The Beautiful and the Very Beautiful

In the course of arguing in favor of the belief that God created the universe ex nihilo, the third century church father St. Methodius of Olympus asserts that “we must say that it is in the nature of things for arts to be produced in men out of what has no existence.” While the intent of Methodius’s treatise is not to discuss the nature of art nor of human creativity more generally, the assumption underlying his argument is nonetheless a worthy starting place for a discussion of these subjects within a Christian paradigm. Methodius is arguing, in short, that just as human beings create works of art, seemingly, from nothing, so did God create the world from nothing. If man is capable of such a thing, Methodius asks his opponents, then is not God as well capable and to an even greater degree? From this can readily be extrapolated the underlying assumption that this creativity inherent in human nature is an aspect of the likeness of man to God. One can argue from human creativity to divine creativity precisely because human creativity is derived from and is, in a manner of speaking, an imitation of divine creativity. Furthermore, it is in the application of this creative faculty that the difference between the artist, strictly speaking, and the artisan—or, to use terminology of a more recent innovation, the difference between the fine arts and the arts more generally—is to be discerned.

The Genesis account of the creation of the cosmos and man provides scriptural substantiation for these extrapolations from Methodius’s statement. The opening of the book, of course, proclaims, “In the beginning God created . . .” (Gen 1:1). And this is all that the reader approaching the Bible for the first time knows about God by the end of the first chapter: he creates. He creates “the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1); light (1:3); the firmament (1:6); land (1:9); plants and trees (1:11); the sun, the moon, and the stars (1:16); fish and birds (1:20); land animals (1:24); and, at last, human beings (1:26). He is, in addition, a creator who admires his own work a great deal. As he creates, the reader finds that God stops occasionally to observe and proclaim of what he has created that “it was good” (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, and 25) and, at last, following the creation of man, “very good” (Gen 1:31). It is not too much to imagine God as an artist at work, after each addition putting down his brush for a moment, stepping back from the easel, and commenting in approval at what he has accomplished so far: it is good.

The choice of wording in the Septuagint, the popular Greek translation from the original Hebrew of Genesis used by many early Greek-speaking Christians, Methodius included, is indicative of the general orientation of the passage as a whole. The Septuagint records God’s proclamation that his work is καλόν and, in the final emphatic iteration of Genesis 1:31, καλὰ λίαν. The word καλόν carries with it the meaning of “good,” as is expressed in most English translations and in the original Hebrew, but with the additional meanings of “noble” and, perhaps most importantly for the connotations of this passage, “beautiful.” And, following the creation of man, the creation is very good, very noble and very beautiful.

The reader approaching Genesis for the first time, then, will find that God is a creator and an admirer of what is beautiful. At the apex of his creation is the thing that makes it in the end not only “beautiful” but “very beautiful,” namely, a creature “in our image, after our likeness” (Gen 1:26). The obvious implication is that these beings whom “God created . . . in his own image, / in the image of God he created him; / male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27) must, given that they are indeed like him, also be creators and admirers of the good and the beautiful. Further infused into their nature—and it may be assumed by the reader of this account that this too derives from their likeness to God—is the attribute of rulership. God proclaims just before (Gen 1:26) and just after (Gen 1:28) creating man that they will “have dominion” over the earth and over its sundry other inhabitants.

These two characteristics of man as derived from his likeness to God, his creativity and his dominion, are brought together in the vocation assigned to the first man by God, that of gardner. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it,” says Genesis 2:15. Similarly, the primeval man is called upon by God to exercise both dominion and creativity in his naming of the animals. “Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them,” says Genesis 2:19. “And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” The man, through the exercise of his own creative faculty, adds to and, in a sense, completes the work of God. While “God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens,” it is man who decides “what he would call them.” While it was God who “planted a garden in Eden” (Gen 2:8), it is man who is called upon “to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). And even God waits to “see what” he will do (Gen 2:18). While the cosmos is καλόν—good and beautiful—from the moment of its creation by God, it is only καλὰ λίαν—very good and very beautiful—following the creation of man.

While he does not seem to have had the biblical story of creation in mind in this instance, T. S. Eliot’s comments on the creative activity of the poet in his essay on “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism” serve as a useful commentary on the creativity inherent in man’s nature as it appears in Genesis. Poetry, he says, is able to “make people see the world afresh, or some new part of it. It may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves, and an evasion of the visible and sensible world.”

