Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant

Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant September 3, 2012

I received a comped reviewer’s copy of Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

I enjoyed reading Gregory Wolfe’s Beauty Will Save the World, but I’m not sure that it’s a book best read straight through, as I did.  The second best way to read it probably reading the first section, in which Wolfe lays out his thesis, and then dipping in and out of his profiles of writers and artists over a few months, with frequent breaks to read some of the works he’s discussing.  The best way to enjoy the book is probably not to read it at all, but to have Wolfe over for a dinner party and then stay up until dawn talking.

There’s enough material for several dinner parties, in fact, so let me just jump into a passage about the intellectual history of knowledge:

To the ancients, reason found its highest expression in the contemplation of being — the order of the cosmos.  One of Kirk’s intellectual heroes, Josef Pieper, described the medieval understanding of human thought.  According to the scholastics  Pieper writes, the ratio, or discursive, logical faculty is paralleled by the intellectus, the intuitive perception of reality.  “The mode of discursive thought is accompanied and impregnated by an effortless awareness, the contemplative vision of the intellectus, which is not active but passive, or rather receptive, the activity of the soul in which it conceives that which it sees” (Leisure: The Basis of Culture).

But the advent of modernity caused a shift in the understanding of human thought.  The nominalists, and later, Descartes, denied the reality of the intellectus and elevated the ratio to preeminent status.  The moderns began in doubt, or skepticism, to use Lilla’s word, about reality, and proceed to treat reason (ratio) itself as the ground of being.  Instead of Man the Knower, we have Man the Thinker.

The modern concept of reason is, at root, ideological.  Reason, instead of the faculty by which we achieve connatural knowledge of reality, becomes the means by which we construct systems that are imposed on reality.

I was pretty interested in this active/constructive vs passive/receptive dichotomy, since I’ve come to think of science as much more in the intellectus mode since I’ve gotten into reading Less Wrong (what’s true is what’s there to be interacted with, etc).  I think of exercising my reason as the discipline of paring away biases and sharpening my senses so I can be more receptive to the reality of the world that surrounds me.  (I could add that developing my character is paring away sinful indifference so I can be more receptive to the beatific vision).  Attaching a sense of ownership to your ideas and insights is common, but likely to lead you astray.

Wolfe’s book put me in mind of another modes-of-thinking dichotomy.  Science is sometimes defined in opposition to art as the field where no one is indispensible.  Shoot Einstein, and sooner or later, someone will come up with relativity, because it’s embedded in the world, waiting to be interacted with.  Shoot Hawthorne, and no one will write The Scarlet Letter (or, much later, film Easy A).  Reading Wolfe’s book throws some of those assumptions into doubt.

Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting

Art has the power to move us because it touches on some external truth.  To put it in math analogy terms, if Truth is an n-dimensional object, art shows us projections of Truth into lower-than-n dimensional spaces, and give us flashes of the larger structure.  To stick with the more traditional parable, artists are like the blind men examining the elephant.  Lose Hawthorne, and you’ve lost the particular quirk or genius that informed his snapshot of the whole, so your model may become less rich or detailed, but other artists may end up filling the gaps in some unexpected way.

At first, this may sound like it lowers the status of artists.  None of them are necessary, and they can only show us one thing, albeit from different angles.  But I find this reframing invigorating.  Artists aren’t simple creators who might go anywhere (to Baker Street or to Baghdad); they are explorers and pioneers.  They are called to give us more to see.  Great artists are operating under constraint, but that shouldn’t be seen as a privation; that’s the price of having a telos.

Wolfe’s book is meditative and inviting, but it’s also a call to arms.  He is writing against the conservative pessimism that writes the culture off as lost so that it has an excuse to cut itself off from the world.  But if artists are drawing out attention to what is real (or creeping up on it sideways), speaking to a weird culture is only like learning an unfamiliar language.  The truth is still there, and it has some way of being expressed, it only remains to discover how.

Our vision can even be expanded by artists moving along the via negativa.  In the Sondheim discussion, I found that the grotesque love story in Passion drew our attention to its insufficiency and ultimately deepened our understanding of the ideal.  If you want to go a little more Canon, Flannery O’Connor is your gal.  And quite recently, I found Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods to be powerfully affecting because the nihilism of the film made  me intermittently queasy for several days after seeing the show.

I once took a very satisfying computer science class from a professor who opened class by saying “There’s no point in learning a new programming language if it doesn’t change the way you think.”  A great artist uses and subverts our native tongue and culture to teach us a new way to think, so we can express a thought our old system was not large enough to contain.  Further up and further in!

Vermeer’s The Allegory of Painting

P.S. I picked Hawthorne to be shot in the analogy, because Wolfe highlights a passage from The Scarlet Letter that I missed when I read it (I was distracted by my Monty Python-induced tendency to always read ‘Dimmesdale’ as ‘DIMMESDALE!), and I wanted an excuse to share the quote:

[A]s demonic and cold as Chillingsworh may be, at the moment he discovers the scarlet letter on the chest of the sleeping Dimmesdale. the narrator says that “what distinguished the physicians ecstasy from Satan’s was the trait of wonder in it.”  It is that human trait of wonder that enables Hawthorne to hint at Chillingsworth’s possible redemption.

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  • Do you know what would go well with this post? Holbein’s “The Ambassadors”. Or is that too obvious?

  • Alex Godofsky

    I once took a very satisfying computer science class from a professor who opened class by saying “There’s no point in learning a new programming language if it doesn’t change the way you think.”

    That is so typical of CS professors (but not of people who actually program for their livelihood).

