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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Upstairs, Downstairs, Miss O'Connor Reads, The Return of Whit Stillman, Kindles at the Public Library

Today I offer a potpourri of links to some interesting and fun items that have been attracting my attention over the last few days…

First, my wife and I very much enjoyed the initial three-episode “season” of the BBC reboot of Upstairs, Downstairs. Excellent script, great characters, superb acting, intriguing setting against the political backdrop of the abdication of Edward VIII, and to top it off, an extremely realistic and sympathetic portrayal of a child with Downs Syndrome. Put it on that Netflix cue.

Making its way around the web the other day was this link to an audio file of Flannery O’Connor reading her short story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” (my favorite of her stories) at Vanderbilt University in 1959. Sit back and enjoy Miss O’Connor’s lovely drawl.

And I was glad to see this week that after 13 years the writer-director Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco) is coming out with a new film, Damsels in Distress. Stillman is a keen observer of social mores, and his films always promise sly humor and insight.

Finally, the New York Times today had a story about how Amazon's Kindle will now be be available to download ebooks from collections at public libraries. Another major move in our cultural transition to the ebook.  

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

No Country For Old Men

I’m reading Hugh Kenner’s wonderful book on Chesterton, Paradox in Chesterton, published in 1947 by Sheed & Ward. The introduction is written by Kenner’s mentor, Marshall McLuhan, before he became the pop-culture prophet of “the medium is the message.” McLuhan’s introduction is a marvelous prĂ©cis of our modern cultural predicament. As I’m guessing Kenner’s book is out of print, I’ll quote liberally, not to say profusely:

When the Church Fathers adapted the neo-Platonic and Stoic concept of the Logos to Christian Revelation, they committed the Church to many centuries of symbolism and allegory. The result was that for a very long time the outer world was seen as a network of analogies which richly exemplified and sustained the psychological and moral structure of man’s inner world. Both inner and outer worlds were mirrors in which to contemplate the Divine Wisdom…

McLuhan then goes on to describe the impact of this synthesis upon human beings and society:

Society, national and international, grew up once more. And it was an organic and closely-knit society in which the individual enjoyed a very high degree of psychological if not physical security, because of the universal acceptance of the moral and social implications of the Divine order mirrored simultaneously in physical nature, human nature, and political organization.

He then observes how such order serves as the theme of Ulysses’ speech from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida:

The heavens themselves, the planets and this center
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom in all line of order.

….O! When degree is shak’d,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
The enterprise is sick. How could communities,
Degrees in schools, and brotherhood in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogeniture and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, scepters, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree way, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows!...
Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey
And last eat up itself.  (Act I, Scene 3)

These lines of Shakespeare’s resonated especially with me today as I was making a study of the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel, No Country For Old Men. The country portrayed in that film is one in which “degree” has been “shak’d,” and the heart of the film, in my mind, is the way in which that “shaking” enters the heart of one of the few decent characters in the story, Sherriff Bell (played magnificently by Tommy Lee Jones). He is at a point in his life in which he should be enjoying, as Shakespeare’s Ulysses puts it, the “prerogatives of age.” But as he chases a peculiarly ruthless and violent criminal, he begins to sense that the “high designs” of his world have come undone. The string of degree is out of tune. And he harks what discord follows. An old man, he finds himself confronted by the thought that “everything includes itself in power,” a power that, like “an universal wolf,” eats up everything (though the movie does not show us how it last eats up itself).

How did Sherriff Bell’s world—our world—come so undone? McLuhan continues his analysis by writing that from the time of Descartes

men would seek intellectually only for the kind of order they could readily achieve by rationalistic means: a mathematical and mechanistic order which precludes a human and psychological order. Ethics and politics were abandoned as much as metaphysics….

Since the time of Descartes the strategy has been followed consistently. A high degree of abstract mechanical order has been achieved. Great discoveries of a potentially benign sort have been made. And human moral, psychological, and political chaos has steadily developed, with it concurrent crop of fear and anger and hate. The rational efforts of men have been wholly diverted from the ordering of appetite and emotion, so that any effort to introduce or to discover order in man’s psychological life has been left entirely to the artist.

And so McLuhan proceeds with a incisive comparison between the medieval and modern conceptions of the artist:

Whereas the medieval artist was a relatively anonymous person whose function was not to discover order but to represent an already achieved psychological unity, the modern artist is regarded as a pioneer….

As the contemporary artist attempts to chart the psychological chaos created in the heart of man by a mechanistic society his activity is scanned with the utmost concern. A Blake, a Wordsworth, a Baudelaire, a Rimbaud, a Picasso, or a Rouault is regarded as a major source of hope and discovery. The disproportionate burden placed on the artist is the measure of the failure of the philosophy.

