Beauty, Balthasar, & Boilers

Beauty is my business as thoroughly as trouble is Raymond Chandler’s. Still, you will never catch me talking about “the beautiful.” I have no idea what it is or what it might look like. A transcendental is a bit like a virtual “friend”—you never get to see it. In the lived life, beauty is sensible. It resides in individual things, in matter, the stuff of the world and of man’s hands.

Making things is the artist’s métier. Reflection on the appearance of particular things, and opinions on them, is within an artist’s bailiwick. But the marshlands of aesthetics are not. Neither are the umbras and penumbras of St. Thomas, where adepts scout out what he did not say but might have if he had been born later. This is sacred ground; artists should stay off the grass. Besides, post-Enlightenment steeplechases are no help in the studio.

Praxiteles. Hermes Holding Infant Dionysus (c. 330 BC). Archeological Museum, Olympia, Greece.

The most enduring part of Clive Bell’s influential 1913 essay Art and Significant Form is its opening lines:

It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that. It is certain, however, that about no subject with which I am acquainted has so little been said that is at all to the purpose.

Several centuries of intellectual hunting and gathering have been pledged to the effort to rationalize and systematize discussion of beauty. It is a mischievous topic, better left to philosophers and theologians. Yet even they can skid on it. Listen to Hans Urs von Balthasar:

[Beauty] is that aspect of reality without which the ancient world refused to understand itself. But ‘beauty’ has now become a mere word; while beauty herself has finally now bid farewell, imperceptibly and yet unmistakably, to our brave new world of commercial interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness.

It takes chutzpah to make a pronouncement like that. Yet the quote is repeated with worshipful nods of assent, signaling the reciter’s break from the undiscerning masses. But is Balthasar’s allegation as consequential as it sounds? It is confident, sonorous, Germanic. But is it believable? Did the ancient pagan world—with its hot bull’s blood, temple slaves, and envious gods—hold to beauty in the conduct of life more intimately or adroitly than our own? Or is it simply that Balthasar prefers Praxiteles to Elie Nadelman?

Elie Nadelman. Tango (1920-24). Whitney Museum of Art, NYC.

Balthasar’s imperious assertion begs all evidence. Beauty has certainly not left the world. Like grace, it is everywhere. We have only to keep our eyes open. The philosophical mind is under no such obligation. It greets essences, not things. Its forte is speculative, not practical, not empirical. It owes no generosity to the tackle and trim of the workaday world.

When it does descend to things, speculation is often colored more readily by status—a socioeconomic bias—than by perception. Remember Henri de Lubac’s comment that Balthasar, his acolyte, was “perhaps the most cultivated man of his time.” It is tempting to ask if the flattery might have been less fulsome if Balthasar had whistled and played the harmonica instead of the piano. Even if he performed with the eloquence and delicacy of the great Belgian jazz musician Toots (Jean-Baptiste ) Thielemans, odds are that de Lubac’s tribute would have had a dent in it.

There exists tremendous beauty in man’s ingenuity in creating the ravishing abundance of goods that deliver us from mere subsistence. All the implements and resources that permit us to live longer and more easily deserve honor in discussions of what constitutes beauty. In reality, there is no inherent opposition between beauty and serviceability. Those who presume to hold a measure—the aesthetician’s sword of Merlin—by which to determine true beauty and fix it in place pride themselves unnecessarily.

James E. Allen, The Builders (1932). Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

Things created as objets d’art can be quite dreadful; something as ordinary as a salt shaker can be beautiful. It is that very respect for utility that informed the life’s work of Shoji Hamada (d. 1978), the great Japanese ceramicist. Dedicated to the production of everyday wares, he had been drawn initially to painting. He explained his fateful reversal: “Even a bad pot has some use but with a bad painting there is nothing you can do but throw it out.”

Shoji Hamada. Bowl.

When I turn on hot water or come in from the cold, I am reminded of the functional beauty of the network of copper pipes connected to my boiler. And the boiler, in its homely, hard-working boilerhood, is itself a thing of beauty. High intellectual elegance imagined the ignition system that gets it going. A congeries of creative intuitions are hidden in the nerve patterns of vigilant gauges that alert the oil company, several towns away, when my fuel tanks are running low.

We sin against ourselves by believing that beauty has gone out of the world. It has not. Too many of us simply dislike acknowledging how much the ability to create and maintain it on a modern scale is owed to the loveliness of mechanics. To bushings, bearings, cranks, carburetors—every imaginable category of mechanical design—and to commercial enterprises like Weil-McLain and Honeywell  who make our boilers and our gauges.

