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Speaking of Beauty
by Denis Donoghue
Yale University Press. 209 pp. $24.95

Several days after the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, the New York Times commissioned an essay for its op-ed page from a native of Littleton. He described how his hometown had changed from a quiet village located well outside the urban environs of Denver into part of the suburban sprawl that now characterizes the entire national landscape, transforming his placid town into a seedbed for despair:

I grew up in a town endowed, however humbly, with a character and a sense of place, and I had those things, too. What sense of place can there be in the Littletons of America now, in these mall-lands where each Gap and McDonald’s is like the next, where the differences between things are neither prized nor scorned but are simply wiped from existence? Growing up in an anonymous landscape, how can anyone escape his own encroaching sense of anonymity? In this world, meaning evaporates. In a world of monotonous getting and spending, the need to shake things up, to make a mark”any mark”may overpower everything else, including sense . . . . The Trench Goat Mafia’s particular brand of evil may have stemmed from a terrible absence”a loss of perspective that might be one of the unforeseen consequences of a loss of place.

The forces that have transformed the American landscape in the past thirty years or so to make it so dreary and monotonous are not the focus of Denis Donoghue’s pleasantly written Speaking of Beauty. But like the native of Littleton quoted above, Donoghue certainly recognizes that beauty is, so to speak, a “trace mineral” for the human soul: just as a body robbed of zinc or salt for an extended length of time will undermine its own health, so too the soul can get by without a regular diet of beauty only so long before its own psychic metabolism gets thrown out of whack.

Unfortunately, as William Butler Yeats wrote in his poem “Adam’s Curse,” “we must labor to be beautiful.” It takes commitment, hard work, not just to build the Sydney Opera House but even to insist that there be one, and that it be done well. But a society lazy about beauty will become, in Donoghue’s words, “indifferent to smog, litter, what Henry James called ‘trash triumphant,’ lurid communications, wretched TV, billboards, strip malls, blatancies of noise and confusion”or it considers these things the price you have to pay to make more money.” Donoghue, a literary critic from Ireland now a professor at New York University, offers no plan, no list of suggestions, no blue-panel program, for ameliorating our contemporary moonscape. How could he? For such a utilitarian approach would undermine the point of the book, which examines why beauty remains so elusive a concept and such an abiding reproach to mere utility. As he says on the opening page, beauty “thrives on keeping quiet and never explains itself.”

As befits such an opening, Donoghue has no thesis or nugget-statement to flog, no particular sound-bite that the reader might take away from a pleasant evening spent reading this charming essay. The speaking that Donoghue does in Speaking of Beauty is conversational, anecdotal, allusive, and circular, although deeply learned for all that, and teeming with insights. Among the latter, perhaps the most important is a line taken from Immanuel Kant’s famous treatise on aesthetics, the Critique of Judgment: a tulip, Kant says, “is regarded as beautiful because in perceiving it we find a certain purposiveness which, in our judgment, refers to no purpose at all.” This perhaps enigmatic statement points both to the fact that, in art anyway, beauty of form indicates design (hence purposiveness), but, like all forms of play (and all art is a form of play), it is done for no other purpose than itself (hence beauty’s neuralgic relation to utility). But since recognition of beauty in art is rooted in a prior experience of beauty in nature, both reveal something about reality as such. As Donoghue notes in glossing this passage from Kant, and relying here on Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method, “When we find a scene in nature beautiful”the scene itself having no significance of content”we feel that nature has produced this beauty in our favor. Nature has given us a sign that we are the ultimate goal of creation.”

Over against this marvelous insight stands the position adopted by various Marxist critics of the Frankfurt School, such as Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and George Lukacs. Toward these critics Donoghue is properly cautious, accepting their insights within due limits but warning as well that “good causes are regularly damaged by exorbitant claims for them, and by excesses in their practice.” This certainly applies to Adorno’s criticism of Kant: “The disinterested pleasure that according to Kant is aroused by works of art can only be understood by virtue of historical antitheses still at work in each aesthetic object. The thing now being disinterestedly contemplated pleases only because it once claimed the utmost interest and thus precluded contemplation.”

