Sunday, December 28, 2014

Freedom from Fate Pt. II: The Redeemed Hero

Where the Hellenic weltanschauung found its greatness and its vitality in the dynamic of man vs. gods, the finality of fate, and the triumph of tragedy, the Christian one finds its own in man's moksha, his overcoming of an ouroboric cosmos, and the reversal of death into eternal life; where the Christian dies to himself and the world in order to be re-integrated into redeemed man, the pagan dies only to be re-inserted into the world of becoming and the 'Spindle of Necessity'.

This difference partly derives from a fundamental disagreement over the nature of man, namely in regard to the doctrine of Original Sin. Because we have all inherited Adam's crime we are by default members of a fallen species, of a being less than what it was; but because of Christ's crucifixion we are also members of a redeemed species, which means we can be more than anything we ever were before: felix culpa, happy fault. For the pagan the tragedy was the fact of man's inevitable death, his incessant re-entry into a cosmos he cannot perfectly understand. Thus it was possible for Nietzsche, expressing the sad wisdom of the Greeks, to say to man: 'What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is - to die soon' (The Birth of Tragedy).

For the Christian, however, the tragedy already happened; Adam partook of the forbidden knowledge, allowed sin to corrupt him, and therefore entered the world of death. We are living in the reality of that tragedy every day, but, because of Christ, we do not die in it. The victory of the Messiah consists in his triumph over death, his descent into hell, his destruction of sin's permanence in our soul, and therefore his redemption of man. His life is defined no longer by a bitter, heroic, futile defiance of fate but by an obedience to God and the pursuit of joy; the end for man is no longer death but life.

The Holy Sinner is not one of Thomas Mann's greatest books. It lacks the philosophic existentialism of The Magic Mountain, the bold familial honesty of Buddenbrooks, and the mythic grandeur of Joseph and His Brothers; but is also lacks their ambition, and does not deserve to be critiqued on the same metric as those books are. There is certainly a more amiable, lighthearted impression with this one, something that is generated by the proxy narrator, a Benedictine monk by the name of Clemens whose function in the story is to convey a sense of medieval historicity, which Mann good-naturedly satirizes. Poor pious Clemens, for example, is clearly uneasy when describing sexual events, which through Mann's playful prose come across as endearing rather than contemptuous, as it might otherwise if it were another, more draconian monastic brother.

There is little that is objectively historical about The Holy Sinner, of course, with its narrative ostensibly belonging to the Dark Ages but is nevertheless infused with chivalric elements of the medieval era (the original story belongs to the German poet Hartmann von Aue). This is consciously, ironically done, and is of no significance in relation to the broader point, which is to propose a suprahistorical myth that expresses a relevant truth to the contemporary reader. Mann's objective is to present modern questions through a medieval perspective, showing a human need for grace and forgiveness; this is so particularly from a German point of view in the aftermath of World War II, when the entire nation felt burdened from the calamity of the war, from bearing responsibility for it. Without bothering with some of Mann's anti-clerical points, which are typical of the modern novelist, we will extract from this text what is germane to our own subjects of fate and original sin and show that, while Mann is foolhardy in attacking the Christian institution, he is adept in articulating the Christian spirit.

The Holy Sinner bears in certain obvious respects a resemblance to The Oedipus Cycle. The hero, like Oedipus, is born of incest and is prophetically destined to perform the same perversity which created him. Like Jocasta, Mann's mother character Sibylla fails to subdue her love and compassion in sending her cursed son into exile rather than killing him, attaching a tablet detailing the wretched circumstances of how he had come to be to the raft that carried him to sea. So he is raised in the home of a fisherman and under the tutelage of a monastery, the Abbott of which recognizes in him a trace of latent greatness or some ordained mission. When Gregorious (the name given to the castaway by the monk who found him) leaves the monastery, however, it is not as a monastic himself as the Abbott had hoped, but as a young adventurer hoping to be knighted. He learns who he really is when the Abbott lets him read the tablet, but instead of seeking refuge in the cloister as he had hoped, Gregorious seeks all the more to venture into the world:

'I must seek [my parents] through all the world, until I find them and tell them that I will forgive them. Then will God forgive them, probably He is only waiting for that. But I, according to all that I know of divinity, I who am only a poor monster will through pardon win humanity.'

The result of this departure, however, turns out to be devastatingly different. Using more trickery than a warrior's prowess, Gregorious is able to defeat a Duke who is besieging the city of Bruges in single combat, and relieves the kingdom thereby. He falls in love with the ruling Queen and marries her - the Queen who is none other than his own mother. Now, a key difference between Sophocles' story and Mann's rendition becomes plain. While Oedipus had no idea that the woman he had wived was also the woman who birthed him, Gregorious is keenly aware of that dual relationship as he daily reads his tablet, miserably weeping each time, confessing his sins privately but unable to cease doing them.

As a microcosm of humanity, an archetypal representation of fallen man, Mann's hero becomes something altogether more depraved and far less heroic than that of Sophocles; Gregorious takes a
long leap away from the Aristotelian ideal by admitting a serious flaw. This shows us how man is not merely a passive participant in original sin, a stigma or misfortune indelibly stamped on him through no fault of his own, but an actor in his own right; the fault comes by his own volition. This reinforces our comprehension of how man is more responsible in Christian cosmology; he is an active player, the principle determinant in what happens to him rather than exterior entities such as fortune or fate. Yes, man unwittingly bears original sin as he is born, but it is through his own actions that he is really burdened; the cross he bears is the accumulation of his failure rather than his inheritance.

In time, after the birth of two daughters, Sibylla comes to learn of her husband's real identity, and recognizes him as the 'dragon' in the dream she had after giving birth to Gregorious: the dragon which tore out of her womb only to return later and cause even greater pain. When her misery becomes too much for Gregorious to bear, the truth of it all comes out, and Gregorious finally confronts himself as 'a man sinful not only as all the world is but whose flesh and bones consist entirely in sin', and embarks to do penance worthy of his state. Through the assistance of a cynical fisherman who is distrusting of his humility, Gregorious imprisons himself on an island, where he lives for seventeen years, sustained only by a strange, mythical nourishment that comes out of the rock. He has thrown aside his own way in the world, of being monk or knight, and decided that his will shall be one with that of God - but is that not itself an act of will, to freely align human will with that of the Divine? God preserves Gregorious through a miraculous sustenance much like he preserved the Hebrews after they escaped Egypt with the manna that fell from Heaven.

Gregorious is eventually discovered by two Roman clergymen who have been shown prophetic visions of the future Pope, the saviour of Rome, but he has wasted away to the size of a 'hedgehog', and slipped off of the shackles which bound him. His humanity has fallen away, but with it has his sin as well, both that which was with him at birth and that which he confessed to God. Upon eating of the bread and wine, however, his first real meal in seventeen years, Gregorious partakes in the Eucharist, and therefore resumes the full form of humanity, his strength and size restored to health. Upon leaving Sibylla at the start of his penitence, Gregorious says: 'Not for naught have I studied Divinitatem in the cloister of God's Passion. I learned that He takes true contrition as atonement for all sins'.

To his mother he also advises: 'Then descend from your seat and practise humility.... [Have] an asylum built built from your jointure, on the high road, for the homeless, the old, the sickly, the halt and crippled. There shall you preside, in the grey robe, lave the sick, wash their wounds, bathe and cover them, and give to wandering beggars, washing their feet. I have naught against it if you take in beggars'. So Gregorious practises penance, performing the fullest form of faith that accords entirely with the will of God, allowing his life to be entirely in God's hands, whereas Sibylla practises humility, expressing her own penance through the performance of good works and seeking to salve her soul thereby.

That Gregorious becomes Pope, and a saintly Pope at that (we are ignoring some of Mann's liberties in poking fun at dogmatic Catholicism for our own purposes), expresses the converse of our agency in the world, the power and the freedom of our will: by choosing to ignore reality, to refuse facing the consequences of our actions, we are only pushing ourselves deeper into delusion and therefore strengthening sin. Doing something we know is wrong only worsens our situation, even if it seems to be the easier option. By acknowledging the debts that we owe, however, we approach the part that we play, our role in reality, and can therefore begin to influence it in a more constructive way. Genuine progress in the future can only occur by our understanding of, and atoning for, the past. Gregorious was dealt a poor hand, to be sure, but he made it worse by following through on the sin of incest out of a misplaced love; in fully recognizing that, and making up for it in his extreme contrition, he was introduced to a supreme joy and the life of a holy man, the life wholly ordered by God.

Again, we can juxtapose this with Sophocles. The character of Oedipus was one which was adversely affected by fate, by fortune, by things mostly beyond his control; he was born of incest, he killed his father whom he did not recognize, he married his mother whom he did not recognize. The gods, the world acted on him, and the only thing which he could do in response was to kill himself, to quit playing altogether. The weight of his tragedy was simply too much to bear so long as he continued to draw breath, so he shrugged it off via suicide, in accordance with what the gods wanted. The arguments of his companions were only words, small comforts through which he could not truly escape; there could only be one thing to do in his position, the only logical thing to do in pre-Christian civilization, and that was to die.

