The Ideal of Sodom

The Ideal of Sodom August 2, 2015


“What appears shameful to the mind, is sheer beauty to the heart. Is there beauty in Sodom? Believe me, for the great majority of people it is in Sodom and nowhere else.” — Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Dmitri Karamazov, in the “Confessions of an Ardent Heart in Verse,” rants with great feeling about the two ideals of beauty that haunt the heart of man: the Ideal of Sodom, and the Ideal of Madonna. Dostoevsky expanded on this idea in one of his journals, calling the Ideal of Sodom the “Second Beauty” — the beauty which sin has in the eyes of those who are tempted to commit it.

Dostoevsky was criticized, of course, by those who felt that his works sank too far into the darkness without offering any “real” solutions to the problem of human sinfulness. D. H. Lawrence wrote that, “He is like the rat, slithering along in hate, in the shadows, and in order to belong to the light, professing love, all love,” while Freud lamented that “Dostoevsky threw away the chance of becoming a teacher and liberator of humanity; instead he appointed himself as jailer.” Such criticisms are typical of a certain critical tenor that sees literature, and art more generally, as a force for reworking the social order and rewriting the heart of man. It is a critical pose that leads to a kind of puritanism, and it is found just as commonly amongst atheistic reformers as amongst Christians.

It is the puritanism of those who think that art should set up only the Ideal of Madonna — or the Ideal of Sanity, the Ideal of Fraternity, the Ideal of Reason, or whatever God the critic happens to worship. It is the same argument that Flannery O’Connor so often received from well-meaning people who felt that as a Catholic artist, she really ought to be writing nice, apologetic stories that would teach people, directly, about the truths of the Catholic faith. It is, in fact, an argument which nearly every author who delves into the darker truths of the human condition is bound to hear now and again. Why can’t art be nice?

To begin answering that question, it is first necessary to understand what art is. Many people, including a certain percentage of aspiring, and even commercially successful, artists believe that art is something of human origin, something that rises up out of the person and which reflects his ideals and values. An artist, according to this notion, has an “idea” which he then develops into a complete work, bringing his various faculties to bear on the problems that present themselves in terms of execution. There are two common fruits of such a philosophy. The first is bad or mediocre art: the works produced tend to be “telly” (they are designed to make a particular point, and they tend to do so in a rather obvious or unsubtle way) and faddish. Such works are successful so long as the ideas which the artist hopes to express are novel or popular, but over time they come to seem predictable, banal, or simply out-of-date.

The second possibility is that the artist will imagine himself to be building an edifice of his own making, but somehow, through a chink in the wall, the muse is there, whispering an inspiration. These works may, if the inspiration is strong enough, be able to stand the test of time, but they tend to become stratified; the inspired content rises to the top and is regularly skimmed off to produce “condensed” versions or movie adaptations, while the author’s self-generated sludge sinks to the bottom, and readers slog through it only with difficulty. Whether it is Victor Hugo’s endless babbling about “light” and the Paris sewer systems in Les Miserables, Tolstoy’s sleep-inducing passages about Freemasonry in War and Peace, Steinbeck’s embarrassingly simplistic communist solutions in The Grapes of Wrath, or Dostoyevsky’s painful rants about Russian messianism in The Idiot, the effect is invariably the same. With the exception of those who already agree with the sermon, readers love the characters, are deeply affected by the story, and dearly wish that some judicious editor had pulled the soap-box out from under the author’s feet.

Art is not a merely human work. As Solzhenytsin observed in his Nobel acceptance speech, an “artist realizes that there is a supreme force above him and works away gladly as a small apprentice beneath God’s heaven…it was not he who created this world, nor is it he who provides it with direction, and he has no doubts of its foundations.” The “epiphanies of beauty” that an artist seeks are not to be found merely within oneself; they arise from the meeting of the artist’s own spirit with something that is above himself. “Every genuine inspiration…contains some tremor of that “breath” with which the Creator Spirit suffused the work of creation from the very beginning. Overseeing the mysterious laws governing the universe, the divine breath of the Creator Spirit reaches out to human genius and stirs its creative power. He touches it with a kind of inner illumination which brings together the sense of the good and the beautiful, and he awakens energies of mind and heart which enable it to conceive an idea and give it form in a work of art.” (John Paul II, Letter the Artists)

This is not to say that the artist has no part in rendering the work; that his particular frame of reference, his beliefs, his morality, his paradigmatic assumptions, his ideological convictions, and his carefully honed skills are irrelevant. Although the muse, or the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is an absolute necessity to the artist, art must also be deeply personal, honest and intimate. Both the inspiring Spirit and the artist must be open to one another, so that the art can become a revelation of both the human and the divine.