I haven’t even touched on what McLuhan has to say about how all this relates to Thomism in the 20th century, or what he—much less Kenner—have to say about Chesterton. There is much in what he has to say, in what Cormac McCarthy and the Coen Brothers have to say, that repays attention.

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).

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Meaning of Life

According to the medieval legend, the philosopher’s stone was capable of turning base metals into gold or silver. The philosophical articles now being featured by the New York Times under the title, The Stone, work in the reverse order. They take the gold of the Western philosophical tradition and turn it into the base metal of post-modern noodlings. Take, for example, the recent cogitations on the meaning of life by Clemson philosopher, Todd May:

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre thought that, without God, our lives are bereft of meaning.  He tells us in his essay “Existentialism,” “if God does not exist, we find no values or commands to turn to which legitimize our conduct.  So, in the bright realm of values, we have no excuse behind us, nor justification before us.”  On this view, God gives our lives the values upon which meaning rests. And if God does not exist, as Sartre claims, our lives can have only the meaning we confer upon them.

This seems wrong on two counts. First, why would the existence of God guarantee the meaningfulness of each of our lives? Is a life of unremitting drudgery or unrequited struggle really redeemed if there’s a larger plan, one to which we have no access, into which it fits?  That would be small compensation for a life that would otherwise feel like a waste — a point not lost on thinkers like Karl Marx, who called religion the “opium of the people.” 

Keeping in mind that Christianity is doubtless one of the chief, if not the chief, target of this passage, the ignorance of it is astonishing. “Is a life of unremitting drudgery or unrequited struggle really redeemed if there’s a larger plan, one to which we have no access, into which it fits?” Well Pope Saint Cornelius, whose Memorial we celebrate today, certainly felt his life had been redeemed, even when he was dying a martyr’s death in exile at the hands of the Emperor Gallus. Martyrdom does tend to put a damper on one’s earthly expectations, yet Pope Saint Cornelius did not repine. He knew what gave his life true meaning, and what was so much chaff. He would have been appalled by the suggestion that the sad ending of his life called into question its meaningfulness. Indeed, he would have said that it was precisely his death that made his life meaningful. But Professor May blithely skips by the thoughts and feelings of two thousand years of Christian witness.

What’s especially curious is that Professor May’s remarks in the quoted passage begin by hypothesizing knowledge of God’s existence (“why would the existence of God guarantee the meaningfulness, etc.”), but then, a sentence later, he breezily refers to the “larger plan” affirmed by Christianity and other religions as one “to which we have no access.” So he begins by trying to imagine the issue from a theistic viewpoint, but then has to interject that, of course, “we” have no access to a God with plans for our benefit. Who is this “we”? The enlightened readers of the Times, no doubt.

But there is another “we.” The company among which Saints Cornelius and Cyprian stand. In this fellowship, the drudgery and struggle endured in this life, which from a certain point of view, and not necessarily an irreligious one (think of Job), seem to make of life a waste, are, as joined to Christ, the wellsprings of meaning, satisfaction, joy. 

*The image above is from the Catacomb of Saint Callistus outside Rome, where many of the early popes, as well as Saint Cecilia, are buried.

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).

Monday, September 12, 2011

Beauty's Order, Or, Why LOST Sometimes Was So Frustrating

Beauty—as we discussed last time in our Virtual Summer Circle of Thomistic Studies—has to do with the wholeness of a work of art. What does it mean for a work of art to be “whole.” It means the work has perfectly achieved the end, or aim, for the sake of which it was undertaken.

What, then, about the second feature of beauty that Jacques Maritain, following St. Thomas Aquinas, discusses in Chapter V of Art and Scholasticism: proportion? Maritain says that it is a kind of “fitness” or “harmony” (p. 27*). Maritian also speaks of it as an “order” (p. 24) that comes into being “in relation to the end of the work” (p. 28). Proportion is thus a function of wholeness. In order for the work to achieve its end, its parts must be set in order.  

Let’s once again bring a very abstract concept closer to home by trying to see it in play in a work of art with which we are all familiar: the detective or mystery story. Here’s what one of the genre’s foremost practitioners, G.K. Chesterton, had to say about this genre in his essay, “Errors About Detective Stories”:

there is evidently a very general idea that the object of the detective novelist is to baffle the reader. Now, nothing is easier than baffling the reader, in the sense of disappointing the reader. There are many successful and widely advertised stories of which the principle simply consists in thwarting information by means of incident.