The character of Gregorious, on the other hand, was one which was equally affected by the cruelty of chance or the hardness of fate, but also by the grievous errors of his own choices; yes, he was born of incest, yes he incredibly met and fell in love with his mother, but what made his state truly wretched was that he pursued and wedded her anyway, despite the fact that Gregorious 'very well knew that it was his mother whom he loved'. Fate had acted on him, and he responded according to the fallen nature of man, and doomed himself - or would do, if it were pagan Greece and not Christian Europe. For unlike the typical protagonist of noble, sad, tragic Hellas, Gregorious had alternatives to suicide, simply because the weight that had so oppressed Oedipus was already carried by Christ, who shrugged it off on the Cross.

By imitating Christ, the ultimate 'tragic hero', Gregorious could not only relieve himself of the sin through suffering, he could even convert it into something else; the Abbott, for example, muses wisely: 'Very well can love come out of evil, and out of disorder something ordered for the best'. The sinner is sublimated into saint by his active involvement in reality, by becoming like the God-man who forever altered the way in which we interact with reality, by submitting to the Divine will in a way the Greeks never could. The holy sinner is made so not by submitting to the laws of men, but to the laws of God, which command that we die to this world that we might live again in his world.

In one of the most profound moments of all Classical art, sweet, beautiful, virtuous, blameless
Antigone died for the sins of her family. The curse of her grandfather ended with her, because she chose to obey the divine will rather than that of men, who executed her: 'Your edict, King, was strong. But all your strength is weakness itself against the immortal unrecorded laws of God'. Only the most prejudiced of readers could not perceive this as a presentiment of Christ's story. The only real difference, the one that makes the whole thing so crucial, is that Christ did not just die for his family, but for God's family, that is, all the children of Man. Just as Antigone died for the sins of Laius, Christ died for the sins of Adam. The wisdom of the Greeks interlaced with the traditions of the Judaens to host God's Incarnation, the apotheosis and salvation of man.

The Gospels, upon their exegesis by the developing Christian tradition, also solved the problem of fate and chance as outlined in Part I. Where the pagan was increasingly frustrated by life's apparent randomness, or anguished by the seemingly malevolent nature of fate which too frequently rewarded bad men while punishing good men, the Christian reconciled the problem by establishing a doctrine of providence. The fact of the matter is that we do not, we cannot understand God's will, at least not at once; sometimes it becomes evident with time, sometimes it is never evident, but we know that there is indeed a reason for everything. This world is not perfectly ordered; it leaves room for pain, blood, rape, disease, war, natural disasters. Why should not the bad man delight in his chances in this world, even as the good one suffers? His affairs are those of this world, while the Christian's lie in another, which is perfectly ordered.

The Christian's suffering, so long as he can endure it, makes him stronger, and, in opening himself to God, gives him real hope: 'we glory also in tribulations, knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience trial; and trial hope; And hope confoundeth not: because the charity of God is poured forth in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost, who is given to us' (Romans 3:3-5). The Christian's suffering not only leads to strength in this world, but gives him also the promise of reward in the next: 'For I reckon that the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come, that shall be revealed in us' (Romans 8:18). Like Job, Aeneas, and Oedipus, the Christian subscribes to the will of God, and accepts his sufferings as temporal, as something to be endured as a conduit to a greater glory. Fate therefore seems to be less of a malicious ploy meant to plague man on the part of the gods, but more of a tribulation that man must struggle through in order for him to grow, to show himself worthy of being man.

The Roman philosopher Boethius formulated something of a template for the Christian doctrine of providence even while never explicitly making use of the Christian religion; The Consolation of Philosophy became a cornerstone of Christian theology in the Middle Ages despite its occasional pagan tendencies. He says, for example:

'In the high citadel of its oneness, the mind of God has set up a plan for the multitude of events. When this plan is thought of as in the purity of God's understanding, it is called Providence, and when it is thought of with reference to all things,whose motion and order it controls, it is called by the same name the ancients gave it, Fate.... Providence is the divine reason itself. It is set at the head of all things and disposes all things. Fate, on the other hand, is the planned order inherent in things subject to change through the medium of which Providence binds everything in its own allotted place. Providence includes all things at the same time, however diverse or infinite, while Fate controls the motion of different individual things in different places and in different times. So this unfolding of the plan in time when brought together as a unified whole in the foresight of God's mind is Providence; and the same unified whole when dissolved and unfolded in the course of time is Fate' (The Consolation of Philosophy, 4:6).

Boethius goes on to explain how God is the divine architect, the mind which creates the craft, and how the blueprint is providence; fate, on the other hand, is the instrument, the means by which the plan is carried out in time and space. So it is as we said: we cannot know providence, the divine reason, except through fate, which only conveys the part of truth we can know through experience. There is a vast divide between the being of God and the beings which comprise our cosmos. We are on two different scales, therefore we can only know God in an 'analogical' sense, where he can be compared to perfect goodness and perfect truth but is nevertheless impossible to comprehend due to our incapability, limited beings as we are, to comprehend real perfection. This explains the necessity of fate, since God can hardly interact with us on his level; he needs to act within the temporal realm, and to do this he needs to use limited measures, hence fate, the machinations of time and space to serve greater ends. If he were to really enter our world, aside from isolated miracles and specific acts of providence, it would cease to be defined by space and time because it would be incorporated into the eternal. That will happen at the end of time, but only after man has played himself out.

To live inside fate and only catching glimpses of the divine providence behind it is rather like being in the middle of a novel: the hero is increasingly trialed and troubled by various events, and you can sometimes guess at the way the story is going to go, but you can very rarely be sure of it. If the novel is any good at all, however, there are reasons behind the struggles the hero goes through, even if neither he nor the reader know them yet. Everything happens for a reason, whether it be an incidental or an essential one. To fixate upon the misery of something happening means a failure to recognize the greater picture, to neglect the concourse of the story where events and thoughts and hopes meet to form the whole; it means a failure to 'see the forest for the trees', as it were. This is exactly what Mann's monastic narrator says as he tells the deeply providential story of Gregorious: 'But human reckoning does not go far, except in the narrator's case, who knows the whole story up to its wondrous ending and as it were shares in the divine providence - a unique privilege and one actually not proper to the human being.' Only God knows the full content of any man's life because only he can see his beginning and end as one wholly congruous entity; because only God can read his story from front to back instantaneously.

This relates also to the problem of free will, obviously, for if God knows everything that has happened right up to the end, how can we possibly dictate anything on our own? We return to Boethius for the answer:

'Since, therefore, all judgement comprehends those things that are subject to it according to its own nature, and since the state of God is ever that of an eternal presence, His knowledge, too, transcends all temporal change and abides in the immediacy of His presence. It embraces all the infinite recesses of past and future and views them in the immediacy of its knowing as though they are happening in the present. If you wish to consider, then, then the foreknowledge or prevision by which He discovers all things, it will be more correct to think of it not as a kind of foreknowledge of the future, but as the knowledge of a never ending presence. So that it is better called providence or "looking forth" than prevision or "seeing beforehand". For it is far removed from matters below and looks forth at all things as though from a lofty peak above them. Why, then, do you insist that all that is scanned by the sight of God becomes necessary? Men see things but this certainly doesn't make them necessary. And your seeing them doesn't impose any necessity on the things you see present.... And if human and divine present may be compared, just as you see certain things in this your present time so God sees all things in His eternal present. So that this divine foreknowledge does not change the nature and property of things; it simply sees things present to it exactly as they will happen at some time as future events' (The Consolation of Philosophy, 5:6).

The nature of things in the temporal realm precludes them from understanding how things operate in the eternal realm, just as the nature of beasts preclude them from understanding how humans operate. The present for a being in time is categorically different from the present of a being in eternity, who sees things as they happen in time all at once. Thus the agency of the human will is kept free, for man is still a cause unto himself, able to decide upon one option and not another, for God in his omniscience sees the action which man chooses; he saw it all along, but from the lens of eternity, which means that he only saw it because man chose it 'first' (obviously the notion of 'happening first' does not exist in eternity, the nunc stans, the eternal present). This is mysterious to us, but only because time can never comprehend the eternal; he can dream of it, see glimpses of it, rationalize about it, but it will never be wholly understood so long as his present belongs in time and therefore below eternity, for the lower can never understand the higher. So God established this world of causal determinism, of things which all happen for precise, defined reasons, but he places us in it as the sole free actors to play in it. We are dreadfully influenced by a great many things, but there is always the opportunity for our choice, there is always our own sanctified volition, without which the whole endeavour would be fruitless, for both ourselves and for God, who wants not automatons predestined to hell or heaven, but autonomous beings capable of choosing either-or. We are indeed characters in a story set by someone else, but we are characters created semi-independently of the writer; we choose what to do in this drama, but real freedom consists in doing what the writer advises, for only he knows the designs of providence.

