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). 

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