Chesterton negatively describes the end of a detective story: not to baffle the reader by means of useless incident. A little later in the essay he puts the point more positively:

The true object of an intelligent detective story is not to baffle the reader, but to enlighten the reader; but to enlighten him in such a manner that each successive portion of the truth comes as a surprise. In this, as in much nobler types of mystery, the object of the true mystic is not merely to mystify, but to illuminate. The object is not darkness, but light; but light in the form of lightning.

In this paragraph Chesterton refers to both the wholeness and the proportion, or order, of a good detective story. The end is to illuminate, but the illumination must come about in the order due to a detective story, in which “each successive portion of the truth comes as a surprise.”

It is crucial that the sequence of surprising revelations in a mystery possesses an order, and is not just, as Chesterton remarks, the thwarting of information by incident. This was one of the criticisms often made against the television serial, Lost. Surprising incidents were piled up, but without any clear relationship to one another or to the illumination that eventually came in the show’s final episode. Lost, in the view of these critics, lacked order or proportion. About such piling up of sensational but incoherent elements Chesterton goes on: 

Now, it is quite a simple matter to fill several volumes with adventures of this thrilling kind, without permitting the reader to advance a step in the direction of discovery. This is illegitimate, on the fundamental principles of this form of fiction. It is not merely that it is not artistic, or that it is not logical. It is that it is not really exciting. People cannot be excited except about something; and at this stage of ignorance the reader has nothing to be excited about. People are thrilled by knowing something, and on this principle they know nothing.

In saying that people are thrilled by knowing something, I take it that Chesterton means that people are truly thrilled when they realize that a surprising incident is integrally connected to the illumination of the mystery. In the final moments of an episode of Foyle’s War, for example, Detective Chief Superintendant Foyle will typically recap how he came to unravel the mystery, indicating the logical sequence of his deductions, distinguishing what is essential to the solution from what is accidental (the red herrings). Indeed, the last few pages or minutes of a detective story, when the end and the things ordered to the end are laid out for the reader or viewer, provide a case study in how order plays a role within this genre.

* 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).

Friday, September 9, 2011

Dour Combat: Gavin O'Connor's "Warrior"

Here is a link to a piece of mine appearing today on Catholic Exchange, a review of Gavin O’Connor’s fine new film, Warrior (click here for the trailer).

In yesterday’s New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote an exceptionally interesting review of the film. I especially like the following observations in which he links the film’s setting in the world of mixed martial arts with America’s current economic and cultural plight:

But if there is something primal and archaic in Mr. O’Connor’s fable of fathers and sons, he nonetheless grounds it in the painful realities of contemporary America. With arresting honesty and enormous compassion — but without making a big topical deal out of it — Warrior looks at an American working class reeling from the one-two punch of war and recession. Tommy and Brendan are too proud for self-pity, which makes the evident pain of their circumstances all the more affecting.
They fight because every other way of being a man has been compromised, undermined or taken away. Patriarchal authority, as represented by Paddy, is cruel and unbending until it turns sentimental and pathetic. The roads to an honorable life promised by work and military service are mined and muddied by the greed and mendacity of the institutions — government, schools, banks — that are supposed to uphold integrity.
In such conditions stripping down to your shorts and beating another guy senseless can seem not only logical, but also noble. The mock-gladiatorial theatrics of mixed martial arts may look tawdry and overblown, but the sport, perhaps even more than boxing, expresses a deep and authentic impulse to find meaning through the infliction and acceptance of pain. While the Conlon brothers are both fighting for the money, the real stakes are much deeper. Though their climactic confrontation is terrifyingly violent, it is also tender. And the most disarming thing about Warrior is that, for all its mayhem, it is a movie about love.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Beauty's Wholeness, Or, Why We Care Who Killed Edwin Drood

Inspired by the success of his friend Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens set out toward the end of his life to write a mystery. He called it, aptly enough, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and for nearly 150 years it has exercised a fascination over readers—principally because it is a mystery without a solution. Dickens died on June 9, 1870 before he could complete his tale, and ever since readers have wondered just who killed Edwin Drood. In fact, on the 7th of January 1914 in London, G.K. Chesterton, along with his brother Cecil and others, staged a mock trial in which a character from the novel, John Jasper, was put on trial for the murder of Edwin Drood (George Bernard Shaw was foreman of a jury that included, among many others, Hilaire Belloc).

I began thinking of Edwin Drood as I pondered Chapter V of Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism, the focus of our Virtual Summer Circle of Thomistic Studies. Chapter V is devoted to theme of Art and Beauty, and in the chapter Maritain follows St. Thomas Aquinas in naming three “conditions,” or what we might call “features,” of beauty: integrity or wholeness, proportion, and clarity or radiance. Over the next three days I would like to reflect briefly on each of these three features—beginning with integrity or wholeness.

