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Poetry, Beauty, and Contemplation: The Complete Aesthetics of Jacques Maritain
by John Trapani
Catholic University of America, 176 pages, $34 .95

The turn of 2011 saw the art world embroiled in a controversy as predictable as the Venice Biennale. This time it was a protest of the Smithsonian’s removal of a video entitled A Fire in My Belly that depicts a crucifix covered with ants”a respite, to be sure, from the symbol’s traditional role of bearing the sins of the world. The incident galvanized art-world outrage in part because protesting against censorship provides a necessary distraction from its increasingly uncomfortable predicament: the expiration of critical theory as a warrant for creative pursuits.

“Theory” holds sway in contemporary discussions of literature, poetry, and art these days as much by force of habit as by ardent conviction. At this point one can barely make out the faded letters spelling out “postmodernism” on the dusty sign that precariously dangles from a rusty nail above the central mineshaft of academic commentary on the arts. The precious insights mined by various political and cultural modes of analysis have been largely carried away (in several senses). Despite declarations of bankruptcy and the occasional shaft collapse, teams of workers led by expendable graduate students dig on, but with little conviction and less consequence.

With the postmodern mine now played out, it’s fitting that John Trapani has struck gold elsewhere. In Poetry, Beauty, and Contemplation: The Complete Aesthetics of Jacques Maritain , he brings before us a French thinker generally absent from graduate seminar syllabi. Trapani claims that Maritain (1882“1973) “was arguably the most significant disciple of St. Thomas Aquinas in the twentieth century.” Thomism’s fortunes in the last century were mixed, with the tradition’s more settled articulations either abandoned or severely modified. Yet Maritain’s brand of Thomism, with its careful development of the kind of “Poetic Knowledge” exhibited in the creation and enjoyment of the arts, deserves, Trapani tells us, reconsideration and revival.

A detailed treatment of Maritain’s aesthetics has long been necessary. As Rowan Williams observes, “Recent discussion of Maritain in English has not been as abundant as his work merits,” and “many aspects of his work still await proper critical appreciation.” “Prominent among these,” Williams continues, “is his aesthetics.” Although Maritain’s books on art were influential when they first appeared, the relative lack of subsequent scholarship on Maritain’s treatments of poetry and art is understandable. As the contemporary Thomist John Haldane points out, “Philosophers inspired by Aquinas have had little to say about aesthetics.” As a consequence, Maritain’s contribution to modern theories of art and poetry tends to be neglected not only by contemporary culturati allergic to religion but also by his Thomistic kin.

Part of Maritain’s appeal as a philosopher of art stems from his intimate contact with the creative atmosphere of early-twentieth-century France. Today, one can earn an advanced degree in literature without having to associate with actual novelists or poets, or a degree in art history without bothering to meet practicing artists. But for Maritain figures such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Rouault, Marc Chagall, Igor Stravinsky, André Gide, Jean Cocteau, and many others were not distant subjects of academic investigation but houseguests. Maritain elaborated a theory of creativity that could explain to these artists”regardless of their own faith or lack of faith”what they were doing. “Contemplatives and poets,” insisted Maritain, “understand each other.”

Many, however, have found it difficult to understand Maritain. To be sure, one can dive directly into Maritain’s 1953 masterwork, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry , but without a thorough background in Aristotle and Aquinas, not to mention the rest of Maritain’s sometimes conflicting ideas, this can be a challenge. Now, thanks to Trapani’s comprehensive introduction, readers can enter into the nuances of Maritain’s aesthetic project.

Trapani begins with the story of Jacques and his future wife Raïssa’s suicide pact. More affected by the Sorbonne’s scientistic materialism than were the calloused professors who proclaimed it, the young couple vowed to end it all at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. “We wanted to die by a free act if it were impossible to live according to the truth,” wrote Raïssa. “It was then that God’s pity caused us to find Henri Bergson.” Bergson’s philosophy awakened hope. After Bergson, however, came Léon Bloy, the novelist who led Jacques and Raïssa to the Catholic faith. Years later, the couple advanced from movement “towards the Church . . . into the very bosom of that Church.” They discovered Aquinas.

