February 5, 2016
"Beauty will save the world." - Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot
A striking literary maxim can confound us because it is both horribly wrong and wonderfully right. "Beauty will save the world." Oh yes (sarcasm), Renoir's Girl with a Watering Can will stay the machete of a thick-bearded Muslim extremist, and Brahms' Requiem will blunt the needles of heroin addicts: horribly wrong. But salvific beauty does not have to stay machetes. It can be subtle, cracking the shell of the commonplace that surrounds the human soul and flooding it with light. And if Renoir and Brahms can do that much, if Rilke's rhymes can make a hairline fracture and Rodin's Eve a pinhole, perhaps that is all we need: so, wonderfully right. And in tracing the theological roots of Dostoyevsky's maxim, I came to find just how profound it is.
Whether or not we are confounded by Dostoyevsky's words depends on how we understand beauty: not as abstracted from particulars, but as embodied in concrete expressions. Abstractions often anesthetize us--they fail wake us from our prosaic daydreams. Only embodied beauty truly rouses somnolent souls, in part because beauty loses its communicative energy as an abstraction; likewise when it is expressed in a platitude. For example, I can say, "Language is beautiful," and that is all well and good, but I doubt you would care. What if, however, I offered you William Carlos Williams?
Love is twain, it is not single,Gold and silver mixed to one,Passion 'tis and pain which mingleGlist'ring then for aye undone.Pain it is not; wondering pityDies or e'er the pang is fled;Passion 'tis not, foul and gritty,Born one instant, instant dead.Love is twain, it is not single,Gold and silver mixed to one,Passion 'tis and pain which mingleGlist'ring then for aye undone
Love is twain--a melancholy medley of pain and passion, never seeming to reconcile them, nor to wholly harmonize grief and gratitude; it lets them mingle and age together like wine in a barrel. Surely, Williams expresses the beauty of language better than an axiom, just as Whistler's Sea and Rain expresses the haze of reality far better than a proposition ever could. Beauty needs shape, texture, color, sound. It needs bones and flesh if it is to live among us.
But if beauty lives among us, if it has a life of its own, then we cannot possess it as we might an abstraction or pithy proposition. We cannot take it; we can only be taken by it. While propositions can be pocketed, beauty must be pursued--not so much because we want to, but because some visceral impetus propels us to. The raw power of beauty is not in enticement, but in attractive requisition: we seek what we think we want, but come to find, to our joy and amazement, that it is actually what we need, that without it life loses its salt and light.
These "necessary" beauties are all around us--in the oil rainbow of a puddle; in the listing and rusted stop sign whose tired imperative still holds, car after car; in the paint-peeling split-rail fence that sags over the hair of an unkempt field; and, of course, in myriad works of art throughout human history: Whitman and Whistler, Renoir and Rilke, Tchaikovsky and Chesterton. Works of such people are the flowers of beauty. But after reading Dostoyevsky's words, I was curious about the root. "Where does all of this embodied beauty come from? And what is the point?" There seems to be a theological answer to these questions, and it all goes back to the original embodiment of beauty: just as truth is not something, but someone (John 14:6), so beauty is not a principle, but a person. The Word of the Father, the second person of the Trinity, is the source of all embodied beauty.
Dorothy Sayers poetically expounded on this decades ago in The Mind of the Maker. There she argues that human creators, i.e., artists, work with ideas, energy, and power. These are rooted respectively in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Her basic proposal was that an idea, which is inherent in all acts of creation, is actualized or embodied only by its energy, its external manifestation in time and space. This energy then produces effects on both the artist and the audience (power)..
Now, put Sayers' work in the context of the first verse in John's Gospel: in the beginning was the Word the Father spoke and Spirit heard. God utters himself, and then uses his voice (the Word) to bring all of reality into concrete manifestation. The hemlock and the herring, the soapstone and the sparrow, the river and the wren. Every shape, texture, color, and sound is an echo of that holy speech. So, where does beauty come from? It comes from the embodied thought of God (the Word), and, derivatively, from the embodied thoughts of artists, who are indelibly marked with his image. The embodied beauty we find around us is ultimately the result and echo of a conversation God has eternally held with himself. That addresses the question of origin, what about the purpose? In other words, where is beauty leading us?
If the origin of embodied beauty, the Word, led to the world, then it should be little surprise that the world leads back to the Word. The work of history's Renoirs and Whistlers can all be traced to that original, eternal speech: their expressive acts draw us into the hunt for enrapturing joy that traces back to the Trinity. Bach's Cello Suites beckon the ear to the divine vibrations that settled the seas. The breaking light in El Greco's View of Toledo evokes the splintering of darkness from God's "Let there be." And Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Valley Curtain, flapping in a gale between two Colorado mountain slopes, whispers of the whipping wind over the primal waters. Sound, light, dynamism--all of it echoes the embodied Word, the resonance, radiance, and regency of the Father, in the unparalleled power of the Spirit.
What's more, Christo and Jeanne-Claude's orange curtain began to fall after some twenty-eight hours. The breath of God cannot be restrained so long by nylon. There is a wildness to God's verbal embodiment. And that is why all of the embodied beauty around us echoes a holy conversation that we cannot grasp, but neither can we cease trying to. The hunt for enrapturing and embodied joy will never end with particulars. It will end only with a person, who himself has no end!