This is what Aeneas does upon leaving Carthage, saying to his beloved Dido as he leaves her: 'I set sail for Italy - all against my will'. His duty to the high god Jove is more important than even his love for the Queen of Carthage, and he ends up fathering a son not to her, but to Italy, a son that would conquer the known world. Real freedom consists in aligning our will with God's will. Oedipus was inextricably tied to a fate which he could not possibly avoid, not for all his trying and willing. After denying his culpability in what had happened early on in Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus finally admits who he is and his guilt upon realizing that the grove he has wandered into, that his daughter Antigone has led him into, is that sacred grove which the oracle had foretold would be the place of his death. His death is now a divine blessing to any city which hosts his corpse, but he dies in that grove instead; that it is not a painful, miserable death, but something easy, graceful, even miraculous by another character's account, is indicative that his life is redeemed. God granted him gentle passage and a boon to posterity because he had succumbed to his will, that he had proclaimed his guilt and then died in the place chosen by fate.

Poor Gregorious was fated to be born of incestuous parents, and then fated to meet and wed his mother. He did not try to avoid his fate, like Oedipus did, but plunged into the world to try to absolve his fate, to forgive the sin of his family, a noble, godly aim. He was hardly strong enough, however, and upon meeting his mother he fell hopelessly in love with her; his will was separated from that of God's, and he suffered for it. His penance on the island, however, represented a total submission to God, who then rewarded him not only with the mysterious sustenance that preserved his lowly life, but raised him up into the highest position of ecclesial power. Again, we can only see how fate works out in retrospect, upon seeing something as a whole; only by seeing life from above can we see it providentially, how fate works to perform the designs of God. It may be wondered if Christ himself knew the full import of his work as he wept to his Father in Gethsemane, but he said anyway: 'My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice fall from me. Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt' (Matthew 26:39). Providence was accomplished by Christ's submission to God's will.

In Part I we described how the ancient world was conflicted about the role of fate and man's relationship with the gods; they were capricious, claimed the pagans, rewarding bad men while punishing the good. Sophocles, Aeschylus, Plato, Virgil, Cicero, Epictetus all had greater or lesser inklings of the resolution, but it was only finally formulated in the Gospels, that tremendous statement on man and how he became one with God. The answer consists not in following fate blindly, losing one's will in a slavish servility to a capriciously organized cosmos, but in confessing one's frailty, his guilt, his crimes, his dependence on someone besides himself; the escape from our travails does not reside in our world or our will but in God's. Man is fallen, and is therefore in need of saving; that accounts for the 'randomness' of this life, for the fact that bad things do happen to good men. The pagans looked for a sinless man to whom bad things happened for the essence of tragedy - they looked for it in Oedipus and Antigone, but it was only found in Christ.

This was the sudden change in direction, in perspective: man was no longer someone who feared the gods, who feared and could not explain fate; man was someone who loved God, who submitted to him in the hope of redemption, who could explain fate as the simple fact that this world is not wholly comprehensible except through the eyes of providence, the eyes of God, the eyes of someone who has read the whole story. Oedipus had to literally die because the pagan had no other way to really redeem someone; Gregorious had only to die to this world, because the Christian understands that the soul is already redeemed by Christ's action, and we need only act on it. Christ died literally so we could all die spiritually; we are each of us a tragic hero, with all of our own sins, our own 'incests', and to find the peace of Oedipus in the sacred grove or the wisdom of Gregorious on the chair of St. Peter we need only do as they did, to submit our will to the will of God. To surrender one's will to the highest will is the truest freedom of all, for in so doing we no longer serve the slave of our self but the master of all - and thereby become masters ourselves: 'God became man that we might become a god' (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation).

The freedom from fate means to understand that nothing that ever happens is a meaningless event or a random dead-end that signifies a disorderly cosmos, but a piece of a puzzle that has not been figured out yet, a part of the story that has not been fully told yet; the freedom from fate means to surrender our understanding to God's understanding, meekly knowing that our reckoning cannot compare with the one who made not only ourselves, but everyone and everything around us in this beautifully, blissfully created universe. The freedom from fate ultimately means the freedom from this world, for with Christ we transcend death and the ouroboric cycle of rebirth; with Christ we live as eternal beings no longer subject to the mysteries of fate but to the shining truths of providence.

'For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.' (Galatians 5:1)

Monday, December 15, 2014

Freedom from Fate Pt I: The Tragic Hero

The mythological Moira, or the three Fates of Greek Wisdom, were responsible for assigning to each man his destiny, the fixed course to which his life would follow. According to Plato, these were the daughters of Ananke, Necessity, the symbol par excellence of the orderliness of the cosmic order, and who maintained the laws that control our reality. This was the rigidity of their cosmological vision, something very logical and very just, but for those reasons also very harsh, unforgiving. Man struggled to find freedom in a world dictated purely by law and order, and where often those very ideals were undermined by the frequent occurrence of seemingly random or arbitrary events that worked to dispel the conviction of the world being lawful at all. Why should a good man suffer, they justly asked, and a bad man receive fortune? The following essay will seek to show in two parts how the best of the pagan world coped with this issue, but more importantly how the Christian world solved this issue, with particular respect paid to the questions of tragedy, fate, and free will.

'Adapt yourself to the things among which your lot has been cast and love sincerely the fellow creatures with whom destiny has ordained that you shall live' (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations).

Prior to the Gospels which triumphantly announced God's Incarnation in our presence, the civilized world was muddled and confused. Hints of Christ's coming manifested themselves in Hellenic philosophy, in Virgil, in Cicero, in the life of Caesar Augustus, but this happened as the spiritual climate was being seduced by superstitions and overrun by a sentimental hedonism masquerading as mystical cults. Without the universal belief in a transcendent benevolence that organized the higher principles of reality, there was a general distrust of the Classical deities, which were more often things to be placated or warded off than truly worshiped or loved. The same could be said for the multitude of Eastern creeds which were imported, most of which failing to survive more than a few generations. Whatever genuine initiatic practises these religions once possessed were degenerated and obsolete, leaving their adherents with a mystical shell that was completely hollow, completely empty of spiritual life.

There was moreover a growing and seemingly irreconcilable divide between Fate and Chance, a philosophical problem that exemplified the pagan frustrations in determining the role of the divine in the domains of men. Is it the will of the gods, they asked, that men should suffer so, or is it just the arbitrary cruelty of a fundamentally disorganized cosmos? Furthermore, it was undecided whether it was better to submit to divine will, it being of a superior nature, or whether to fight against it, since fate frequently revealed itself to be as capricious as the laws of a godless, atomized universe would be. By ascribing so much of our activity to the agency of fate and fortune, the ancients denied man a large part of his personal responsibility, his freedom - something happened either because it was destined to happen, or because it happened by chance, and not because man chose for it to happen. An interesting exception to this, the proto-Miltonian myth of Prometheus Bound, is a telling example of how the will of the gods is separate from the welfare of man, and how the defiance of a divine ruling, rather than being seen with contempt, becomes instead something heroic and tragic.

Fate was viewed with deathly reverence by the Graeco-Roman civilization, largely because it was
commonly equated with death. To 'meet your fate' more often than not meant to 'die with dignity'; to cowardly avoid death meant the surrender of one's honour, like Paris retreating before Menelaus to comfort himself in the arms of a woman. He chose lust over dignity, and, instead of dying in a duel, Paris was more ignominiously vanquished by the poison of an arrow. To the ancients, fate was something implacable, inexorable, something which you could not avert; you could either embrace it stoically and heroically, or you could run from it until it inevitably catches you, weeping and alone. Every man has an end, a fate, a death; what defined a man to posterity and possibly in the afterlife depended on how he responded to his fate, his response to what the gods had decreed.

Death was moreover classically perceived as a 'cleansing', as something that purifies ignoble conduct or the soul of a man tied to a terrible fate. If a man's life has left him with a permanent stain of wretchedness, the natural action, the only action that could yet salvage some fragment of his self-worth, would be suicide. This would lend to his story a satisfying pathos that shows those who would judge him that he at the very least realized the extent of his shame and did the right thing at the last, like a Samurai committing Seppuku upon the loss of his honour. Suicide therefore served as a willingness to meet the gods of judgment on his own terms, that they did not have to chase after him like a miserable thief. Such a man dies, and thereby helps the abrogation of his shame by the radical decision to terminate his life; he has already judged himself, making anyone else's judgment seem superfluous.

There is no clearer example of this than in Greek tragedy, where death is the natural consequence of just about anything, virtue or vice, but it is especially reserved for the expiation of guilt. In Sophocles's Oedipus Cycle, for instance, the twin themes of fate and death are horribly intertwined, the one intersecting with the other in a deviously symbiotic relationship. As the story goes, an oracle unveils the fate of Oedipus to his parents, that he will kill his father and marry his mother. They make an effort to kill him and preclude the prophecy from coming to pass, and live for a time in the belief that chance rules this world, not fate. That Oedipus survives, however, means that the entire prophecy becomes reality. Fate had ruled that these grievous errors must happen, and that their final consequence could only be death. Antigone in the third drama laments its invincibility: 'dreadful is the mysterious power of fate - there is no deliverance from it by wealth or by war, by towered city, or dark, sea-beaten ships'. The will of the cosmos, whether governed by gods or something less personal, was unchanging and cruel, immune to the tragedies and sorrows of its inhabitants, no matter how they pleaded for mercy.

