October 4th, 2012Blinded by Beauty?by Joseph Pearce

The ever lucid Stratford Caldecott has written a superb review of a new book on the importance of beauty. Here it is:
Beauty Won’t Save the World Alone; Not Without Truth and Goodness

by Stratford Caldecott


The title of Gregory Wolfe’s excellent collection of essays, Beauty Will Save the World, is based on a much-quoted line from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. In its context it appears only in indirect speech, being attributed by one of the other characters to the “Idiot” of the title, Prince Myshkin. Thus in its original context its meaning is ambiguous, or at least ill-defined. That makes it doubly appropriate for Greg’s title, since he is arguing against the “ideologues” of today’s culture wars in favour of a literary and imaginative approach to the truth. Conservatives have succumbed to philistinism, and fail to appreciate modern art, he argues. Great literature, and art in general, explores the world—and today that means the modern world—from the inside. It is not preachy or moralistic; as a result, conservatives of a Puritan or pragmatic bent often find it unedifying, or even profane. But it is legitimate, Greg believes, for art to shock, to revolt against established conventions, to make explicit what others may hesitate to look upon. In many cases this may be the only way for the artist to discover a “redemptive path toward order.”

A particular target of the book seems to be those conservatives who can see nothing good coming out of modernity except the Inklings. I suspect Greg numbers me among them, although in reality my tastes are much broader than the things I tend to write about. But it is the case that my interest is less in literature and the arts, important though these are in posing the right questions and exploring the ambiguities of our time, than in philosophy and theology, where we legitimately search for answers to those very questions. This is not the same as seeking an ideology, though of course a theology can be rendered ideological easily enough. Theology at its most authentic is not a fortress of ideas, but more like a path across a landscape, a route map, or a system of signposts. It is intrinsically mystical, it is of the spirit not the letter.

Greg has developed a strong aversion to the kind of conservatism that rejects the modern world and gives up on modern culture, pretending to saw off the branch on which it sits. The importance of “Beauty” is that she is the only one of the ancient “transcendentals” that still speaks to us through modern culture. She is our way back to the vision of the whole, to a meaningful universe. But she has become separated from her sisters, Truth and Goodness, and thus relativized and subjectivized. Lacking a sense of transcendent Truth and Goodness, our culture is easily dominated by purely political and economic forces—power and money are the new transcendentals. He has a good account of how this happened, beginning with the Nominalists. But through it all, Beauty remains eloquent, calling us back to an awareness of Being and therefore of the reality our ideologies have squeezed out of the picture. The artist is the one who keeps us hearing this call to meaning, which is the breath of life.

The artist awakens the question of meaning, and takes us to the threshold of understanding. He speaks to the imagination, which is far more important than the rationalist in us admits. Imagination is our faculty for comparing and connecting the various parts of the world to make some kind of whole, a narrative in which we have a part to play, or an icon of the self we have lost. The imagination, Greg says, “works through empathy.” It is by empathy that the artist passes over from his or her own experience to that of another, and through that transcendence of self attains a glimpse of common or universal humanity beyond the reach of solipsistic individualism.

This is all very well, but will Beauty, will the imagination, “save the world?” I doubt it very much. Beauty may prepare the world to be saved; it may crack the walls of our prison. But to pass through that crack we need something more. To step out of the cave and into the light we need the will to do so, and that can only be engaged if Beauty is reconnected with Truth and Goodness. The arts and literature are preparatory, even essential, to the life of the spirit, but some more radical engagement with the world is necessary, and that is found in spirituality, in the interior life, in mysticism, in metaphysical intuition. That is not to say we must all become intellectuals, because the word now refers to a kind of book-learning and cleverness that is very far from what I have in mind. We must become more open to a light that we only half remember, which comes from a horizon beyond the achievements of human culture however noble, and which answers the cries of the human spirit to which the artist gives a voice.

I see this as one possible meaning of another work by Dostoevsky, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. In this short story, a man intending to commit suicide dreams of an unfallen world of human beings living in peace with each other, with nature, and with God. But he also dreams of how he introduces sin and corruption into this world, until it becomes as bad as his own world, so that in a desperate desire to atone and heal he teaches them to make a cross and implores them to crucify him.

Awake again, his love of life is restored. “For I have seen the truth,” he writes:

I have seen and I know that people can be beautiful and happy without losing the power of living on earth. I will not and cannot believe that evil is the normal condition of mankind. And it is just this faith of mine that they laugh at. But how can I help believing it? I have seen the truth—it is not as though I had invented it with my mind, I have seen it, seen it, and the living image of it has filled my soul for ever.

Here we see the role of the imagination, of the arts, which is ultimately to show us an image that our soul will recognize as true. But then we must act, we must become apostles, we must become “ridiculous.”

The chief thing is to love others like yourself, that’s the chief thing, and that’s everything; nothing else is wanted—you will find out at once how to arrange it all. And yet it’s an old truth which has been told and retold a billion times—but it has not formed part of our lives! The consciousness of life is higher than life, the knowledge of the laws of happiness is higher than happiness—that is what one must contend against. And I shall. If only everyone wants it, it can be arranged at once.