At face value, this claim seems to ban disinterested (meaning, non-utilitarian) contemplation as a bourgeois illusion: only engagement counts. Or as Donoghue wittily paraphrases the position: “By being disinterested, I clear a space for certain perceptions that would not survive in the marketplace. I cultivate a semblance of desire rather than yield to desire. But it is possible to interpret disinterestedness in several ways. You could take it as an attribute of the wealthy class, which can afford to treat life as a spectacle and to look at beautiful objects without committing the vulgarity of desiring them. As for desire, they could leave that to their servants.”

Such an outlook is not outright wrong, in the sense of asserting that two plus two equals five, but it certainly can be taken too far; and the incantatory, declamatory style affected by Marxist critics should alert us to their”to borrow one of their own favorite terms”“totalizing,” “hegemonic” intent.

Take, for example, the line of another Marxist critic, Frederic Jameson, now plying his trade at Duke University, who asserts that “the visible is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination.” Now it is true that pornography is the premier sign of the decadence of late capitalism, and the fact that liberalism can offer no moral or legal objections to it is a sure indication that liberalism is far more complicit in capitalism’s dynamic than are non-libertarian schools of political conservatism, paleo-, neo-, or whatever. But only a Marxist utterly hung up and scandalized by disinterested contemplation could equate all gazing with consumption of pornography. Far better to escape the oxygen-deprived air found in the higher altitudes of the Frankfurter Schule and Duke University for the insights of novelists such as Tim O’Brien, who gets at the nugget of Jameson’s legitimate insight buried underneath its absurd formulation. In his novel The Things They Carried , he has one of his characters say:

The truths are contradictory. It can be argued, for instance, that war is grotesque. But in truth war is also beauty. For all its horror, you can’t help but gape at the awful majesty of combat. You stare out at tracer rounds unwinding through the dark like brilliant red ribbons. You crouch in ambush as a cool, impassive moon rises over the nighttime paddies. You admire the fluid symmetries of troops on the move, the harmonies of sounds and shape and proportion, the great sheets of metal-fire streaming down from a gun-ship, . . . the rocket’s red glare. It’s not pretty, exactly. It’s astonishing. It fills the eye. It commands you. You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not.

Here we come close to a Christian aesthetics, paradoxical as that might sound. In his recent book on the Church Fathers, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God, Robert Louis Wilken speaks of the patristic axiom, “We are changed into the one we see.” In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint), early Christians read that the Israelites “saw the voice of the Lord” (Exodus 20:18 in the Septuagint numbering). For a thinker like Origen this meant that the voice of the Lord is “seen” only by those to whom it is given to see. Luke calls the disciples “eyewitnesses of the Word,” which again means that they saw more than just Jesus in his bodily form (Judas and Pilate saw that much) but recognized him in his true identity as the Word of God.

Only a Christian aesthetics can resolve the Marxist dilemma outlined above: the tension between disinterested gaze and rapt attention can be resolved only when what we see coheres with its true beauty in God’s intentions. Donoghue quotes the great pioneer of a Christian theological aesthetics, Hans Urs von Balthasar, throughout his book, especially at the outset, and to great effect (one more sign, if any be needed, that orthodox theologians like Augustine, Pascal, and Balthasar speak much more directly to secular culture than do accommodationists like Tillich and Rahner). Of course, as Donoghue well realizes when he brings Balthasar into the argument, “if we took him as seriously as he deserves, we would have to change our lives.” But then, not to do so leaves us mired between bourgeois disinterestedness and empty Marxist engagement (itself a kind of professorial disinterestedness, as we have seen), not to mention trapping us inside a world of pornography and strip malls. So Donoghue leaves us in no doubt that Balthasar’s vision would liberate us. No wonder he feels drawn to this magnificent passage in the first volume of Balthasar’s The Glory of the Lord:

Before the beautiful”no, not really before but within the beautiful”the whole person quivers. He not only “finds” the beautiful moving; rather, he experiences himself as being moved and possessed by it. The more complete this experience is, the less does a person seek and enjoy only the delight that comes through the senses or even through any act of his own; the less also does he reflect on his own acts and states. Such a person has been taken up wholesale into the reality of the beautiful and is now fully subordinate to it, determined by it, animated by it.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, had already anticipated the Marxist critics when he asked in one of his poems, “To what serves mortal beauty?” and answered with the next line, “Dangerous. Does set dancing blood.” But he had the advantage of faith, of his own personal, even idiosyncratic way of “seeing the voice” of the Lord. For that reason he could say in “Pied Beauty,”

All things counter, original,
spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled
(who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet,
sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose
beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., is the author of Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (Continuum).