It is for this reason significant to note how the major players of this play are rather the victims of fate than the autonomous causes of their own ruin. As with the sons of Atreus, the cursed house that stretched back to Tantalus, Laius dooms his own family by violating the sacred laws of hospitality in sodomizing the son of King Pelops, his host. His wife and children and his children's children are all made to pay for Laius's crime while they are, to varying degrees, innocent. In learning of his son's destiny, Laius orders his wife Jocasta to kill Oedipus, who reluctantly obeys, only to lack the will to do it herself, which of course leads to his survival. Oedipus himself is wholly ignorant of who he is, and is not morally culpable for the killing of his father, who provoked the incident, or for the incestuous relationship with his mother, of whose real nature he is unaware. Oedipus is made to pay not for his own sins, but for the sins of his father. While in Oedipus Rex he takes responsibility for what he has done, exiling himself in a frenzy of grief, in Oedipus at Colonus he is more reflective, and eschews his guilt by the argument that he had done what any man would have done with the knowledge he had: 'I slew who else would me have slain; I slew without intent, a wretch, but innocent in the law's eye I stand, without a stain'. Oedipus further rationalizes what he has done by the plea that no man in history has averted the course of fate, and seeks to thereby remove himself from personal responsibility for his actions.

His attempts, however, are ultimately ineffectual in cleansing his reputation in the public perception and in the eyes of the gods; the sins of patricide and incest are simply too powerful to slip off by his own cogitation, regardless of how much truth there might be in it. There needs to be penance paid for what he has done, at least in the pagan understanding of 'penance', especially if Oedipus honestly seeks absolution for forgiveness from posterity as well as the end of his family's suffering for Laius's crime. His exile from Thebes and the sufferings that accompanied it accounts for some of this, but only his death could possibly atone for his wretched life; dying would moreover be a boon to whichever city he was buried in, assuring it a divine protection. This represents the pagan philosophy par excellence, or at least the one in which the wisest action consists in submitting to fate, corresponding to one's destiny, kneeling to the gods who rule. Fate's final favour to Oedipus, providing he performs the sacred rituals and offers his life to Zeus's tempest that signals his time to die, is to convert the terrible ignominy of his life into a sacrificial heroism that shines all the more brilliantly for his tragic destiny. Oedipus's end is illustrative of this redemption: 'there fell no fiery bold that reft him in that hour, Nor whirlwind from the sea, but he was taken. It was a messenger from heaven, or else some gentle, painless cleaving of earth's base; For without wailing or disease or pain He passed away - an end most marvelous'. Like the ascension of a Biblical prophet, Oedipus departs this world in a passage of mystery and salving light.

The Oedipus Cycle serves as an exemplary instance of Classical fatalism. First of all, it is clear that Sophocles swiftly disposes of the notion that chance dictates the course of reality; Jocasta desperately holds on to this belief, but more out of her desire to delude herself, to avoid the consequences of what has transpired. The fact that she pleads with her husband/son to forsake his search for the truth corroborates this claim: Jocasta becomes increasingly aware that that the oracle's prophecy is coming true and, out of her inability to face reality, clings to the futile hope that chance overrules destiny. When this fantasy is shattered, when the tyrannical arm of fate shows itself to be the sole authority, Jocasta has nowhere to flee - except into the empty haven of death. According to Sophocles, the failure to recognize the role that fate plays in our lives only contributes to the crushing pain that must eventually arrive; whatever illusions we create to comfort us instead become our enemies when we collide with objective fact.

More importantly, Sophocles constructs a fatalistic dynamic in which the question is raised whether man has any choice whatsoever in the determination of his fate - Oedipus becomes aware of his prophecy and yet, in spite of the radical decisions he makes to prevent it from happening, unwittingly fulfills it. This initially encourages the conviction that we do not have any freedom at all, but subsequently, in Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus finally realizes that only death can be the payment for his life - this is a conscious choice he has made, but it is in accordance with his fate, and he is redeemed for it. Our freedom consists in according with fate. Whereas in the first drama Oedipus quite naturally did his utmost to change his destiny, and failed miserably, in the second he succumbed to it, and succeeded beautifully. This is how he becomes the paragon of Aristotle's tragic hero: the harsh circumstances that defined the crucial period of his life were unavoidable, and represented the cruelty that is often imposed on seemingly innocent human beings through the misfortunes of life; by accepting the necessity and even the blessing of his dying, Oedipus met his fate manfully and heroically. Ignorance led him to disastrous consequences, but enlightenment enabled Oedipus to see the path he needed to take, and took it.

When Christ was crucified and rose again two things happened: (1) Death was conquered, and, no longer having dominion over the possession of souls, was made into a servant of life, not something to be feared but understood as the natural conclusion of this life and the gateway to the next; and (2) the ally of Death, Sin, was overthrown, its authority in the world of men was no longer absolute. Christ descended into hell, but death has no power over the deathless, and it could not receive him. Sin likewise cannot afflict one who does not willfully give into its temptation, and it too was forced away. In his sacrifice upon the cross, Christ freed man from the totalitarian bonds of Death and Sin, and ensured that he shall have the liberty to join him in Paradise. The fallen Adam caused man to slip into the shackles of the serpent; the risen Christ broke the chains and crushed the serpent:

'I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman [St. Mary],
and between your seed and her seed [Christ];
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.' (Genesis 3:15)

For all of the proto-Christian elements that peek out of Grecian arts, philosophy, and religion, the fact remains that the Athenian dramas were still fundamentally pagan, an admirable but inseparable part of the Classical epoch. The Aristotelian ideal, for example, that claims how the hero of any which tragedy should be innocent might accord with the Book of Job, in which God's most faithful servant is tested in the most crippling ways, but that accordance ends in the aftermath of the Incarnation and the introduction of the New Testament. Jesus Christ fulfilled what both Plato and Aristotle proclaimed: he was the perfectly just, blameless man who was executed for the crimes of others. He is perfect Love, perfect Justice. He is the ultimate tragic hero, surpassing Prometheus, Orpheus, and Oedipus, who showed glimpses of the coming Messiah but never his wholeness. Christ simultaneously completed and made obsolete the Classical idea of the Classical hero: 'The Gospels are the last and most marvelous expression of Greek genius, as the Iliad is its first expression' (Simone Weil). From the New Testament emerged the blueprint for Christian idea of the suffering hero, the man who suffers not because he is innocent, but because he is guilty.

The Christian tradition formulated the doctrine of Original Sin, which explained that men are fallen creatures, isolated from a state of grace but innately yearning to return to it: 'Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men for all men have sinned' (Romans 5:12). As Adam brought sin and therefore death into the world, so Christ, in eschewing sin and therefore destroying death, is able to offer us eternal life. He achieved this by suffering, by the purely selfless act of sacrificing himself for the errors of someone else; even though he was himself without sin, Christ accepted the burden of humanity and died for it. The stench of sin persists so long as we are immortal beings dwelling in a mortal world, defining us into conflicted, struggling, adversarial creatures, but spiritually there is now a certain freedom, one that consists in the awareness of one's own sin and the potential to transcend it. The old fear of death has been converted into a hope for life.

While Christ represents the extraordinary reality of being at once God and Man, and therefore not subject to the sin that adheres to the fallen part of our nature, his story nevertheless provides the template for the post-pagan 'suffering hero'. Christ may not have possessed our sin, but he was most assuredly human, and was thereby able to show sinful man the path to absolution and redemption: through a violently submissive meekness, through a painful contrition for our wrongs. The ugliness of our selfhood must be submerged into selflessness; the self must kneel before the Other. This cannot be something predetermined, something dictated by the forces of fate or the caprice of chance, but a conscious choice to make one decision and not another; if Christ fell in the desert or succumbed in Gethsemane the selfhood would remain intact and death undefeated. But Christ did not fall; he yielded his will to the will of God, and that is the freest, most powerfully independent choice possible. This is what Sophocles inherently understood when Oedipus and finally blameless Antigone died to this world in accordance with the will of God, but which was not fully recognized until Christ performed his work, until Christ lived the tragedy himself.

'I cannot of myself do any thing. As I hear, so I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not my own will, but the will of him that sent me' (John 5:30).

Monday, September 15, 2014

Art & Beauty Part I, Section VI: A Creating Creature

'The artist is not a special kind of person, but every man is a special kind of artist' (Ananda Coomaraswamy).