Maritain defines wholeness as the pleasure that the intellect takes in the fullness of Being (p. 24*). This is precise but abstract. Keep in mind that the experience of beauty is an experience of delight in the intellect’s grasp of the form, the intelligible structure or design, of a thing. What we are doing now is getting more specific about what in the design of a beautiful thing the intellect is finding joy in.

Let’s bring the abstractness of wholeness closer to the ground by thinking of the wholeness of a particular work of art—let’s say a novel, even better, a murder mystery. According to Maritain and St. Thomas, no murder mystery would have a chance of being beautiful if it did not possess fullness of Being. Or we might say, if it didn’t come to its perfect realization. Now Edwin Drood cannot possibly possess wholeness, for the obvious fact that it is unfinished. On p. 27 of Art and Scholasticism Maritian speaks of the wholeness of the Venus de Milo, but I don’t believe wholeness can be said, simply speaking, of a broken statue, or an unfinished murder mystery. This is not to deny that some beauty exists in the unfinished or broken work—only that its beauty is, well, unfinished or broken. Wholeness, again, refers to the perfect realization of the form or design of the work.

So what, when it comes to a murder mystery, is required for wholeness? The work must be finished, first of all, meaning not just that the artist lived long enough to write, “The End,” but that the work possesses the basic narrative structure of beginning, middle and end: the set-up in Act I leading to the complications of Act II in turn leading to the fingering of the murderer in Act III. At the end of such a narrative, the sense that a story has been fully told, our satisfaction that the murderer has been brought to justice, is a sign that the work is whole. In this light, it is interesting to note that since Dickens's death, many authors have set about trying to complete Edwin Drood.

The full realization of the design of a murder mystery is achieved in various other ways, such as in the characterization, or the use of symbolism. Wholeness also comes into play in the way in which the mystery is resolved. One of David Mamet’s rules for writing is, “Embed the end in the beginning.” When the rule is applied to a murder mystery, we feel that wonderful frisson at the climax when we realize the essential clue was in front of us the whole time—giving us a wonderful sense of integrity of the work (the extreme case: Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”).

But whether abiding by Mamet’s rule or not, the good mystery writer knows that the integrity of the work can only be achieved by not making the solution to the mystery ad hoc. The key evidence must not descend like a deus ex machina, but must have been put before the reader along the way. The murderer in a murder mystery can cheat all he wants. But the mystery writer must be scrupulously fair with his readers. 

Yet in speaking of wholeness and the laying of clues, the difficulty presents itself of distinguishing wholeness and the second feature of beauty, proportion—which has to do with the ordering of the parts of a work. But tomorrow I will try to distinguish between these two features of beauty—and thus probe deeper into its mystery.

* 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).

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Beauty as a Call

Art is capable of expressing, and of making visible, man’s need to go beyond what he sees; it reveals his thirst and his search for the infinite.

Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience
August 31, 2011

Yesterday from his residence at Castel Gandolfo, the Holy Father delivered an inspiring address on the theme of beauty as a way to God. The full text of his brief meditation is just below, but before I leave you to enjoy it, I would simply like to point out to those participating in our Virtual Summer Circle of Thomistic Studies, the way in which Pope Benedict’s theme resonates with what Maritain has to say in Chapter V of Art and Scholasticism.

On p. 31* Maritain recalls the etymology of the Greek word for beauty, to kalon, which derives from the verb, “to call.” The beautiful is a call—ultimately a call by God to the human person “wounded,” as the pope puts it in his address, by the beautiful work of art. He then quotes St. Thomas Aquinas: “the beauty of anything created is nothing else than a similitude of divine beauty participated in by things.”

In his address Pope Benedict focuses on beautiful works of art, and Maritain adds the point that everything beautiful serves as a point of contact with the Creator, who is Beauty Itself.

Pope Benedict observes: “Art is capable of expressing, and of making visible, man’s need to go beyond what he sees; it reveals his thirst and his search for the infinite. Indeed, it is like a door opened to the infinite, [opened] to a beauty and a truth beyond the every day.”    

What Pope Benedict says next, however, raises a question. He writes: “But there are artistic expressions that are true roads to God, the supreme Beauty — indeed, they are a help [to us] in growing in our relationship with Him in prayer. We are referring to works of art that are born of faith, and that express the faith.”

