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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Beauty's Clarity, Or, Why Wodehouse Freshens the World

With the third and final feature of beauty that Jacques Maritain gleans from St. Thomas Aquinas—clarity, or radiance—it is best to approach by way of examples.

Consider the following. First, from the world champion humorist, P.G. Wodehouse:

“Can you dance?” said the girl.
Lancelot gave a short, amused laugh. He was a man who never let his left hip know what his right hip was doing.

*   *   *

Lord Emsworth had one of those minds capable of accommodating but one thought at a time—if that.

*   *   *

The butler loomed in the doorway like a dignified cloudbank.

*   *   *

In praising Hilaire Belloc’s introduction to the compilation of Wodehouse’s works, Week End Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh applauded Belloc’s observation that every sentence in Wodehouse is “simple, exact and original” (see Waugh’s essay, “An Angelic Doctor,” in A Little Order: Selected Journalism). One might paraphrase Belloc by saying that Wodehouse’s writing exudes claritas.

In Chapter V of Art and Scholasticism, Maritain says that clarity answers to the intellect’s love for light and intelligibility. “A certain splendor,” writes Maritain, “is, in fact, according to all the ancients, the essential characteristic of beauty…but it is a splendor of intelligibility” (p. 24*).

Which is to say—the clarity of beauty illuminates the mind with the forms of things. Even if it is only Lancelot’s form on the dance floor, or the echoing form of Lord Emsworth’s empty egg.

Take more examples. Such as the simile Italo Colvino, in Why Read the Classics?, celebrates in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend:

…with an immense obtuse drab oblong face, like a face in a teaspoon.

Or Ezra Pound’s famous imagist poem, the two-liner, “In A Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Or Joseph Hutchison’s one-line poem, “Artichoke”:

O heart weighed down by so many wings.

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, in his book, The Poetry Home Repair Manual, talks about poetry’s power to change our perceptions of the world: “Poems that change our perceptions are everywhere you look, and one of the definitions of poetry might be that a poem freshens the world.”  

I love that phrase: “a poem freshens the world.” This is the power of clarity. Beautiful writing of any kind possesses it. Clarity jolts us out of our ordinary way of seeing and allows us to see the world again, in the sense of “seeing” that Josef Pieper talks about in his lovely essay, “Learning How To See Again”:

Before you can express anything in tangible form, you first need eyes to see. The mere attempt, therefore, to create an artistic form compels the artist to take a fresh look at the visible reality; it requires authentic and personal observation. Long before a creation is completed, the artist has gained for himself another and more intimate achievement: a deeper and more receptive vision, a more intense awareness, a sharper and more discerning understanding, a more patient openness for all things quiet and inconspicuous, and eye for things previously overlooked (Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation).

This litany of qualities characterizes any person, not just the artist, attuned to clarity, both in the beauty that God has made and in the sub-created beauty that artists make from it. To take a line from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “God’s Grandeur,” when we awaken to the clarity of beauty, we slow down enough to permit our minds to become receptive to “the dearest freshness deep down things.”

* Page numbers refer to Art and Scholasticism and The Frontiers of Poetry, trans Joseph W. Evans (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1974).

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