    • Ted Seeber

      2nded. My purpose in learning a new language is primarily to learn to program for a new operating system. I’m to the point that I’m well familiar with the eight primary syntaxes and so learning a new language for me is all about the API object model.

  • It is interesting. But not all artists are equally insightful. The closer they are to God’s heart the better their art will be. That is why there is so much great religious art. Lord of the Rings comes to mind. But it is not that simple. IMHO, Spiderman has more insight into Jesus than a Billy Graham movie. The man who is more than a man and can save the world from evil except he has to be willing to risk his life but he loves the world too much not to. That has a ton more truth than someone accepting Jesus and his problems go away.

    At the same time I think a culture can get lost. We can have art that lacks the insight art should have. We tend to know it is bad art. We don’t know why we can’t produce the masterpieces other cultures did. We just know there is something wrong. The spiritual tide of the culture goes up and down. All the artists seem like they are raised or lowered by how holy their surroundings are.

  • Lose Hawthorne, and you’ve lost the particular quirk or genius that informed his snapshot of the whole, so your model may become less rich or detailed, but other artists may end up filling the gaps in some unexpected way.

    True. One of the more obnoxious terms to have become fashionable is “must-read”. I’ve not sure I’ve ever read a work described as “must-read” and never fear suffering baneful consequences for shirking this supposed obligation. I suspect the term was invented by critics who wanted to validate their place in the universe by acting as if they perform a necessary function.

  • Joe

    I fell in love with my wife, in part, because her tattoos reminded me of O’Conners short story “Parker’s Back”.

    • Emily

      that’s wonderful.

  • Beauty will save the world. What a great title.

    For a sampling of artists frustrated with the nonsense and meaninglessness of modern art, take a good hard look at ARC. Reading their statement of principles is pretty exciting.

    What a great age we live in!

  • Emily

    Sounds interesting to read the second best way! Do you think that you can have great art that is also fundamentally wrong in major ways as influenced by its cultural context, though? Like, can there be “great art” for X Group in Year Y, because the artist shares the same confusion or wrong belief as the people who appreciate the art? Or do you think great art has to be universally appreciable…in which case, how do we explain taste as a cultural sorting system – i.e. the fact that it is *not*? Or what would/does the author say?

    I think the relationship between learned ability to appreciate art and innate ability to recognize truth in it is not obvious, but that makes it interesting to me….

    And on another note – please don’t start capitalizing truth! First off, it’s lazy writing, and therefore not terribly useful – when people write “Truth” to distinguish a certain kind of truth from “truth,” it makes a distinction, but that distinction is much, much less clear than if they were to use adjectives, or even full sentences to describe it. Second, since it’s not a universal usage but pretty much just one that pops up in apologetics, to me it sounds affected and tribalistic. That’s because it reads as though it marks the speaker as one who has access to Truth, whereas others who are on less enlightened paths only manage to seek truth. That is probably not something you want to do if you’re trying to discuss reason as a human faculty.

    Yes, it’s a personal pet peeve, and I apologize for jumping on something small out of such a substantive post. But I do think it’s a spelling that might turn off other people in your audience, if anyone else has reflexive reactions like mine, and can be easily avoided with a more descriptive phrase.

    • Skittle

      Would it be less likely to turn you off if someone, instead of writing “Truth” every time that is what they mean, wrote “Truth himself (who is a person, who is God)”? All truth-seekers seek “Truth”. “Truth himself speaks truly, or there’s nothing true.”

      Having said that, I’d personally use the capital in that maths context anyway, which may be what Leah intended. Let Sphere S have a radius r…

      • Skittle

        (I wish I could edit my comment). Truth-seekers in any religion would not say that they are seeking “the truth” in the way that “I didn’t do my homework because I wanted to spend the evening playing games” is the truth. They are seeking something more profound than we often mean by “the truth”, and I think it is reasonable to use a capital letter to distinguish this meaning.

        “I like cake” – “the truth”
        “The meaning of existence” – “the Truth”

        • Emily

          I don’t agree. I think the better and more conventional phrasing would be to say “seeking truth” rather than “seeking the truth,” as the second implies “about something,” whereas the first implies something independently real and not necessarily limited to a particular situation. Capitalization, because it is a non-standard usage and spelling that is not used in all religious traditions (including Christian traditions, which basically agree on the Truth-as-person question), seems to distinguish between those who say they seek truth in their religion/reason, and those who say they seek Truth (which is obviously way better – oh wait, no, it’s just marked as something the writer thinks is way better in an undefined way).

          • Skittle

            I’m happy for us to disagree on this, but I think it can be a useful distinction. Did Jesus use red wine or white wine? Perhaps a matter of truth, on which a religion might claim to have an answer, but I don’t think any religions claim that it is a matter of Truth. If they did, we would understand that they considered it a matter of some deeper significance. Was Jesus God incarnate? A matter of Truth, for most religions that have an opinion on it.

            But you’re probably right that a blog with a mixed readership, and new readers, should probably define what is meant when they use such terms.

        • Ted Seeber

          Subjective truth should always be a subset of Objective truth, which in turn should be a subset of Universal Truth.

      • Emily

        Sure, that would be more descriptive (at least the first time it was used in a given post/comment). It’s not obvious to an unfamiliar reader that capitalization is to make it a proper noun referring to a person, and stating that outright is clarifying.

    • Adam G.

      Yes and no.

      All great art is incarnation. It pours something universal into the stuff of a particular age and place and even of the artist’s own experience.

  • As the author of the book, I second the reviewer’s prescription for how to read it. If I could have had a sticker placed on every volume saying “This is a dipping book. Nibble a random piece before bedtime,” I would have. Good on you for powering straight through.