Remembering Jacques Ellul

We do live in history, and this age is hard to bear.
Jacques Ellul, Hope in Time of Abandonment

To be of one’s time means to attend to the nature of the times. It means resisting the siren call of the day’s enthusiasms—zeal for environmentalism, sustainability, multiculturalism, global fixes, et alia—in order to stay mindful of the root character of those enthusiasms and their ultimate ends. In short, it means becoming a critic of one’s time. Jacques Ellul, devoted to the life of the spirit no less than the life of the mind, was a critic of the highest order. 

One of the major interpreters of the twentieth century, his name is less recognized now than it was before his death twenty years ago. It is certainly not as familiar as our own decade needs it to be. By sweet providence, Ellul was born on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1912. It was a fitting birthdate for a man whose insights are as revelatory now as in the years of their creation. A man with the courage of his intuition, he addressed fellow Christians with the passion—and dismay—of the Latter Prophets:

The Church is the Bride, but she can be an adulteress. The Church is a community founded by the Holy Spirit, but she may become a community in which the Holy Spirit can no longer speak.

Ellul lived an extraordinary life, leaving a rich and masterful legacy. Active in the French Resistance and deputy mayor of Bordeaux in the immediate post-war years, he was a professor of law and social history at the University of Bordeaux and its Institute of Political Studies from 1946 until 1980. A Marxist at 19, he converted to Christianity at 22. He came of age intellectually in the 1930s within the circle surrounding Emmanuel Mounier and his journal L’Espirit. Ellul drew on  Mounier’s personalist philosophy of individual engagement. A Protestant, he was initiated into the same tenets of French personalism which took flesh in this country in the Catholic Worker movement under the tutelage of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day. 

Ellul became known here in the 1960s for The Technological Society, published first in France ten years earlier. It is an astringent assessment of the threat to man’s personal and spiritual freedom posed by the technological world and the reach of its imperatives. But the range of his criticism and theological insight was far wider, cutting deep into the totalitarian aims and conceits of modern bureaucracy. By la technique, he meant the drive to rationalize and make efficient the myriad workings of human society. He cited politics—la politique—as another manifestation of the technicians’ illusory quest for political solutions to everything, including moral and cultural problems. Like Karl Barth, he took the fall of man with great seriousness.

As someone who had lived politics from the inside, he did not dismiss politics. Hardly that. His aim was to demythologize it, rein in its totalizing impulses. He wrote The Political Illusion in the spirit of the biblical prophets who called their own times to remember that the true essence of history resides not in political victories or defeats  but in God’s judgment on man’s dealings. Rejecting politics as the ultimate guidepost, he cautioned against powers that collectivize man via political channels. Such powers are supported by the Church at great risk to the gospel. By collaborating with the confusion of political or ideological symbols for religious ones, the Church unwittingly subordinates man’s ultimate end to temporal ones. And confounds his freedom.

The New Demons (1973) has a penetrating chapter on Christianity’s subservience to the sociopolitical milieu. A key passage:

[Christians} rush to the defense of political religion, and assert that Christianity is meaningful only in terms of political commitment. In truth, it is their religious mentality which plays a trick on them. As Christianity collapses as a religion, they look about them in bewilderment . . . hoping to discover where the religious is to be incarnated in their time. Since they are religious, they are drawn automatically into the political sphere like iron filings to a magnet.

Ellul was unsparing toward the ardent irrationality—“purely religious and mythical”—exhibited by men of science when they go political. At the same time, he was equally severe on religious men who confuse politics, including the political postures of men of science, with an avenue to the Kingdom of God. He was harsh toward what he deemed an illusory regard for the absolutizing pretensions of modern bureaucracy, secular or ecclesiastic. Ellul was no friend to the reach of the managerial state, to ideological drift toward collectivism, or to the hubris of schemes for world management.

The Meaning of the City (1970) is first among my favorites. For Ellul, the city, from the days of Cain to our own, represents both the pinnacle of man’s handiwork and the prime site of his rebellion. Charged with the poetry of biblical allusions, the book remains a startling theological reflection on modern urbanized culture. Babylon is his synecdoche for the historical sweep of mortal man’s monumental, and monumentally flawed, instincts and achievements. Rome, Berlin, Paris, Venice, New York—add Vatican City, as well—they are all the same city for there is “only one Babel”:

 All the cities of the world are brought together in her, she is the synthesis of them all (Dan. 3 and 4; Rev 14 and 18). She is the head and the standard for the other cities. She is the very home of civilization and when the great city vanishes, there is no more civilization, a world disappears. She is the one struck in war, and she is the first to be struck in the war between the Lord and the powers of the world. 

