The Beauty Dialogues, Part 6

Today Gregory Wolfe continues his periodic exchanges on the nature of beauty with Image contributor Morgan Meis. 

Dear Morgan,

Well, yesterday you took your swing all right. I just can’t tell if you’ve decked me or…whiffed. In either case, I’m certainly dazed! I told you last time that I have no formal philosophical training, so in one sense I’m helpless to answer you in kind. If only you’d challenged me to a close reading of Finnegans Wake….

Now that you’ve played the Kant card (!), I think this offers us a good opportunity to complete this set of exchanges.

The simplest way I can summarize your argument is that you hold a “disruptive” theory of cultural history. You say that Kant destroyed any notion that Jerusalem and Athens can co-exist and, furthermore, that Kant’s subjectivist theory of beauty puts an end to any attempt to ground beauty in classical metaphysics. What we need now, you conclude, is “to look for spiritual principles in art in completely new and different ways.”

My gut reaction to this contention is the same as my reaction to new religions that claim that we’ve been completely mistaken about God or the Bible for a couple millennia and that we need to follow the brand new approach of some guru who has been vouchsafed the true, ultimate revelation.

The problem here is hubris: the notion that we must discard the past and start over is tantamount to saying that we must now create a new system of understanding virtually ex nihilo. [Read more…]

Preaching the End of the World

For my husband, Brian Jarboe

I learned the news that guitarist Chris Cornell’s death had been declared a suicide on Thursday, May 18—which also happened to be the fourth day in a row I had not managed to get over to the pharmacy to pick up my antidepressant prescription.

Which meant that I had not taken my medicine for at least four, maybe five, days. I felt vaguely apprehensive about the prospect, for sure, but I’m not a major sufferer and the dosage is low (Sertraline, 50 mg).

In fact, I was amazed at how relatively “normal” I felt, after all. It was a busy week at work with some scary tasks I had to accomplish, amid the usual hours of driving in traffic. I found myself taken over by a rush of passionate energy, in which every word, every moment, everything I had to do, seemed as though it were falling into place, as orderly and infinite as tiles in an Arabic mosaic.

You’ve probably already figured it out, but I was just a wee bit hypomanic.

When I heard the news report—mere hours after Cornell had been found dead in his Detroit hotel room—I was threading my way through D.C. streets in my ragged Volvo on the way to my eight-year-old daughter’s piano recital.

And when I was finally there, sitting in a hot basement stuffed full of parents, and a girl, maybe ten, began singing and playing along to “Burn” from Hamilton, tears started running uncontrollably down my face, and I realized my folly, the delusion I’d had of my own invincible efficiency. [Read more…]

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…]

God’s Acquaintances

Image of unfocused people in the midst of soft light from unseen windows inside a beautiful cathedral. They say God won’t let you go under; but it seems he will let your hair get pretty wet.

Most trials, if they’re worthy of the name, don’t let you get away without a good scare, maybe even a rent garment and some scratches, if not scars. The less lucky might have to surrender more. Cries for help may be answered, but instantaneous, immediate resolution is admittedly rare. I think most would concede that. The difference in people is how they handle such things; some can march on while singing hymns; others curse like all get out through their turmoil.

The comforts of spiritual sustenance alone are hard for some, among whom I number, as we are the class not given to feeling anything particular at such times, though we believe we are being sustained in a ghostly fashion. My faith is more of an intellectual assent; I am convinced of it, but it does not really make me feel better for that fact.

I know what I believe because of what I do, not because of what I sense. Habit is my testament. I’m not even sure if feelings are honest indicators much of the time. [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…]