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Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

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Category: The Moral Imagination (page 1 of 2)

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Movie makers need to read great literature, too

I’ve  talked quite a bit on this blog about the importance of good stories, and how sad it is that our culture no longer seems interested in stories that enlarge us, that take us out of our petty interests and connect us to the larger human condition. Part of the problem, I believe, is that, by and large, people don’t read
any more, and when they do read they read the literary equivalent of
Twinkies and Red Bull.

Of course, reading is not the only way to be exposed to great stories. Film can also tell engrossing, thought-provoking stories. The problem is that most American filmmakers are more interested in spectacle than story, as Barbara Nicolosi and her collaborator Vicki Peterson discuss in this video interview:

I applaud people like Nicolosi and Peterson who are trying to educate screenwriters in the importance of storytelling. In an increasingly illiterate culture, visual media such as movies and graphic novels are the only way to engage the imaginations of many people these days. Still, I wonder how much headway they can make if those they are trying to teach never read and ponder significant works of literature.

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury foresaw the way
technology’s exaltation of the visual
and superficial leads to the exclusion
of the written world.

There is a tendency these days to act as if the age of reading is passed — as if, before entertainment technology was developed, people read for entertainment because they couldn’t do any better, but once movies and TV came along, the world “progressed” beyond mere words on a page to images on a screen.  (If you believe that, you should read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.) But the fact is that, as moving, resonant, and thought-provoking as visual stories can be, movies simply can’t engage us as completely as literature. Films make us merely spectators, rather than participants, while reading is an immersive experience, in which we inhabit the lives and experiences of the characters. This recent New York Times article discusses a scientific study that demonstrates the ways reading literature engaged our imaginations on a deep level, in a way that lighter fictional fare cannot. Literature can also affect our capacity for empathy and even change the structure of our brain.

I don’t want to pit literature against movies, however. There is room for both in our lives. But I agree with Barbara Nicolosi and Vicki Peterson that the world needs movies that do more than titillate or provide the cheap thrills of a carnival ride. And I think there’s a better chance of that happening if movie makers spend more time reading great literature.

Learn more about Barbara Nicolosi and Vicki Peterson and their screenwriting enterprise, Catharsis, here.

©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Reading and the Moral Imagination: Plato and truth in fiction

Nota Bene: I originally published this post back in 2012, and it has been one of the most-read posts on this blog ever since. In fact, it sums up pretty well my defense of the necessity of literature — an apologia pro literatura, if you will. For this reason, I’ve decided to pin it here to the top of the blog, so that anyone who stumbles on this site accidentally will know what I’m on about. If you want to know more, try reading some of the other articles in the “popular posts” list that you’ll find in the sidebar to the right. Welcome, and don’t feel shy about leaving comments. I respond to all comments on this blog (which is how I happened to write my most popular post of all time).

I like about this edition chiefly because
it’s easy to follow who is speaking
in the dialogue.

Some time ago, I lamented the fact that people — even allegedly “educated” people — these days are reading less and less; and I began to explore the question of why this fact should alarm us. Isn’t reading just one of many ways to amuse ourselves in idle moments? Why should reading novels, say, be any better than watching movies or playing video games? After all, all three require us to enter into an imaginary world, not of our own making.

Good fiction is interested in truth

It’s true that some reading material provides merely escapist pleasures — these are what C. S. Lewis, reasoning as he does in An Experiment in Criticism, would classify as “bad” books, because they require little of the reader, and they repay that little effort poorly. Frankly, I don’t care if anyone engages in such reading, although I would be concerned about anyone who made a steady diet of such fare. What I am more concerned about is the reading of well-crafted fiction that treats carefully the kinds of “universal” questions that Aristotle refers to in his Poetics, which he said makes literature “philosophical,” i.e., capable of making us wiser. Greek culture in Aristotle’s day deeply acknowledged the importance of epic poetry, the predominant kind of literary fiction in that age. In fact, the narrative poetry of such poets as Homer and Hesiod, which told of the interactions of gods and men, were regarded with much the same kind of reverence as the Bible is in Christian cultures (not quite, however — the Greeks didn’t really have anything analogous to Sacred Scripture), and they considered such literature to be absolutely essential to education.

detail from Rafael's School of Athens
Plato points upward toward transcendent truth,
while Aristotle gestures toward the Earth.

Plato, of course, is famous for having Socrates say, in The Republic, that the “lying poets” would have no place in the ideal society. Many people, especially in modern times, have argued that this means Plato was against “fiction.” Many of those same people will go on to say that this is evidence of the way in which Plato’s views differed from those of his most famous pupil, Aristotle. A common, but simplistic, characterization of the differences between the two philosophers claims to find a marked dichotomy between the two:

  • Plato is interested in transcendent truth while Aristotle is more interested in “real life.” 
  • Plato is focuses on the theoretical and abstract while Aristotle on the practical and concrete. 
  • Plato says poetry is a dangerous pack of lies while Aristotle says it is “philosophical” and can teach us about the human condition.

Like many over-simplifications, this one is misleading. It’s worthwhile to take a closer look at what Plato really did say about poetry (or at least the poets) in The Republic; anyone who does so will find that he does not object to storytelling per se, nor does he dismiss fictional literature as just so many lies. What he objected to were the poet’s (e.g., Homer and Hesiod’s) depictions of the gods as being no better — and often much worse  — than we mere mortals. So it wasn’t the fiction he despised, it was the lies. In fact, he could not (and would not) have written The Republic — his most famous and enduring philosophical work — if he did not believe in the powerful ability of “fiction” to show us truth.

Plato’s Socratic dialogues are works of fiction

Why do I make such a claim? First of all, because Plato chose a “fictional” format for virtually all of his philosophical treatises. Famously, all of Plato’s treatises are written as dialogues, with fictionalized versions of Socrates and other real people as the participants in the discussion of whatever the topic may be: justice, beauty, etc. They are like conversations in which Plato really participated, but they are by no means transcriptions of real conversations — they are as carefully crafted as any poem. Why teach in this way? Because the dialogue format allows and invites the reader to be an imaginary participant in the discussion.

Socrates teaching
In a Platonic dialogue, the participants are trying to
get at the truth of some matter.

I believe Plato wanted his students to learn the way he learned from Socrates. That is why his philosophical dialogues are modeled on the kind of discussions that Socrates regularly engaged in in real life. Typically, they portray the philosopher and his friends trying to get at the truth of some concept by starting with their own assumptions and then putting them to the test to see if they hold water. True to life, this method does not lead directly to a clean, clear view of the truth of the matter; rather, the dialogues often reach a point at which the interlocutors find themselves at loggerheads, unable to reach an agreement, but not really sure why. (If you’ve had a college philosophy class, you may recall that this situation, in Greek, is called aporia). Some of Plato’s early philosophical dialogues end at this point, leaving the reader to figure out why the discussion came to an unsatisfactory end, or how the dialogue might have advanced had it been allowed to continue. The dialogue format, in other words, gets the reader imaginatively engaged in the discussion at hand, in such a way that s/he is likely to continue mental rumination after the reading has come to an end.

