The Word-Soaked World:
Troubling the Lexicon of Art and Faith
Since 1989, Image has hosted a conversation at the nexus of art and faith among writers and artists in all forms. As the conversation has evolved, certain words have cropped up again and again: Beauty. Mystery. Presence.
For this issue, we invited a handful of past contributors to examine our common lexicon as a sort of personal inventory on the part of the journal. Were there words we were using too glibly, we asked, words that needed to be reconsidered, revitalized, or tossed out?
The writers’ responses surprised us. Some pieces retain an element of that self-critical spirit we requested, such as the essays on beauty and suffering. But the majority of the essays ended up as a referendum on the power of language, like art itself, to represent and reveal. Words, the writers seemed to say, deserve to be weighed heavily. On consideration, some words that seem simple or obvious are more demanding than we think.
Language is double-edged. On the one hand, the ability to call things by their names can connect us to others, and can anchor an artist in the created world. Perhaps language itself even offers an image of the divine. Some would even go so far as to say that language is what makes religious experience possible.
But at times, even after long wrestling and careful study, language can seem inadequate, more a stumbling stone than a pathway. Sometimes language seems able only to point to things just outside its reach, things we crave but can’t grasp, things we dare not approach, things we draw back from in awe or revulsion.
This collection of short essays demonstrates the push-pull relationship believing artists have with words: We are in pursuit of a God who is revealed through the poetry of the oldest Psalms, but whose true name is impossible to pronounce.
ALL RIGHT, fine. Let’s grant sublimity, and allow for transcendence, and accept that beauty allows us a quality of experience that we cannot undergo through any other channel, and that we crave. Do we still need to like it?
To want beauty, to yearn for it, to live for it, as any number of artists who rent space on the ecstatic side of the street might claim—all that rapture leaves us in a parlous position. Beauty can swiftly flee. And once beauty is gone, we are left not only with empty hands, but with the knowledge that once we beheld something transcendent, and now we lack that transcendent vision. We are poorer than when we began. The more fools we.
Beauty is nimble; fleetness is one of its salient qualities. How delightful it is to have beauty steal upon us when we had not set out to find it. With the suddenness of a curtain parting, we perceive beauty where we had not seen it before, or not for a long time: in clouds tumbling over our heads; in the dizzying, sheer scent of a viburnum in spring; in a waltz that we’ve half-heard a dozen times but that we, rooted, suddenly hear until tears wash down our faces for no reason except we are hearing it, and it is beautiful. No wonder LSD used to be popular. I can’t fathom why it isn’t still.
But those perceptions are not consistent and our openness to beauty is, by our essential natures, not stable or dependable. Surely all children have the experience of encountering some new object or comprehension with unreasonable delight. The child giggles with joy first at encountering, and then reencountering the doll or the puppy or, slightly older, a new and delicious idea that attracts her. These two and these two, put together, create four! And they will do so again, every time they are assembled! The delirious sense of completeness that comes when beauty is apprehended can hardly be expressed.
And so, like any creature who finds rapture within reach, the child revisits the beauty again and again. The beautiful object or comprehension does not change, but it becomes ordinary, and the child loses the ability to perceive it with piercing freshness. If the object were to disappear, the child would note and lustily protest its absence, but its reappearance would not be likely to renew the initial sense of wonder. The child might sulkily allow that order had been restored to the world, but order is not the same thing as beauty.
Beauty slides away from us. Or, more correctly, our ability to appreciate beauty continually diminishes; we might as well try to close our hands around a skein of wind. And so it follows that beauty puts us constantly in a state of loss.
This isn’t the kind of thing we’re supposed to think. What is religious faith, if not a constant source of beauty that brings ease to the spirit? Several dozen hymns remind us so, not to speak of the Psalms. But faith is not the same thing as beauty, and faith can be ugly. We don’t have to think hard to remember the distortions that faith invites in the door, the grotesqueries. It isn’t at all hard to believe in things that lessen or betray us. Flannery O’Connor did not invent the Church Without Christ in order to portray beauty. Jim Jones’s followers had faith. So did Brian David Mitchell, who abducted Elizabeth Smart so that she might help him bear his faith. At his preliminary hearing, he said to the judge, “Forsake those robes and kneel in the dust!” No, beauty is different from that.
If we happen to be in a receptive frame of mind, a beloved prayer is beautiful, or Beethoven’s Ninth, or several hundred paintings of a man nailed to a board. But if receptiveness is not available for whatever reason, those examples of beauty can be objects of supreme indifference. And—this is the kicker—when those things once moved us but now no longer do, we feel the absence of beauty, and it stings.
It hardly seems fair to blame beauty for the fact that we often miss it, but I don’t know any other way to go about this. We can only talk about beauty in terms of its effect on us. If anything exists that is beautiful absent a perceiver, we cannot know about it; beauty is a term of perception. We can remember that we have perceived something as beautiful, or we can rely on the witness of others, but memory or some kind of communal assurance—yup, that’s beautiful, all right—are chilly ideas beside the hot excitement perceived beauty calls forth. Is truth, as Keats assures us, beautiful? Assertion again. I confess that I find that line facile, and perhaps a bit of wish-fulfillment from a young man facing death.
