Saturday, August 30, 2014

True Detective: Light Versus Dark

Disclaimer: spoilers are in full effect for this review!





Like so many other HBO shows in the last fifteen years, True Detective is awash in flesh, drugs, violence, and the various other vulgarities that simultaneously repulse us from the labyrinths of sin and yet draw us deeper inside. Like the rest of them it is set on exploring the dark under-belly of humanity, and like the rest of them it rivals the massive production values of the average Hollywood film. Unlike the typical HBO series, however, True Detective is decidedly unique in that it is essentially a story of 'Good Versus Evil'. Now, is it a traditional one, no, it cannot be; the increasingly tired use of the 'anti-hero' in contemporary storytelling prevents that from being true, with the two TD protagonists being as 'anti-heroic' as you might find anywhere in television today. And yet there is a definite warmth in them that develops in a way that comes across as more authentic than in the usual 'mysterious' bad man who is supposed to appeal to the viewer for his negative qualities instead of his 'good' ones, which commonly consist merely in being rather less negative than those of the antagonist. The generic anti-hero is simply an evil character whose particular form of evil resonates with the audience. Rust Cohle and Martin Hart, being atypical anti-heroes, fight evil not because they are merely less evil, but because they are fundamentally good men afflicted by evil; in a word, the detectives fight evil because they are human, party to devils and angels alike.

Before traversing the more crucial and frankly more interesting subject of the two main characters, it would behoove us to discuss the environment in which they act, and the atmosphere which they oftentimes strive against. It is the first test of a cinematic artwork to convey a setting as though it were alive, with its own identity, its own heartbeat; as though it were a real place, a new, foreign world waiting to be opened, its stories waiting to be told. Unlike the novel, where the writer is allowed by the nature of his art a certain liberty in the expression of his work, leaving the reader a measure of interpretation of events, people, places, the director of a film (or TV show) is in nowise so free; what he creates on the screen, what is captured on video, that is what everyone who watches the screen sees. There is no room for interpretation in that way, so he must invent room in other ways - this is what is known as 'cinematography' in the more specific sense, or the art of creating a mood or a vision by showing something happen in a particular light, in one way and not another. The choice of what is shown, the construction of sets, the addition of a soundtrack, and so on, all contribute to this one principal aim - the creation of a universally understood atmosphere that serves a purpose in the overall production.

In the case of True Detective, that atmosphere is most of all of a dark, dangerous beauty. In the portrayal of the long, absent landscapes and natural spectacles, for example, the atmosphere is something that is indeed beautiful in its Edenic, wild allure, but also one that the viewer wonders is not also conducive to the wickedness of man. Did not the serpent, after all, quietly emerge from the tangled trees of Paradise? Certainly the evil elements in this show seem to be the most at home in the undergrowth of the terrain, far removed from civilization; the invocation of the American literary mythology of 'Carcosa', too, and the distinctly pagan, superstitious charms ('devil-nests', the antlers affixed to the dead, etc.) used to present it to us, is unquestionably of something primeval, of something terrifyingly natural.



While the truly evil powers retreat to the wilderness to practise their madness, the atmosphere that issues from the scenes set in 'civilized' locales possesses a darkness of its own. From whores exiting trucks as they finish sessions to grizzled, impenetrable biker bars to a short but intensely fascinating war in the Negro neighborhood, it is clear that human development carries with it its own peculiar malice; in this there is a different but even more threatening sense of evil because it strikes nearer to the normal human, guilty as he is of wants and perversions even if he is not prone to the murder and rape of children like the serial killers are. It is moreover in the churches set up by a 'Christian' organization, ostensibly a force of civilization, that spawned these enemies of civilization, and possibly allowed them a greater freedom in their activities.

In a more neutral sense, however, the atmosphere succeeds wonderfully in enlivening the locations that this story is immersed in. Like Breaking Bad introducing the arid, toxic dimensions of New Mexico in a way that enriched the show's content, making the environment an integrated element in the story's development, True Detective likewise establishes a lush, sincere atmosphere that invites the viewer to engage with it. The lively, green stretches of sparsely populated land imbue their own sense of hostility that matches the savages to whom it plays host; yet we cannot help but delight in this profoundly natural aura, where life and death are weighed so precariously, almost arbitrarily. The music, from the mood-setting theme song that captures the sinister, bucolic tone of the show to the minimalistic motifs that invariably afford a stoic bleakness to any which scene, is invaluable in this unforgiving presentation of unforgiving Louisiana, providing as it does that singularly pensive, melancholic attitude that really defines this show. The human element, too, in the interviews with the various residents and related characters, is faintly reminiscent of As I Lay Dying; the rustic honesty and graceful, familial issues that persist through generations are present in TD, even if Faulkner's depth is deeper. The Gothic motifs of Lovecraft and Poe are likewise invoked through the aforementioned references to something occult and otherworldly, and add colour and substance to an already mythical setting.

It is worth noting as a solitary complaint that, purely in terms of pacing and quality of narrative, the first five
episodes far exceed the final three. The tension and the excitement of the pursuit of the original suspect, Reggie Ledoux, are extremely high: we experience the rising action in the first few leads as the struggle consists not only against the criminals but also those who try to cover their identities; we experience the most insightful dialogues between Rust and Marty as their two characters are excellently juxtaposed over the backdrop of a confusing, seemingly vicious reality; we experience Rust at his most comfortable, sinking to the bleary lowliness of human corruption in defiance of his own mental health (or lack thereof); and we experience a terrific line of action that runs from infiltrating a seedy biker gang to stirring up trouble in the Projects to hunting the Ledoux cousins in their own property. This more or less perfect pacing is then interrupted by a lacklustre aftermath; the 'intermission', as it were, trips up the gallop, and the level of excitement is never again reached in the same way, even as the hunt for 'Lawnmower Man' reaches its conclusion. The eccentricity of Cohle's crusade to catch the one they missed does not garner enough interest; what the two Black detectives have to reveal about the case does not keep the viewer watching, desperately awaiting the answers, eagerly turning the next episode on as he did during the first five.

That the story does go on, that it indeed needs to go on, is due to the personal resolutions of the detectives' storylines. The characters demand closure. Rust Cohle, for starters, has been established to be an intensely disillusioned person, tormented by the death of his daughter and the dissolution of his marriage. He has crafted a frightening pessimism from his heightened reason, uncaring introversion, and past experiences, and which pushes most people away from him. His weakness is naturally that of liquor, which allows him to retreat from the pounding in his head, the unenviable answers to life's most pertinent problems, the existential crisis of an intellect mutated into hatred and futility. For all of his intelligence, however, the best that he can come up with for Marty's precise question of 'why get out of bed in the morning' is either (non-verbatim), 'I lack the constitution required for suicide' or 'I am not strong enough to overcome my programming'. This is not good enough. This tells us that he lacks the full balance of such a broken worldview, that there is something else that commands him to go on. He caustically questions the institutions of religion and state and family, turning his hatred for life and consciousness into a deadly cynicism for anything that emerges from life and consciousness; and yet his criticisms are shallow, hollow, trite, and we become aware that these are not his essential positions, that they are more the result of bitterness than of genuine contemplation.

Whereas Cohle represents a figure of lonely pessimism, a conscientious objector, an eminently individual player, Martin Hart roughly corresponds to his opposite, a defender of community and the every-day, healthy values that the community espouses but which Cohle claims to see through. Marty says himself, 'I'm just a normal guy... with a big-ass dick', which contrasts wildly but usefully with how Cohle describes himself, which takes place through his dark musings about the nature of reality. The high school stereotypes of the jock and the nerd come immediately to mind. We may learn about Cohle through his thoughts first, but we learn about Marty through his actions, whose own weakness is women. While his strength should come from the women of his family, instead he loses himself in two mistresses at two different points during the course of the series. He defends these lapses as the need to nourish the family's health, to prevent them from receiving all the pent-up negatives of his work: 'You gotta take your release where you can find it... for the good of the family'. These rationalizations come across as equally hollow as those of Rust, and amount to the same thing, namely a failure to realize one's most inner needs in the chaos of ordinary life. Marty at heart loves his wife, his family, and he knows at heart that he fails them in these adulterous excursions; but he only truly realizes this when he comes face to face with their consequences.