More true, perhaps, in the postlapsarian world than in the world of the primeval garden, what Eliot draws attention to here is the ability of the poet—and of the artist more generally—to participate in the divine creative activity by constantly renewing and revealing the world. The gardner participates in the creative activity of the divine by assisting in the yearly process of the apparent death and rebirth of nature. The poet does the same by revealing and identifying the world of the subconscious, thereby allowing man to make sense of the world of experience, both inner and outer. The painter reveals and renews the world on his canvass by allowing the mind to focus on the beauty of the singular phenomenon he has taken as his subject. In this “evasion of ourselves” and “of the visible and sensible world” we behave destructively; through the renewal and revelation made possible in and through our artistic faculties, we participate in creation.

In his Critique of Judgement, Immanuel Kant reasons in a similar direction when attempting to define the sublime. According to Kant, “it comes that the sublime is not to be looked for in the things of nature, but only in our own ideas.” There is, after all, he continues, “nothing . . . in nature, no matter how great we may judge it to be, which, regarded in some other relation, may not be degraded to the level of the infinitely little, and nothing so small which in comparison with some still smaller standard may not for our imagination be enlarged to the greatness of the world.”

Man’s imagination so far surpasses nature, then, that it is not in nature itself, but in this activity of man upon the world that one finds the truly sublime. “Sublimity, therefore,” he writes a bit later, “does not reside in any of the things of nature, but only in our own mind, in so far as we may become conscious of our superiority over nature within, and thus also over nature without us (as exerting influence upon us).” And it is the artist who allows us to realize and to exercise our dominion over nature through his creative endeavors. Yet again, we see that creation is  καλόν before man’s creative cooperation with God and dominion over the world, but can only be καλὰ λίαν—to be identified with the sublime—with man’s active, imaginative participation.

What Kant refers to as the sublime, Richard Wagner describes as “Das Wunder,” or wonder, in his Opera and Drama. “The poet,” he writes, “must . . . take the phenomena of Life and compress them from their viewless many-member-edness into a compact, easily surveyable shape.” Each facet of the cosmos is, after all, individually καλόν, but only collectively, only when viewed as a whole, and only when viewed after the introduction of the human element, καλὰ λίαν. The poet or the artist must take up the various individually καλόν elements and bring them into such an intelligible and orderly unity that they become καλὰ λίαν as a complete composite. “In virtue of this Wonder,” says Wagner, “the poet is able to display the most measureless conjunctures in an all-intelligible unity.” Like the primeval gardner, the poet makes sense of the created order by endowing it with a humanly orderliness. “The poetic daring,” he continues, “which gathers Nature’s utterances into such an image, can first for us be crowned with due success, precisely because through Experience we have gained a clear insight into Nature’s essence.”

Wagner is quick to point out, however, that this “insight into Nature’s essence” gained through poetry is not the mere building up of systems of doctrine and dogma. “Now, for the operation of its message, the poetising intellect has absolutely no concern with Faith, but only with an understanding through the Feeling,” he writes. Writing of T. S. Eliot, Russell Kirk offers an assessment of the relationship between Eliot’s poetry and Eliot’s faith that provides illumination for Wagner’s claim. “One does not look to Eliot—or to Dante, or to Shakespeare—for irrefragable demonstration of dogma or for an ingenious philosophical system,” writes Kirk. He concludes, “All that poetry of Eliot’s kind can attain is to express one man’s understanding through emotion.” The poet is able to distill and to crystallize experience and emotion. The poet and the artist do not concoct grand theories to explain phenomena; rather, they are able to bring the shared phenomena of human existence to greater clarity and depth.

W. F. Hegel, in his Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, similarly finds that “the universal need for expression in art lies . . . in man’s rational impulse to exalt the inner and outer world into a spiritual consciousness for himself, as an object in which he recognizes his own self.” It is the task of the artist, then, to take up the material provided by nature, both the nature internal to man and the nature external to man, and to transform this nature into something intelligible by man because it is, in part, a product of man. The first man’s act of naming the animals, for example, allowed him to make these animals into something intelligible to him by creatively endowing them with some piece of himself through the names by which he calls them. He did not, notably, create a system of classification for the animal world as a whole. Rather, he knew them each individually and experientially rather than systematically and theoretically.

This provides a line of demarcation by which the artist may be measured against the artisan, or, for that matter, the scientist. While the artisan and the scientist deal in similar matter, they do so for quite different purposes. It is not the prerogative of the artist to systematically explore and classify the material world, as it is for the scientist, for example; the prerogative of the artist, instead, is to reveal and renew that material world. The job of the scientist, in short, is to explain, while the job of the artist is to appreciate. Each of these methods leads to understanding, though of different sorts.

