poetry Friday: “Advent” by Bruce Bond

Gerard van Honthorst Adoration of the Shepherds via wikimedia public domainI’ve heard many people say we’ve never needed poetry more than we do now, but “Advent,” by Bruce Bond, reminds me that poetry has always been vital. The poem begins with a bombing in the Yellow Sea and smoke so thick “you cannot  see your hands,” which sets the reader up for a domino effect of disorientation. This disorientation is reinforced by clever line breaks and images that seem to lean into one another—the earth’s tilt on its axis becomes a man lost in thought, folks sleepily sitting by the fire become “cows in the crèche,” yesterday becomes tomorrow: “the farther back you go/the more it dims into a future.” A holy day becomes ordinary: “so long past / it could have been most any season.” Another dimension of this disorientation comes from lines that seem to have been written just yesterday, although the poem was published five years ago. Consider: “talk that turns bitter as it grows more national in scope.” When the swirling, otherworldly tone of the poem introduces images of Advent (“A child is born / crowned in blood”), the reader encounters an Advent story more frightening and more alluring than the one usually on display in this month of ubiquitous manger scenes. “Advent” highlights the strange beauty of this season, and reminds us that we have always, and will always, need poetry—to shake the dust off our stories and help beauty “bloom through the wound.”

—Christina Lee

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Beauty

fons-heijnsbroek-abstract-sescape-and-diagonal-on-flickrI have beauty on the mind. No doubt a result of my ongoing debate with Gregory Wolfe (running into its fourth iteration now). We’ve been chatting, lo these many weeks, about the relevance of the religious voice to contemporary debates on aesthetical matters.

When you’re talking about aesthetics, the question of beauty tends to rear its head sooner or later. This can be a scary moment. That’s because it’s hard to talk about beauty—hard, even, to define in any satisfying way what beauty is. Give it a go yourself if you don’t believe me. Define beauty. [Read more…]