The biggest success of True Detective consists in its character development, and how the two detectives interact with one another. This is where the show actually says something about the human condition, and which therefore constitutes its real value. While they are both coming from two very different places, ultimately both detectives are seeking the same thing: to be at peace with themselves. This search manifests itself in Marty in the ongoing problems with his wife Maggie and their two daughters; the resolution of this fault, we feel, seems to be the resolution of Marty as a person. It is never a problem of whether he loves her or not; we recall when he asks Cohle whether a man can love two women, for example. The 'love' for the other woman is of course not the true love a man feels for the one to whom he is married, but something else, something symbolic. Both mistresses are younger, and reminiscent of a young Maggie. Combined with the revealed hints of Marty's dissatisfaction with his aging, we can read into this a 'terror of time': he feels the irrevocable presence of time closing in, and lashes out by pursuing someone who reminds him of his youth, and vicariously experiences it thereby. It is in those moments when Maggie distances herself from him, however, that Marty is at his most expressive, his most violent, which again reveals his intimate connection with his family, even if at times he feels it growing cold. His truest, internal life is found in his family, which makes him a part of something. When he is deprived of that, he is deprived of reality, specifically of the reality he wants to believe in. Without his family he is reduced to the loneliness of whiskey and Match.com; without his family he is no longer a part of something.

This search reveals itself in Cohle through his oddly brilliant but nevertheless self-defeating monologues. With Marty in their car or the two detectives interrogating him, Cohle discusses everything from how it is 'hubristic' to create a child, to raise a soul from the depths of nothingness to the 'meat' of humanity, to the idea of eternal recurrence, of time perpetuating itself in a circle so that nothing we do matters because it will all happen again and again. That latter point was made in a particular period in the show which was supposed to be a moment of victory, right after the justice meted out to the evil Ledoux cousins. This was the nadir of the series in an existential sense; right when we are supposed to be rejoicing in triumph, we sink lower into the mire of Cohle's impossible nihilism, and it was sincerely, completely depressing. We realize at this point just how hostile he is to the potentials of joy and reconciliation; he is almost Calvinistic in this crazed detachment from the world, in this gnostic sort of disbelief in any goodness that is here. By the end of the series we can indeed recognize this as a 'false victory', because there were others out there whom they had not caught. This argument is falsified, however, when we witness the finale, in which a genuine sense of victory is enjoyed despite the fact that there were still a host of men like the Ledoux cousins and Errol Childress, even in relation to the Louisiana serial murders. The truth is that Cohle had not yet experienced his inner crisis of faith, his revelation at death's door, that lifelong obstacle which halted him from the opportunity of living life with love. This prevents him from being at peace with life's terrors, with the reality that there will always be evil. You cannot fight evil purely for the sake of destroying evil; you have to fight evil for the sake of love.

Cohle's heartfelt antithesis to the possibility of love is again made clear in one of his conversations with Marty, in which he bluntly says, 'I don't think that man can love, at least not the way that he means. Inadequacies of reality always set in'. So the irresolvable divide between an ideal and a fact prevents that ideal from being true; it prevents a man from being able to love. We say that it is a 'heartfelt' antithesis because what drives Cohle as a character is his innate love for his deceased daughter, even if he does not recognize it consciously. His relentless pursuit of the evil men, who have punished numerous little girls themselves, when everyone else are all too inclined to give up, suggests an affinity between Cohle and the murdered girls; that the show repeatedly pictures him driving past that billboard which reads, 'Do you know who killed me?' is significant in that it is both a reminder to him to discern the truth and a clue to his own state of mind, that his vindication possibly resides in tracking the killer down, in knowing who killed her. This is exemplary of what connects him to his daughter, the death of whom he places at the hands of God or simply a cruel, inchoate reality. However much he might deny it through his vague, heart-rending suppositions about the total lack of meaning in the universe, Cohle is driven by the death of his daughter, who represents a part of himself that he is struggling violently to reintegrate into his psyche. That explains the passion of his hunt for the killers, and the lives saved thereby, and that is what throws his entire life-negating philosophy into open contradiction. He unconsciously feels a latent love, but his experiences and his own genius steer him clear of recognizing it in favour of a warped cynicism that redirects that love into a disingenuous, bewildered hatred.

This contradiction reveals itself in other ways, namely in Rust's attempts to help Marty with his infidelity. In Episode Three, for example, knowing that Marty is having an affair, Rust visits his wife and cuts their grass. In doing this, Marty's position as patriarch is undermined, and he can catch a glimpse of what he has to lose. Rust wittingly shows Marty what he has taken for granted in the hope that he sees the faulty choices he has made. Marty is angered by this, of course, and yet does not realize the deeper meaning of what Rust is trying to say. This subtle piece of compassion for his partner is surprising, but it would not make any sense at all if Rust were not inwardly motivated by something more than what he lets us on to, something more than his esoteric, despondent, drawling nihilism allows for.

Now, to return to our original thesis, what makes True Detective special is that, to an extent, its characters actually find what they are looking for. In other, lesser shows writers are often content to leave the 'heroes' as they were, still struggling with inner conflict, claiming in their defense (not without reason, mind) that the human condition is something naturally conflicted, that it is more honest to leave characters in a state of crisis or some mild form of self-appeasement. In True Detective, on the other hand, that search to be at peace with the world and with oneself is actually satisfied. There is a genuine resolution that not only flies in the face of current trends in the medium of film, but in the context of the series itself; the heavy, oppressive atmosphere, the persistence of moral weakness in the protagonists, the terrible scale of evil manifest in the antagonists, and the truly disheartening weltanschauung expressed by Rust Cohle all prepare the viewer for an inevitable victory for the darkness. Was there anyone watching who expected both Rust and Marty to survive the final skirmish with Childress in 'Carcosa'? The fact that they did serves the purpose of the show far more than if they did not - death might offer a dramatic denouement and a heightened confession of pathos that profoundly touches the audience, but in this case it would be a convenience, an escape for the writers in that they would not have to resolve these two elaborate, sympathetic, and patently real characters that they have been patiently, lovingly constructing this whole time.

So they had to survive, and this survival was twofold: one in the literal sense, that they did not die in fighting Childress, and secondly in the personal sense, that they survived the two main existential crises of their storylines. First we see Marty recovering in the hospital, surrounded by his ex-wife and his two daughters. He dissolves into tears in their company, stirred into a frenetic activity of the heart as he approaches what he has been searching for, namely that intimacy between himself and those whom he loves. This is also how he is finally able to see himself as a 'good man', in his strength as the family leader. There is a recurring question for Marty, one which he directly asks Rust: 'Do you ever wonder if you're a bad man?' Marty struggles with seeing himself as a good person, which is what he yearns to be; his wife tells him multiple times that he was a better man when he married her, and this helps provoke his infidelity. The second mistress, Beth, says to him in Episode 6, 'You're a good man; anyone can see that'. She seduces Marty not so much through her body, but through her validation of Marty as a person, as 'a good man'. That he is left wanting after the fact is evident both through his body language and the focus on a couple ornaments in her room, an angel and a demon, with the latter being the prominent figure. Now, whether Maggie actually reunites with her husband as with the time they took down the Ledoux cousins, is left unknown, and is more or less insignificant anyway. The point is clear: he sees his wife and his daughters, whom he has loved and created, and can finally see himself as a good man. He has destroyed another pillar of evil in Errol Childress, he has made a family, and he sees enough in that to vindicate his place in the world. His connection to the reality he wants to live in is re√ęstablished.

The existential survival of Rust Cohle is understandably a much different affair. This is firstly true in its taking place in a spiritual revelation while he was immersed in the darkness of a coma. Rust describes it, through stuttering though perfectly comfortable tears, as a 'vague awareness' where he feels his 'definitions', all his abstract musings about the world, his definition of himself possibly, fading away, becoming meaningless as he nears the ultimate meaning. There is a deeper darkness yet, but it is warm, and he feels, finally he feels a substance in that darkness: his daughter. He feels as though he were 'a part of everything I ever loved' in that black space. That love that lurked in the shadows of his soul, that flickered here and there throughout the series but was always masked by a veil of invincible cynicism, shows itself to him in its wholeness, its necessity, its grace; that love has filled in the lonesome cavern which was once the source of all his bitterness. Where Marty required outward validation to confront and overcome his personal conflicts, Rust had to descend into the kingdoms within himself to defeat his own - but the result is essentially the same. They both sought a bond to reality, a way to intimate themselves with the world they lived in, for otherwise they were lost to whatever their respective frailties of conscience and introspection revealed - and they both found it.