Trapani lays out the differences between Jacques Maritain and Henri Bergson clearly. Bergson surrendered to the doubts of modernity, denying the intellect’s ability to grasp reality. In its place he offered intuition’s grasp of reality. “Intuition,” trumpeted Bergson, “ attains the absolute.” The mysterious faculty of intuition, he reasoned, could overcome the Kantian divide between mind and reality, somehow infusing reality into the consciousness of the beholder.

Reading Aquinas caused the young Maritain to take a further step: to doubt modern doubt. He therefore sought to rehabilitate the intellect’s capacities. In the move that perhaps defined Maritain’s career, he did not so much abandon Bergson’s notion of intuition as relocate it within the intellect.

Maritain could subsume Bergson into Aquinas only by expanding the intellect’s contours, a move that went against the grain of many modern strands of Thomism. As Trapani explains: “The intellect [for Maritain] is a superior, intuitive, immaterial knowing power that operates together with the instrumentality of the senses in a diversity of ways, and, having being as its proper object, it puts us in direct contact with reality itself.” This formal definition of intellect as the power of knowing reality allows Maritain to treat our aesthetic experience as a mode of intellection. “Our ability for acquiring knowledge,” Trapani continues, “is not confined to nor exhausted by the conceptual operations of the intellect alone.”

Readers of Aquinas will discern in this view of the intellect traces of the Thomistic account of truth: Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus , or, as one translation rather pungently puts it, “Truth is the squaring of thought and thing.” Guided by this definition, Maritain enlarged the Thomistic notion of truth. To thought ( intellectus ), Maritain added “a certain, nonconceptual, intuitive, connatural, experiential” type of knowledge that he calls “Poetic Knowledge,” and to things ( rei ) he added complex meditations on the beauty of being that Aquinas had only partially explored. Beauty, for Maritain, is both a name of God and a property of reality. It is the “radiance of all the transcendentals united.”

By Trapani’s account, Maritain was able to show how art and poetry bring together two infinities: the irreducible complexity of human personality (“the Self”) with the superabundant mystery of being (“the Things”). Poetic Knowledge, which “divines before demonstrating,” can result in art and poetry, but it need not. Simple beholding is sufficient. The end of such knowledge is neither creation nor conceptualization but gaudium (joy).

This is not the Thomism most of us have been warned about. We may bring cartoon critiques of arid Scholasticism to our reading of Trapani’s account of Maritain, but they will not come out alive. Maritain, for example, speaks of the “wisdom of the saints [who] experience divine things in the darkness of faith.” He does not squeeze this wisdom into the box of conceptual rationality but locates it “ above philosophy.” This appeal to the mystical need not put an end to philosophical clarity, however. Trapani demonstrates that Maritain’s vision, however elusive, can be mapped. Indeed, Trapani provides an elaborate and helpful chart that outlines the changes and continuities in Maritain’s technical vocabulary throughout his wide-ranging career.

Contemporary readers of Aquinas have discovered that something akin to Maritain’s notion of Poetic Knowledge may help us interpret St. Thomas more accurately. John Milbank suggests as much when he defends Maritain’s account of knowing, claiming that Aquinas developed an “apophatically aesthetic accounting for the being of things as they are.” Analytic Thomism will need to grapple with Trapani’s representation of Maritain, as will admirers of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the theologian who, rebelling against one kind of Thomism, developed an aesthetics that rivals Maritain’s in scope and importance. Von Balthasar’s aesthetics displays, perhaps, more intellectual virtuosity, but Maritain’s has the advantage of being within the ongoing intellectual tradition of Thomism. However, the two perspectives are complementary, and together they provide an embarrassment of conceptual riches with which to develop a philosophy and theology of poetry and art.

Although certainly useful for developing Catholic thought about beauty, the particular strength and importance of Poetry, Beauty, and Contemplation rests in Trapani’s ability to show how Maritain’s aesthetics have significance beyond strictly philosophical or theological domains. Poets and artists, literary and art historians, and lovers of poetry and art will find in Trapani’s study of Maritain a satisfyingly spacious and clear but non-reductive account of the ineffable experience that art, at its best, evokes. Critical theory has little to offer these days, which is why a rediscovery of Maritain offers such promise.

Matthew J. Milliner is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University.