If art traditionally understood is something much different than our contemporary understanding of art, naturally the artist was equally someone very different than that person whom we currently call an 'artist'. First of all, as we have already touched on, the world of tradition was something hierarchically organized; just as a work of art has its own specific telos or purpose, so too does man have his particular vocation for which he is best suited, for which he is made: 'In the normal society envisaged by Plato, or realized in a feudal social order or caste system, occupation is vocational, and usually hereditary; it is intended at least that every man shall be engaged in the useful occupation for which he is best fitted by nature, and in which therefore he can best serve the society to which he belongs and at the same time realize his own perfection' (Coomaraswamy, 'Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art', p.67). Thus conceived, man is not dissimilar from a work of art himself, and indeed he is precisely that, a creature created by God. Like any work of art, he has a first and a second perfection, a telos for which he is made, and a capability to achieve that telos; unlike any work of art, however, he himself is the artist and artwork, the free agent who seeks to realize his own perfection and place in the world.

As we mentioned at the beginning of Section III, the artist was actually an artisan, a craftsman, simply a man who played a part in the making of things. A blacksmith was as much of an artist as an architect or a poet, and all of them were vocations to which men suited to those positions naturally found themselves, either hereditarily or by apprenticeship and guilds or some other circumstance; while in feudal society there was not a great amount of movement vertically, say from serfdom to landed gentry, but horizontally there were great opportunities of someone of any social standing to gravitate towards the vocation for which he was created. This was possible because this was a society that recognized the indispensable value of becoming what one is; in order to direct the talents of men toward their maximum potential, men needed to be doing what they do best, even if that meant the majority of men need to be doing something as 'mundane' as tilling a field or fishing the shores.

The purpose of the artist, then, was hardly to 'express himself', to proudly put himself forward as someone specially important or unique, but simply to locate himself in the world as a willing and productive member of its community - and find contentment therein. By working according to one's vocation, man inserts himself as a functioning, meaningful contributor to society, and 'perfects' himself thereby; he becomes the piece of the cosmic puzzle for which he was born, and attains that perfection that every work of art aspires to be: 'The man devoted to his own vocation finds perfection.... That man whose prayer and praise of God are in the doing of his own work perfects himself' (Bhagavad Gita XVIII). Man therefore is not simply an artist, but a work of art as well, one which he himself can perfect by the accomplishment of God's will.

In this way, the artist becomes someone 'anonymous'. This is because, unlike modern artists who reach celebrity status for their acclaimed 'genius' (often after they die for some morbid reason) and the charm of their personality, the artist is seamlessly ingrained into society as merely someone else who is doing his work successfully. In the Medieval era, aside from a few of the more prominent architects and poets, there is a remarkable absence of known medieval artists, which is due to this fact, that his work was ultimately no more or less important than that of the burgher or the baker. Everyone has work to perform, and every vocation is essential to the fluidity of social life: '[It] is not inasmuch as he is ''such and such a person'' that the artifex produces his work, but inasmuch as he fulfils a certain ''function'' that is properly ''organic'' and not ''mechanical''....' (Rene Guenon, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, p.64). (There is a definite reason for the deification of 'celebrity artists', namely that the artist has in some ways been the modern substitute for the priest, a point which demands additional explanation at some later date.)

Nevertheless, despite this character of 'anonymity', the artist, along with any other productive member of traditional civilization, possessed a personal identity, which was the representation of who he really was: 'the ''person'' is that which man presents concretely and sensibly in the world, in the position he occupies, but always signifying a form of expression and manifestation of a higher principle in which the true center of being is to be recognized' (Julius Evola, Ride the Tiger, p.109). Man is, in pagan society, the living symbol of some archetype; insofar as man succeeds as a person he succeeds in representing something impersonal, the immutability of which provides him with the meaning that he craves. The traditional person is therefore in stark contrast with the modern individual: 'So man as person is already differentiated thereby from the mere individual; he has a form, is himself, and belongs to himself.... Unlike the individual, the person is not closed to the above. The personal being is not himself, but has himself' (Ibid.). The personal being is more than himself because he is privy to something transcendent, which allows him to 'possess' himself in a sort of self-understanding that eludes the chaotic grasping of the rootless individual.

While this was unquestionably true in the ancient world prior to Christ's arrival, this was one of the things which the Incarnation changed on a fundamentally metaphysical level. In pagan society man is reduced to being essentially nothing more than any of the works of art, a walking, breathing, bipedic mimesis, the mere imitation of a form he is incapable of fully understanding; this was necessary, this was the perfectly organic means of attaining order in a chaotic cosmos. But what Evola failed to understand was that Christ changed everything, or how Christ changed everything. Man was no longer a 'persona', a mask of some god or rigid archetype as the word's etymology defines it; man is the Imago Dei, the embodied image of God himself. The person was no longer a servant of something impersonal; the person became a child of something superpersonal. To paraphrase Chesterton, God is not, like the pagans of every race have always thought, incomprehensible because he is impersonal; God is incomprehensible because he is superpersonal. God is too personal for us to comprehend, much like his mirth is too great for us to enjoy:

'We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear' (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy).

We do not, of course, mean to equate the personal with the vagaries of what one might call 'personality', but with the totality of the human being, the gestalt of his psyche, the very essence of what makes man himself. The true nature of personality is not the malleable, protean shape of the human character as he makes his way through life; personality is the inner determinant that shapes the human character. Personality is not conditioned; personality conditions. Personality is not altered; it is discovered: 'Personality is spirit embodied in nature' (Georg Nicolaus, C.G. Jung and Nikolai Berdyaev: Individuation and the Person, p.34), which means that personality is the link connecting us to the spiritual and to God. Being made in God's image, we share in his spiritual completion at the core of our being. But we are also fallen, which means that that completeness is disintegrated, and from the deepest provinces of our soul we yearn to be complete again: 'Personality... is God's idea of man, and that idea is the Gestalt man is called to realize, not a general idea, but an absolutely unique and yet universal content' (Ibid., p.58). If we are made in the image of God, and that image is the Person, then God must indeed be personal himself. God is not impersonal, not suprapersonal, but superpersonal - a being so like ourselves we cannot quite recognize him.

Evola is right when he says that 'the person needs a reference to something that is more than personal' (Evola, Tiger, p.109), but he is wrong in that the reference needs to be something impersonal. The human experience is necessarily founded on the subject, the inner consciousness that conditions our perception of reality - of what use is it to the needs of the subject to refer to something fundamentally objective? Man needs to integrate the objective into himself, not vice versa. If man is indeed the image of God, it follows that any 'reference to the above' means a reference to God; it follows that the health of the subject depends on our imitation of the Subject, the omnipotent mind whence we roughly, distantly, but assuredly do derive. It is the power of the subject, the power of the person that enables us to unite objective reality with ourselves. We exist in a world of objects, an inescapable matrix that conditions us in unpredictable channels, but the world of objects exists also in us; the way that we engage with them depends on how much of a hold they have over us, and how much of God, the supreme Subject, we have in us.

We bring God into us by imitating him. Now, the foremost activity that pertains to God is love, for the crux of his relationship with us is a 'going out of himself', and that is the essential definition of love. The result of this love is creation, for something needs to be outside of God for him to really love it; in his love, in his emergence beyond himself, he creates a necessarily imperfect mirror that is the world. He does this because it is his nature to love selflessly. Strictly speaking, he does not need us, since he is self-sufficient; God created us out of a divinely mysterious charity and an incomprehensibly free will, We, and everything else we see or know in the world, are the consequence of love; creation is the consequence. Love equals creation, so imitating God is simple: I love, therefore I create.

This is where the personal dimension in the artist is felt: in the recreation of God's most personal act, which is the continual creation of the world we live in. As we discussed in Section II, however, we create in different ways: God creates ex nihilo, he creates something from nothing whereas we can only mould the raw, primal matter of his creation into something worthier both of ourselves and of God. He sets everything up, provides us with a virtually infinite array of material, and we are tasked with the art of putting it all together according to the ideas of order and beauty that are imprinted in our mind. Despite this difference, the imitation is intact; we lack the might of God, so we act in the way that we can, in respect of our own limited technique. There is one further difference. In creating something, we proceed out of a love that is simultaneously selfish and selfless. It is selfish in that we create so that we may see an inner part of ourselves in projection in a fruitful attempt to capture the other part of ourself and thereby achieve completion; it is selfless in that it is a genuine going out of oneself, an earnest love that unites the thinking, feeling subject with the beauty that we perceive in the objective, outside world. In the selfish creation we reveal our human restrictions, but in our selfless creativity we reveal that we are indeed the children of God.

As this was all well understood in the Christian tradition, art (or what we would call 'fine art') was naturally substantiated with the unequivocally  personal, the unprecedentedly human character that graced the Gospels. The stories of saints became legends of mythical truth, endearing figures worth appealing to in prayer and in song; the icons of Christ and his apostles were concentrated into an intensely personal characterization, warm images of human virtue at the moment of its victory over sin; the liturgy something serenely evocative of heaven's splendour, using exclusively human voices to sing hymns and Holy Writ; cathedrals were each the entire Church in themselves, united congregations sharing communion with God and each other in a fraternal joy; saints like St. Francis personified the natural world, calling the sparrow his sister and the crow his brother. Nature was no longer something for man to identify with or recoil from or possibly lose himself in; it was something that man could enjoy to the full, because he recognized his place above it in the Chain of Being.

