Beauty will save the world—a mantra among contemporary Christians issuing from the mouth of a character in nineteenth century Russian fiction.
Augustine’s Beauty has already saved the world. Our ransom has been paid. What matters now is whether the world cooperates with its redemption or flouts it. History will tell in the end. The arts of the beautiful are weightless in the balance. They can only scratch at the surface—if that—of moral beauty.
But moral beauty is not the artist’s province. The artist as artist has command of sensible beauty alone. The delight of it is a good to those who recognize it. But it saves no one.
Artists who set out to turn beauty on its head do so in the high-minded conviction that material beauty serves the enemy. Delectation, the spiritual weapon of a dying class, distracts from the artist’s presumed role to change the world. Conscientious objection to society’s unruly way of things has been a prime motivator in the arts since the early decades of the twentieth century. Art, the imagined locus of progressive revelation, must stride forward to correct those conditions of civilized life that mask the rot at the core. Among these righteous refusers, social justice is the beauty that redeems and regenerates. The rest is for lounge lizards.
Paladins of beauty on the right, partisans of art-as-social-action on the left—quixotic world improvers in both camps. They are mirror images of one another.
Tikkun olam. Both sides view art as an act of repair, a means to something other—larger—than itself. Both make of the artist a scold, a moralist on the barricades. Each thinks lofty thoughts of itself. Each seizes upon art to display stirring vistas from the piazza of its own sensibility.
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Christ figures have peopled literature for centuries: Don Quixote, Dickens’ Sydney Carton and his far, far, better self-oblation, Melville’s Billy Budd, Graham Greene’s “whisky priest,” Faulkner’s impaired Benjy, on down to Frodo Baggins. The list is long. Longer still if we add film: Gelsomina in Fellini’s La Strada, Babette and her agape meal in Babette’s Feast, the mysterious stranger in Shane; Father Barry in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. We could go on listing.
Dostoevsky’s idiot, Prince Myshkin, is a creation of inimitable genius. All the more pressing, then, to be careful of what we make of it.
Interpreting The Idiot in 1919, shortly after the word Bolshevik had come into use, Hermann Hesse advanced a Christ figure that came to rancid flower in the 1960s:
The fact that this foe of order, this frightful destroyer, appears not as a criminal but as a shy, endearing person full of childlikeness and charm, a good-hearted, self-less, benevolent man, this is the secret of this terrifying book. . . .
The future is uncertain, but the road that is shown here is unambiguous. It means spiritual revaluation. It leads through Myshkin and calls for “magical thinking,” the acceptance of chaos. Return to the incoherent, to the unconscious, to the formless, to the animal, and far beyond the animal to the beginning of all things.
How privileged we are to have the leisure and resources that permit us to criss-cross the boundaries between art and life. And how precarious the crossing.