It is fitting that the finest, most endearing lines of the series are reserved for the final conversation. After all the philosophical bleakness and haughty condemnations of various ideas that the common man values, it is absolutely natural that this is all reversed in a new, precious insight that is paradoxically as unlike the Cohle we know as it is like him. Marty brings up when Rust told him about how he looked up at the stars as a boy, and made up stories, but Rust presently says, 'There is only one story: Light versus Dark'. If that is true of this story, the two detectives can only be representatives of the Light; they can only be good guys. This is the moment of the show that defines the show, brings everything into focus, and reveals to us finally that it was all along Good Versus Evil. The evil is obviously apparent in the varying villains that are overthrown, but the evil in themselves is just as manifest, and arguably just as repulsive in a more intimate sense as the serial murderers are in the most basic sense. Both characters had to defeat the darkness inside of them at the same time as defeating the darkness walking the world, which acted to symbolize in an ugly, horrifying way the depths of depravity present in us as a species, as individuals. The terrors are real and universal and fully capable of subverting our human authority, even to the point of driving us to hopelessness; and yet, as Rust says, 'Once there was only dark [in the sky]; if you ask me the light's winning'. This is a radical change from when he advocated the idea of eternal recurrence, in which nothing we do matters because it all happens ad infinitum. Now there is a linear creation, a cosmic warfare between principalities that we directly participate in; now there is beauty, and a purpose to our actions. Now there is light where once there was none, and now there is love where once there was none.

In summary, then, True Detective was wildly fascinating from the start. The smoldering intensity of Rust's convictions, the struggle against the disintegration of Marty's family life, the sudden changes in pace between meditative reflection and resplendent acts of violence, the organic, frightening atmosphere that purposefully pervades the entire story were all sufficient in captivating my attention to what I thought was a real good show; but what captivated my deeper interest and what makes it a truly exceptional show was only conveyed in the final episode, when the myriad of personal problems are finally solved in a way that makes them seem so much more real, so much more humanely gratifying than you often find in the cultural vacuum of modern art. Beneath the depressive, heartless atmosphere and the stench of Babylon and human weakness, there is a delightfully subtle narrative that opposes the darkness with a quiet light, that brings the chaos into context. Prior to the final scene, there were only two guys riddled with crises, overcome by chaos, inspiring not confidence in humanity but contempt; but after the final scene there was sublime catharsis and a supremely articulate hope. For there really is only one story, and it is the one that we all live within ourselves and in the world: it is Light Versus Dark, Good Versus Evil, and the greatest hope inheres in our faith that Good really does trump Evil, that the Light of eternity presides when even the blackest void has succumbed.




Thursday, August 21, 2014

Art & Beauty - Part I, Section IV: Symbolism & the Imaginative Power

The essential part of any work of art is its symbolic component. We have discussed the pressing need to know the specific nature of an artwork, its first and second perfections, its formal and intellectual qualities, and so forth. But while all of this is useful and important for conceptual reasons, in order to attain a full understanding of art as it operates in the world we must first understand its actual role in the mind of man, and to do this we must know the value of the symbol.

First of all, as we will discuss at greater length in the next Part, the symbol is often seen as something 'illusory', as an image meant to distract from the thing in itself - and is therefore considered to be 'unreal'. What this perspective fails to account for is the precise relationship between the formal thing and its symbolic representative, which consists in the idea dressing itself in the garments that sensible reality offers it and thereby creates the symbol. The idea is not 'obscured' in this operation, nor does it remain an abstraction; on the contrary, in partaking of the material substance and participating in reality as we see it, the idea is elevated in a way that it could not be if it had remained aloof from the sensible domain. The matter contains the idea in a symbiotic relationship that at once presents the formal thing in a concrete, tangible shape, and imbues the material with the principled organization that allows it a real identity. The idea of the Parthenon, insofar as it remains unmade, is virtually unreal, existing as a concept alone; the matter of the Parthenon would likewise remain a mass of marble and stone if these materials were not used to make that idea a fact in every sense of the word. The Parthenon as a construction is a symbol at once of itself, of the idea of the Parthenon, but even more it is a symbol of at first the Greek Goddess Athena, and later the Holy Theotokos, the Mother of God, because that was its ordained function.



We can see, then, how this relates to what we have already discussed concerning Plato's theory of mimesis, albeit with more of an Aristotelian angle. What we mean by 'symbol', however, is more directly influential in human society, because it is something that is made exclusively by humans; the symbol is the principal way by which we establish contact with the transcendentals and, eventually, with God. We cannot understand a transcendental except insofar as it reveals itself in this world, dressed in this world's attire; the creation of symbols is our way of dressing these ideals, specifically in the garments germane to our own particular traditions, whatever they may be. The Christian virtues of love, mercy, forgiveness, etc., are therefore given symbolic form in ecclesiastic iconography much like the Indian concepts of detachment, inner peace, and the outer wars of this world are given symbolic form via their own colourful mythologies. The symbol does not distract or detract from the ideal, but offers us a clarity and a tangibility through which we can approach that ideal:

'[It] is easy to see in a general way that in a civilization [the arts] have a character all the more manifestly symbolic as the civilization itself is more strictly traditional, for their true value lies less in what they are in themselves than in the possibilities of expression which they afford, beyond those to which ordinary language is confined. In a word, their productions are above all destined to serve as ''supports'' for meditation, and as foundations for as deep and extensive an understanding as possible, which is the very raison d'etre of all symbolism....' (Rene Guenon, 'The Arts and their Traditional Conception').

All symbolism, and by extension all art, is therefore more of a means than an end; a symbol is the visible and comprehensible image through which the invisible and incomprehensible presents itself. The contemplation of that image, whether through story, music, painting, or the ornamentation of a cathedral, leads one to a more immediate and impacting grasp of the idea behind the image. This is useful because we cannot wholly understand something without the aid of our other faculties; the consequence of trying to do so is the separation of mind from body, which means an empty abstraction on the rational side and an unrefined materialism on the sensible side. The symbol is what connects the mind to the senses - it connects what we see to what we know; and, from the perspective of the artist, it connects what he knows to what others see and therefore know.

Kant proclaimed that the noumenal, conceptual domain was something isolated, that we cannot truly access the 'thing-in-itself' except as it appears to us through the phenomenal domain, when it ceases to be the 'thing-in-itself'. This is similar to what we have spoken of as Plato's metaphysics, but is different in that Kant believes these things to be inaccessible by reason, while Plato of course is confident in the ability of disinterested discursive power to attain sufficient knowledge on a level independent of mind and matter. Kant's argument makes reality into something that is represented by one's mind, by one's perspective of it; Plato considers reality as something independent of how anyone perceives it. The Good exists regardless of whether we know it or not, but the point is that we can know it, even in its 'pure' state thanks to the capability of discursive knowledge.

While this is all very well in theory, this line of thinking, particularly Kant's with his more solid disconnect between knowable things and unknowable things, tends to become dried out with the dust that abstraction brings. The noumena are lost, distant principles that, because they cannot be known, are sufficient in philosophical terms but vague and remote on any other terms; Kant was little more than a skeptic in this way, for, while he did suppose that there was something that caused the appearances which the skeptics thought was the entirety of reality, he nevertheless left that something unqualified and doomed to remain in doubt due to the limitations of our understanding. By reducing reality to the confines of our perception, Kant and the other idealists shut us out from self-transcendence, from the authentic overcoming of the human condition and the fallen world which we inhabit; this conception is unable to lift itself beyond the sphere of the immanent, which makes its claims about the 'ultimate reality' mere abstractions, and which causes Charles Taylor to ask: 'how does a Hegelian philosopher pray? ....What he can do is contemplate his identity with cosmic spirit, which is something quite different' (Charles Taylor, Hegel, 1975). Without a truly transcendent entity, there can be no faith.

Contrary to the idealist's belief that we are hopelessly cut off from the underlying reality, traditional philosophy in the West has ever maintained a strong balance between a reason capable of the apperception of being and an intuition capable of experiencing being. Not only can we know to a certain degree Kant's 'external' reality, but we can also live it in a way. This is essentially what the Christian tradition has achieved, in the theoretical sense in the Scholastic classrooms, but more tangibly in its ecclesiastic life, where the living stream of religious consciousness is imbued upon those willing to receive it. This is where symbolic knowledge comes alive. The things which are taught and conceived rationalistically are thereafter introduced as new avenues for man to understand them in their fullness: 'Symbolism alone, by a delimitation of the spheres of spirit and nature, by putting a barrier to the competence of rational knowledge, and by opening up new ways of knowledge, safeguards the inalienable rights and the eternal truths of religious life' (Nikolai Berdyaev, Freedom and the Spirit, 1935).