Works that seek only to express lofty or divine thoughts, without joining these thoughts to the authentic personality of the artist, may be superficially beautiful, but they are essentially sterile. This is the realm of those pristine and unapproachable Madonnas whose very beauty cannot be anything, to an honest man, except despair. Such a Madonna expresses not so much a Christian sentiment, an image of the Holy Virgin who was also the earthly matrix of God made man, but a pagan one: it is the image of Diana, cold and aloof, who is so terrible that she cannot be glimpsed in her nakedness without bringing death to the one who gazes. The sublime cannot be touched or approached in itself — not by the human soul in this world, in this condition. To look on it is either to look on an empty effigy, or to look on death.

More often, though, artists who shy away from an honest self-revelation do not end up with the unbearably sublime, but with the tawdry and pathetic. By trying to make a “pure” art, artists, whether Christian, or Socialist Realist, or Modernist, chain themselves to a frigid muse. This is what John Fowles is attempting to show in The Ivory Tower; the artist who longs for union with the spiritual power of art, but who is too afraid of transgressing his own inflated opinions of himself and of his convictions, is ultimately unable to consummate his relationship with the muse. This is the difficulty with so much of what passes for “good,” “wholesome” Christian art; the human heart, in all of its terrible breadth and depth, is made shallow in order to avoid offending the the whitewashed sephulchres. Oscar Wilde once wrote that “The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban, seeing his own face in a glass.” The same thing might reasonably be said of many Christian audiences today.

Only through a human relationship, through the “Word made Flesh,” can true communion begin. “How else,” asks Wilde, “but through a broken heart/May Lord Christ enter in?”

This is where the “second beauty” enters into the equation.

The artist, if he is sincere in his art, inevitably finds himself confronted with the Ideal of Sodom, for the spirit that inspires his work is the same spirit that comes to men when they kneel in the confessional and make an honest examination of their consciences. It is a spirit that sheds light, that reveals not only the nobility and aspirations of humanity, but also our sins. As John Paul II observed, “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.” (Letter to Artists)

It is for this reason that so many artists live in a sort of conflict with their muses. Blok writes, “Are you evil or good? You are altogether from another world/They say strange things about you/For some you are the Muse and a miracle./For me you are torment and hell”; Baudelaire, “Did you fall from high heaven or surge from the abyss,/O Beauty?”; Boethius’ Reason refers to the Muses of Poesie as “play-acting wantons” and “sirens, whose sweetness lastest not”; and Rimbaud says ““One evening, I sat Beauty in my lap. — And I found her bitter. — And I cursed her.” While the audience finds the reflection of their humanity in the experience of the artist, and finds it painful; the artist finds his own humanity in the light of the muse, and finds it a worldy foretaste of the pangs of purgatory.

The artist is called upon to be honest. To stand up before the world and admit that his heart sees the beauty in Sodom. In doing so, he takes a genuine risk. Wilde, for example, in the Picture of Dorian Grey portrays Basil Hallward as terrified of publicly displaying his potrait of Dorian for fear that it will reveal too much of himself; one does not need to exercise a great deal of imagination to conclude that Wilde was expressing his own fear that the novel would reveal his homoeroticism to the world. (Which, arguably, it did.) There is a long-standing tradition of condemning artists for this sort of honesty; of rejecting their art as “depraved” or “scandalous” or “immoral” — or, in the modern secular arena, as “politically incorrect” or “culturally insensitive.”