While his The Betrayal of the West (1975) acknowledges the West’s historic sins, Ellul understands them as the common sins of every civilization. What is peculiar to the West, and to it alone, are its virtues. In his words, the West “represents values for which there is no substitute. . . . The end of the West today would mean the end of any possible civilization.”

We are caught up by a kind of doom from which, it seems, nothing can rescue us, for even the disciples of Christ are rushing headlong to destruction. Only the rejection of everything Western, of everything the West has produced, can now satisfy the very men of the West. Throughout Europe and America we are watching a kind of mystery unfold; we are swept along in a vast procession of flagellants who slash at themselves and each other with the most horrendous of whips. .  .  . We have smeared ourselves with paint and blood to show our contempt for all that created the great civilization from which we spring. We even scourge ourselves hysterically for crimes we did not commit. In short, we show enthusiastic joy only at what denies, destroys, and degrades all the works of the West. 

Despite early attachment to Marxism and continuing sympathy with aspects of its critiques, he rejected its solutions and mourned its encroachment on Christian thinking: “Christianity celebrates its marriage with Marxism and proceeds to slay the old, impotent flesh that was once the glory of the world.” 

Ellul understood that the powers and principalities St. Paul warned against are changelings. They mutate with the times, costumed in new movements, sporting new slogans.  In his later years, Ellul turned his attention to the dangers of a resurgent Islam. Forthright and prescient, he kept his eye on the enemy as it advanced. And he had the courage to name it.

Francis & Political Illusion

There is a great temptation today to confuse sociological evolution with spiritual progress, and Christians are the first to succumb to that temptation. Nevertheless, the Bible expressly tells us that the history of mankind ends in judgment. It does not give place to the Kingdom.
                                                             Jacques Ellul, False Presence of the Kingdom
Conformity to the world is expressed by the passion for politics, by the politicizing of Christian thinking, manners and action.
                                                             Jacques Ellul, Hope in Time of Abandonment

In the cap and bells of Flip Wilson’s Church of What’s Happening Now, Pope Francis is readying an encyclical on climate change. He will address the world’s latest mutation of the grail quest: human ecology. Abandoning nuance for apocalyptic alarmism (“If we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us.”), Francis has signaled the tenor of his utterance.

It comes as no surprise. Handwriting has been on the wall along the Viale Vaticano from the get-go. At the beginning of his pontificate, Francis revealed himself to be fastidiously attuned to image. He refused to give communion in public ceremonies lest he be photographed giving the sacrament to the wrong kind of sinner. So, when he agreed to pose between two well-known environmental activists and brandish an anti-fracking T-shirt, we believed what we saw.

It was a portentous image. Press toads hopped to their keyboards to correct the evidence of our lying eyes. Francis was neither for nor against fracking, you see. Nothing of the sort. He was simply using a photo-op to assert blameless solidarity with the victims of ecological injustice. (Both a decisive definition of such injustice and its particular victims went unspecified.)

If that restyling were true, then the more fool Francis. But Francis is not a fool. He is an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist. His clumsy intrusion into the Middle East and covert collusion with Obama over Cuba makes that clear. Megalomania sends him galloping into geopolitical—and now meteorological—thickets, sacralizing politics and bending theology to premature, intemperate policy endorsements.

Later this year, Francis will take his sandwich board to the United Nations General Assembly, that beacon of progress toward the Kingdom. Next will come a summit of world religions—a sort of Green Assisi—organized to lend moral luster to an upcoming confederacy of world improvers in Paris. In the words of Bishop Marcelo Sorondo, chancellor of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Francis means “to make all people aware of the state of our climate and the tragedy of social exclusion.”

There is a muddle for you. The bishop asserts a causal relation between two undefined, imprecise phenomena. His phrasing is a sober-sounding rhetorical dodge that eludes argument because the meaning is indeterminable. Ambiguity, like nonsense, is irrefutable. What caliber of scientist speaks this way?

Ronald Gunther. Soap Box Orator (c. 1935). Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma.

Conscientious concern for the environment is not at issue. Man’s stewardship of the earth’s resources is to be taken with great seriousness. But debate as how best to effect that stewardship is intricate and ongoing. There are hazards in unraveling divergent, often contradictory, ideas and undertakings bundled together by the media as a coherent movement.

Francis serves an environmentalist mindset that, unlike the traditional ethos of conservation, views man as a parasite (Western man in Francis’ marxisant variant) and understands wealth in pre-modern terms as a zero-sum game. It discards the West’s great discovery—realization that wealth can be created. The endgame is transfer of wealth from productive nations to unproductive ones.