The artisan is closer to the artist in that he works to shape the materials of the natural world into an aesthetically pleasing shape. What is lacking, however, is the component of creativity. The difference here is like the difference between the first, prelapsarian vocation of the primeval man and the second, given as part of the curse following the Fall. While he was at first a gardner, placed in “Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15), he became a farmer. “Cursed is the ground because of you,” says God to Adam, “in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Gen 3:17–19). While the gardner and the farmer both work in the same material of soil, water, plants, and sunshine, the two perform their respective works for divergent reasons. The gardner will “work” and “keep” the earth; he performs his work as a creative participation with nature. By bringing into it human orderliness, he beautifies the natural landscape, and through human creativity he assists the natural process. The farmer, on the other hand, toils that “by the sweat of [his] face [he] shall eat bread.” While he must cooperate with nature, he does so in order to grow the food necessary to survival. Farming, like the work of the artisan, is a necessity. It is what must be done for survival. Gardening, like the work of the artist, is a superfluity performed out of an innate need in man to bring order and to create, but not out of material necessity. It is always one feature of any garden that it is beautiful. It is possible for a garden to consistent entirely of flowers and other plants that will never be eaten but only gazed upon with an admiring eye. The same is not true of the farmer’s field. The field is rarely beautiful and, when it is, the beauty is at best an incidental byproduct of the similarity of the farmer’s vocation to that of the gardner. The intent of great stretches of straight rows of cornstalks is always that they be harvested and consumed, never that they be gazed upon, never that they be admired. The farmer and the artisan may occasionally, and typically accidently, make something καλόν, but only the work of the gardner and the work of the artist can be declared in truth καλὰ λίαν.

Book Review: Shakespeare’s Art from a Comparative Perspective by Wendell M. Aycock (ed.)

Each of the essays in this book explores the works and world of Shakespeare from a point a different perspective, each illuminating some aspect of Shakespeare, his works, and/or the production of his plays. Each opens up the reader to a new and insightful way of viewing the greatest literary works of the English language — perhaps of human history: the works of Shakespeare.

Barroll’s treatment of the effects of the plague in the years preceding Shakespeare and during his lifetime provide insight into the way that medical and social factors shaped the Bard’s life and work. Bevington provides a fascinating insight into the similarity between Greek and Elizabethan drama with his thesis that the similarity does not arise from the latter imitating the former so much as from a shared set of social conditions. Booth opens a path into an exploration of Shakespeare’s use of the word and idea of “bear” throughout his plays, an avenue which invites the reader to search the Bard’s work for further instances of such wordplay.

Both Brebach and Hardison discuss Shakespeare on film, though from quite different perspectives. Brebach looks specifically at two very different film productions of Hamlet, comparing and contrasting the two. Hardison takes a wider approach, discussing the importance and potential use of the developing Shakespeare film canon. Both equally illustrate the continued relevance of the works of Shakespeare and the way his plays continue to grow and change over time, being adapting to a great variety of historical and social circumstances while nonetheless remaining true to their origins.

Cook contrasts the practices of courting and wedding as they actually existed in Elizabethan England with Shakespeare’s presentation of the subject, exposing Shakespeare’s consistent creative approach to the world around him. Frye compares the works of Shakespeare with the works of his contemporaries and near-contemporaries in the visual arts, demonstrating the similarity between the written word and the painted image.

Roche’s essay is, to me, one of the most interesting. Roche asks the question “how Petrarchan is Shakespeare?,” by which he really means, ultimately, “how Christian are both Petrarch and Shakespeare?” What Frye, in his exploration of the sonnet tradition of the Renaissance, perhaps demonstrates above all else is the necessity of understanding Christian authors, authors whose lives were steeped in the Christian tradition, in a Christian sense and through the lens of their Christianity. This essay alone makes the entire book a necessary read for anyone interested in Shakespeare.

The final two essays, by Schoenbaum and Ringler, discuss Shakespeare in relation to the published book and Shakespeare’s works in relation to the actors he is known to have worked with, respectively. Both do a great deal to grant us insight into the mind the Bard himself and both are worthy reads.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the life and work of William Shakespeare, as well as anyone interested in literature and drama more generally.

Review: The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers

Among the noise of the various competing postmodernist approaches to literary theory, from neo-Marxism to feminism to deconstructionism, it often seems that the traditional Christian worldview and its accompanying approach to the production, interpretation, and understanding of literature have been buried in the morass. What Sayers gives us in this book, however, is a resurrected Christian literary theory. While the Christian worldview has certainly been eclipsed since the Renaissance, Sayers proves that it is not (or is no longer) dead. On the contrary, as Sayers shows us, the Christian approach to literature remains quite relevant and is, perhaps, the only truly complete and ultimately compelling approach.