The only distinction to be made between the 'sacred' and the 'secular' was in the former being used to designate those deeply, vocationally involved in ecclesiastic life, while the latter designated the laity. In the modern use of the word, there was no such thing as the 'secular', because the sacred permeated everything, lathering the entire society with the brilliant array of colours that the medievals loved so well. Yes, of course there were atrocities and all sorts of the moral abuses such as you would find in any society, but the medieval world was naive enough to love man and yet humble enough to recognize the extent of his depravity. Earth was sanctified by man's presence, who referred to God's wonder through the natural world, adapting her own beauty to create a vivid and dynamic symbolism in which they housed God's Word. We had received the New Testament, the poetry of God, and we responded to the best of our ability - we responded with Boethius and Dante, Ss. Dominic and Francis, and all the men in between who conspired to make their home worthy of its Creator.

Every man is creative in potentia because to create is man's foremost need. The impulse to create springs from the existential well of man's soul; the obedience of these impulses determines what or who a man will be. Man's central, most persistent desire is to complete himself, but to complete himself he must create himself; to create himself he must love, and to love he must imitate God. The imitation of God is the key to the re-integration of man with himself. Creativity is the perfection of the person, because it is the sincere appeal to the perfect Person; to share and participate in the love of the objective world is to make abstract ideals one's own pillars of personality. Christ is the symbol par excellence of this fact because he represents the bridge between God and man, between subject and object: 'God does not mingle himself with man, it is uniquely by means of Love... that there is dialogue and intercourse between the gods and men' (Plato, Symposium). Plato did not conceive of God's humanity, or how it was possible for God to also be man, but he nevertheless spoke the truth, a truth that Christ, whom Plato called Love, fulfilled. Christ, the God-man, suffered the weight of the world out of love for us, and created that selfsame bridge that allows us actual union with God. It is his example of love that we must imitate to fulfil the most urgent needs of the human experience; we show this love through creativity, through acting in the world to redeem the world.

'Man's creativeness is his duty before God and the fulfilment of his will: not to be creator and not to live creatively, not to take part in God's unceasing creative action in the world, is disobedience to God, and in the last resort rebellion against him' (Evgueny Lampert, Berdyaev and the New Middle Ages, p. 48).

Every man, therefore, is an artist; every man needs to create for his own sake as well as that of God. Whether it be the creation of an English madrigal, inter-city highways, a hearty breakfast, a half-dozen children, or simply a monastic silence, so long as it is done out of love man comes through creation to a profound satisfaction. The fundamental vocation of our species is a contribution to the reality in which we participate, which includes its spiritual as well as its physical dimensions. Guenon, Coomaraswamy, the Greek and Hindoo platonists were all right when they said that man is only man when he acts in the world according to his corresponding vocation (and remains 'anonymous'); Evola was right when said that man was only truly alive and truly personal when his life corresponds to something above himself. But all of this is only really brought together when we remember that we are all made in God's image, and purposed to do his will, and what is God's vocation? What is God's will? Simply, to Be, which evidently means also to create, or none of us would exist. The true vocation for any child of God, therefore, is to do as his Father does - to create.

'A Poet, a Painter, a Musician, an Architect; the Man or Woman who is not one of these things is not a Christian' (William Blake).

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Fall through the Ceiling

'And where sin abounded, grace did more abound' (Romans 5:20)

The tragic life is a fallen dove,
A thousand wars ruthlessly raged,
A thousand hawks wrathfully caged,
The submission to a foreign love.

The spirit is drenched in bloody rage,
A rising chaos left alone,
A king without a throne,
Impossible to assuage.

The body is a store of youth and lust,
Nervously tending its nervous wares,
Quietly counting its precious fares,
Dreading the day it all turns to rust.

The heart is an inept, fragile thing,
Sworn to others but possessed by one,
Pierced from without but is undone
By the mind's lonely wondering.

The story is yet to be truly told
Till we have reached the full extent,
Till our passions been wholly spent,
Our limbs exhausted, our soul sold.

The storm will continue unabated
Till we yield to its embrace,
Take up a tempestuous grace,
And find our hungers sated.

The babe is torn from mother's womb,
A seething scoop of skin;
But the father, old and thin,
Is gently laid in his good tomb.

Oh, a thousand sins and sorrows,
This old tale is said anew
With ev'ry world that's born true,
With the sun and all the morrows.

We are placed here in pain and pleasure;
Whatever the prudent path,
Whatever our personal wrath,
To do anything is itself a treasure.

To feel forgiveness we first feel guilt:
Felix culpa! O happy fall!
We crouch lowly and small,
Crawling through flowers that cannot wilt.

Defilement is sanctity's price;
The immersion in sins
Is where holiness begins:
The strongest virtue was once vice.

Even pride's thunder must finally give way;
Take me back, I beseech thee,
Proclaim everlasting mercy
And I fall in your soft arms to stay.

The blessed life is a risen dove,
A thousand wrongs made entirely right,
A thousand shadows shown under light,
The submission to an inner love.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Art & Beauty - Part I, Section V: The Symbol as Man's Overcoming Time

Now that we have an idea of what symbolism is on the theoretical level, it is necessary to discuss what symbolism is on the practical level, or how man has traditionally used the symbol. Since we are inhabitants of the 'profane' world, mired in a temporal, mundane reality, we are fixated upon time, upon the historically and physically exigent dimensions of the world that relentlessly pressure us into thinking that that is all there is. Caught in time, we lose sight of what governs us, of what remains when all else retreats: 'there is no greater obstacle to Union with God than Time' (Meister Eckhart). In time, we are disconnected from eternity, and we acutely, existentially feel that disconnect; it is this lapse from the transcendent, or rather our need to fill that lapse, that determines our deepest, most persistent problems. It is what drives our search for meaning; it is what compels us through so many wrong turns in life, if only in the quest for something that truly stills our soul, quiets our conscience. There are ways to do that, too, even in our restless realm of chaos and fragmentation; there are ways to access the eternal.

The principal way is that of mythology, and its actualization in the recurrent use of rituals, which includes of course the telling of myths at certain appropriate times in the annual cycle. The creation of myth is important in many ways: (1) it bonds a society of humans together, acting as a further adhesive that strengthens the community which lives by the myths, not only with the living but also with the dead and those yet to be born through the tradition that is remembered; (2) it enables us to experience elements in reality in a more essential form, uplifting accidental aspects into their real, archetypal identity by seeing them dramatized in story; (3) and most importantly myth solidifies, crystallizes something that only exists in sensible reality in its mythic shape, and that is the Sacred, the untouchable, invisible inferno of truth that nourishes us more than food or drink because it satisfies the spirit. The myths, and the sacred vehicles we create to host them, to transport them to living consciousness, are precisely what reconnect us with the eternal; they bring the prodigal son back home:

'[The] myths are true because they are sacred, because they tell [man] about sacred beings and events. Consequently, in reciting or listening to a myth, one resumes contact with the sacred and with reality, and in so doing one transcends the profane condition, the ''historical situation''.... The periodic recitation of the myths breaks through the barriers built up by profane existence. The myth continually reactualises the Great Time, and in so doing raises the human to a superhuman and suprahistorical plane; which, among other things, enables him to approach a Reality that is inaccessible at the level of profane, individual existence' (Mircea Eliade, Images and Symbols, p. 59).

So myth is the tangible reflection of what is a priori intangible: 'A myth represents in this world the realities which transcend the world; it brings two worlds together in images and symbols' (Evgueny Lampert). The symbol, then, is a unit of mythology, one which is used by a specific myth to convey a specific truth. While the symbol is in a sense subordinate to the myth as a whole, it contains in itself its own metaphysic, its own idea: the symbol is the microcosm to the myth's macrocosm.

The most obvious example of this is that of the Crucifix, whose part it plays in the supreme myth of the Incarnation is indispensable as the sacrificial instrument, but whose symbolic character is equally important as something in itself. The intersection of the horizontal and vertical beams represents the collision of the mundane and sacred worlds respectively, and the perfectly good and just man dead upon it represents the historical and mythical triumph over time and space. The communication between man and God, between earth and heaven is established via the erection of the Cross, the pre-eminent 'Cosmic Tree' that completes every other mythical image of that sort (i.e. Yggdrasil). The 'ontologization' of time, the transformation of becoming into being, is thus accomplished by the eternal nature of the symbol of the Cross and by the event actually happening in the flux of time; by acting through time, God has redeemed time, and thus saved man from its ouroboric labyrinths.

