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Monday, September 19, 2011

On Not Telling Our Stories In Vain

Perhaps virtual summer circles on the philosophy of art, like art itself, are never finished, only abandoned. Though I have touched on only a portion of Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism, with nary a peep about Chapters VI-IX—it’s September 19th, autumn is nigh, and it’s time to gather up the coffee cups and put this summer exercise to bed.

But not before a final word about Maritain’s rich Chapter V, “Art and Beauty.” I believe already twice since I started this blog last October I have quoted from the passage that begins toward the bottom of p. 32*:

The moment one touches a transcendental, one touches being itself, a likeness of God, an absolute, that which ennobles and delights our life; one enters into the domain of the spirit.

Ray Stevens was right. Everything is beautiful in its own way. Beauty is a transcendental, which means that it is a constituent feature of reality. Whenever one finds reality—up in the Heavens or down in the swamp—one finds beauty (which implies that the ugly is in some sense “unreal”). Along with truth and goodness, beauty transcends any and all particular categories of reality (such as material reality, immaterial reality, artistic reality, logical reality, mathematical reality, etc.). Thus we can talk variously of beautiful sunsets, beautiful churches, “elegant” scientific or mathematical solutions, and most of all, with Gerard Manley Hopkins, God’s Grandeur.

In my posts on the three features of the beautiful—wholeness, order and clarity—I focused on just one general kind of beautiful thing: beautiful works of literature. Beauty can of course be found elsewhere—everywhere, sings Ray Stevens—but this does not mean that the beautiful is exactly the same in all of its manifestations. How shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? wondered Shakespeare. It was a real predicament. For on the one hand was the object of his devotion in the sonnet, and on the other hand a summer’s day. Both are beautiful. But the comparison is difficult. That is because the comparison is not between beautiful apples and beautiful apples, but beautiful apples and beautiful oranges. All beautiful objects manifest wholeness, order and clarity, but not, as the philosophers say, univocally, i.e., in one and the same way, but analogously, in a way that exhibits both sameness and difference. It took some work, but Shakespeare finally figured out how to plot the analogy between his love and the summer day. Read Sonnet 18.

Because beauty is stitched into the very fabric of reality, it is not exclusively material (for reality is not exclusively material). The human experience of the beautiful begins with, and never really jettisons, sense experience. But while wholeness, order and clarity may be embodied in a material object, because they are transcendental they are not reducible to the matter of the thing. This is why Maritain says that in delighting in beauty we pass “into the domain of the spirit.” Maritain continues:

It is remarkable that men really communicate with one another only by passing through being or one of its properties. Only in this way do they escape from the individuality in which matter encloses them. If they remain in the world of their sense needs and sentimental egos, in vain do they tell their stories to one another, they do not understand each other. They observe each other, each one of them infinitely alone, even though work or sense pleasures bind them together (pp. 32-33).

Human beings can only communicate truth, goodness and beauty to one another by transcending the privacies of matter. To be sure, matter is required to communicate, in speech and in the arts. But it is not matter alone that speaks. The closer a story, to take Maritain’s example, cleaves to the material aspects of our being—our “sense needs and sentimental egos”—in vain do we tell our stories to one another, for in failing to pass into the domain of the beautiful, of the spirit, we fail to communicate. Pornography is not art, therefore. Spectacle alone is not art.

But let one touch the good and Love, like the saints, the true, like an Aristotle, the beautiful, like a Dante or a Bach or a Giotto, then contact is made, souls communicate. Men are really united only by the spirit; light along brings them together…(p. 33).

 * 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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