Sayers begins her book with the thesis that the Imago Dei, the image of God in man, is creativity. As she points out, at the very point in the Book of Genesis at which God proclaims his desire to create a creature in his own image, the reader has been shown nothing about this God aside from his creative faculty. It is, therefore, this creative faculty which the author of Genesis wishes to emphasize, both in God and in his image, man.

From this, Sayers proceeds on the understanding that as man’s creative faculty is his defining and divine feature, this creative faculty must therefore reflect the Creator in whose image it has been created. Man’s creative faculty, therefore, is, as is its Creator, Trinitarian and Incarnational. She then delves deeply and at length into an allegory in which the Father is the Idea behind the art, the Son is the Energy present within it, and the Holy Spirit is the Power, or impact, of the art upon the one who perceives it.

From this, this develops a fascinating and compelling understanding of literature, and of man’s artistic and creative instincts more generally. Just as God has set us free, she says, we must set our own artistic creations free. This freedom, of course, allows for the existence of evil, as each thing inevitably gives rise to its opposite by virtue of its very existence. This evil, however, must, as in the story of salvation as found in the Christian Faith, be redeemed through free, full, and pure experience. This, for Sayers, is the story that underlies all art.

Any departure from this scheme of things is, to use the accompanying theological terminology, a heresy. A story that is driven too strongly by one element of the Idea-Energy-Power Trinity and which lacks others represents a flaw in the Trinitarian nature of its creator.

At last, Sayers concludes by drawing her net wider. She extends her gaze beyond the realm of literature and the arts and encourages us to exercise our God-given creative in each of our individual vocations, whether that be in the creation of good stories or in something else altogether. It is the task of man, says Sayers, to realize the divine image within him through applying his creative faculty in every realm of human life.

Defining the sublime

Merely defining and identifying sublimity is an “enterprise” Longinus himself identifies as “arduous.” In writing On the Sublime, however, Longinus took upon himself the herculean tasks of defining what the sublime is and providing those who would evoke it in their own artistic or literary productions with the knowledge of how this can be accomplished. That he applied considerable ability and erudition to his treatment of the sublime is beyond doubt. Whether he was able to fully accomplish either task, however, is debatable.

Longinus comes very close to offering a precise definition of the sublime in part VII of his work. There, he says that “the effect” of the sublime is “to dispose the soul to high thoughts” and “leave in the mind more food for reflection than the words seem to convey.” Even with these guides in mind, however, Longinus is forced to resort to the perception and state of the audience as the ultimate judge of what is or is not sublime. He says, for example, that “our soul is uplifted by the true sublime; it takes a proud flight, and is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard.” In an effort to overcome the idea that the sublime is entirely subjective, which idea might arise from this recourse to individual feeling, Longinus goes on to add that “those examples of sublimity” are “fine and genuine which please all and everybody.” Sublimity, then, must be defined as a feeling, something that each individual must ultimately experience for himself or herself, but which each individual who partakes of a certain piece of art experiences. The sublime, then, is simultaneously individual and universal, and therefore nearly impossible to define precisely.

From this, Longinus continues to identify five components of a sublime work. According to Longinus, the first two of these five components are “the power of forming great conceptions” and “vehement and inspired passion.” These two components he identifies as “innate,” in contrast to the other three which he identifies as “partly the product of art.” These remaining three Longinus lists as “the due formation of figures,” “noble diction,” and “dignified and elevated composition.” It is tempting to see this list of components as a kind of recipe. These are the ingredients and they need only be added together in the right proportions to produce a work which might evoke the feeling of the sublime as Longinus describes it. Longinus, however, preempts such a view of his list by identifying the “common foundation” of all of these components as “the gift of discourse, which is indispensable.” The ability to write in such a style, to properly mix these components and produce a suitably sublime concoction, then, is a matter of chance, fate, or providence. Whichever of these three one prefers to designate as the giver, what is certain is that the ability is a gift rather than the product of intention and volition.

On both counts, defining what the sublime is and identifying the means by which it is evoked, Longinus gives some alluring detail but finally snatches away the prize. In the end, even a mind like that of Longinus seems unable to offer any definitive definition of the sublime and how it can be evoked. In fact, the closest he comes to offering such finality is in defining what is low and allowing the sublime to stand in contrast to that.

