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My Fifteen Minutes of Fame? I’ve been nominated for the Liebster Award

Liebster Award for up-and-coming blogs

Connie Rossini of Contemplative Homeschool
blog has kindly given me the Liebster Award. It’s given to up-and-coming
bloggers who have fewer than 200 followers.  You modern linguists will already know that “liebster” means “favorite” in German. So, in bestowing this award on me, Connie is proclaiming that my blog is one of her favorites (thank you, Connie!) and suggesting that it might become your favorite, too, if you’ll just give it a try. So welcome to any new readers — please poke around, you’ll find a little bit of a lot of things, and quite a lot about the moral imagination, which seems to be one of my favorite subjects and, also, the subject that attracts the greatest number of readers.

Here are the “rules” for The Liebster Award:
  1. List 11 things about yourself.
  2. Answer the questions that the nominator has posed for you.
  3. Nominate 11 up-and-coming bloggers who have fewer than 200 followers.
  4. Create 11 questions to ask the nominees.
  5. Go to the page of each nominee and tell her about her award.

Here are 11 things about me you probably didn’t know:

  1. I was expelled from kindergarten for being “socially immature.”
  2. I didn’t learn to ride a bike or swim until I was 10 years old.
  3. In first grade, my penmanship was so poor that one of my teachers once said my writing-practice paper looked like it had been walked over by a hen with muddy feet.
  4. I once played the “Henry Fonda” role in an all-woman version of Twelve Angry Men.
  5. I was a National Merit Scholar.
  6. For two summers when I was in junior high, I took part in the Governor’s Program for Gifted Children in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
  7. I once had to walk two miles barefoot through Madrid because the high heels I had left home in proved to be too horrendously painful to wear. (I bought a pair of cheap, ugly, flat shoes before I went home at lunchtime.)
  8. I am probably the only person ever to attempt to write a novel about practicing Catholics in the 29th century at the far edge of our galaxy.
  9. When I was a youngster, some of the things I wanted to be when I grew up included: a diplomat, an interpreter, a world-traveler, a novelist, a commercial artist, a naval intelligence officer, an archaeologist. I’m still working on a couple of those.
  10. For eleven years, two possums used to come into my second-floor apartment every night to eat my cats’ food from their dish in the kitchen, and I discovered this only a couple of months before I moved out of that apartment.
  11. I was baptised and confirmed in the first parish ever to be dedicated to Saint Frances Cabrini. The bishop who confirmed me had been a student in one of the schools Saint Frances Cabrini founded, and he met her when he was a child. I took her name in Confirmation.

The questions Connie gave me are:

1. What is you favorite painting or sculpture?
It’s hard to pick a favorite! I’ve visited many art museums and seen many beautiful works of art — those that impress me most are not always the most famous. For instance, once when I was in the Louvre in Parish, there was a huge crowd, about 6 people deep, trying to get a peep of da Vinci’s La Gioconda (a.k.a. Mona Lisa); I’ve never cared for that painting, but found that right next to it was a very beautiful painting of St John the Baptist (it may have been this one). I’m fortunate to have had ready access to the very wonderful Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, where I can see this beautiful painting of a Spanish knight by one of my favorite painters, Diego Velázquez. (I am a sucker for great portraits, and when I lived in Madrid I spent hours ogling Velázquez’s work at the Museo del Prado.) I’ve already written about the sculpture that I’ve found most striking, Nike or Winged Victory.

2. What is your favorite book of the Bible? 
This one is easy: the Gospel of St John, hands down! If the rest of the Bible were to be obliterated (which God forbid), this Gospel could stand in for all the rest. (Of course, without all the rest of the Bible, no one would really understand John’s Gospel, so it’s a good thing you can’t just pluck one book out and ignore the rest.)

3. What was your worst subject in school? Physical education. At least, that’s the only class in which my classmates actually threatened to beat me black and blue for being so lousy at it. To be fair, though, I was actually pretty good at folk dancing, bowling, and calisthenics (if you don’t include push-ups); unfortunately, PE teachers tend to skimp on those units and spend way too much time on things that involve catching or hitting (or kicking) flying objects, which my monocular vision made it very difficult for me to do.

