“This, then, is what the arts are concerned with, this is what they intend, namely, to restore within us the divine likeness.” — Hugh of St. Victor
Hugh of St. Victor is not exactly a household name. Then again, name-recognition is a gauge of only a single, narrow value. As New Advent’s article says, ‘A careful examination of his works has led to a truer appreciation of one whom Harnack (History of Dogma, tr. London, 1899, VI, 44) terms “the most influential theologian of the twelfth century”.’
Today is Ash Wednesday, yet the apologetic task continues. Toward that end, I found this useful:
“The awareness of grandeur does not serve any social or biological purpose; man is very rarely able to portray his appreciation of the sublime to others or to add it to his scientific knowledge. Nor is its perception pleasing to the senses or gratifying to our vanity. Why, then, expose ourselves to the disquieting provocation of something that defies our drive to know, to something which may even fill us with fright, melancholy or resignation? Still we insist that it is unworthy of man not to take notice of the sublime.” — Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion
Last month I visited the Tate Modern in London and walked through an exhibition entitled “Poetry and Dream,” which featured many Surrealist painters. I was confronted by my own disgust for most of what I saw.
I’m not sure what disturbed me more: my realization that I would never be cool in the eyes of those who like Surrealism, or that such a spiritually draining movement triumphed enough to rate an exhibition in 2010. Of course, I found exceptions, and some interesting images, and a few good things to think about, but more the most part, it was a horrible experience.
The following excerpt by Jacques Maritain, the French Catholic philosopher, provides a partial explanation of my disgust and then moves into a few words that are broadly relevent for Christians in a culture dominated by visual perception.
“In one respect especially the Surrealists were prophets of the modern world — namely with regard to the repudiation of beauty. But they dismissed beauty for the sake of magical knowledge, whereas the modern world, with infinitely greater success, dismisses beauty for the sake of nothing except hard labor. Let us consider this fact. The dismissal of beauty is quite a dangerous thing — if not for art, which cannot in reality divorce beauty, at least for humanity. For, as Thomas Aquinas puts it, man cannot live without delectation, and when the spiritual delectations are lacking, he passes to carnal ones.” –Jacques Maritain, in Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (1953), based on The A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts
Consider that the Devil always pursues dehumanization:
“We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”
-Hans Urs von Balthasar, found at GregoryWolfe.com
The things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. -C.S. Lewis, in “The Weight of Glory”
Following Lewis’s formulation and speaking for myself, my heart has been broken many, many times.
Gregory Wolfe will speak on Christian Humanism tomorrow (Monday, Aug. 11) at Belmont Abbey College near Charlotte, N.C.
The lecture, entitled “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty: The Vision of Pope Benedict XVI,” will begin at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free.
Click here for directions.
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