AT the heart of every well-made work of art—no matter how dark or disturbing it may be—is an act of praise. In Mark Jarman’s review of Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just in this issue he recounts Scarry’s contention that beauty tends to call forth, or beget, more beauty. The beauty of a face, sunset, vase, or brushstroke evokes in the viewer an answering gesture: the desire to describe or reproduce that beauty in some fashion. For the artist, this will involve making a sketch, writing a lyric, choreographing a dance. In that responsive gesture is the essence of praise. Praise is a form of giving back, a way of doing justice by rendering to the world what it is due. At its best, praise has an ontological dimension—a reveling in what-is, a blessing of being itself.
Like anything human, praise seems at once natural and unnatural. When we find ourselves in the grip of suffering and insecurity praise is not the first thing to leap to our lips. In one of his finest poems, “Psalm Against Psalms,” Andrew Hudgins confesses that he finds praise is the most difficult form of prayer. Comparing himself with the prophets—poets who transformed tragedy and suffering into praise—Hudgins can only feel that he comes up short.
Isaiah ate the blood-red ember.
Ezekiel ate the dung. It went in fire
and came out praise. It went in shit
and came praise from his mouth. And this
is where I stick. I pray: thank, ask,
confess. But praise—dear God!—it clings
like something dirty on my tongue….
I croak the harsh begrudging praise
of those who conjure grace, afraid
that it might come, afraid it won’t.
Hudgins is describing what another prophet, Jeremiah, called “a sacrifice of praise.” When it comes to sacrificing ourselves, we’re all unwilling victims.
In The Brothers Karamazov, the tortured, alienated Ivan tells Alyosha that he cannot accept this world—a world in which children can suffer and die alone—that he wants to give back his ticket. And yet, though the world seems to him a “devil ridden chaos,” he admits that he still loves life. “Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky, I love some people, whom one loves you know sometimes without knowing why.” Ivan goes on to tell the story of the Grand Inquisitor, in which Jesus, after returning in the flesh to Spain, is arrested and interrogated. The Inquisitor’s message, of course, is that of Ivan: human beings do not want, and cannot bear, the freedom that Christ came to bring. Human beings prefer slavery to freedom and illusion to reality, the Inquisitor says to Jesus, who remains silent throughout the interrogation and, at the very end, rises and kisses his adversary on the lips. Alyosha, who gets up to kiss Ivan, tells his brother that his story is actually in praise of Christ. Those sticky leaves may yet save Ivan from despair.
There are, of course, plenty of unrepentant Ivans in the art world today. So much of the art and literature of our time seems to be cabined, cribbed, and confined within the artist’s ego, where the only praise solicited is praise of the artist. Most people have an intuitive measuring stick by which to gauge the art they encounter. Art that is characterized by metaphysical stinginess may preoccupy our minds for a time, but it ultimately fails to engage our hearts.
On the other side of the culture is the sprawling contemporary Christian piety industry, which specializes in praise, which must always accompanied by sweat and swelling chords. But here too something rings false. Here the praise, while ostensibly offered to God above, seems stubbornly earth-bound, equated more with the emotional agitation of the individual than the sticky-leaves-and-suffering-children messiness of this world. In the Bible, praise broadens out to encompass the scary along with the sweet. Psalm 148 envisions praise bursting forth from the unlikeliest of places: “Praise the LORD from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!”
That praise seems capable of bursting out of the humblest elements of the created order, including the stones along the road, is a constant theme in the Bible. St. Paul gives this a cosmic twist when he says that “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now.” For an alleged misogynist, there is something stunning about St. Paul’s most potent metaphor being that of a woman in labor. In that image, suffering and hope embrace; desire and pain bear fruit.
Recently I came across an essay by theologian Belden C. Lane which argues that another much-abused religious leader, John Calvin, saw a direct relationship between praise and desire. Lane writes: “Praise, for Calvin, is a performative utterance. It springs from an inner disposition of intense desire, while at the same time possessing a capacity to influence, by its longing, the object of its love. The act of praising has a double effect—subjectively stirring desire in the one who celebrates and objectively evoking (making present and efficacious) what is celebrated.”
And so it is perhaps not a stretch to say that praise is also eschatological, because it presses on toward the end and consummation of things. When I am absorbed in one of the great works of art—say, a Shakespeare play—I have a sense, hard to pin down but just below the surface of my consciousness, that all the complications of plot and image, surface and depth, comedy and tragedy, will in the end give way to a hymn of praise. When the players come out after the curtain falls, we applaud not only their skill and that of the playwright, but the larger cosmic stage on which we are privileged to act. “Hurrah for Karamazov,” the children say at the end of Dostoevsky’s novel, praising not only Alyosha, but the sticky leaves and the whole of our groaning and travailing creation.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.