I remember the first time I read Plato’s Euthyphro, in which the title character is discussing with Socrates the nature of piety — Socrates had almost gotten Euthryphro to arrive at a good general definition of piety, when Euthyphro gets frustrated and throws in the towel, just a moment too soon. I’m sure I must have groaned with frustration, because I knew he had quit at just the wrong moment — I wanted to shout after him as he walked away, “Come back! You were almost there!” At that moment, I could see what piety was, even if Euthyphro could not. (Don’t ask me — read the dialogue!)

By the time he wrote The Republic, Plato seems to have refined his use of the dialogue as a way to get at philosophical truth. Here, when Socrates’ interlocutors reach aporia or deadlock, on the subject of the nature of justice, he doesn’t let them throw in the towel; instead, Plato has Socrates say, “Well, let’s look at this another way …” When they come up empty on defining “justice in the soul” (i.e., how the individual can behave justly), Socrates suggests that they widen the focus and try envisioning “justice in the city” (i.e., what a just society would be like). Even here, their first attempt at creating a just “city of words” (a made-up city that exists only in their imaginations) is not very good, and Socrates starts to suggest several features that such a just city would need to have in order to function. He gets his conversational partners to agree with each addition before moving on. It’s in this context of creating (theoretically) a just city that Socrates makes the startling assertion that the poetry of such literary giants as Homer and Hesiod should not be allowed to pollute the minds of schoolboys. His reason is that such poets portray the gods in such a way that they make poor role models for young men destined to become the guardians upon whom the city will have to depend for its safety and good order.

Good fiction teaches us to recognize, and to love, what is true

Plato Myth of the Cave
The “myth of the cave” is a parable that illustrates
the nature of, and the need for, philosophy.

Plato makes it pretty clear that the objection is not that all poetry corrupts but that lying poetry corrupts — in other words, poetry (fiction) should lead the imagination closer to truth, and should hold up models for us to emulate and present images that reflect truth. The Republic itself is full of “made up stories” of this kind. For instance, the famous “myth of the cave” (mythos being simply the Greek word which means “story”) is a kind of parable or analogy that Socrates uses to help his young friends see something that they were having trouble envisioning earlier when they were inventing their theoretically just city. The thing about parables, though, is that they are not necessarily self-explanatory. This is why Socrates tells them his parable and then explains what it means — much as Christ did with his own followers when he taught them in parables (see, for instance, Matthew 13). In other words, the made-up tale is a way of conveying a truth that the young men could not grasp directly with their minds; another way of saying this is that they are not yet able to contemplate the truth (in the sense that Plato used that term), so he had to create an illustrative tale.

There are other instances of Socrates in The Republic using parables or “noble fiction” (γενναῖον ψεῦδος, often translated “noble lies”) for instruction for those who can’t grasp certain kinds of verities with their naked intellects. In each case, the fiction is meant to convey truth, and is intended for those who are not yet (and may never be) capable of grasping the truth with their unaided intellects. Aristotle undoubtedly, as a student of Plato, learned the value of these stories, and perhaps they helped shape his belief that poetry (fiction) can be “philosophical” (help its audience become wise).

The Matrix and the Myth of the Cave have a lot in common
The Matrix and the Myth of the Cave have a lot in common

We will always need “noble fiction”

I think it is a great pity that our schools and universities no longer teach literature as a way of grasping universal truths about human nature, presenting models from which we can learn. As a consequence, young people (and adults as well, for that matter) now have little or nothing to form their moral imaginations, while the culture at large feeds them a constant stream of images of violence and brokenness, with no censure implied, intended, or allowed. We have lost the idea that truth is beautiful, or that the beautiful is true; instead, popular reading material (as well as television and film) is often tawdry and shallow, when it is not full of darkness, despair, and depravity. “Realism” is offered rather than truth, and stories that show good people triumphing while wicked ones suffer are deemed “unrealistic” and untrue.

Is there no one left to tell us “noble lies”? If you know any contemporary writers who tell morally uplifting  or instructive tales, please mention them in a comment.

©2012 Lisa A. Nicholas

If you would like to read more about literature and the moral imagination, read this (or click the tab at the top of the page).

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Why Civil Society Needs Great Stories

St Thomas More Society, Dallas

On this blog, I’ve written a lot on something I call “the moral imagination.” Recently I was invited to address the Dallas chapter of the Saint Thomas More Society (Catholic lawyers’ guild), on a topic such as the ones I deal with on this blog. Here’s a copy of the text of that talk. For the most part, it puts together ideas that I’ve dealt with in a variety of posts over the last few years, but I thought my readers might like to see all those ideas put together in one, coherent address. If you want to see the original context of each idea, just click on the category “moral imagination” in the blog menu to see a list of all posts on this topic.

Enjoy! And please leave comments, if you wish.

Literature and the Moral Imagination, or Why Civil Society Needs Great Stories

When I was a child, I was keenly aware that I was by no means wise. I hadn’t a clue about the world – how it is or why it is the way it is – nor about people – people never behaved the way I expected – nor even about myself – who was I, who should I be, how should I live? I was not only ignorant but painfully aware of my own ignorance. (I’ve since learned that this is called “Socratic wisdom” – to know how little one truly knows).

So being a timid, introverted, and confused child, I read. A lot. I read everything. When I was seven, my parents bought us the World Book Encyclopedia, purchasing a volume or two each month over a year or so. The first volume covered everything that started with the letter A – it was about that thick [indicate]. I read it cover to cover – which probably accounts for my lifelong interest in archaeology and anthropology. I read dictionaries, too. Newspapers. I even read the labels on pillows that said “Do not remove this label, under penalty of law.”

But mostly, I read stories of all kinds – biography, historical romance, mysteries, science fiction, fantasy – anything that would give me some glimpse of life that was different from my own confused life. So I read stories of foreign lands, other times, stories of immigrants and pioneers – I was fascinated by strange milieux and I admired the way the people in these stories faced challenges that would have terrified me. I wanted to be like them – not timid, but audacious; not baffled and indecisive, but confident and persevering, not small and meaningless, but someone who had a purpose in life and strode boldly forth to achieve it.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my reading – indiscriminate as it was – was forming my character, showing me how (and how not) to live, giving me a vision of what I could be, helping me to get a clearer understanding of who I wanted to be. Eventually, my teachers introduced me to more edifying – and more challenging – works, works written with a more serious purpose and with greater literary craft, and I gobbled these down avidly as well. I learned that these stories might be a bit more challenging than popular novels, but they stirred up such wonderful ideas that it was worth the extra effort.

Of course, not everyone takes as much delight in reading as I do. But I was stunned one day when I stood before a roomful of college English students and learned that most of my students didn’t read AT ALL. Ever. They hated reading, they hated my class, even though this was only the second day of the term. I later discovered that they were pretty much typical of American high school graduates these days. The first twelve or fourteen years of their schooling had somehow taught them to hate reading.