4. Which modern convenience would you find it most difficult to live without?

Eyeglasses from Zenni Optical

If I lived in some pleasant, rural area and had plenty of room for books (although the codex was once considered a “modern” convenience), instead of being stuck on the periphery of a huge metropolitan sprawl, where everything I want to do and everyone I want to visit is 20 or 40 or 60 miles away via a spaghetti soup of freeway, I could live without almost all modern conveniences. Except, perhaps, eyeglasses. I could do without them, too, if I didn’t have to kill my own food. (No, I do not currently kill my own food, but if I lived rurally without mod cons, I might have to.)

5. What is the farthest you have ever been from the place you born? According to this calculator, 5625.89 miles or 9054 kilometers, give or take. That is the distance between Alexandria, Louisiana, my natal spot, and Pompeii, Italy, where I once climbed to the top of Mount Vesuvius, in the company of several dozen high school Latin students. I’ve been grateful ever since to Pliny the Elder for having immortalized that volcano’s most famous eruption.

6. What is your favorite day/season of the liturgical year?
Passion/Palm Sunday symbolPalm/Passion Sunday, which encapsulates beautifully the God Made Man and the human race’s bipolar attitude toward Him. That, or Good Friday, which beautifully expresses that same God’s unwavering and undying love for the wretched creatures whom He patiently wills to become like Him. Shucks, just give me all of Holy Week, while we’re at it, especially if that includes Easter. And by “Easter,” of course, I mean all of Eastertide. Especially if that includes Pentecost.

7. What virtue would you most like to be remembered for practicing? Humility, the foundation of every other virtue. But that’s not very likely. The one I’ve been working on longest (even before I knew what a virtue was) is Wisdom. I’ve probably made a little more progress on that one, but only because I got started sooner and have pursued it with greater zeal. Mea culpa.

8. What one word would your friends use to describe you?
Smart. By which they would mean, “We can ask Lisa anything and she’ll have some sort of answer that sounds like it makes sense. Or if she doesn’t have the answer, she can tell us which book to read or web site to visit to find out.” {sigh} I’ve been known as a walking encyclopedia for more than forty years, malgré moi (when I was 7 or 8, I actually read the World Book Encyclopedia cover to cover). But, as I’ve always said, it’s not what you know or how “smart” you are, it’s what you do with what you’ve got. I’m still working on that.

9. Would you describe yourself the same way?
No, I’d say I’m philosophical, which means “seeking wisdom.” (Are we starting to see a trend here?) Being wise is not the same as being “smart” — there are plenty (too many!) “smart” idiots in the world, and I hope not to be one of them, even though I make plenty of stupid mistakes all the time. But life is a journey, not a resting place, and Truth is a broad and deep country, so I keep questing, higher up and farther in.

10. Do you speak any language other than English?
I speak Spanish well, and French not-so-well. I also read (listed in declining order of proficiency) Latin, Italian, Old French, and a smidgen of German, without being able to speak them. Oh, and I once had a college roommate who told me I spoke Russian in my sleep (maybe I did, I took a year of it my senior year of high school).

11. What is your favorite novel for adults?

Inklings portraits pen and ink

I don’t do well with “favorite” questions. Also, I don’t really distinguish between “novels for adults” and “novels for anybody else.” A good book is a good book. There are too many novels I really like, or have really liked at some time in my life. Here are some that have been my favorites at different times in the past (in no particular order): Where the Red Fern Grows, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, Tunnel in the Sky, The Daughter of Time
, Love In the Ruins, The End of the Affair, The Inheritors, Dandelion Wine, The Lord of the Rings, Below the Salt, Islandia, The Secret of the Old Clock (Nancy Drew), The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, That Hideous Strength, The Place of the Lion, Otherland
, Time and Again, Alas, Babylon, A Town Like Alice
, Lucky Jim. Most of these are not “great literature,” but they have all been, for me, captivating tales, prompting multiple readings. There are some recurring themes her, which astute readers will discern.

But enough about me. I’ll be pondering who my own nominees will be. If you would like to be considered for the coveted Liebster Award, let me know.

©2013 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Moral Imagination: Beauty, Truth, and Goodness



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
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

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.