One can never make a spiritual ethos out of the immanent, objective, viscerally arid philosophy of Immanuel Kant; to do so would result in the same abstractions, the same ouroboric circling that results from Cartesian philosophy. The rationale of these systems does not allow for them to have true, existential life, because their epistemology is a cul-de-sac. What breaks that dead-end wide open is firstly the existence of a reality independent of our individual representations of it, and then the symbolic understanding that enables us to perceive that reality without in any way diluting it to our consciousness; as a matter of fact, as the idea is transformed into the vivid, visually incisive allure of the symbol, it actually attains a greater meaning for us than if it were to remain in its purely intellectual form. The idea is comprehended in the symbol in its complete form, because it is perceived from every angle of the human person who now understands the idea as part of himself:
'Rational knowing operates with concepts, and presupposes the intentional abstraction of the knower from his subjectivity, whereas the participatory knowledge of existential knowledge presupposes a basis in metaphor and symbol, and can only come about where the whole person as thinking, feeling and willing subject is totally involved' (Georg Nicolaus, C.G. Jung and Nikolai Berdyaev: Individuation and the Person, p. 91).

Symbolic understanding is moreover important because of its location at the core of the human person. It is at the centre of everything, lying in the 'middle' of the senses, the memory, the imagination, and the intellect. It is not a faculty in itself, but is rather the conduit through which every other faculty receives and utilizes its information. Language itself is a form of 'symbolic understanding' because of how we use it to communicate what would otherwise be abstract, intangible concepts. Every word is a sign of something else, and a series of words are strung together to form a composite whole that allows us to understand one another in a relatively fluid manner. The arts are simply a more eloquent expression of this; Aristotle called this 'rhetoric', the pleasing patina of something that is meant to provide it with a more effectively persuasive character. The arts, when properly constructed and received, are indeed the 'language of the gods', the means by which the divine can communicate with the human, and vice versa. The delight we take in Hesiod's epic myths or in the fugues of Bach is this very process of communication; the portions of reality that were seized on by such artists and represented in musical and poetic form are conveyed to us in these forms which are innately delightful to men of sensibility. This supreme pleasure is innate because of our intuitive yearning for the real, and this yearning is therein satisfied because of the intensely real nature of such arts.

When we perceive something of symbolic value, identifying it with something we already know, identifying it as something true, we experience the real pleasure of art, which is as we have already explained at once intellectual and sensual. This is what happens when we call something created ex materia beautiful: we sensually perceive the object, intellectually recognize its form, and unite the two together symbolically to thereby complete the experience. We not only gain moral and metaphysical knowledge through the contemplation of symbols, we do it in such a way that the whole human person engages in the experience, which makes it the most complete means by which we view the world. The intellectual and sensible functions share equally; the entire soul rejoices.

'In principle everything in the realm of existence is a symbol of a reality above, the only exception being the Divine Principle which is only itself and not the symbol of anything else. This doctrine also deals with the process whereby symbols descend from the purely intelligible realm... through the power of creative imagination to their manifestation in an external form' (Seyyed Hossein Nasr, foreword to Every Man an Artist, ix-x).

This brings us to the most important component of the creation of a symbolic lexicon, namely, the imagination. When we perceive something, say a sword on the ground, we potentially see two things: the first is that it is simply a steel sword lying where it should not be, with its hilt extended away from us; the second is that of a cross, with the cross-guard forming the intersection between the hilt and the blade. The first is strictly empirical or ratiocinative or literal reasoning, the act of determining what the thing is based only on what our memory and inductive knowledge tell us what it is; the second is an act of the imagination, speculating what the thing could also be based on the creative part of our intellect. This again hearkens back to the dual uses of our instruments, how something used for one specific thing could also be symbolically considered as something very different; it is no coincidence that the Crusaders venturing into the Middle East bore broadswords that resembled the religious image of their spiritual leader par excellence. Or maybe it was coincidence at first, but it is an indisputable fact that these soldiers saw in their weapons something useful for destroying their enemy - and something explicitly Christian in their imaginative figuring. Julius Evola makes this very observation in Revolt Against the Modern World:

'In the Middle Ages we witness a blossoming of treatises in which every weapon of the knight was portrayed as a symbol of spiritual or ethical virtues; symbols that were almost intended to remind him of these virtues in a visible way and to connect any chivalrous deed with an inner action' (Julius Evola, Revolt Against the Modern World, p. 84).

In order for art to create a valid symbolism, the artist needs to possess a thriving imagination, because it is by this tool that he 'connects the dots', so to speak, this tool by which he can sensibly express what he apperceives on the intelligible level. It is one thing to claim to reveal the nature of feminine beauty by drawing a beautiful woman, and that is well enough; but it is something else, something more subtly poetic, to reveal that nature by the exposition of lunar or oceanic splendour; in focussing on these other things, which are virtually omnipresent characteristics of femininity in traditional symbolism, he can directly unveil his thesis with more rhetorical conviction, and he can directly approach those things which are the essential qualities of feminine beauty. Her grace, her fluidity, her nocturnal dependence, etc., are all explicated in this symbolic artwork.

There is moreover the tendency to represent archetypal feminine qualities through the mythological creation of female gods who express these qualities; these include, for example, the goddess Freyja, who in the Norse vision symbolized the pre-eminent feminine quality of fertility, and the goddess Diana in Roman mythology who was the personification of the relationship woman has with nature, sharing the same passivity and unpredictability that characterizes the elemental dimension. This was sometimes even made literal, an historical presence, as in the Vestal Virgins who fuelled the spiritual fires of Rome, or in the Christian convents which served as pillars of chastity, and whose inhabitants had love only for God. This reflected not only the healthy relationship that man had with the divine, but also that he felt the need to 'sacralize' his world by making it into something of a mirror image of the heavens; he did this through symbolism, the medium by which archetypal ideas are given material life, and through the imagination, the faculty by which we can visualize things that cannot be seen or heard by our eyes or ears.

The imagination is not only needed for the creation of symbols, but also in our understanding of symbols. It would indeed be futile for the artist to create a whole pantheon of accurate and endearing symbols only for them to be misinterpreted or missed altogether by the intended viewer. Like the artist, the viewer must also 'connect the dots'; in order to understand the work he must be mindful of the tradition in which the artist is working, of the transcendental things as eternal and influential objects, of their metaphorical values, and finally of how they are all connected inside the work. He does this chiefly through that part of the intellect called the imagination, or the picturing of things which have no direct equivalent in sensible, mundane reality. There are no positivistic properties that suggest the inherent royalty of the sun; but nevertheless traditions from time immemorial have attached kingship to the sun, from the Egyptian God-man called Pharaoh to the universal God-man called Jesus Christ ('But unto you that fear my name, the Sun of righteousness will arise, with health in his wings', Malachi 4:2). They do this by the natural spiritual associations these things have with one another, associations that are more real than the empirical fact that rocks are associated with the quality of being hard or with shades of grey. The imagination is the retrieval of these spiritual associations within the inner confines of man's being; he reaches deep into his 'psyche' and locates what every man possesses by the right of his being another member of the human species. The organization of this imaginative process is mythology, the stuff that the great religions are composed of.

When we experience a work of symbolic art, it is our imagination that can gaze beyond the immediate meaning of the work and comprehend their full meaning. Our sense of storytelling, the healthy pleasure that we take from the narrative is no doubt important, but this is a pleasure that exists at first only on the literal, surface level; the real pleasure is the intellectual one that emerges when we finally understand the symbolic import of the story, its meaning as a whole, and how the artist has managed to convey all of this with the material he has at his disposal. There is in this respect the Medieval theory of the 'four-fold' or 'polysemous allegory', which refers to the four ways in which a work of art communicates its ideas. The first is the literal meaning, which is simply what the text means in the most concrete way, for example, 'the bird escaped its cage and flew out of the window' means that the bird literally flew out of the window. The second is the allegorical (or typological) meaning, which is a connection made between two natural or visible things; the bird fleeing his cage might allegorically mean, in the context of the story, the future progression of a child character growing into adulthood and leaving the house of his family. The third is the moral (or tropological) meaning, which is of course the moral significance of an event; again depending on the context of the entire story, the bird flying out of the window could either be a warning to the character, say, to not disobey his family, or it could be an encouragement, an optimistic sign prodding him to make his own way. The fourth and most important meaning is the anagogical, which is like allegory except that it signifies transcendent reality, not natural reality; the bird fleeing the cage could be anagogically understood as the ascension of man towards the heavenly, as the triumph of the character's will to vanquish his worldly constraints and advance into the freedom of God. This whole act, both the creation of the story and its fourfold understanding, is effectively an example of symbolism; the bird and its escape scene forms a symbolic impression on the mind of the viewer via his imagination because of all that it represents.