This is practically managed through the creation of religion. Because man is a fallen being, he is necessarily a religious being; if he were not fallen, there would be no need for religion, because he would already be in full communion with the divine and the fullness of his own nature. The religious institution, as the exterior (and interior) organization of mythology into something available to any man, is the means by which man strives to remember and redeem himself, to counteract the Fall, and to establish a genuine relationship with God and therefore finally overcome time. Since this is far and away the most important endeavour for man in this world, religion becomes our greatest tool, our most prized possession, the thing of the greatest use. Remembering what we said in Section III, then, and Aquinas's 'functionalist theory of beauty' (where the useful is equated with the beautiful), it follows that religion is also of the greatest beauty, which helps explain why it has traditionally been the single greatest patron of the arts in Western Civilization; in the Medieval era, of course, right through the Renaissance and beyond, the Catholic Church dictated European culture, promoting the artistic talents of its members to this religious end. This was most powerfully expressed in the stunning cathedrals that dominated both urban and rural landscapes:

'Artistic allegory reached its apotheosis with the maturity of Gothic art.... The cathedrals, the highest artistic achievement of medieval civilization, became a surrogate for nature, a veritable liber et pictura, although organised in accordance with rules of interpretation which were in fact not wholly applicable to nature.... cathedrals actualised a synthetic vision of man, of his history, of his relation to the universe.... In arranging this figurative discourse, the Gothic masters used the mechanism of allegory. The legibility of the signs which they employed was guaranteed by a solid sociological fact, namely, the medieval habit of grasping certain analogies, by interpreting signs and emblems in ways that tradition had determined, of translating images into their spiritual equivalents' (Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, pp. 61-2).

What this was was the 'power of symbolism', the directly intuitive relation between man and the consensual cosmology society creates to better understand our world. Art is objectively the communication of intelligibility, and it does this through utilizing symbolism, the personification and materialization of profound ideas in forms that we can easily comprehend and which deeply attract us: 'The Medievals inhabited a world filled with references, reminders, and overtones of divinity, manifestations of God in things. Nature spoke to them heraldically: lions or nut-trees were more than they seemed; griffins were just as real as lions because, like them, they were signs of a higher truth' (Eco, p. 53). The symbol was moreover not merely a secondary imitation a la Plato's theory of mimesis, but something which had a lasting value in itself, because it was the means by which man interacted with those things that are not directly found in sensible reality.

Beyond the obvious connotations that a lion, for example, offers in itself, such as the connection between its golden colour and the gold of royalty, tradition carries with it an 'hieratic language', a lexicon of symbols and allusions that anyone educated and participating in that tradition can share in. So the lion, as per the Proverbs, is said to be a symbol of the virtue of courage, and the Medievals, as an emphatically Christian civilization, exploited this symbol in their heraldry as well as in their literature. The Bible was indeed the principal source for this allegorical and symbolic material, offering an imaginative cosmology from the moral parables to the anagogical horrors of Hell; it was the root of everything definitively Medieval and the touchstone by which everything of pagan origins was judged. This included the living folk legends, for instance, which were duly and organically incorporated into the Catholic consciousness. This great symbolic weltanschauung imbued all poetry, all songcraft, all of the plastic arts, all religious artefacts, even seemingly innocuous household items with a decisive, universal power that enlivened the ordinary, making the natural into something supernatural.

In pagan societies, too, everything that pertained to a man's reality was useful in a way that was more than its mechanical use - as we said in Section III, a man's shovel was not only something with which he planted vegetables, it was equally a symbol of the direct connection between himself and his forefathers and the perennial continuity of the harvest. This not only 'enlivened the ordinary', making his world something so much brighter and adventurous than it might otherwise seem by a purely economical perspective, but it attached him both to the the land which he shared with his ancestors and to their common faith. This symbolic lens allowed him to view 'beyond time' and experience the immediate connection between himself and his fathers who shared his trade, and between himself and the gods, who were expressed through specific rites of the harvest; everything in this world contained something more of that world, that divine dimension to which any healthy society adheres:

'Primitive man made no real distinction of sacred from secular: his weapons, clothing, vehicles and house were all of them imitations of divine prototypes, and were to him even more what they meant than what they were in themselves; he made them this ''more'' by incantation and by rites. Thus he fought with thunderbolts, put on celestial garments, rode in a chariot of fire, saw in his roof the starry sky, and in himself more than ''this man'' So-and-so' (Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, 'Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art', p.32).

The Medieval man retained much of this as well, but superimposed upon it the the stamp of a monotheistic, transcendent God who was nevertheless immanent, present and working in the world. This was expressed via the miraculous stories of the saints, including the 'cephalophore', or a beheaded martyr who carries his head as he continues to preach post-mortem. The most famous example is St. Denis, who, according to the Golden Legend, journeyed over ten kilometres with his head in his arms to his burial site, which became the Basilica of St. Denis. Whether this was historically true or not was a concern for the Church hierarchy to determine, but to the common man it made little difference; such events were mythical, which meant that they held greater importance as legends of a superior nature, as examples of God's holiness at work in the world, of his making exceptions to the laws of his own creation. There was thus a lively mythos at play in Medieval society, one which did not (usually) compete with the Church, but subsisted beneath it, providing it with a grounded mythology that satisfied the inherent demands of man's imagination.

Just as Christ came and fulfilled the Mosaic Law, so did the Church Militant conquer the pagan mythology, ameliorating its darker substance with the light of the sacred heart; it came to provide the fullness that the pagans had only been hinting at all along. The antecedent mythical force, however, was preserved, only it was 'christened by Christ', as it were, in which the vestigial heathen elements were cleansed and sublimated into the redemptive authority of the Roman Church. The sites of old pagan shrines, for example, were sustained for their primeval power, for their genius loci, for their being 'magical centres' at the soul of primitive man; but these were invariably purified by the Cross, whose soldiers built churches of their own over these locations, and often named them after St. Michael (who is typically known as a 'demon-slayer') to represent Christ's triumph over the natural world even as he dwells in it. By the unification given to the European nations by the Christian tradition, they all received a 'common denominator' that exalted the truth of the Incarnation yet preserved and dignified the indigenous traditions themselves:

'By the fact of their Christianisation, the gods and the sacred places of the whole of Europe not only received common names but rediscovered, in a sense, their own archetypes and therefore their universal valencies: a fountain in Gaul, regarded as sacred ever since prehistoric times, but sanctified by the presence of a divine local or regional figure, became sacred for Christianity as a whole after its consecration to the Virgin Mary. All the slayers of dragons were assimilated to Saint George or some other Christian hero; all the gods of the storm to holy Elijah. From having been regional and provincial, the popular mythology became ecumenical. It is, above all, through the creation of a new mythological language common to all the populations who remained attached to their soil... that the civilising mission of Christianity has been so remarkable. For, by Christianising the ancient European religious heritage, it not only purified the latter, but took up, into the new spiritual dispensation of mankind, all that deserved to be ''saved'' of the old practises, beliefs and hopes of pre-Christian man' (Mircea Eliade, Images and Symbols, p. 175).

With the Bible as the revelational source, the tradition of the Early Church, the philosophical and political vestiges of Classical Greece and Rome, and the basic legends of the European people were thus synthesized into an organic worldview that, just like Coomaraswamy's 'primitive man', failed to separate in any meaningful way the sacred from the profane; just as their artwork was the integration of the useful and the beautiful, so their religious life was fully integrated into their work and play: '[In the Medieval civilization] secular art hardly exists, or rather the distinction between the sacred and the profane is immaterial since everything proceeds from Christ' (Ernst Kitzinger, Early Medieval Art, p. 92). On the micro level, this was all connected by their shared network of symbols, and the existential contentment that they derived from them - but fundamentally, from daily Mass to the urban marketplace to the potato fields, everything was motivated by a love for God. This profound integration allowed for an easier ontological transition from one world to the next:

'All of the exterior life was a rite, namely, an approximation, more or less efficacious and depending on individuals and groups, to a truth that the exterior life cannot produce by itself, but that allows a person to realize one's self in part or entirely, provided it is lived in a saintly way. These people lived the same life that they had for centuries; they made of this world a ladder in order to achieve liberation. These peoples used to think, to act, to love, to hate, and to wage war on each other in a saintly way; they had erected the one temple among a great number of other temples through which the stream of the waters ran. This temple was the bed of the river, the traditional truth, the holy syllable in the heart of the world' (Guido de Giorgio, 'Action and Contemplation').

The symbolic function is that ladder, the spiritual highway on which man drives his soul to higher planes of being according to his own inner vocation. By providing anything and everything with a symbolic reality, with an identity that transcends something considered merely as a material or historical fact, traditional man remained in touch with the sacred; all of life could in this way be conceived as a clear reflection of the higher or primal life. The old wars, for example, were never just about familial pride or economical gain or even religious dominance. War was essentially the opportunity for man to express both his love for patria and his pent-up destructive energies in a creative manner, in a manner that agrees with providence or divine destiny; Roman society figured that a war was already lost when its generals forsook the necessary sacrifices, failed to make the proper prayers. Serfdom, merchants, nobles, even prostitutes all had symbolic equivalents that made their occupations in the world more than what they were in an economic or sociological sense; they made them direct participants in the timeless reality by their connections to eternal vocations. This was truest of the priestly and kingly functions, of which Evola has the following to say:

'In the world of tradition the most important function of the authority and of the right of kings and chiefs, and the reason why they were obeyed, feared, and venerated, was essentially their transcendent and nonhuman quality. This quality was not artificial, but a powerful reality to be feared.... Traditional civilizations... completely ignored the merely political dimension of supreme authority as well as the idea that the roots of authority as well as the idea that the roots of authority lay in mere strength, violence, or natural and secular qualities such as intelligence, wisdom, physical courage, and a minute concern for the collective well-being. The roots of authority, on the contrary, always had a metaphysical character.... The root of every temporal power was spiritual authority, which was almost a "divine nature disguised in human form"'(Julius Evola, Revolt Against the Modern World, pp. 7-8).