Statistical surveys support this awful news:

  • 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
  • 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
  • 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
  • 70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

Now I want to tell you why I find this so alarming, and why you should, too.

Great Stories can help us Become Wise

The title of this address is “Literature and the Moral Imagination, or Why Civil Society Needs Great Stories.” By “great stories,” I don’t mean specifically or only titles that might appear on a “Great Books”list, as this term is usually used in academic circles. What I mean by “great stories” are stories of perduring interest, stories that are capable from age to age of enlightening and inspiring readers, stories that can teach us something important about what it means to be human, and how we best should live.

I hope you will all agree that civil society needs wise citizens. I want to convince you that civil society also needs great stories, because such stories help to produce wise citizens. Perhaps you’ll resist this idea. Sure, stories can be entertaining, even edifying, but can they make us wise? And anyway, what does it mean to be wise?

To be wise, as I use that term, means to know the truth and to conform our lives to the truth. Many people these days, including educators, are shocked that anyone would propose that education is meant to make anyone “wise,.” But I do, and I hope you’ll agree with me that there is such a thing as truth, and wisdom.

So if wisdom consists of knowing the truth and living by it, how does literature help to instil wisdom? Doesn’t wisdom fall under the purview of philosophy, not literature? I say no, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Perhaps you’ll trust the authority of a couple of very famous lawyers, who were also philosophers: Saint Thomas More, the patron of your august society, and Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great statesman of the late Roman Republic. Thomas More is perhaps best known for his (often misunderstood) Utopia, a story with a philosophical purpose that stands in the great tradition begun by Plato’s famous dialogue on the nature of justice and the just society, which we call The Republic. Cicero also wrote his own version of The Republic, recast in the light of Stoic philosophy for the hard-headed Romans of his day.

All of these men – Plato, Cicero, and Thomas More – recognized the power of stories to convey truth. I’m sure that I don’t have to tell you that, while Socrates himself left no written teachings – in fact, he bragged about this during his famous trial – his great disciple Plato produced many written works that have survived, all written in the form of dialogues. Why dialogues?

To begin with, probably because Plato wanted to capture both the method and the style of his great teacher, who pursued truth by constantly probing what men thought they knew, through penetrating conversations in which everyone chipped in their own ideas and Socrates systematically exposed the flaws and challenged them to try again. So it must have seemed natural to Plato to discuss philosophical concepts through imaginary dialogues in which the speakers were fictional representations of real people, Socrates and his friends.

But the dialogue form is also a handy way to engage the reader in the conversation – it is very easy to imagine ourselves standing there alongside Thrasymachus, Adeimantus, Glaukon, and the others, hanging on Socrates’ every word, objecting to some of his more outrageous suggestions, scratching our heads at some of the puzzling ones, and perhaps finally feeling the truth dawn on us as the discussion circles closer and closer to the true nature of justice, in the soul and in the city.

In other words, what Plato does in these dialogues is tell a story so captivating that it completely captures our imaginations, drawing readers in as if we were actually taking part in the conversation. The dialogue form, then, is actually a kind of fiction – a fiction that illuminates truth. A fiction that helps us come to wisdom.

Now, wait a minute, you may say, Plato hated fiction, didn’t he? Didn’t he call it mere imitation, twice removed from truth itself? In The Republic, doesn’t Socrates say that poets must not be allowed into the just city, because they will corrupt the youth with their lying tales? Well, yes but no. Yes, Socrates says that, but he is referring to poets who tell lying tales. He objected to poets like Homer and Hesiod, who he felt told unedifying tales about the gods and heroes, stories that made a bad impression on their young souls.

Plato would have to be a huge hypocrite to condemn fiction per se, not only because he used made-up dialogues, but also because in The Republic he has Socrates propose a number of bald fictions to preserve order in the just city. For instance, there is the so-called Noble Lie, with which every citizen of the hypothetical Just City will be indoctrinated from birth, namely the myth that the gods have infused in each soul a particular metal — gold, silver, or iron – which destines the individual to a particular role in society. And then there is also the Myth of the Cave (sometimes called the parable of the cave), which Socrates tells and then interprets for his young interlocutors, in order to help them see essential truths. And Plato ends the dialogue with the Myth of Er, a didactic story that says those souls who failed to achieve perfect virtue in their earthly lives will be sent back to try again, until they get it right.

Plato’s fictional Socrates makes up stories to help his followers perceive truth. Plato recognized that very few human beings will ever reach the level of contemplation that allows one to apprehend Truth directly. Instead, most people must be shown the truth in figures, through stories or metaphors.

Poetic truth

Plato knew this, and so did his famous pupil, Aristotle. Although Aristotle did not follow the dialectical method of his predecessor, he nonetheless shared Plato’s appreciation for the philosophical value of stories. One of his surviving lectures is on Poetics, or the literary art. Perhaps it should surprise us that Aristotle valued fiction more than history. Comparing epic poetry to historical accounts, he says:

It is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen — what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose.… The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.

So according to Aristotle, poetry of its very nature leads toward wisdom. How does fiction lead us to perceive truth? By creating an analogy between the reader and the fictional protagonist, so that in effect the reader vicariously lives through the actions of the protagonist.

Christian Stories

Pagan myth, which inspired the great works of the early epic tradition, sought to express imaginatively the relationship between gods and men. Unfortunately, as Socrates and Plato found, the results were not very satisfactory, so in Graeco-Roman culture myth was largely supplanted in the quest for wisdom by philosophy.

Judaeo-Christian culture, of course, has the benefit of Divine Revelation – truths that we could never grasp with our unaided human intellects and imaginations, God Himself has revealed to us. So, you might ask, does that mean that we Christians have no need of stories to learn truth? Of course not. There would be no Christianity (nor Judaism, either) without stories. Any Christian, be he Catholic, Presybterian, or Seventh Day Adventist, knows that the Christian faith is passed on primarily through stories – especially the stories found in that Great Storybook that we call the Bible, the Greatest Story Ever Told. Now, many Christians tend to look at the Bible as a kind of instruction manual cum history book, something purely factual which must be read with the most deadly literal-mindedness.

I’d like to propose that we should think of the Bible as the truest of all stories, almost like a novel – a true one — that has been written one chapter at a time over thousands of years, containing a masterfully developed, perfectly unified plot that reaches a triumphant climax in the death and resurrection of the hero. God is not only the author, he is also the protagonist of this great story – it’s a story about Himself, a story that he told the Jews over and over, the story of the salvation that He would achieve in time, for all eternity. He finally acted out the story when He became Man, to make things as clear as possible. And, of course, during his earthly ministry, Jesus himself constantly used stories to convey ineffable truths – we call these stories parables.