'The first [sense of a text] is called the literal, and it is the one that extends no further than the letter as it stands; the second is called the allegorical, and is the one that hides itself under the mantle of these tales, and is a truth hidden under beauteous fiction. As when Ovid says that Orpheus with his lyre made wild beasts tame and made trees and rocks approach him; which would say that the wise man with the instruments of his voice maketh cruel hearts tender and humble; and moveth to his will such as have not the life of science and art; for they that have not the rational life are as good as stones.... The third sense is called moral.... Thus we may note in the Gospel, when Christ ascended the mountain for the transfiguration, that of the twelve apostles he took with him but three; wherein the moral may be understood that in the most secret things we should have but few companions. The fourth sense is called the anagogical, that is to say ''above the sense''; and this is when a scripture is spiritually expounded which even in the literal sense, by the very things it signifies, signifies again some portion of the supernal things of eternal glory; as may be seen in that song of the prophet which saith that when the people of Israel came out of Egypt, Judea was made whole and free. Which although it may be manifestly true according to the letter is none the less true in its spiritual intention; to wit, that when the soul goeth forth out of sin, it is made holy and free in its power' (Dante, The Convivio, Second Treatise, Chapter I).

William Blake said that 'Imagination is the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is only a faint shadow'. The imagination is what Blake calls the anagogical method of communication; they both refer to how we understand the 'real and eternal world', namely, by wrapping the eternal things in the guise of things wholly durable. Dante's Commedia, perhaps the finest example of the 'fourfold allegory', conceives of the cosmos in this way by telling a story that expresses all of the above but none quite so well as the anagogical; every other element, the literal, moral, and allegorical meanings, are there merely to support the fundamental conclusion conveyed by the anagogical reality. The collapse of the self into the dungeons of hell, and the slow but inexorable progression back into the warmth of love and heaven, anagogically reveals the quintessential story of the human being and more or less everything in between; we are shown the overpowering realness of the transcendent through the ebb and flow of the story, through the particular events that take place as short but archetypal examples of the human experience.

William Blake does the same thing in his own poetry, in which he says, 'All Things are comprehended in their Eternal Forms in the divine body of the Saviour, the True Vine of Eternity, The Human Imagination'. His cosmology (one could arguably call it a mythology, even) seeks to express eternity through his heroes and villains, gods and devils, his whole array of characters who wage war over the soul of fallen man. The most important to him, however, is Los, the symbolic figure of the imagination who fights his rational counterpart Urizen, who in turn strives to dominate man. Los is envisioned as working in the furnaces of the world, tirelessly creating things to combat the strict, ratiocinative control of the tyrant; creative energy is thus supposed to be the true fount of human health, not a merely empirical reason that governs by looking downwards instead of upwards. He is right, too, for reason as such must be subservient to the objective demands of the eternal reality; if it considers only the literal and historical dimensions, it fails in its role, it cannot understand the higher dimensions. If it is enlightened by a creative intuition and an active imagination, on the other hand, the intellect will be able to symbolically reconstruct the cosmos in a meaningful, concrete, and decidedly non-abstract way. It will be able to understand the world in which we live in every aspect. Through the imagination we can conceive of things in their eternal sense and communicate that conception in a language that appeals to the inner compartments of our being: 'Around the Throne Heaven is open'd; the Nature of Eternal Things Display'd, All Springing from the Divine Humanity. All beams from him'.

In conclusion, then, the symbol is the most important piece of any work of art because it unites the sacred with the mundane, a union whereby man man can easily comprehend how and why he exists in what might otherwise seem to be a chaotic and random universe. The imagination, as the creative part of the intellect, is precisely how the symbol is created and comprehended; by picturing things that have little material relevance but whose spiritual associations are of the most fraternal nature, man can unveil those deeper parts of his nature that connect him to the whole of humanity in ways that all those other particular, fragmentary things cannot. The mystical significance of how we grasp the eternal truly goes beyond language, art, politics, all culture; being dependent only upon God, the forms exist independently of all that. The way that we interpret them might be different on a superficial level, but at the heart of the matter traditional man in whatever society is united in that he shares a common language of the transcendental, which he called mythical truth.

In a word, the Imagination is the visualization of the divine in all the shining sensibility of the material world - its quintessential result is the Symbol, which breathes life into remote concepts to familiarize ourselves with their total meaning.







Thursday, August 14, 2014

Art & Beauty - Part I, Section III: An Integrated Art and the Metaphysics of Beauty

It is a rarely acknowledged fact that the difference between a craftsman and an artist as he is defined today is a fully modern one. Poiesis, for example, originally referred simply to 'making', which applied to the arrangement of all sorts of material things as well as to the art of poetry itself; mousike likewise referred not only to the composition of sounds, but to mathematical harmony as a principle, whether it was found in song, dance, poetry, or in the metaphysical order of the universe. Any art was simply something that was made, whether with a hammer or a lyre.


From Classical Greece to Imperial Rome through the whole of the Middle Ages there was an integration between what today might be distinguished as the 'rougher' and 'finer' arts; there was very little value placed on such a distinction in those societies, because they were both equally involved in the making of something. While there were several reasons for this, the chief one, especially during the Medieval era, was that the inhabitants of that period tended to view reality itself as something integrated, as something which really is the expression of a good and loving God; reality itself is something that is true, good, and beautiful, so naturally the difference between what we call a fine art and anything else was not nearly so obvious for the Medieval man as it is for the Modern man. The created world was already beautiful, it was already 'fine':

'[The Medievals] found it extremely difficult to separate the two realms of value [beauty and utility / goodness], not because of some defect in their critical sense, but because of the unity of their moral and aesthetic responses to things. Life appeared to them as something wholly integrated' (Eco, p. 16).

The world is good, and therefore beautiful - this is because it is the reflection of the ideal beauty of its Creator, at least according to the Medievals, who saw that their environment was one sustained only by Jesus Christ and His creative love. All art, therefore, from the simplest icon to the great buttresses of the cathedral, selflessly pronounced this love as the highest telos of its being; but these things were not 'works of art' per se, at least not as we Moderns define something as a work of art. These were fixed into the fabric of society as so many indispensable threads that informed the commoner no less than the nobleman of the sacred character that was their foundation and sustenance; these were as necessary for the Medieval as gasoline and the internet are seen as necessary for us, but neither worldview refers to these things as 'fine art'.

The function of art in this period, then, was not something luxurious, something that enclosed beauty and isolated it from the world, but was universally of an ecclesiastic or didactic nature: 'Painting... is the literature of the laity'. What Honorius the Theologian means here is that even those who cannot read can be taught what is right, particularly via the icons of saints and the paintings of Biblical history that adorned the insides of the country parish. This is all part of the Catholic tradition, the backbone of the Medieval civilization, and which explicates the truth of the Word and of the Incarnation through whatever worldly means it may possibly act through. Despite some enthusiastic demands for a more austere, 'humble' atmosphere in the Church from men like St. Bernard, the opinion that worldly beauty, as a glorious glimpse of heavenly beauty, should strengthen ecclesiastic life prevailed:

'Thus, when - out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God - the loveliness of the many-coloured gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner' (Abbot Suger).

A work of art was therefore of a didactic nature, because it was something composed to improve man's spiritual and moral welfare, to help him into heaven. Because a work of art had to be true in order also to be beautiful, its enlistment in this effort was inevitable. Man was educated by art, which itself was a servant of the Church. For any work of art to be admitted into church life and Medieval society as a whole, it had to be of greater use than merely something nice to look at or pleasing to listen to; it also had to reveal something true. It had to direct the viewer to a particular reaction, whether to encourage him in one way or discourage him in another. Art was above all a means to an end, which was ultimately the salvation of souls.

'For the Medievals, a thing was ugly if it did not relate to a hierarchy of ends centred on man and his supernatural destiny.... It was a type of integrated sensibility which made it hard for Medievals to experience aesthetic pleasure in anything which fell short of their ethical ideals; and conversely, whatever gave aesthetic pleasure was also morally justified....' (Eco, p.80).