Boris Kustodiev. Festivity for Opening of the 11th Comintern Congress (1920). Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg.

Orthodox environmentalism resents human sovereignty over the earth we inhabit. It begrudges ingenuity in the transactions we invent with nature and with each other. Its radical form, which beckons Francis and Vatican academics, is atavistic, even animist. Discount the gospel gloss. What matters is the spectacle of the Church imitating the world by justifying political agendas based on still-contended data and half-baked Gramscian dogma. Jacques Ellul, writing in the post-war decades, cautioned against introducing political morals into the Church as a springboard for unexamined action: 

Proof is of no avail in the face of the sociological trends which bring Christians irrevocably to do what everybody else is doing, and to think what everybody else is thinking.

Ferdinand Hodler. The Orator (1912). Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

Man cannot destroy “Creation.” It is not within his power. Nor is “Creation” a willful entity with Doomsday on its mind. Francis sullies his office by using demagogic formulations to bully the populace into reflexive climate action with no more substantive guide than theologized propaganda. Francis’s loaded abstractions—a planet “exploited by human greed,” a vague “economy of exclusion,” and that old goblin, “the god of money”—echo Reverend Wright’s “A world in need is run by white folks’ greed.” Explicit racial component is absent from Francis’ denunciations. Nevertheless, hearers know which world—First or Third?—prompts papal hostility.

The world is what it has been and will remain. Satan is still the prince of it. And Francis is imprudent.

E.T.A. Hoffmann, Enchanter

With liturgical regularity, Christmastide brings the magic of The Nutcracker. This is the perfect season for it. By December, the year’s worth of adult disdain for all things enchanted has reached a crescendo. “No, Virginia, you’ve been had,” galumph uncomprehending gradgrinds who dismiss fantasy as lying. Childhood’s sensitivity to wonder is put to the test this time of year. Children are made to suffer obtuse grown-ups who refuse to believe that toys come alive, that mice have queens, or have forgotten that nightmares, too, have their bewitchments.

E.T.A. Hoffmann’s own illustration for Nussknacker und Mausekònig (1816). University of Oldenburg.

We owe The Nutcracker to Ernest Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, celebrated among the German Romantics of his day. As much a changeling in careers as in name, he was born Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann in Königsberg, Prussia, in 1776. Sometime in his thirty-seventh year, he changed his middle name in honor of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Though he continued to use Wilhelm on official documents, he wrote and composed under the name E. T. A. Hoffmann.

Hoffmann had a variegated career as a stage manager, musician, music critic, librettist, artist, and, early on, a law officer in the Prussian army. He wrote and staged a ballet of his own, Arlequin, in 1816, the year in which he wrote what would later become the basis of The Nutcracker. To the extent that we remember him today at all, we are most familiar with his name as the writer of short stories. He was the fictionalized protagonist of Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann, based on three Hoffmann fables.

Illustration by Gannady Spirin (1996)

Awake to the singular and inexplicable, Hoffmann disliked that breed of rationalists incapable of recognizing even the demonic. He intended The Nutcracker and the Mouse King as an unsettling novella for adults, not children. His seven-headed Mouse King is easily recognizable as a märchen variant of the Beast of the Apocalypse so famously depicted by Dürer. (The Nutcracker ballet, first performed in St. Petersburg, in 1892, to Tschaikovsky’s music, is based on Alexander Dumas père’s later and lighter adaptation of the tale.)

Hoffman created the story in opposition to what he saw as the Enlightenment’s assault on the imagination. He championed intimations of the extramundane, those veiled realms of the empirically unverifiable. A poet in words, music, and line, he defended the authenticity of realities existing outside the scientific world view. This passage from Hoffmann’s “The Perfect Stage Manager” is a sly guide to his aesthetic objectives:

If perhaps you have not already noticed it yourselves, I will herewith reveal to you that the poets and musicians are in an extremely dangerous league against the audience. For their aim is nothing less than to drive the spectator out of the real world where he is so well off . . . when they have completely separated him from everything that he previously knew and liked, to torment him with all possible emotions and passions extremely prejudicial to his health.

As preface to his  astute review of the score of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Hoffmann wrote that music “reveals an unknown kingdom to mankind: a world that has nothing in common with the outward, material world that surrounds it, and in which we leave behind all predetermined conceptual feelings in order to give ourselves up to the inexpressible.” Doing so, we enter the dark.

Illustration by Artus Scheiner (1924). Prague.