Christ’s apostles, once they had received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, recognized that all of Sacred Scripture is about Christ. They saw that Noah, Abraham & Isaac, Joseph of Egypt, Moses were all types of Christ – they prefigured or foreshadowed the act of salvation that would be achieved by God-made-Man. The apostles understood also that we, too, are called to be types or figures of Christ – we must be like Him, “put on the mind of Christ,” function as “members of His body.” We must write ourselves into that story of salvation. In fact, we would not know how to act, how to love, how to offer our lives for our brethren, if God Himself had not told us his story.

The Dearth of Good Stories Today

So stories are essentially extended metaphors or analogies that can provide us with inspiration on how (or how not) to live. When we read stories, we “live other lives,” as C. S. Lewis put it – in our vicarious participation in the protagonist’s plight, we experience his actions, and their consequences, at no real risk to ourselves. This is why for so many centuries, a large part of education consisted of reading and internalizing great stories. For the Greeks, these were the stories of great heroes, men who were virtually godlike some dimension (Achilles’ godlike rage, Hercules’ immense strength, Odysseus’ incredible wiliness). For Christians, of course, the greatest hero is Jesus Christ, not merely a “godlike” man, but actually God-made-Man, capable of the greatest of all heroic feats – rescuing all Mankind from the jaws of death, loving the miserable, vindictive sinners who put him to death in the cruelest possible way. Achilles could never do that. Odysseus could never do that.

Since the rise of Christianity, many new stories of Christian heroes have been added to the fund of Western literature – both those historical figures we call saints, and purely fictional heroes who are, in their own ways, Christ-like. Heroes unlike those of the pagan poets – they are humble rather than boastful, they struggle not for personal glory, but to protect the weak and innocent, or they struggle against their own inner demons. The Christian imagination simply cannot help but produce Christ-like protagonists.

Unfortunately, the Christian imagination has largely been banished from the public sphere, banished from our schools and universities, all but disappeared from contemporary novels, films, and television shows. The very idea of heroism itself has been diminished and distorted almost out of existence.

In the past, the so called “Great Books” constituted the core curriculum of education. They gave us a common fund of stories that formed our collective moral imagination, figures we could point to as examples to be emulated or avoided. Notice how, in the absence of such stories today, we simply point fingers at each other, and public discourse descends into a mess of name-calling and hate-mongering.

Make no mistake, the poets have been banished from our unjust republic. Literature is no longer studied in most colleges and universities – it has been displaced by so-called “cultural studies” whose goal is the not the promotion but the denigration of existing culture, the destruction of any common bond with those who have gone before, the destruction of anything that can be perceived as an ideology in competition with the cultural Marxism that has reigned in our universities now for generations. Any literature which has continued to speak to the human condition from age to age, any literature which has traditionally been considered edifying – has been branded “high” culture, therefore “elitist,” and therefore to be reviled and rejected by modern readers. After all, who are we to suggest that young people should strive to be more than they are, that they should greater than they are? Elitist heresy!

School children are no longer taught the stories of “great” historical figures or literary characters – they are allowed to admire only those figures who are in some way “transgressive” of existing norms, cultural outsiders who struggle against the predominant culture, social deviants who are admired simply for the fact of their deviancy. Stories written for young readers – those who choose reading over mindless video games – often mirror the darkness of our ever-darkening culture as we slip back into barbarism. Think of Harry Potter and his friends, misfits in the real world of non-magical “mugwumps” yet also their guardians and protectors from the forces of evil.

Books written for older adolescents often mirror the cultural and social chaos in which so many youngsters live – tales full of sexual experimentation, depression, broken families, broken relationships of all kinds. Look at the books on the “young adult” best-seller list – the phenomenally successful Hunger Games trilogy features a teen-aged protagonist who lives in a hellish version of our future, where children are exploited in the most brutal way in order to keep the general populace in submission to the thuggish ruling class. Katniss Everdeen is a bitter young person, who trusts no one and loves no one, except her younger sister, who becomes just another lamb to the slaughter. I read these books a year or so ago, and found them both engaging and deeply pessimistic. By the end of the series I was heartily sick of Katniss Everdeen and her unrelieved bitterness – what a bleak picture of human life such books present.

But the fact is that young people these days have no better stories to inspire them. The great stories of the past have been forbidden them. For nearly two thousand years, aspiring writers carefully emulated the work of the best of their predecessors until they had mastered their craft and could fashion their own stories. But the writers of the present have not read the great stories of the past, they’ve had no great models from which to learn their craft.

Today’s writers, sadly lacking literary models, are forced to look to cartoons, comic books, and old television shows for models — the only “old stories” known by modern illiterates.

Hope for the future

Some might say I am painting too black a picture. So what if we have Batman rather than Sir Gawain or Beowulf? Isn’t it enough that the good guys win and the dastardly villains are vanquished? Well, that depends – who are we calling the good guys? Or the villains? Batman himself is famously dark and conflicted, full of self-doubt, as are many other superheroes popular these days. And what about protagonists like Dexter, the serial killer? Or Hannibal Lecter, the sadistic cannibal? One recent TV series set in the 1970s, featured as protagonists a couple of embedded Soviet spies, Russian sleepers passing as ordinary Americans, who tuck their two children into their beds in American suburbia, before going out at night to torture and murder agents of the American government. With “heroes” like these, how can we even define “good” or “evil”? No, if we want to rebuild our society, we must rebuild our literary culture – and we must do so NOW, before another generation is lost.

We need to return to the great classics, written in ages when literature, like art and music, was intended to elevate the soul, to allow it to glimpse heights where the truth dwelt — but to do so using forms familiar from daily life. such works take great care to find a balance between portraying human nature as it is and showing it as it ought to be and can be.

Not only that, but great stories of the past should continue to shape great stories of the future. This is one of the reasons I’ve decided to become not just a reader but a writer as well. I believe that the Catholic perspective on life is too seldom glimpsed in books today. Too often reality is portrayed as flat, ugly, and merely factual, when the Christian knows that it is complex, beautiful, and full of mystery. We need more stories that transcend the superficial and mundane facts of life in this world, to hint at truth, beauty, and goodness. This requires writers who, like Flannery O’Connor, realize that the world has become blind and deaf to the mystery of life and the Creator’s tender regard for his Creation.

In his 1999 Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul II affirmed the social value of artistic creation when he compared the artistic works to God’s own creative work. He said that the artist, as much the parent or catechist, as much as teachers or professionals like yourselves, helps to “ensure the growth of the person and the development of the community by means of that supreme art form which is the art of education.”

The good news is, there is a small but growing subculture – or perhaps I should say counter-culture – that is striving to fulfill the challenge presented by the cultural vacuum of our times. For instance, many members of the Catholic Writers Guild, like myself, are striving for a Catholic literary Renaissance, writing new stories illuminated by the light of faith – not just for Catholics, but for the wider culture. These works seek to reflect a world of hope, a vision of human life that acknowledges its inherent dignity and worth, a set of values that respects the reality of good and evil and distinguishes between them.

