The Beauty Dialogues, Part 4

Painting of Socrates standing in the center of a nondescript area, with his arm raised. He is lecturing to a crowd of men who are gathered around him, some lounging, others standing, but all looking towards Socrates in the center of the circle. They are wearing togas. The following is a response to Morgan Meis’s letter posted yesterday.

Dear Morgan:

I’m enjoying this conversation but at times I worry that you’re playing Glaucon to my Socrates. In other words, just egging the “master” on. I want to be sure you’re not just tossing up softballs for me to take a swing at. You’re a professionally trained philosopher; I’ve never taken a philosophy class in my life. So don’t hesitate to take a real swing…at me!

Now I don’t want to bog the conversation down in quibbles but I worry that semantic differences and definitions may be getting in the way. You’re getting at this when you accuse me of doing a “bait and switch” in defining beauty—messing with the “registers.”

My point about Donatello’s Mary Magdalene was that the work of art can take what is ugly—a ragged, gaunt, old woman—and transform that ugliness into a form of beauty—a simultaneous perception of spiritual beauty inhering in outward brokenness. [Read more…]

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…]

Listening to Silence

silenceI arrived at the advanced screening for Martin Scorsese’s new film, Silence, in the worst possible frame of mind. For one thing, I was running late after seeing to some errands. Also, I was starving. My only option for getting some food in time was a fancy burger joint near the entrance to the multiplex. It was one of those places that makes your burger to order and I fidgeted at the table, waiting for my number to be announced.

I sensed the irony of chowing down before watching a story that chronicled both the extreme poverty of Japanese peasants in the seventeenth century and the torture and execution of missionary priests and converts. Then while I was waiting for my mega-burger and fries a man entered the restaurant who seemed both high and homeless. Having lived in or near big cities most of my life I was instantly on to what he was up to. He was approaching various people in an oblique way, as if to sit down beside them.

I knew that he wanted to make the diners uncomfortable and generate a sense of obligation toward him. And yet, when he asked if he could sit by me, I instantly said no in such a loud voice that I startled myself. He moved on and was soon being told by one of the cooks to leave the premises. [Read more…]

The Patron Saint of Losers, Part 2

vincent-van-gogh-enclosed-field-with-ploughman-on-wikimedia-public-domainThis post, which appears as the Editorial Statement in Image issue 90, is continued from yesterday.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, a contemporary of Shakespeare, knew his share of failure.

As a young man he went off to serve in the military—whether to escape arrest for wounding a man in a duel or for some other reason remains unclear. As a marine he participated in the fateful battle of Lepanto, in which the naval forces of the Ottoman Empire were decisively defeated. On another expedition he was captured by pirates and spent five years as a slave in Algiers before he was finally ransomed and came home.

His efforts to support himself with his pen met with little success. Neither did his petitions for compensation for his war service. He was imprisoned twice and only late in his life did the publication of Don Quixote ease his financial woes. He died soon after its second volume was brought out. [Read more…]