Little wonder, then, that the pulsing life of the Godhead came wrapped in sinew and skin, with his own shape and texture--a carpenter's wood-scraped hands, a bristling beard, toes tinged with the dirt of Galilee: a beautiful mess of a person. And the evangelist called this person the Word--God's embodied speech.
All of reality, then, has echoes of a person who was spoken. The world is linguistic at heart. You can step out your door to gather evidence if you like. Fields of grass and congregations of leaves hiss with sibilance. The trilling of the crickets, the spirants of the honey bees, plosives of thunder--the whole earth brims with sound, everything a word leading back to the Word.
And therein lies the purpose of beauty. Beauty in all of its embodied forms is always a mark of relationship; it either represents or draws out communion, which, you might have guessed, also has its roots in the Trinity. Consider this from an artist's perspective. What more could Whistler have hoped for but a gathering of eyes around his nocturne of the Old Battersea Bridge? Michelangelo, no doubt, would be doubled over with joy to see the crowds of San Pietro walking back and forth in front of his marble-carved Moses. And Rodin's Cathedral--two hands subtly rising towards union, shaping a chapel for human contact: beauty is about communion, and every artist knows it.
But beauty is not just about communion. It is, as Williams wrote of love, a mingling of passion and pain, a reflection of discord as well as human rapport. Such was the case, also, for the embodied Word himself. The one who was spoken from eternity to bring union and communion to discord and division was not immune to the dissidence and partitions of humanity. In fact, the embodied Word was debased of all dignity.
It was in his body that he experienced the pain-wracked Passion of the crucifixion. And it is here, in the suffering of the embodied Word, that we encounter a beauty so deep and disturbing that we truly have no choice but to follow after it. R. S. Thomas captured this when reflecting on a recital he attended by the celebrated violinist Fritz Kriesler.
A memory of Kreisler once:
At some recital in this same city,The seats all taken, I found myself pushedOn to the stage with a few others,So near that I could see the toilOf his face muscles, a pulse like a mothFluttering under the fine skinAnd the indelible veins of his smooth brow.I could see, too, the twitching of the fingers,Caught temporarily in art's neurosis,As we sat there or warmly applaudedThis player who so beautifully sufferedFor each of us upon his instrument.So it must have been on CalvaryIn the fiercer light of the thorns' halo:The men standing by and that one figure,The hands bleeding, the mind bruised but calm,Making such music as lives still.And no one daring to interruptBecause it was himself that he playedAnd closer than all of them the God listened
The embodied Word played a melody so moving that only the Father and Spirit could bear its sound to the end. That melody was written for history's hearing, its beauty so enrapturing that every person will either follow it to the source of communion (John 12:19), bent upon the sonority of his life, or diminish in death and darkness.
And if the embodied Word, in the beauty of his passion and pain, is the door of communion, then art and creaturely beauty can take part in it, drawing an audience together from the darkness of isolation for the sake of communion--lasting communion. That much was necessary for restoration. The brush and the bow can stroke canvas and string with purpose only if the whip and the nail broke the skin of the Word. Without the possibility of communion with God through the Word, there is no embodied beauty, at least, none that is meaningful, for it all would end in isolation. Without the hope of communion, we would have syllables without speech, paint without pictures, noise without notes, stone without shape. With communion lost, beauty would be embodied for nothing, and there would be no lasting difference between the fleeting gathering of souls and the ultimate darkness of isolation and disembodiment. We have temporal beauty in part all around us only because we have eternal beauty promised in a person.
And if we ignore this, we significantly misunderstand and undervalue the work of artists today, for the heart of beauty is not only in the creative enterprise itself; it is, following Sayers, in the effect of that enterprise--its power, which, in the case of art, is the drawing together of minds and souls. Say what you will about the independence of the artist, but the truth is that no artist wants to breed isolation. Theirs has been and always will be a purposive craft: they create to commune. And that this is even possible is a testament to a more lasting communion that undergirds and extends beyond all of embodied reality. The salvific power of beauty lies in eternity, not in time. And yet, for beauty to affect the human heart, it needs bones and flesh. It needs a thudding heart; and it has one, still beating in the Word who has no end. The door to lasting communion, through this Word, remains cracked, lighting the contours of reality. And until that door is shut, the world's beauty will go on, refracting in time the communing light of eternity. It is only communion that will pump lifeblood through the arteries of the soul. Only fellowship resuscitates. Only the beauty of eternity can mend the beauty of time.
In this sense, the origin, purpose, and power of beauty goes all the way back to the embodied Word of the Father. If we understand beauty that deeply, then Dostoyevsky has indeed given us something profound to think about. "Will beauty really save the world?" Were Dostoyevsky alive and asked me that question now, my response would be joyously simple: "My Russian friend, I believe he already did."
Pierce Taylor Hibbs currently serves as the Associate Director for Theological Curriculum and Instruction at the Theological English Department of Westminster Theological Seminary. He has written several articles on the nature of language and the linguistic theory of Kenneth L. Pike. He, his wife, and their two children reside in Quakertown, PA