The symbol is precisely the effect of that relationship - it is 'divine nature disguised in human form'. The traditional understanding of kingship, which considered the royal power as something very near or identical with the divine power, possesses the symbolic function par excellence; he is the active, temporal centre of civilization, whereas the pope or high priest is its contemplative, eternal centre. Joseph de Maistre says that 'God makes kings in the literal sense. He prepares royal races; maturing them under a cloud which conceals their origin. They appear at length crowned with glory and honour.... The truth is that they arise as it were of themselves, without violence on their part, and without marked deliberation on the other: it is a species of magnificent tranquility....' (de Maistre, 'Essay on the Generative Principle of Constitutions'). The idea of being a king is manifest in the king, the human form who bears the divine ideal of kingship; he himself becomes something eminently symbolic, a direct correspondence to the transcendent reality here on earth. This is important of course for his own vocation, but how much more so for his subjects who rally to that temporal centre! The necessity of a king becomes obvious once we realize both the need for a pseudo-divine personhood that rules in God's place in the world, and the need for the natural hierarchy of man. In this emphatically symbolic political organization, man can be taught to realize that this world is indeed not the end, but that it is the place through which the divine expresses itself, with or without our help.

If the symbol is fully utilized in the active arena, it most certainly is in the religious one, which brings us back to the beginning of this Section. It is important at this point, however, to distinguish between a strictly utilitarian judgment of art and the complete judgment of art, which includes not only the use of a thing but the good of a thing as well. The former pertains to the analysis of a work of art according to its purpose alone, i.e., a land mine is a good work of art if it performs its intended function, which is the destruction of anyone or thing that triggers it. The complete judgment of art, however, might state that such an instrument is ethically criminal, that it has no place in Christian society, especially if it is used against fellow Christians. This is why the Catholic Church, the traditional arbiter of culture in European history, outlawed the use of crossbows amongst the Christian nations - a crossbow might be well-made, it might even be beautiful from a certain point of view, but it was morally repulsive, and thus could not be completely beautiful. The strictly artistic judgment pertains to what is made; the complete judgment pertains to what ought or ought not to be made.

Conversely, if a work of art has highly noble content for its subject matter, it by no means attains to a greater artistic judgment; regardless of how well it may meet our moral demands, if such a work fails to express its idea in an artistically captivating and vigorous way, it can only qualify as something in the lower order, because 'expression in art proceeds from the work itself and the means employed and not from the subject portrayed' (Jacques Maritain). A monument sculpted in loving imitation of St. Mary, for instance, is nevertheless something quite classless if it is discoloured or misshapen or bland or otherwise deficient in form. Friedrich Schiller explains: 'In a truly beautiful work of art the content should do nothing, the form everything; for the wholeness of Man is affected by the form alone, and only individual powers by the content'. The content exists as a kind of neutral, malleable matter that is controlled by form; it can be moulded into something great like Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli or it can devolve into something like the average 'Christian' radio-rock song. In the first example the content becomes so much more compelling because of the form which wonderfully propels it; the listener is profoundly stirred by the beauty of the sacred words all the more due to the purity and elegance of their expression - according to Schiller, the 'whole of Man' is successfully moved. In the second unfortunate example, the content subsists merely as something sentimental, attracting the listener by means of secondary, non-musical kinships (the relationship between man and his faith), and not by the art itself, with which the listener would be entirely estranged if it were not for its need to invoke 'Awesome God' in its lyrics. The man as a whole has failed to be moved; it is only a vague emotional attachment that has responded to the music, and this cannot be called the complete artistic experience.

So any religious art if it is to be worth its name must avoid the fault of being beautiful in its concept, but sterile in its form. That this is one of the principal difficulties is obvious, because most of religious art is going to be an effort at representing the deeply spiritual, the invisibly sacred that requires our utmost reverence as servants of God; most of religious art is going to be 'conceptually beautiful', because the sacred cannot be conceived as anything but the highest degree of beauty. This sword is doubly edged, however, because if it is vulnerable to portraying a terrific image in a boring language, religious art is also privy to a vast host of terrific images that earnestly plead with us to be revealed in a thunderous communication; the march of the Saints, the Passion of the Christ, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary are all inimitable moments that nevertheless await imitation by our best artists. Due at once to the objective beauty of their relationship to the fallen world and to the inheritance of our own religious tradition, such moments offer an inexhaustible supply of artistic subject matter, and, from the humble iconography and engravings of the early Medievals to the sweeping splendour of the Baroque period, Europeans have been perfectly eager to utilize it. Art is a natural ally to religion:

'Art creates beauty. The beautiful is a transcendental of being, and to approach being as such is always to reach the threshold of the sacred.... The beautiful is... the most modest of all those modalities of being, since it is merely the good of sensible apperception of being, when there is conformity between the object of sense and the sensibility of an intelligent subject.... So also, religion mobilizes all the arts to press them into the service of the deity. Only, they themselves are not religion, and they first have to be art in order to serve any conceivable cause. And art should be at its best when the cause to be served is religion' (Etienne Gilson, The Arts of the Beautiful, p. 182).

Beauty serves as the gateway to the truth. Insofar as the arts capture and signify something true, they express something beautiful. As God possesses the highest, fullest degree of truth, naturally he commands the most beauty; as religion aims to unite man with God, naturally it demands its own beauty, which the arts hasten to provide. Genuine religion is something true, so likewise it requires its own 'gateway', and this has historically been supplied firstly in the shape of the Sacraments, but also in the creation and ornamentation of the Cathedrals, the hagiographies of the Saints, the poetic homilies that spiritually sustain the masses year after year after year. In several interesting studies using censors and surveys that were described in his book The Catholic Imagination, Andrew Greeley outlines the difference between Catholics and Protestants in regard to their perception of the arts, which is namely that 'Catholics are more interested in the fine arts than Protestants, and those Catholics who go to church regularly are the most likely to be interested in the fine arts.... Among Catholics the correlation between graceful imagery and regular churchgoing is positive. Among Protestants it is negative' (p.44). Greeley goes on to argue convincingly that it is the Catholic ideals of community, festivity, as well as their greater emphasis on a gracious, loving God are all part of what causes this divide. This hardly required a modern, empirical study to be observed, however, as the Protestant vision has historically been scornful of the material world, which included its representations of the spiritual world; the bold extravagance (even sometimes to excess) of the art of the Counter Reformation serves as proof enough of this, as Catholics sought to display the intrinsic truth of their faith through the unquestionable beauty of the material world. They did this through Bernini, Rembrant, Veronese, Rubens; they did this through art.

In conclusion, the symbol, as the gestalt of the relationship between the spiritual idea and the material expression, is the crucial element in any work of art, because it is the point where invisible concept and visible form meet in union; it is that crucible that makes known the unknown, and this in a specially inspired way that meets both our aesthetic and intellectual demands. The symbol is in any healthy society organically installed at every level in the hierarchy through an elaborate complex of colour and images that signify to man that he is not only an integral part of the workings of this world, but also of the other world as well. This is chiefly done through the religious arts, which enlist the symbolic function in their 'beautification' of the universe; all reality becomes something more than what it seems due to the symbolism achieved by pen, brush, hammer, and voice. Mythology and the religion which carries it offer an abundance of symbolic wealth because they are what help man out of his anxiety in time and into the security of eternity; the Gospels are the symbolic vision par excellence because God's Word is not only the theandric energy that sustains the universe, it is equally the success of the convergence between the mythical and the historical, and the consequent redemption of time. Through the Cross time becomes eternity - nunc fluens becomes nunc stans.

The Cross stands triumphant over hell because of what Christ performed, but the Cross stands over the earth because of what the Church performed and continues to perform - and not the least part of that conquest is thanks to the artistic enterprises of its membership. We end this Section with a highly apropos prayer for the restoration of sacral art:

'There is one thing which I would like and which I pray for; that everything beautiful be recovered for God and serve His praise. All that we see in creatures and in creation must be brought back to Him, and my sorrow is to see His Spouse, our holy mother the Church apparelled in hideousness. All her outward manifestation is so ugly, she that is so fair within; every effort is to make a fright of her; at the outset her body was bare, made over to beasts; now then artists set their souls to her adornment, next vanity, and last of all the trade, butts in, and so caparisoned, she is given up to ridicule' (Marie-Charles Dulac).