In truth, art is only scandalous when, like the works of the Marquis de Sade, or most of what is offered on modern television, it presents the Ideal of Sodom without reference to any higher ideal; as though the second beauty were beauty itself. The result of such works is the refinement of perversion, for it takes Keat’s dictum that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” and attempts to portray the untrue as true by making it appear beautiful. Such works often betray an evil inspiration; an unholy muse that does not whisper from heaven, but insinuates itself into the heart from hell.

Art, on the other hand, that explores the second beauty in the context of a higher moral order, is not scandalous; it is true. It looks into the darkness of the human heart for much the same reason that David writes psalms inspired by his adultery with Bathsheba, and that the author of holy Scripture felt fit to include the episode where Noah is drunkenly seduced by his own daughters. It looks because the artist is “given to sense more keenly than others the harmony of the world and all the beauty and savagery of man’s contribution to it—and to communicate this poignantly to people. And even in the midst of failure and down at the lowest depths of existence—in poverty, prison, illness—the sensation of a stable harmony will never leave him.” (Sozhenytsin)

The artist who does not find in himself the image of the prostitute and the tax collector has sentenced himself to a prison cell in the Ivory Tower. He cannot transmit the truth about the human condition, including the truth about human redemption, to others because he is not willing to look his own sinfulness in the face. He may be able to evoke, in the hearts of others, a severe judgement on evil; he might be able to convict the mighty of their crimes; but he will not bring the sinner to a sense of God’s mercy, because he will reveal, in every one of his words, that he does not understand.

Flannery O’Connor wrote that “there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism.” It is this realism, not the sentimental pander of sugary piety, that draws souls to God. The homosexual who sees himself portrayed, in film, as a decadent coward will turn away in disgust and anger; not because he recognizes himself, but because he does not recognize himself. The abusive man who finds himself revealed in literature as a neurotic brute, devoid of conscience, will never be moved to repentance; he will simply feel that he has been stereotyped and judged unjustly. The drug addict who flicks past a Christian television show where he is shown to be a weak, helpless, disoriented kid who is desperately in need of a patronizing, maternalistic pep-talk about the love of Jesus will quickly spin on; the makers of the show clearly don’t understand that LSD isn’t about filling your father-wound, it’s about expanding your mind.

On the other hand, when an intellectually proud and casuistic atheist reads The Brother’s Karamazov, she does not feel that Ivan Karamazov is a parody of herself. On the contrary, the terrible beauty of Ivan’s philosophy is evoked in all of its power, and she sees it, for the first time, for the morbidly seductive lie that it is. She sees, at the same time, that although Alyosha’s answer is philosophically unsatisfying, that Ivan is wrong, and Alyosha is right. When a pious, self-satisfied Christian reads Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” he does not feel that O’Connor is a shallow and infantile atheist who has been paid off by Culture of Death gurus to mindlessly smear Christianity; instead, he recognizes in Ruby Turpin an image of his own callow judgements and Pharisaical narrow-mindedness.

The difference is honesty. Dostoevsky can show how the second beauty is working in the mind of an atheist, or a murderer, because he has mined his own pride, his own doubts about the existence of God and the value of human life. O’Connor can present self-righteousness as both an appealing, and a genuinely ugly vice because she has seen it in her own soul. Wilde can convince us that Dorian Grey’s aesthetic temptations are both alluring and destructive because he has wrestled with them himself. Leonard Cohen can show precisely how tragic it is to be “wrecked a thousand kisses deep” because he has been there. Theirs is not a judgement coming down from some lofty pinnacle, but a cry from out of the depths, seeking the mercy of God.

This does not mean that everyone who has seen the ideal of Sodom, everyone who has explored the limits of their private Babylon, will make good art about it. “It isn’t enough,” as Ginsberg once quipped, “for your heart to break because everybody’s heart is broken now.” The artist who is a convert to Christianity must especially be careful, because there is a sort of distancing that naturally occurs: a desire either to trivialize or exaggerate our own sins, to make a straw-man of the past in order that old temptations may be put lightly to the flames. If speaking the truth is not painful, it is almost certainly not true.

For the song of redemption is sung out of the heart of Babylon: It is here that God and the Devil are fighting. And the battlefield is the heart of man.

Picture credit: “Fyodor Mikahailovich Dostoyevsky 1880” by Unknown – Letters to Family and Friends, Chatto and Windus 1914. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

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