In part XLI, Longinus offers a clear description of a work of music that is low and outside “the sphere of the sublime.” There, he criticizes music in which the rhythm is so predictable as to allow the listeners to “stamp their feet in time with the speaker.” “In like manner,” he says, “those words are destitute of sublimity which” are too simple, too short, or do not fit together well enough. In this short paragraph, Longinus describes, from his perch nearly two millennia ago, nearly all modern popular music. In fact, his description of low music can be applied equally as well to most modern books, television, and movies, in which simple words, uncomplicated sentences, and themes lacking entirely in complexity and ambiguity combine to produce a plethora of entirely predictable, flaccid, and often identical endings.

It is remarkably difficult to explain the difference between high and low culture to an audience, which includes most modern Americans, which has known almost only the low and cannot understand or appreciate the distinction between high and low, much less why one should be deemed superior to the other. Longinus struggled to explain this to a very different audience 2000 years ago, and it seems it can only be more difficult to do so today. Like Longinus, anyone today who wishes to make such a case must ultimately prove it through reference to experience. There is a distinct difference between reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and reading any given book at all from the “Romance” section of a bookstore. The latter might temporarily incite the reader’s lusts but will quickly be laid aside and forgotten about. The former will be a source of reflection, joy, terror, doubt, assurance, and interest for the attentive reader for perhaps an entire lifetime. Similarly, there is a distinct difference between listening to Handel’s Messiah and nearly anything at all that is played on most radio stations in the United States. There are many popular songs that are recalled as the song that defined a summer or a particular holiday. Most will be forgotten almost entirely after just a few months or years. Works like Messiah, however, are fittingly remembered as among the best pieces of music that mankind has ever produced in all of its history. The difference between works that are sublime and that are not, as well as what the sublime itself is, may be difficult to define precisely, yet the experience of any of these is more than sufficient evidence that there is an important distinction that must be made.

1 Longinus, On the Sublime, VI, p. 4.
2 VII.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 XLI.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.

Freedom and form

Let us understand each other in regard to this word, “fantasy.” We are not using the word in the sense in which it is connected with a definite musical form, but in the acceptation which presupposes an abandonment of one’s self to the caprices of imagination. And this presupposes that the composer’s will is voluntarily paralyzed. For imagination is not only the mother of caprice, but the servant and handmaiden of the creative will as well.

The creator’s function is to sift the elements he receives from her, for human activity must impose limits upon itself. The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free.

As for myself, I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me. If everything is permissible to me, the best and the worst; if nothing offers me any resistance, then any effort is inconceivable, and I cannot use anything as a basis, and consequently every undertaking becomes futile.

Will I then have to lose myself in this abyss of freedom? what shall I cling in order to escape the dizziness that seizes me before the virtuality of. this infinitude? However, I shall not succumb. I shall overcome my terror and shall be reassured by the thought that I have the seven totes of the scale and its chromatic intervals at my disposal, that strong and weak accents are within my reach, and that in all of these I possess solid an concrete elements which offer me a field of experience just as vast as the upsetting and dizzy infinitude that had just frightened me. It is into this field that I shall sink my roots, fully convinced that combinations which have at their disposal twelve sounds in each octave and all possible rhythmic varieties promise me riches that all the activity of human genius will never exhaust.

What delivers me from the anguish into which an unrestricted freedom plunges me is the fact that I am always able to turn immediately to the concrete things that are here in question. have no use for a theoretical freedom. Let me have something .finite, definite –matter that can lend itself to my operation only insofar as it is commensurate with my possibilities. And such matter presents itself to me together with its limitations I must in turn impose mine upon it. So here we are, whether we like it or not, in the, realm of necessity. And yet which of us has ever heard talk of art as other than a realm of freedom? This sort of heresy is uniformly widespread because it is imagined that art is outside the bounds of ordinary activity. Well, in art as in everything else, one can build only upon a resisting foundation: whatever constantly gives way to pressure constantly renders movement impossible.

My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each of my undertakings.

I shall go even farther: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraints diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.

To the voice that commands me to create I first respond with fright; then I reassure myself by taking up as weapons those things participating in creation but as yet outside of it, and the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.

From all this we shall conclude the necessity of dogmatizing on pain of missing our goal. If these words annoy us and seem harsh, we can abstain from pronouncing them. For all that, they nonetheless contain the secret of salvation: “It is evident,” writes Baudelaire, “that rhetorics and prosodies are not arbitrarily invented tyrannies, but a collection of rules demanded by the very organization of the spiritual being, and never have prosodies and rhetorics kept originality from fully manifesting itself. The contrary, that is to say, that they have aided the flowering of originality, would be infinitely more true.”

Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons, 66-69