Now, before this passage he says that beautiful works of art open us to the infinite. Then he says, “But there are artistic expressions that are true roads to God, the supreme Beauty”—these expressions being properly Christian art. I don’t take the Holy Father to be saying that art made by non-Christians does not lead us to the infinite, and thus in some sense to God. I take it that he’s saying that any work of beauty can potentially lead to an experience of God, but that properly Christian art can lead one to a specifically Christian conversion, as well as deepen the experience of Christian prayer.

Let me know how you see it after reading the full text of the address.

* 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).

P.S. The image at the top is of "Exodus" by Marc Chagall, who is mentioned in the pope's address.

Full Text of Pope Benedict’s General Audience Address
August 31, 2011

Dear brothers and sisters,

On several occasions in recent months, I have recalled the need for every Christian to find time for God, for prayer, amidst our many daily activities.The Lord himself offers us many opportunities to remember Him. Today, I would like to consider briefly one of these channels that can lead us to God and also be helpful in our encounter with Him: It is the way of artistic expression, part of that “via pulchritudinis” — “way of beauty” — which I have spoken about on many occasions, and which modern man should recover in its most profound meaning.

Perhaps it has happened to you at one time or another — before a sculpture, a painting, a few verses of poetry or a piece of music — to have experienced deep emotion, a sense of joy, to have perceived clearly, that is, that before you there stood not only matter — a piece of marble or bronze, a painted canvas, an ensemble of letters or a combination of sounds — but something far greater, something that “speaks,” something capable of touching the heart, of communicating a message, of elevating the soul.

A work of art is the fruit of the creative capacity of the human person who stands in wonder before the visible reality, who seeks to discover the depths of its meaning and to communicate it through the language of forms, colors and sounds. Art is capable of expressing, and of making visible, man’s need to go beyond what he sees; it reveals his thirst and his search for the infinite. Indeed, it is like a door opened to the infinite, [opened] to a beauty and a truth beyond the every day. And a work of art can open the eyes of the mind and heart, urging us upward.
 But there are artistic expressions that are true roads to God, the supreme Beauty — indeed, they are a help [to us] in growing in our relationship with Him in prayer. We are referring to works of art that are born of faith, and that express the faith. We see an example of this whenever we visit a Gothic cathedral: We are ravished by the vertical lines that reach heavenward and draw our gaze and our spirit upward, while at the same time, we feel small and yet yearn to be filled.

Or when we enter a Romanesque church: We are invited quite naturally to recollection and prayer. We perceive that hidden within these splendid edifices is the faith of generations. Or again, when we listen to a piece of sacred music that makes the chords of our heart resound, our soul expands and is helped in turning to God. I remember a concert performance of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach — in Munich in Bavaria — conducted by Leonard Bernstein. At the conclusion of the final selection, one of the Cantate, I felt — not through reasoning, but in the depths of my heart — that what I had just heard had spoken truth to me, truth about the supreme composer, and it moved me to give thanks to God. Seated next to me was the Lutheran bishop of Munich. I spontaneously said to him: “Whoever has listened to this understands that faith is true” — and the beauty that irresistibly expresses the presence of God’s truth.

But how many times, paintings or frescos also, which are the fruit of the artist’s faith — in their forms, in their colors, and in their light — move us to turn our thoughts to God, and increase our desire to draw from the Fount of all beauty. The words of the great artist, Marc Chagall, remain profoundly true — that for centuries, painters dipped their brushes in that colored alphabet, which is the Bible.
 How many times, then, can artistic expression be for us an occasion that reminds us of God, that assists us in our prayer or even in the conversion of our heart!

In 1886, the famous French poet, playwright and diplomat Paul Claudel entered the Basilica of Notre Dame in Paris and there felt the presence of God precisely in listening to the singing of the Magnificat during the Christmas Mass. He had not entered the church for reasons of faith; indeed, he entered looking for arguments against Christianity, but instead the grace of God changed his heart.
 Dear friends, I invite you to rediscover the importance of this way for prayer, for our living relationship with God. Cities and countries throughout the world house treasures of art that express the faith and call us to a relationship with God. Therefore, may our visits to places of art be not only an occasion for cultural enrichment — also this — but may they become, above all, a moment of grace that moves us to strengthen our bond and our conversation with the Lord, [that moves us] to stop and contemplate — in passing from the simple external reality to the deeper reality expressed — the ray of beauty that strikes us, that “wounds” us in the intimate recesses of our heart and invites us to ascend to God.

I will end with a prayer from one of the Psalms, Psalm 27: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple” (Verse 4). Let us hope that the Lord will help us to contemplate His beauty, both in nature as well as in works of art, so that we might be touched by the light of His face, and so also be light for our neighbor. Thank you.