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  • October 4 2012 | by J. Lance

    Book review aside, I'd like to comment on something, I've got a problem with Wolfe's thesis.
    Why is it that anyone who objects to modern art, either as profane or pathetic (which, let's be honest, a good portion of it is), is either a "Puritan" or "pragmatist" or indulges in "philistinism"? How tired I am of these tired arguments. None of this is new, this argument has been made before, starting out from the same stupid premise, and not just in the art world. Politics, theology, philosophy, etc, all using the same argument. "Conservatives" just won't see the 'goodness' of or in some thing of modernism.

    That aside, let me come at this from the art perspective. I'm no sheltered man, I've indulged in modern "art" of all categories for most of my life. To come up with the answer that conservatives are missing something is a sad commentary in itself. Is there some good out there, sure. Is there a ton of bad, more than men like Wolfe would like to admit. The idea that art should shock or be ambiguous or rail against established conventions started out as a modernist attack on traditional art, remember the guy who took a urinal and called it art? Yeah that is where this legacy began. Rather than going into a long philosophical discussion of why that movement was wrong (not to mention idiotic, obscene and pointless), let me just give you some examples of it's legacy, and you can scratch your head wondering why Wolfe and other well meaning men would see good in it.
    -P### Christ: Splendid example of modern "art", where the "artist" lovingly dropped a crucifix of our blessed Lord into a vat of his own urine.
    -"Can of Sh##": Literally a tin can full of the "artists" excrement. As they say, 'nuff said.
    -The Stairway to nowhere: Not sure of the full title, but it is a set of stairways that lead to nowhere, the "artists" depiction of the meaning of life.
    -"The Book of Mormon": broadway theater show mocking and denigrating the mormon faith in new levels of low, incredibly foul and obscene musical...which earned heaps of praise from critics.
    -Independent films which love pushing the envelope, like "Short Bus", a film which won high praise from critics (like mainstream critic Roger Ebert), filled with explicit, real life unsimulated sex scenes, masturbation, sodomy and massive orgies included. I got to see that one on campus!
    -Or how about regular mainstream films, literally loaded with gratuitous sex, violence/gore, profanity, and I'm not kidding, gratuitous really is the word to use. I don't really think I need to point this out actually, I'm sure we have all seen it, but just let me give you an example, the other day I was watching a film, filled literally to the brim with foul speech, they must have said the so called "f" word over a hundred times, yes you read that right, and that movie was in no way a rare example of this modern obsession with obscenity.
    -How about novels, I don't think I need to point this out either. Let me just give you two popular series, the sexual sadist romp that is "Shades of Grey", and the "fantasy" series "Song of Ice and Fire" (Game of Thrones). The first, as I said is an exercise in fantasy sadist porn, the second is a sad example of today's fantasy (Tolkien) field. A foul, vastly dark and cynical take on fantasy, where the only good men are bad ones, who kill, torture and rape their way to power, the only truth is power, and those who are too foolish to know it, die. This fantasy series has ignited the field with copy cats, all of whom take the same, nasty, gritty, nihilism and apply it to all of there stoires. No wonder why some opine for a Tolkien.
    -Some would not consider video games art, but many in the industry do, and without naming any of them, let me just say even the good video games thrive off the kind of "torture porn" violence that is decried in films. Even the good games suffer from this, a kind of cult has grown around the "M" (mature) rating, and most big games that come out are refashioned to fit that rating; i.e. filled up with pointless gore, sexual elements, and profanities. It's sad to see them go this route, but it's almost a given now a days. Even the non "M" rated series have to step it up; the next Star Wars game coming out will be an "m" rated title, yes a STAR WARS game! Sheesh. The lust for the vulgar is strong in the gaming world, sadly.
    These are just a few examples of modern "art" in all it's forms. Are they extreme, yeah, but are they the exception to the rule? Certainly not. In many cases they have become the rule.
    So please guys, don't dump all over us conservatives who blast modernisms (including art) and opine for better days and better things. It's not because we are puritans, prudes, philistines, or even pragmatists. Take a look around you, perversion, obscenity, nihilism, relatavism, etc is celebrated all around us, especially in the arts. We are not anti-art, not even in the slightest. We are just sick of the trash. And the warped principles that lead us down that road. I too love beauty, and that is why I so disdain modern art.

    For a good taste of what I mean, please, please check out this documentary by the great Roger Scruton. It too is about beauty! Why it matters and how/why it is lacking in modern art. Here is the link, the entire thing is about an hour, well worth your time.
  • November 15 2014 | by ozone layer

    The title of Gregory Wolfe’s excellent collection of essays, Beauty Will Save the World, is based on a much-quoted line from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. In its context it appears only in indirect speech, being attributed by one of the other characters to the “Idiot” of the title, Prince Myshkin. Thus in its original context its meaning is ambiguous, or at least ill-defined. That makes it doubly appropriate for Greg’s title, since he is arguing against the “ideologues” of today’s culture wars in favour of a literary and imaginative approach to the truth.