There are also new publishing concerns, such as the Tuscany Press, dedicated specifically to publishing works of fiction by Catholic authors. Barbara Nicolosi, a well-know Catholic film critic and screenwriter, has founded Act One, a school to train Christian screenwriters, not just to make explicitly Christian films, but also to “leaven the lump” of Hollywood with scripts that reflect the Christian worldview. Artists, too, and musicians are also beginning to acquaint or reacquaint themselves with the best of traditional music and art, to seek inspiration from a culture that has largely been abandoned in recent decades.

Although our public schools have, for the most part, banished traditional culture and the whole notion that education is meant to teach not only facts but virtue, there is a growing number of schools – many religious, others public charter schools – that have reclaimed classical education, that enthusiastically and rigorously teach both great and good stories that can make a beneficial impression on young minds, young souls. Homeschooling families have long used such curricula.

There are also a number of Catholic colleges that retain the classic liberal arts ideals, even while preparing their students for virtuous and productive lives in the modern world. My own alma mater, the University of Dallas, is a very fine liberal arts college. The Walsingham Society of Christian Culture and Western Civilization makes the reading and discussion of great works available to adult and non-traditional learners. We need to support these institutions, and send our children to them, so that they can imbibe the great stories of the Western tradition and pass them on.

Let’s be clear, these are minority efforts. And some of those engaged in them have developed a Catholic ghetto mentality, which we need to get away from. If we Catholics want to thrive, we cannot abandon the wider culture. Christian charity demands that we take pains to extend these efforts beyond the narrow confines of the Catholic sphere. Our society needs light and truth, perhaps now more than ever. Our culture is diseased and crumbling – we should not abandon it, but rebuild it.

Pope John Paul II and his successors have seen this need clearly. In Tertio Millennio Adveniente, Pope John Paul called for a new evangelization – a re-evangelization of the Faithful, so that in this third millennium we may find new zeal, new inspiration to present the Gospel in a fresh way to our failing culture. This should include great stories that can capture the benighted imaginations of our young people and inspire them with hope. We should welcome and encourage cultural revival wherever possible – inside or outside the Church.

If we do so, perhaps we can bring our society back from the brink of barbarism. To paraphrase the slogan of the recent TV series, Heroes: “Save the stories, save the world.”

Presented to the Dallas Chapter of the Saint Thomas More Society, 7 November 2013

Poetic Truth, Part I: Giambattista Vico

Vico drove me to it!

I may be the only person ever to have a traffic accident
because of Giambattista Vico. Partly, this is because he has been dead since anno
Domini
1744, and partly because not that many people (I guess) meditate on his theory of poetic language while navigating rush-hour freeway traffic. (Perhaps
also because most people who do are smart enough to buy cars with anti-lock
brakes, but that discussion will have to wait.)

Anyway, assuming that you, gentle reader, are not yet
counted in the number of those privileged to have glimpsed the beauty of Vico’s
theory of poetic language (which makes up one portion of his wonderful work, La
Scienza Nuova
or The New Science
(by which is meant not “science” but “knowledge”),
I will give you a very rough idea of what I’m talking about. It’s been many
years since I first read Vico, and almost as many since that traffic accident,
and it’s entirely possible that my apprehension and application of Vico’s ideas
is, ahem, idiosyncratic and my current memory of them imperfect. Nonetheless,
(having thus indemnified myself against the objections of those who may know
Vico much better than I), here, in a nutshell, wrenched from its proper context
in Vico’s theory of Western history, is my take-away of his theory of poetic language:

Inadequate representation of the truth of God.

Ancient poets were, for the most part, trying to express, in
human language, truths for which ordinary language is utterly inadequate.
Many of these truths could be called “theological” – i.e., truths about the
supernatural, about God(s). Now, in those primitive times, when language itself
was still new and unrefined, mankind did not yet possess words to express
the ineffable, the supernatural, but human language did possess plenty of terms for indicating and describing the natural (rocks, birds, trees, bolts of lightning). Therefore, since human language was inadequate for the task of explaining divinity, the poet was forced to express himself by means of metaphor (or analogy), substituting something natural (which language could express) for the supernatural thing the poet desired to communicate. The power of Zeus/Jove, for instance, is not a lightning bolt, but a lightning bolt is a familiar, natural phenomenon (for which human language has a word) which has important similarities to the power of god (for which language has no adequate
term).

In other words, poetry is necessarily analogical or, if you
prefer, metaphorical. “Poetic language” means, before anything else, figurative language; “poetic truth” is a truth which cannot be expressed in ordinary, expository language – the poet must cast about for a metaphor that seems to grasp the essence of the truth he wishes to express. Once you have grasped this essential truth, you will recognise that much of what calls itself “poetry” these days is anything but. It possess rhythm, rhyme, and other features or uses of technique which we associate with “poems,” but if it is not trying to express truth through concrete verbal images, it is not “poetry,” strictly speaking.

I’m skipping over a lot here, but this will do for my
purpose, which is to explain the value of “poetry” (by which I mean what most
people call “literature”). Poetry/literature’s purpose is to communicate truth,
and its method is to express that truth metaphorically (by means of analogy),
because that is the most adequate way to do it. I’ve had students (future
engineers, accountants, and fry cooks) who complain that it is much easier just
to say things in plain words, but the poet (or the lover of literature) knows
that they are wrong.

Perfectly adequate expression
of the truth of God.

It’s important to point out that the theory of history and language that Vico elaborates in La Scienza Nuova referred specifically to what he called the “Gentile” (pagan, Graeco-Roman) world, NOT Judaeo-Christian history. The Christian should recognize that in Judaeo-Christian history, God did not need poets to describe or explain Him, rather He did it Himself – i.e., Divine Revelation does adequately what the mytho-poetic tradition of the pagans did inadequately. God’s perfect self-expression is the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Logos, true Man and true God. Nonetheless, even in this (I would say), God Himself is the poet – i.e., he provides us adequate analogies to give us glimpses of his true nature. But as every Christian mystic who ever lived has known, what God has revealed is true, but it is not the whole truth. Neither our language nor our minds are adequate to the task of comprehending God in His fullness – for that we must wait until “we shall see Him as He is, for we shall be like Him.”

I’ve got more to say on this subject, but for now I’ll just
let you chew on that. Stay tuned for parts 2, 3, etc. Meanwhile, think about poems, or other works of fiction, that you
have read which have given you new insight into some truth about the human
condition. Something which, upon reflection, you recognized to have “opened your eyes” in some respect. (I am not talking about information but about insight.) If you can think of something along these lines, please leave a comment and let us know what it was, and what it illuminated for you.

(If the idea of poetic truth appeals to you, you might like to read this post from a while back.)

