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Beauty: Siren or Savior?

Félix Ziem - The Call of the Sirens / Wikimedia Commons

Was Dostoyevsky right when he said, “Beauty will save the world”? One of my favorite pieces on the subject came from Jeffrey Bilbro at Front Porch Republic this fall. Bilbro referenced Solzhenitsyn’s opinion on the subject, as stated in a Nobel Lecture:

…Perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through – then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar TO THAT VERY SAME PLACE, and in so doing will fulfill the work of all three?

There is a problem—partly addressed by Bilbro, and holistically addressed by Robert Royal in a post at The Catholic Thing last Monday, that must be noted: namely, beauty often serves more as an illusory temptress than as a guide to the divine. How do we distinguish between illuminating beauty and a false, hollow sort? Royal explains with a passage from Dante’s Purgatorio, when Dante dreams of a beautiful woman:

She ‘gan to sing so, that with difficulty
Could I have turned my thoughts away from her.

“I am,” she sang, “I am the Siren sweet
Who mariners amid the main unman,
So full am I of pleasantness to hear.

I drew Ulysses from his wandering way
Unto my song, and he who dwells with me
Seldom departs so wholly I content him.”

Her mouth was not yet closed again, before
Appeared a Lady saintly and alert
Close at my side to put her to confusion.

“Virgilius, O Virgilius! who is this?”
Sternly she said; and he was drawing near
With eyes still fixed upon that modest one.

She seized the other and in front laid open,
Rending her garments, and her belly showed me;
This waked me with the stench that issued from it.

It’s a poignant passage, and leads us to Royal’s vital question: “When is what appears beautiful a reflection of the divine—and when is it a Siren’s song?”

This reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. The novel’s protagonist is a handsome young man who makes “beauty” his goal and end in life—and ultimately destroys his life through this search. The novel is full of rich pictorial imagery, but Wilde’s descriptions of nature and people seem purposefully transient. The beauty depicted is of a temporal sort, never referencing a higher, deeper, or truer meaning. Beauty is more “pleasing” than “good.” One notable exception would be the young, tragic Sibyl Vane, whose goodness and beauty are inextricably linked (and in the end, constitute her downfall). Gray could not tell the difference between a pleasurable beauty and “good” beauty. How can we differentiate between the two?

Both Bilbro and Royal believe our society has a picture of beauty that’s either reductive or deceptive. Bilbro writes, “Currently, our cultural aesthetic is, in Solzhenitsyn’s terms, sickly and pale: we too often confuse the pretty, the mere appearance, for true beauty, hence our acceptance of lush green lawns that cause water pollution … We have to be able to see the whole to perceive beauty (again, note the connection between beauty and health).  Analysis of the beautiful, if it does not begin with a vision of the whole and keep this vision constantly in mind, quickly devolves into an abstract rummaging through dead parts.” This idea of reduced beauty gives us the sense that something has been lost in our searching—that whatever beauty constitutes, it is something richer and deeper than most modern definitions.

Royal, meanwhile, reminds us that beauty (perhaps because it’s been reduced?) is deceptive. He quotes Jeremiah 17:9—“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Who can know it?” What our hearts call beautiful could, in actuality, lead us astray from true beauty. This is what happened to Dorian Gray. His “beauty” did not save the world—instead, it led to death and decay, madness and malevolence.

I wonder whether this reduction stems largely from the separation of aesthetic and logos. The Greek definition of logos means more than “word”: it is the reason, controlling principle, method and meaning behind something. It forms the root of such words as “theology” and “biology” (and of course “logic”)—studies explaining the reason or value behind a subject. It constitutes the idea of overarching order, structure, and meaning.

What happens when we divorce aesthetic beauty from logos? The epicurean, sensory conceptions of beauty begin to lead us astray, along a path more or less divorced from true, holistic, healthy beauty. In The Humiliation of the Word, Jacques Ellul argues that the Fall of Adam and Eve stemmed from the use of sight without logos: in Genesis 3, “the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desired to make on wise.” Ellul contrasts this to the combination of sight and Logos through the creation story of Genesis 1 and 2, and he notes that the temptation story of Genesis 3 is the first time sight is separated from language. This idea has serious consequences in our age of imagery: Ellul seems to suggest that, while images and visual perceptions are good, it is necessary for sensory understanding to be united with the transcendental logos—otherwise, we will fall prey to the illusory and the false.

Finding true beauty in our culture and art is difficult, I think, unless characterized by a strong and sincere desire for what is true and good (rather than desiring mere sentience). Such deeper yearning may be difficult to awaken, and will take time to cultivate. It may take, as Bilbro put it, a “renewed imagination” (or perhaps what Russell Kirk called a “moral imagination”).

But once awakened to true beauty—a beauty of aesthetic experience and logos intertwined—we may taste and see the salvation Dostoyevsky foretold.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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