Perhaps the mere state of yearning for beauty, evidence that beauty exists and has an effect on us, has value. If I sit unmoved before a painting by Mark Rothko, whose work usually has me in tears for its sometimes unsettling beauty, I will be troubled. And I believe it is better to be troubled by my lack of affect than to be uninterested in the whole enterprise. If I can be aware that there’s a level of consciousness that I’m missing, I can—what? I can’t make beauty, or the perception of it, occur by wanting, though I certainly spent a lot of time as a teenager trying to do just that. Armed with the knowledge that Beethoven’s late quartets are generally considered sublime—I don’t remember where I came upon this opinion—I bought a recording, delighting my mother, who hoped her daughter would be cultured. I listened again and again, lifting the tone arm on my record player to restart a movement when my attention drifted. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, I squeezed out a reluctant tear, persuading myself that I had been moved. To this day, I wince when I hear the opening of Number 12, in E-flat major.
But sometimes, not infrequently, I really am moved by music and art, so when I stand unmoved in a gallery, aware that my back hurts and I’d like a cup of coffee, I can at least be aware that I’m not my best, most receptive self, and that’s useful information. It can prompt me to strive for greater awareness. I may not be struck breathless by the beauty of a dew-strung cobweb, but I can remind myself that the web is beautiful, not a bad thing to remember. So perhaps in this way beauty might be good for me. But again, as with most self-improvement methods, I can see its value without liking it. I don’t like diets, either, and I go on a lot of them.
Forgive me if I’m distracted by the sound of laughter over in the margin—that’s beauty, laughing at my attempt to assign utility to a condition that shakes off usefulness like water off of a raincoat. Beauty assigned a task loses its essential shimmer, like the brilliant blue tail of a skink that grows dull as soon as it is separated from its lizard, taillessly scampering to freedom.
Most of us, I suspect, navigate the terrain between receptivity to beauty and its opposite so frequently that we’ve worn a trough between the two positions. If such frequent emotional commuting is not essential to the human spirit, it is probably honorable. To exist too long on either end of the spectrum seems unhealthy. Those who endure day after day without feeling their spirit lift in the presence of some display of harmony, intelligence, and genius—that will do, I hope, as a rough and ready definition of beauty—are living a small hell, insulated by dust. And those who live in an ongoing state of ecstasy, thrillingly alive every moment to the glorious, inexhaustible richness of divine and human creation, are frequently shrill and mercifully few. I find them very annoying. Even Teresa of Avila tetchily asked God to save her from pious nuns.
Such a regular cognitive tick-tock suggests that resistance to beauty—being closed to the glories of creation, human or divine—performs some service for us, perhaps as valuable as openness, if less lauded. Why else would we shut our eyes and souls with such regularity?
Well, we need to get some work done. Beauty doesn’t generally rouse us to action, unless we feel it edging away from us. Beauty encourages us to stop our busyness and take joy in what is before us, and that is one reason it is valuable. But I think it’s the rare occasion that beauty lights a fire under us to dust the living room or start a nonprofit. Swimming in a slipstream of effective action is a pleasant, coherent state, but is not beauty, and doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with beauty.
There can be pleasure, even delight, in mundane action. I’m not talking here about perceiving the beauty of creation, seeing ourselves and our labor as part of a luminous fabric of work that calls being into being. At a smaller and humbler level, it can be fun to take on the tasks that each day throws at us, noting with satisfaction our ability to hit back lob after lob. The problem I find is that after a while, the smaller and humbler level starts to feel small and humble. When it feels itself boxed in, the spirit yearns for something larger than what it can create by its own means.
And thus the cycle renews itself. Once we’ve been in the presence of beauty, and once the more crotchety among us have batted down the strange resistance to feeling our hearts moved, we are forever vulnerable, limping like Jacob after the angel’s blessing. We know what beauty is, and from now on we will be seeking it or shrinking from it. Why should we hope to attain such a state? Why should we call it good?
I suppose I’m doing little more than echoing troubadour poets who claimed that a glance from their loved one’s eyes was itself sweet death—in other words, that beauty is culmination and fulfillment. It is written into our animal nature that we should seek out such fulfillment over and over again, and at least being moved to tears by a painting or string quartet is more seemly than what the troubadour poets were sighing about. To live outside of innocence is to live with desire, and that doesn’t seem likely to change.
But the several millennia of philosophers and, my God, artists attending to this issue consistently remind us that beauty is a good, perhaps an ultimate good, perhaps, as Dostoyevsky said, a life-saving good. More than a simple fact of cognitive or psychological development, beauty is held to be peculiarly ennobling, the leader in the line-up of attributes that separate us from dumb animals. I can’t say with certainty what my dog finds beautiful, but I suspect his biscuit would be on the list. I can’t follow him there.
Yes, I know. The sudden thrill, the flush of excitement, the clear sense that we have been shifted to a new realm, a better one.The joy that beauty can bring, or the sorrow. Either way, at least we know that we’re alive.
There is only one way this argument can end, since my spirit, no less than any other, yearns for transcendence. But I can go down fighting. It is foolhardy to go rushing toward beauty, arms outstretched. It is asking for disappointment. And the fact that we are apparently hard-wired to ask for exactly this disappointment is not ennobling. It is, it must be, our tragedy. And, damn it, I want it.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.