Plato, Homer, and the Saints in Outer Space

great literature cultivates wisdom and virtueIn The Republic, Plato acknowledges the power of the arts (chiefly music and literature) to shape impressionable young souls. Concerned parents today, worried about the music their children listen and the books they read (if they read at all), may appreciate why Plato has Socrates say, in his discussion of a theoretical “just city” (i.e., just society), that youngsters should not be exposed to dangerous ideas — such as Homer’s depiction of the gods as powerful, spoiled brats. In the modern era, Plato has often been accused of being against art, music, and poetry, but I’ve always thought this a gross distortion to what he is actually saying in The Republic. He acknowledges the immense power of the arts to form — or deform — the soul, and he suggests that those who are destined to be leaders should be taught to be wise. The reason he infamously forbids poets in the just city is that he wanted to present young souls with inspiring images, and he just didn’t find Homer and Hesiod to provide healthy inspiration. The imaginations of the future rulers of the just city should not be infected with the bad examples of the poets’ gods.

Since Plato found the popular literature of his day to be unwholesome for impressionable young people, he made up edifying stories of his own. In fact, each one of Plato’s great philosophical works is itself a made-up story, meant to lead the reader toward the truth. He peopled his stories with figures familiar to himself and his fellow Athenians: Socrates the great truth-seeker, and the men with whom Socrates often associated, each of whom typifies some particular point of view. Anyone who has ever read The Republic with any attention will be unlikely to forget Thrasymachus, the belligerent young man whose idea of justice was something like “might makes right”; Thrasymachus drops out of the discussion of justice pretty early on — he just doesn’t have the patience for it. But Glaukon (modeled on Plato’s own brother) hangs on Socrates’ every word, and follows the discussion closely, asking questions and advancing ideas. Socrates, who is trying to get his young interlocutors to glimpse the true nature of justice, makes up one story after another to illustrate the points he hopes they’ll grasp. Plato’s Socrates never teaches didactically; he always tries to help the others to see the truth in their mind’s eye, using both their intellect and their imagination.

For more than two thousand years, this is what “high” literature took as its task: to illustrate some truth about the human condition or the world which would impress itself on the reader’s imagination, to “form the soul,” to use Plato’s terminology. It is a sad fact that this literary project has largely been abandoned by writers today, even those with “literary” pretensions. Contemporary literature seldom makes any attempt to be edifying. Indeed, most contemporary writers would hotly deny that they have any moral obligation to the reading public, aside from being true to their own “vision.” But a diseased eye cannot have clear vision.

This may be the reason that so many parents and educators who are concerned about presenting young people with edifying stories return to the great classics, written in ages when literature, like art and music, was intended to elevate the soul, to allow it to glimpse heights where the truth dwelt — but to do so using forms familiar from daily life. In such works, the writer has taken great care to find a balance between portraying human nature as it is and showing it as it ought to be and can be.

Homer, Plato, and the Saints among the stars
Great stories of the past should continue
to shape great stories of the future.

This is one of the reasons I’ve decided to become not just a Catholic reader, reading with an eye to truth, but a Catholic writer as well. I believe that the Catholic perspective on life as it is lived and as it ought to be lived is one too seldom glimpsed in books today. Too often reality is portrayed as flat, ugly, and factual, when the Christian knows that it is complex, beautiful, and full of mystery. We need more literature that transcends the superficial facts of life in this world, to hint at truth, beauty, and goodness. For this reason, when I refer to Catholic writers I do not mean simply those who write for a Catholic audience. Instead, I mean those whose work reflects the vision of reality that I’ve just described, but who may not write for a necessarily Catholic audience. Writers who, like Flannery O’Connor, realize that the world has become blind and deaf to the mystery of life and the Creator’s imprint on his Creation.

As many readers of this blog will already know, I’m currently working on what I call a “Catholic science fiction novel.” It is intended to be “Catholic” in both senses: it has characters who are Catholic (one is even a priest) and it illustrates themes that will resonate with Catholic experience: growth in virtue, the redemptive value of suffering, and others. But it is also meant to be Catholic in the broader sense I just mentioned: to present a reality that has depth, in which superficial appearances cover metaphysical depths, in which the natural and the supernatural coexist and correspond. I hope that this vision will imprint itself on the imaginations of my readers.

dystopia word cloud
Many speculative novels
paint a bleak future.

So many futuristic science fiction novels, by Christians and agnostics alike, present a kind of nightmarish future, in which science, technology, and rigid secularism have distorted human life to such an extent that it is barely recognizable, or else an absurdly utopian future in which, by his own efforts, Man has created a paradise without poverty, disease, or even death. My story is very different; it focuses not on technology, but on people, who are not imaginary aliens but ordinary human beings, with ordinary human struggles — which just happen to take place in a distant part of our galaxy, far in our future, and sometimes using technology that we can imagine but will probably never see.

And yet, when I began to think about the shape of my story, I found that it contains remarkable parallels to ancient epics, such as Homer’s Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid. I was surprised to realize that it also parallels American history, in depicting people escaping a world in which religion is often persecuted to create a new home, in a distant land, where a new society may be built, guided by Christian principles — much as the English Pilgrims did when they came to North America. Biblical echoes can also be found in it. Why? Because my imagination, quite unconsciously, has been shaped by the great stories most familiar to me and has fashioned a tale that bears a familiar resemblance to them.

I’m sure few readers will be conscious of these allusions, any more than I was conscious of them as I began shaping my story, But perhaps my story will make an impression on the imaginations, and the souls, of my readers, similar to the way ancient epics and Holy Scripture have made an impression on my own. I’d like to think so. I’d like to believe that, like Plato, I have created a story that helps my readers glimpse some aspect of truth that had previously eluded them, or that, like Flannery O’Connor, I have drawn vividly enough for the blind to see unsuspected beauty in the ordinary struggles of life.

Epic poetry and the moral imagination

This fall I’ve been teaching a course on Medieval Epic Poetry, a continuation of the Ancient Epic course I taught last spring, in which we read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid, poems that are all deeply grounded in a pagan worldview but nonetheless examine human nature, and particularly human excellence, in such an authentic way that they continue to speak profoundly to readers in our own day.

Still, the pagan world that produced those works valued things that sometimes run counter to Christian values, so their heroes may seem strange and not entirely admirable to a modern Christian.

Nonetheless, all the poems we read in the Medieval Epic course are written by Christian poets who have, to one extent or another, appropriated the epic tradition and made it their own.

What does it mean to be a hero?

ancient vase Achilles and Hector

Achilleus was famous for his godlike rage.

This shows, on the one hand, the powerful appeal of the epic form and, on the other hand, the way Christians have always been able to “baptize” the best of pagan culture.  One of the key, defining features of the ancient epic is the hero upon whom the poem is focused. For ancient Greeks and Romans, to be a hero meant to be, in some way, godlike. If you know anything about the gods of Graeco-Roman mythology, however, you’ll realize that being “godlike” did not necessarily mean being “virtuous” in the ethical or moral sense; it simply meant being super-humanly good at something, and being able to get away with things that would never be tolerated in mere mortals. Achilles, for instance, was noted for his godlike rage, which made him a most excellent warrior, but the Iliad makes no bones about the fact that he turns his godlike rage against his own friends and allies, and even prays (successfully) to Zeus that they will suffer mightily for having offended him. So the Christian poet who chose to wrote an epic tale had to wrestle with the problem of the hero – what should he be like, if not like Achilles or Odysseus?