So a work of art was always subordinate to something else - its purpose depended upon what that something else needed it for (recall Aquinas's 'second perfection'). A work of art was nothing in itself, for its telos needed the broader framework of society to be properly unfolded. A choral composition, for example, was not primarily judged on its merits independent of its utility, but on what it was used for, on how useful it was as something to be inserted into the Catholic liturgy or a monastic hymn. Licentious songs, rhythms, and aggressive dances that stir the blood, sexually lurid paintings, etc., regardless of how well these artifacts perform their task, i.e., how well they excite the passions of their audience, have no place in a monastic abbey, but they might have one in a lonely rural inn or a city brothel. Everything was directed to its proper end, just as Aristotle prescribed in ancient Athens, and the proper end for Medieval man was the saving of his soul. The final judgment of any work of art can essentially be traced to how well it worked to this end.

We can see, then, how there was no distinct separation between something beautiful and something useful; they were both one and the same thing. This was true to the degree where the thing's beauty depended on its use. If a thing was useless, it was fundamentally ugly; but if a thing performed as it was designed to perform, then it was beautiful. A work of art traditionally conveys both something specifically sacred and something
specifically domestic or mundane: '[From] the stone age onwards, everything made by man, under whatever conditions of hardship or poverty, has been made by art to serve a double purpose, at once utilitarian and ideological' (Coomaraswamy, 'What is the Use of Art, Anyway?'). A tool was never 'just a tool', but something which symbolically connected man to such primordial acts as tilling the fertile field which he saw as a divine gift, or fishing in the local stream which he equally saw as a divine gift. The tools were themselves crucial for the cultivation of these godly gifts. Whatever their sacred import, however, the shovel and the net were designed for two specific utilities and nothing else:

'If indeed we divert the work of art to some other than its original use, then, in the first place, its original beauty will be correspondingly diminished, for, as St. Thomas says... "if they are applied to another use or end, their harmony and therefore their beauty is no longer maintained", and, in the second place, even though we may derive a certain pleasure from the work which has been torn from its context, to rest in this pleasure will be a sin in terms of Augustine's definitions "to enjoy what we should use"....' (Coomaraswamy, 'Beauty and Truth').

If the fishing net were used to try and dig out the soil, or if the shovel were used to try and smash the heads of the fish in the water, the use of these things would dramatically decrease, and therefore also their beauty, despite whatever amusements we might derive from switching their roles (this applies also to fetishes and other sexual disorders, where the genitalia are used for activities other than their purposed ones). It is interesting to note, as a general rule, that the functional capacity of a thing largely corresponds to its aesthetic value; the better a thing operates, in other words, the more value we place on it as an artistic artifact. The armoured vehicles of WWI, for example, were clunky, block-shaped, prone to mechanical failure, and for the most part simply ineffectual. The tanks of WWII, on the other hand, developed into sleek, streamlined panzers with sloped, deflective armour, and which were much more effective. As they continue to develop into the 21st Century, they increasingly exude a more satisfactorily aesthetic outline alongside their capacity as useful fighting units; their aesthetic value correlates with their utilitarian value. While this is also true of swords and fighter jets and all sorts of other things, it is not an authentic rule to subscribe to since the number of exceptions to it are too many to discount; there is, to name but one of them, a more demonstrably aesthetic superiority in classic steam-engine trains than to the more effective electrically-powered 'bullet trains' of Japan. There is nevertheless, as the great millenia of human history evinces, something in this idea that utility and aesthesis should be kept bonded as closely as possible. We must also remember that the purely aesthetic content of a thing has remarkably little to do with its artistic value as such, that is, with the 'two perfections' we referred to in Section II.


It is, at any rate, important to note that this effectively meant that 'beauty' was indeed not the final aim of the artist, except as an 'accident', as it were, something which proceeds from art rightly made, and which may help us understand and enjoy a particular work of art: 'Beauty has nothing to do with art.... The object of art is right making. If things rightly made impress us as beautiful, well and good and so much the better....[But beauty] is an accident of right making. Beauty is that which attracts us to the truth or whatnot, just as beauty in cooking attracts us to good food and just as beauty in physical sensation attracts us to good action' (Eric Gill, 'Of Beauty'). The virtue of something made according to its end is going to bear its due proportions, and will therefore emanate something which we perceive as beautiful, because we naturally crave for order and we recognize the formal dimensions that reside behind the aesthetic experience. The proportions of something well-made, both in itself and in what it is used for, fulfil these cravings, and so we call it 'beautiful'.

To elucidate this point even further, beauty proceeds from something that we perceive as pleasing with our senses, and more emphatically something that we contemplate as true with our intellect. If something is truly made, it will consequently possess a degree of beauty, but beauty was never the aim; it was a happy accident: 'Beauty is the splendour of truth' (Plato). The beauty of something will attract us to it because we are not just mind, but mind and body, which means the only way to fully enjoy something is to enjoy both its intellectual quality and the sensible quality which comes from the formal organization of matter. The intellectual quality is the form, the proportions of the thing made to the thing imitated, and its purpose in the world; our comprehension of this and how it relates to our self is an example of participating in the beautiful, which is to say our participating in the real. The sensible quality likewise propagates the beauty of something rightly made, and the pleasure that we indulge in thereof is also a participation in the beautiful / real: 'id quom visum placet' ('that which being seen pleases', Aquinas).

Sensual pleasure is something real in itself for any being with an animal nature, which of course includes the human being. We sensually take pleasure in sexual intercourse, regardless of whether we love our companion or not; we sensually take pleasure in food, regardless of whether it is good for our body or even made well; and sometimes we sensually take pleasure in music, even if it is of a feeble, mindless nature. But, whether they are morally incriminating or made up of relatively harmless vices, all of these pleasures are restricted to the realm of sensation; the joy we derive from them is of a transient type. This is because, like everything else belonging to the purely material domain, they lack form, that precisely intellectual, that precisely human principle that organizes otherwise inchoate matter into something that corresponds to the fundamental order of the universe. All pleasures, following their appropriate organization, then become joys of the enduring type; they become something pleasurable not only in the physical sense, but in the intellectual as well. This is what satisfies both, which is what makes it the union of mind and body; this is what ultimately satisfies the human spirit, which consists of both.

The relationship between beauty and the intelligible is almost exactly identical, except that beauty persists where even sensual pleasure cannot go. The intelligible produces beauty, and the intellect apperceives beauty through the senses; like those physical pleasures which are properly ordered through the imposition of form and creative love upon matter, beauty is the natural consequence of the same imposition, only it lingers in the mind as an example of the enjoyment we possess as a result of that 'connaturality' between the understanding and the world that we also discussed in Section II. Moreover, memory and the imagination help this form of enjoyment endure in ways that go beyond the immediate experience, the purely sensual delight. Beauty is therefore in the subjective sense dependent on both the sensual data, because this is how it is originally perceived, and on the intellectual power, which alone can enjoy beauty apart from its physical dimensions; but beauty is also independent of either in the objective sense, because truth exists regardless of man's recognizance of it - or lack thereof. Beauty is only ever totally dependent on God, who alone is at once wholly Subject and wholly Object, and because only God is wholly true, wholly good, and therefore wholly beautiful.

The artistic doctrine we have outlined thus far necessarily precludes the modern aesthetic philosophy summarized by the maxim 'l'art pour l'art', a philosophy which seeks to isolate art and beauty from their true ends in order to concentrate purely on their aesthetic content. As we already know, traditional art theory teaches that art is something made in the service of something else, something that contributes towards the wider, public interests which were historically much more cohesive than those of our own cosmopolitan, culturally diverse societies. Today it is difficult to harness artistic beauty for greater ends because of this diversity and fragmentation - to the point where sometimes art becomes a mere tool for state propaganda. A religious painting for a cathedral, for instance, served a more communal interest than a contemporary painting which is destined for some obscure public gallery for the benefit of intellectual aesthetes alone. Another example might be the construction of a monument: in medieval society, the monument would commemorate what a great king or saint had done for the whole of his people, whereas in modern society the monument would commemorate some private party, whether it would be the Communist Lenin or the National Socialist Adolf Hitler; in the first example the statue lasts centuries, in the second the statue lasts only until another private party abolishes its predecessor, regardless of his successes or lack thereof. A specific ideology therefore trumps the actual health of the nation. The point of is that the beauty of art, which we must remember includes anything that is made by human hands, derives not only from the work per se but more importantly from the purpose it serves; its full significance is an objective, social one. It cannot only be a private relationship between artist and audience, because man as an individual has an extensive palate that includes many deformities and perversions, whereas man who is organically connected to his fellows is someone more deeply informed of the reality in which he lives.