Shortly before Christmas this year, The New York Times permitted itself a guest appearance by Eric Kaplan, author of Does Santa Exist? A heavy thinker, Kaplan explains what it would take to induce belief in Santa: “Maybe I could take psilocybin and have a group of my friends chant, ‘Santa exists! Santa exists!’ while I am tripping my brains out.” He arrives at a boilerplate insight exquisitely fit for threadbare times: “Each belief is the beginning of a voyage of self-discovery.”

Poor Kaplan. The dolt has it backwards. Any Sugar Plum Fairy could tell him that self discovery has nothing to do with it. Not with belief, and certainly not with art. Hoffmann understood that true artistry originates in those ineffable modes of self transcendence that accompany genuine struggle to create. To believe.

Illustration by Dagmar Berkova (1964). Prague.

Before the season ends, try to spend some time with E.T.A. Hoffmann and The Nutcracker. Althea Bell’s translation is lovely, still available as a used book. Any edition with illustrations by Gannady Spirin, Dagmar Berkova, or—my very favorite—Artus Scheiner will get you through the humbug of the coming year. The edition with Maurice Sendak’s lively illustrations is everywhere but not nearly as captivating as others for lovers of book arts.

Jacket illustration for Althea Bell’s translation.

Consider Toy Soldiers

Little Wars: a game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books.
Full title of H.G. Wells’ 1913 rule book for playing with tin soldiers

Old toy soldiers were a fixture in the local bookshop window when I was growing up. The store owner was Frank Womrath, a veteran of World War II. His affection for the military history represented by those hollow-cast lead figures had been well and truly earned.

I ached for a set. It did not matter which one. Highlanders in Black Watch kilts, Royal Marines, Buffalo Soldiers, or rag-tag Green Mountain Boys—all were beautiful. Hints were dropped; none were taken. What would a ten-year-old girl do with toy soldiers? My designs on them would have disappointed Wells: I’d have played house with them. I loved them for the same reasons I loved doll houses—for the Lilliputian charm of them. 

But there are better reasons to reclaim toy soldiers from adult collectors and return them to the children they were created for. T.S. Allen, a West Point graduate and second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, discussed those reasons in “Tis the Season for Toy Soldiers,” a recent guest editorial in The New York Sun.

The toy soldier is unique among toys in that he has an opponent and invites opposition. Once a child has grown old enough to begin aping the real world, she or he sets up an objective for the toys, and hopefully their friends bless them with competition. Rules (or, more often, norms of argumentation) are established to determine the feasability of achieving those objectives. A simple Kriegspiel develops.

In this way, the toy soldier models the real world better than any other toy. The world is and always will be a place of endless tension between competing forces. A child’s blocks and drawing-books may teach them reasoning, but cannot teach them the limits of reason. From toy battles the child learns two things. First, opposition is inevitable, and will come not just from the “enemy.” Little armies are afflicted by what military men call “friction of war” — they are hard to maneuver and fall over at the most inconvenient times. Second, the best way to overcome opposition is with aggressive initiative — forcing them to respond to you, rather than responding to them.

The school of the toy soldier educated many of the great leaders of the past. Winston Churchill, in tin wars against his brotherJack, learned from toy soldiers the craftiness about battle that he used to such effect against the host of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. It is not just military men who have learned from their toys. Understanding of friction and instinctive intiative are military virtues, but they have equal value in the civilian world.

Anti-war dogma encourages magical thinking about a dangerous world and the abiding reality of enemies who do not smile on us. Toy soldiers are anathema in a cultural climate that entrusts its survival to certificates in conflict resolution and Orwellian word changes. Adult manners sweep the playroom clean of toy cannons and wind-up tanks. Today’s polite rumpus room is a hand-held video arcade with shooting games that test nothing more than manual reflexes:

Children will always find ways to play war. Video games, the new war toys, are an awful substitute. They teach children (falsely) that violence is enjoyable, easy to use, and sanitary. Toy soldiers do the opposite — indeed, in their heydey, they were seen as an antidote to rampant militarism. H.G. Wells, who revolutionized tin war with his 1913 book Little Wars, insisted that “I have never yet met in little battle any military gentleman, any captain, major, colonel, general, or eminent commander, who did not presently get into difficulties and confusions among even the elementary rules of the Battle. You have only to play at Little Wars three or four times to realize just what a blundering thing Great War must be.”

Photo by Mike Peters.

This Christmas, while we intone that lovely phrase “Peace on earth,” events remind us that the peace we are promised—the peace that passeth all understanding—is eschatological. Good will is not a virtue of history. Consider granting toy soldiers some space around the manger.