Beowulf: A Christian gloss on pagan heroism

Illuminated capital, Beowulf slays the dragon

Beowulf’s final heroic act proved to be disastrous vainglory.

One way to deal with the problem is illustrated in the first work we read is in the Medieval Epic course. Beowulf, a Norse hero tale reworked by a Christian monk for a Christian audience, presents
a vibrant depiction of a pagan hero which is also a Christian commentary on the inadequacy of pagan values. For the Christian, the greatest hero is always Christ Himself, who was not merely godlike but actually God Made Man, who won the greatest possible victory – over sin and death – not through his power and might but through his deliberate weakness and willing defeat (see my earlier post on the Heliand for more on this). So for the Christian epic poet, every true hero must be, in some important way, Christ-like (“godlike” in the sense of being like the God Made Man). Often this means that he will be self-sacrificing (as Beowulf is, saving his people from a dragon, but dying as a result of his wounds): many times, we will see the hero “harrowing Hell,” literally or figuratively redeeming the souls of the dead, as we find Aragorn doing in Tolkien’s The Return of the King (there is an analogous scene in Beowulf); like Christ, the hero may win a great victory by virtue of his humility rather than his might, as Frodo does, another Tolkien character. (Tolkien was, like the Beowulf poet, inspired both by Norse myth and by his Christian faith.)

In this final regard, however, Beowulf falls short – he is not a Christian, after all, and his insistence that he fight the dragon on his own is a not humble self-sacrifice, but a magnificently heroic gesture of vainglory. Although he defeats his foe, he gets himself killed in the process, thus leaving his people undefended. Left without a king, they are doomed to be destroyed by hostile neighbors, who have nothing to fear in the absence of a powerful king. The Beowulf poet reminds his reader of this sad consequence at the end of the poem and thereby manages to pay homage to a great Danish hero only to expose the weakness of a culture that exalts vainglory over truly selfless heroism – such a culture, the poem suggests, bears within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

Sir Gawain: Moral courage and Christian humility

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain kneels humbly before his foe.

This is a message that also haunts the Arthurian literary tradition, as we saw in the second work we read this semester, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This poem was written by a Christian poet, for a Christian audience, and its hero is himself a Christian, Gawain the nephew of King Arthur. Many elements of pagan mythology – in this case, Celtic – are also to be found in this poem, but they are found in the antagonist, not the protagonist, and Sir Gawain manages to come out of the conflict a victor, albeit a flawed one. Yet here the hero acknowledges his flaw, is humbled by it, and willingly returns to King Arthur’s court penitentially wearing a badge of shame, which will always remind him of his ignoble behavior.

However, the noble lords and ladies of Arthur’s court do not recognize the penitential reminder of the green sash that marks Gawain’s shame; instead, they admire it as a trophy of victory and even decide to wear a similar sash, much as football fans may sport “fan gear” bearing the number of their favorite linebacker. In the discrepancy between Gawain’s shame and humility and the admiration of Arthur’s court, the poet indicates the vainglory of the court and signals the difference between nobility of birth and nobility of character, and foreshadows the ultimate downfall of Arthur’s realm, which is narrated in other Arthurian romances.

Is heroism dead?

In many ways, our contemporary culture has much more in common with the ancient pagan worldview than the medieval Christian one; modern folk are more likely to admire the battle rage of Achilles or the self-serving cleverness of Odysseus than the humility of Gawain. Yet it is remarkable that, if you were to ask ordinary people to name a defining characteristic of the hero, most would say that a hero must be self-sacrificing. They might cite a firefighter who risks his life returning to a burning building to rescue a cat, or a bystander who tries to save a woman from a mugger. To this extent then, the Christian concept of the hero as one who risks his own life to save the weak and the innocent has made a lasting impression on the modern imagination.

kanye-west-kim-kardashian

He may be strong, but he’s no Hercules.

Unfortunately, too many popular “heroes” resemble degraded versions of Achilles or Odysseus, excelling at one (perhaps inconsequential) thing, while presenting poor examples as human beings – professional athletes who break records in their sports, but live lives of disgusting excess and moral depravity, celebrities who shamelessly parade their vile lifestyles before the public eye, wealthy executives who make millions even when they destroy the businesses they run, and so on.  These decadent “heroes” risk nothing but expect to have everything, and they infect the popular imagination like a virulent social disease.

Perhaps it is no wonder that the study of the epic tradition continues to thrive in Christian environments – “classical” Christian academies, homeschool curricula, Catholic liberal arts colleges, etc. What was, for thousands of years, mainstream culture has been abandoned by the modern world, leaving a great impoverishment of the modern moral imagination.

But this continues to thrive in what is now the Christian counter-culture, among those who still aspire, themselves and their children, to live lives that transcend the degraded mundane existence that is the “new normal.” Anyone depressed or disgusted by our toxic contemporary culture, anyone who aspires to be a member of the new moral counter-culture, could do much worse than to pick up one of the great works of the epic literary tradition and catch a glimpse of true heroism.

©2012 Lisa A. Nicholas

Moral Imagination: Beauty, Truth, and Goodness

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Recently I wrote about literature
as being capable of conveying, and even discovering, truth,
which can be
called “poetic knowledge.” Both Aristotle
and St Thomas Aquinas upheld a similar view, Aristotle by demonstrating that
poetry is “more philosophical” (i.e., more capable of demonstrating truth) than
history, and St Thomas acknowledging poetry as a kind of “science” (scientia) or knowledge, albeit a lower
form of knowledge than philosophy because it relies more on imagination than intellect.
Today I’d like to consider the value of beauty, an abstract value, but one that
we often associate with poetry, as well as music and the fine arts.
beautiful dew drops on clover leaf

Beauty lifts us up

My thoughts are prompted by this interesting feature article
from the National Catholic Register, “True
Beauty Satisfies the Human Heart,”
an interview by Trent Beattie of
psychologist Margaret Laracy, who identifies beauty as a kind of knowledge.
Laracy has made a study of the healing effects of beauty on those suffering
from mental illness. Since she is one of the few scholars to study seriously
the effects of beauty, she first had to arrive at a satisfactory definition of “beauty”
before she could study it; as a starting point she turns to St Thomas Aquinas,
the great definer of abstract truths. Thomas identified three essential
qualities of beauty: clarity (the luminosity or illumination communicated by the
object of perception), harmony (the right ordering of the parts of the object),
and integrity (the wholeness of the object’s luminosity and harmony which, in
synthesis, elicit repose and contemplation). Through its integrity, beauty calls
us to contemplation, and thereby leads us beyond the beautiful object to the
greater beauty of which it is but one instance. (This reminds me of what
C. S. Lewis said of “good books”
– that they enlarge us.) Dr. Laracy does
not cite St Augustine in her
discussion of beauty, but she well might: Augustine would say that in
contemplating the creature (beautiful object) one is drawn to the Creator
(God). In this way, I would say, beauty can provide not merely mental but
also spiritual healing.

Thinking about Thomas’s three essential marks of beauty, I
was reminded of an experience I once had in an art museum. Many years ago, I
was in the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art, probably more out of morbid
curiosity than for aesthetic pleasure. In those days (and still) I found most
of what is classified as “modern” art to be incomprehensible and repugnant,
sometimes even laughable. (In fact, I can remember at least one occasion on
which I was all but physically expelled from the Modern by a docent who didn’t
like my jeering commentary on the exhibits.) I guess, in Thomas’s terms, I found
that the “artworks” being exhibited failed on almost every point – for
instance, a pile of stones of nondescript stones did not communicate anything
in particular; patrons were invited to rearrange them as they liked, so there
was no inherent harmony; and there certainly was no integrity, since the
implication was that the “artwork” was always unfinished (although patrons were
exhorted not to take any of the stones away). The only thing it led me to
contemplate was why the heck the museum would present such dreck as “art.”

A visceral reaction

Perhaps the same day I saw the pile of stones at the Modern
(or some other day altogether), I wandered into an open gallery containing
sculpture that immediately arrested my attention. I imagine there were a number
of pieces displayed there, but I remember only one. It was fairly large (say
about the size of a large man sitting with his knees drawn up), and seemed to chrome-plated
(it was probably polished aluminum), abstract in form, a twisted, highly
reflective mass suggesting (to my imagination, anyway) tangled car bumpers, which
I found mesmerizing and repellent. I would stare at it for a few moments and
then rush out of the room, but come back a few minutes later to peer at it in
horrid fascination from a different angle. I felt an incoherent, but insistant,
impulse to find a curator and demand that the sculpture be taken away.
Eventually, I left the museum feeling inexplicably distressed and nauseated.

I remember asking myself what it was about the sculpture
that provoked such a strongly negative response and could not articulate a
reason other than to think, as I looked at the sculpture, “It’s just wrong! It’s
a lie!” Had I been foolhardy enough to say such a thing to a curator, I
undoubtedly would have been told that there is no “right” or “wrong” about art,
that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and what I found repellent someone
else would find enchanting. If anyone had suggested as much, I would have
replied, “Then anyone who likes that thing has something seriously wrong with
him.”
Winged Victory of Samothrace
Winged Victory of Samothrace
I can’t remember any other work of art that elicited such a vivid
sense of repulsion, but I have had at least one other encounter with sculpture
that provoked an equally viscerally, but completely opposite, reaction. I was
visiting the Louvre Museum in Paris and, after spending two or three hours
perusing the paintings on the ground floor, realized that the museum would be
closing in less than an hour and I hadn’t even gotten upstairs yet. I was
rushing toward the large double staircase that led to the upper floor when I
was stopped as suddenly as if I had run into an invisible wall. Dazed, I looked
around to see what had stopped me, and found myself gazing at a sculpture that
I had seen many times in photographs without finding it very impressive: the
famous Nike, Winged
Victory of Samothrace
You’re probably familiar with the image: a female torso that
seems to be striding forward, wearing those formless drapey garments often
found on Greek figures, with large, backswept wings sprouting from the shoulder
blades. The statue has been badly battered, with the arms (probably once
outswept like the wings) and the head completely missing. Still, it was, quite
literally, breathtakingly arresting; it had stopped me dead in my tracks, while
my attention was elsewhere. As I looked at it, I felt indescribably
exhilarated: I could feel the wind rushing against Nike’s glorious form,
sweeping back her gown and unfurling her great wings; I even felt I could see
her hair blowing back, her eyes gleaming, her triumphant smile dazzling –
although the statue’s head has never been found. I doubt I even noticed that
she was standing on the prow of a ship, yet I could feel the rush of air
against her body and lifting her wings. She seemed to me to be alive and in
vigorous motion, and yet she was only a broken lump of stone carved by some anonymous
craftsman two thousand years ago.

Beauty and Truth

These two sculptures – the deliberately twisted, highly
polished metal one at the Fort Worth Modern and the badly battered hunk of
marble at the Louvre in Paris –
both evinced from me strong, visceral reactions that I can’t fully explain. The
former, modern work was undoubtedly beautifully crafted according to the
sculptor’s intent, but it struck me as horrifically false and wrong, highly-polished
but somehow ugly and obscene. If we judge it according to St Thomas’s “essential”
criteria of beauty, it has none: it does possess a certain clarity or luminosity
(at least, it is very shiny and smooth), but it is so disharmonious as to
suggest a car crash; the (apparently deliberate) disharmony opposes the clarity
(if that is what we can call its smooth shininess) that the work does not seem
to posses integrity, indeed its clarity seems to belie its disharmony, making
it seem false and wrong, and to evince a feeling of dis-ease, rather than
repose.

On the other hand, while the mutilated form of the Rhodian
sculpture might make its maker weep with frustration if he could see it today, it
nonetheless remains incredibly beautiful, radiating life, movement, and exultant
emotion that can quite literally stop a person in her tracks. Its clarity is
such that the sculpture almost seems to be lit from within, not with actual
light but with life itself; even though many portions of the sculpture are
broken off and lost, what remains is unified by a profound harmony, despite its
broken state; the clarity and harmony of the object imbue it with an pervasive
integrity that make the viewer feel as if somehow the essence of Life itself
has been given exuberant form.
By Thomas’s standards then, the modern metal sculpture lacks
the criteria of beauty, and my negative reaction to it suggests that, for all
its careful craftsmanship and smooth surfaces, I was not wrong to find it quite
the opposite of beautiful. The Winged Victory of Samothrace, however, seems to
possess all the hallmarks of beauty, in spades, and certainly it left me
feeling “enlarged,” enriched for having seen it. (Even today, more than thirty
years later, I feel exhilarated as I remember seeing the Winged Victory.) Its
beauty did not depend on “integrity” in the most literal sense, since many
parts of the original are missing, which just goes to show that integrity
itself is something more than material and literal completeness; yet, its
beauty does somehow seem to depend on
direct experience, as no photograph of it that I have seen before or since was
able to do more than hint at the great vitality of the sculpture.
ugly metallic sculpture
The dog seems to have the right idea,
to treat it as a toilet.
All of this serves to show that there does seem to be, despite
what so much modern “culture” insists, that there is a strong identification
between beauty and truth. However, it also seems to be true that our faculties
for perceiving and recognizing both beauty and truth must be honed, so that we
are not led astray by, for example, smooth shiny objects that appeal to our
senses without illuminating our souls. And, if we can recognize the
identification between beauty and truth, it is not difficult to see (as Dr.
Laracy’s study of beauty and mental health suggests) that regular exposure to
beauty can also help us to be whole and healthy, to be good. This in turn suggests
that we should, on principle, avoid spending our time on ugliness, just as we
should avoid lies and wickedness.