That art is objective as well as subjective is self-evident according to these propositions that art is principally an imitation of something, and that it is meant for some purpose other than the mere pleasure of experiencing it on aesthetic grounds. Art, as Ruskin said, is more 'theoretic' than 'aesthetic'; it exists more in the eternal ideas than in the pleasant sounds and sights of human bodies or works of art. This is once again manifest from Section II, in which we discussed the fundamentally intellectual character of art, that art is the construction of a specific idea through the means of worldly matter. Art cannot be whatever one interprets it to be; any good art is something definite, because it proceeds from something definite. 'Non-representational art' is a contradiction in terms, for all art represents something. There is of course room for subjective experience of a thing, but only within the broad understanding of what a thing is in its essence. The meaning of a song about the death of one's beloved, for example, might very well be stretched to include the heartbreak involved in the rending of any relationship, but it surely cannot be understood as something expressing nuptial joy! The closer one approaches the objective quality of a song, the more that song will mean for him; the subject and object therefore become entwined, which is really the purpose of all human life and its search for meaning. Scruton describes what we are trying to say here with superior eloquence:

'We know what it is to love and be rejected, and thereafter to wander in the world infected by a bleak passivity. This experience, in all its messiness and arbitrariness, is one that most of us must undergo. But when Schubert, in Die Winterreise, explores it in song, finding exquisite melodies to illuminate one after another the many secret corners of a desolated heart, we are granted an insight of another order. Loss ceases to be an accident, and becomes instead an archetype, rendered beautiful beyond words by the music that contains it, moving under the impulse of melody and harmony to a conclusion that has a compelling artistic logic. It is as though we looked through the contingent song-cycle's protagonist to another kind of loss altogether: a necessary loss, whose rightness resides in its completeness. Beauty reaches to the underlying truth of a human experience, by showing it under the aspect of necessity' (Roger Scruton, Beauty, p.129).

To summarize this Section, art in the traditional (Medieval) world was constructed according to a hierarchy of ends which all served the society of man and the worship of God; it was not principally concerned with beauty per se, but with the making of things in respect to their destined telos. Beauty emerges afterwards as the 'happy accident' that yields a closer relationship between ourselves and the objective quality of the art. Beauty is at first the sensible experience in the natural good of the material world, i.e., in bright colours and visceral sounds; then it is the the intellectual experience in realizing the inherent kinship between our interior / subjective understanding and the exterior / objective world, viz. the realization of the connection between who we are and what the work of art is. Works of traditional art undoubtedly led to these experiences, which are indeed invaluable for the human condition, but that was not the real point. What they essentially sought was simply to instruct, to worship, and to recreate the world of God in the world of men, all in the deeper soteriological interest of reversing the Fall and moving man to a state of Grace. Being true to that higher purpose, and lacking the insidious separation of 'fine art' from utility, is what made it a more successfully artistic epoch than that of modernity.




Thursday, August 7, 2014

Art & Beauty - Part I, Section II: The Intellect & Our Experience of Beauty

In the pre-modern era, the construction, as well as the perception, of any work of art was something intellectual before anything else. In creating and apperceiving something, the intellect plays the crucial role in the operation; it possesses sovereignty over every other faculty involved because the intellect is responsible for comprehension, and the aim of art is to communicate something comprehensible. Jacques Maritain says that, '[the artistic] action consists in impressing an idea upon a material: therefore it resides in the artifex'. This hearkens back to Plato and Aristotle and the mimetic doctrine we already glanced at, namely that the thing to be made must first be conceived. The creation already occurs in the mind - it is only acted out materially as a consequence of this first perception.  St. Thomas Aquinas distinguishes between two 'perfections' in the act of creation, the first being the perfection of a thing according to its proper end or nature, while the second is the perfection of its operation in the world, and therefore regulates the first perfection. The first perfection is the form of a thing and how it is perfect in itself, while the second perfection consists in how that form operates in the world; the function of a thing must accord with how it is used. The first perfection of a paint brush, for instance, is in its use as a tool to paint something, because that is what it is and what it is meant to do; using the paint brush as a broom to sweep off a driveway, on the other hand, would be an imperfection, because it is not used according to the second perfection of a thing, which is its use.


The thing made therefore always has an intellectual character, not only because it is the sensible image of something intelligible, but because of the precise proportions of that image, and how they relate to its archetype; only the intellect is capable of determining these facts. Aquinas says, 'everything in nature has a certain end, and a fixed rule of size and growth....'. The teleological system applies to understanding the making of things as it does to biology (God's making of things) because any species has a specific nature and range, and the determination of what belongs to what species depends upon the knowledge of both and how they relate to one another. The dachshund, for example, in spite of the myriad differences between it and the greyhound, nevertheless shares a common species with it because they have the same fundamental nature. The same phenomenon applies to art (man's making of things), because knowing how a particular chair is a chair is essential if we are not going to classify it as a table or a sofa. Every thing has its telos, its intellectual property and purpose, and any art is the unfolding of something's intellectual quality into something with a material quality: 'Art was not expresssion, but construction, an operation aiming at a certain result' (Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, p. 93).

'The work of Art has been thought out before being made, it has been kneaded and prepared... ripened in a reason before pressing into matter. And there it will keep for ever the colour and the savour of the mind. Its formal element, that which constitutes it in its category and makes it what it is, is its regulation by the understanding.... The work to be done is only the material of Art, its form is right reason.... Art is the right deduction from things to be made' (Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism).

If the nature of a work of art is above all something intellectual, the relation between the art work and one who experiences it is equally of an intellectual quality: 'The pleasure experienced in perception is a free pleasure, the pleasure of contemplation free from desire and content with the perfection which it admires. Beauty is what pleases when it is seen, not because it is intuited without effort, but because it is through effort that it is won, and when the effort is successful it is enjoyed' (Eco, p. 82). There is in this something of Schopenhauer's aesthetics wherein the 'pleasure' of art is a momentary relief from the world's pain, but Aquinas's profound, Aristotelian respect for the empirical functions already tells us that there is an important distinction between the two philosophies. Where the aesthetic experience was for Schopenhauer a temporary reprieve from the pain of existing, for Aquinas it is a joyous reminder that the world is something good; it was not the 'negation of a negation' as it perhaps was for Schopenhauer, but rather the affirmation of something absolutely affirmed.

Contemplation, at any rate, is at the root of the so-called 'aesthetic' experience; one's foremost pleasure in a work of art consists in his understanding of what it is and how it accords to reality, to the cosmic order or even to chaos. Moreover, we identify with something most powerfully when we apperceive how the work contains something within ourselves; the fact that an inner idea or secret knowledge of our own nature is made into something concretely beautiful and eminently sensible fills us with joy: 'The understanding enjoys the beautiful because in it it finds and recognizes itself, and gets contact with its own light' (Maritain). This is reminiscent of Plato's 'Myth of Er', and of his theory of knowledge as outlined in the Meno, where all learning is really the soul's recollection of its past life, in which it knew of the forms. The difference in Maritain's statement, which has its origins in St. Augustine, is that there is no 'recollection' per se; there is no awakened memory of a previous life, but simply the recognizance of what already exists in the soul. We rejoice when our conscious mind learns something which we already knew, something which was hitherto hidden in the depths of our soul.

The central artistic experience in the Christian tradition that transcends all others is the Eucharist. This is due to its sacred mystery, to the incomprehensible simultaneity of spiritual and material presence that occurs through the transubstantiation of bread and wine into Christ's body and blood. In the Eucharist, the 'dullness' of the ordinary world is swept away by something which accords with our soul; the dull reality becomes transfigured as our soul tastes the redemption that was offered us. The Eucharist is the mystical union of God and man, the purest connection between humanity and divinity since Christ's Incarnation. Our fallen nature is infused into the divine, and is redeemed thereby. This is an experience that every faculty celebrates, but most of all our intellectual one, because it is the intellect that truly understands the fallen-ness of our nature and its need for reintegration, not only with the divine, but with itself - which is precisely what happens during the Eucharist. It is the intellect that bears the 'image of God', and can therefore delight in the communion with its original Mind; it is the intellect that can contemplate the event in its entirety and all that it means for us. There is in the Eucharist the act of anamnesis, which means the memorial event of Christ's crucifixion; this is where the intellect engages with its own disintegration, and fights against it via the inner memory of Christ's work. This is essentially where the intellect works to lift itself into spirit, and to thereby complete the integration of the self: heart, mind, and soul are together entwined into one complete whole. At this point we remember God, and forget our own spiritual maladies: we rejoice in joining with the New Adam.



This becomes clearer when we remember that the intellect constitutes more than what the rationalists call 'reason', more than the quantitative logic that determines the world around us on an exclusively sensible basis, with no recourse to a thing's intelligible quality. The intellect is the point where the human consciousness can meet the intelligible, and thereby be satisfied in the understanding that such a meeting gives us; as such, the intellect has in its employ the entire range of human faculties, which include the senses, intuitive knowledge, memory, imagination, reason itself. The intellect connects us with the transcendental (re: intelligible) domain because it has the transcendentals imprinted upon it, and this is what connects us with God and our redeemed selves: 'As soon as one touches a transcendental, one touches Being itself, a likeness of God, an absolute, the nobility and joy of our life; one enters the domain of the spirit' (Maritain). Fed by the information provided by the senses, the intellect (and the person as a whole) is glad when that information accords with its own understanding; the beauty of the world is only comprehensively appreciated by the intellect because it alone comprehends the source and preserver of that beauty and how He makes Himself known:

'When we reflect upon the objective and rule-governed character of perceived phenomena, we discover our own connaturality with their proportions, that there are properties also in ourselves. Thus proportion is conceived of as something objective, something realized on an infinite number of levels, and something which finally coincides with the cosmic proportions of an ordered universe' (Eco, p.77).

Now, there is of course an enormous amount of sensual information imparted to us on a daily basis, but obviously not all of it is what we would normally call 'beautiful', especially if we discount natural beauty, the 'artwork of God'. Technically, all sensual information is 'beautiful' inasmuch as it connotes experience with reality and inasmuch as reality is good - but clearly we desire and infact need more than this, which is why there is human art; every culture ever known has been compelled to create things which they have deemed, in various ways, 'beautiful'. This is mainly the consequence of two facts (1) the Imago Dei, which motivates us to creativity in imitation of our Master, to make things that are at once useful and beautiful; and (2) our inherent hunger for beauty which extends beyond the natural world - we are not satisfied with merely wondering at the world, we want to engage with it in a way that meets the demands of the human spirit. This is why there is the production of art, and why it categorically differs in our experience to our relationship with nature, with God's art. The working of the intellect upon matter organizes the material to meet our own specific ends, whether it be the construction of planes to cross oceans or a simple poem that tells a story.

'Theophilus wrote that, since man is created in the image of God, he has the power to give life to forms. He discovers his need for beauty both by chance and by reflection on his own soul, and by practice and endeavour he develops his artistic powers. He finds in the Scriptures a divine commandment on art where David sings, ''Lord, I have loved the beauty of Thy house''. These words are a clear directive; the artist must work in humility, inspired by the Holy Spirit, for without this inspiration he could not attempt his work. Anything that he can invent or learn or understand about art is the fruit of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit' (Eco, p.100).

Strictly speaking, we never truly create anything, for only God is capable of making something from nothing: 'The soul can make new compositions, but it cannot make new things' (St. Bonaventure). Nevertheless, as Theophilus was suggesting, we are able and indeed required to adapt material to at once make life better for ourselves and to imitate God in doing so; we are compelled to 'give life to forms', which is what we might call the 'sub-creation' of matter in the attempt to make it good and beautiful - God's creativity is ex nihilo, while our own is ex materia.  Admitting that there is a fundamental difference in the pleasure we derive from each type of creation, the source for either is nonetheless the very same: God created and sustained the material which we then re-arrange by impressing upon it the power of our intellect, which is done out of love for God. God is both the source of our efforts and the port to which all things return.


To clarify, John Dewey states that, 'Through art, meanings of objects that are otherwise dumb, inchoate, restricted, and resisted are clarified and concentrated.... But whatever path the work of art pursues, it, just because it is a full and intense experience, keeps alive the power to experience the common world in its fullness. It does so by reducing the raw materials of that experience to matter ordered through form' (Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 133). The natural world is very often a disorganized mass, offering limited beauty to us because there is no apparent or immediate form for the intellect to behold; this is where human creativity fills the void, namely by organizing that mass into shapes and figures that correspond with our innate knowledge of form and which manifestly heightens our experience of the world. Before Michelangelo sculpted it into David, the material of the statue was a dull, lifeless marble. After being artistically formulated, however, it became one of the greatest and most recognizable artefacts of the Renaissance, because it was something that readily appeals to man's intellectual and aesthetic sense of beauty.

By imitating the transcendentals or forms, God's highest creations, we perform His work on earth (we are indeed the only known being capable of doing so); by helping our world become more 'real' and more beautiful, we execute God's will, whether we acknowledge it or not. This plays a significant role in why the experience of being alone at the top of a mountain and the experience of a Beethoven symphony are different for us; whereas we play the part of the passive beneficiary of God's creative splendour in the first instance, in the second we celebrate the triumph of man's creativity, shouting back at God in the spirit of worship. In either case the intellect is active - it revels in the magnificence that the senses have gifted it because it understands the intelligible foundation behind the sensual data, whether it be of a divine or a human origin.

So, because it has an innate (if often obscured) knowledge of the transcendentals, the intellect has an objective appreciation of form, which is the principal quality of all art: 'The operative intellect preconceives the form of what is made; it possesses the form of the thing imitated as an idea' (Aquinas). The one who receives the art work shares in this conception, because he is likewise able to apperceive the form that is imitated. As the sole faculty capable of deductive reasoning, the intellect alone is able to deduce firstly the formal perfection of the thing imitated, and secondly the proportions of the imitation to the form, its mimetic quality, its integritas: '...people may differ from another in size and shape, but if the variations go beyond certain limits there is no longer a true and proper human nature, but abnormality instead. This kind of perfection is related to another criterion of beauty, integrity. Integritas means the absence of an organic whole of all the parts which concur in defining it as that which it is' (Eco, p. 78). In the traditional civilization, especially that of the medievals, wholeness was crucial. If something was imperfectly whole, if it lacked something, or if it was not ordered to its proper end, that thing was faulty, and therefore ugly.

The intellect alone can totally appreciate beauty because we cannot 'feel' form, only understand it. If the reader will permit a vulgar example, consider the difference between copulating with one's beloved and with a complete stranger who happens to be remarkably corpulent; allowing for the extra flesh, the sensual impact is fundamentally identical, but the experiences taken in their entirety are, at least to the normal man, wildly opposed. This is true because, in the first instance, we love one woman and not the other; love is in part an intellectual action that sees in the beloved something which he himself is lacking in, and wants to fulfil. It is an intuitive going out of oneself in order to complete oneself. More to the point, this is true because the beloved is closer to the human form because she is not obese; whereas she is loved in part for her natural, objective beauty, conversely the stranger loses her beauty when she abandons the human form due to her gluttony. The one is more beautiful because she more closely resembles the ideal human form, while the other has moved away from it. In copulating with the beautiful woman, our sensual experience is heightened because it is enlivened by our intuitive, intellectual understanding that she is profoundly human, and therefore what she is supposed to be; she has come closer to her telos than the other, who lacks form for her decision to be more like an animal. Although in a more coincidental respect, this is true also of losing a limb or some other integral part of the human body: 'we call mutilated people ugly, for they lack the required proportion of parts to the whole' (Aquinas).

To conclude, the senses inform us of the matter and aesthetically enjoy doing so, but it is the intellect that delights in the totality of the experience. The former is intimate with the temporal, and is gratified by it; but it is the latter that touches on the eternal, on the things that transcend momentary pleasure. This is due to the joy that we possess when we comprehend the unity of the exterior world with our interior self; it is the unity between what we see and what we know, between what is without and within, that makes the beautiful so necessary for the human experience. It unifies the fragments, awakens us to truth, and stirs again the thought of being complete. The sensual and the intellectual joys are alike essential to the fullness of beauty because together they represent the connection between ourselves and what we have lost:

'[Man] may doubtless enjoy purely intellectual beauty, but the beauty connatural to man is that which touches the understanding with delight through the senses and their intuition. Such also is the beauty proper to art, which works upon the sensible material so as to give joy to the mind. Thus would it persuade itself that paradise is not lost. It has the relish of the earthly paradise because it restores, for an instant, the peace and delectation at once of understanding and of sense.... Without doubt all sensuous beauty demands a certain delectation of the eye itself or the ear or of the imagination; but there is no beauty unless the intelligence also in some way rejoices' (Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism).