Congratulations to Jimmy Myers for winning first place in our first annual Student Essay Contest. Below is his response to prompt #1.
Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky has been credited with saying that “beauty will save the world.” At first glance, it is quite a nice quip, one that no doubt tingles the romantic sensibilities of art critics, patrons, savants, and even laymen who appreciate dabbling in the regime of the beautiful. But, where does Dostoevsky so aphoristically express this soteriology? One might expect to find it in a personal journal, or in a letter to a friend, or perhaps even in an esoteric, but profound, lecture on the pregnant possibility that the arts alone can gestate and birth. Where else could such a romantic thing be said? It is surprising to find, then, that it comes not from the chords of Dostoevsky himself, but is uttered by a curious character from his novel entitled The Idiot.
His name is Hippolite and in the middle of the novel, after having fallen asleep at a dinner party, he awakes with quite a start and deep confusion. Immediately he launches into worrisome inquiries: “What? Are they leaving? It’s over? Has the sun risen?” After achieving some measure of equilibrium, Hippolite continues with a crazed and fervent monologue, during which he turns to a character called “the Prince” and questioningly utters the fateful phrase: “Prince, is it true you once said that the world would be saved by ‘beauty’? What kind of beauty will save the world?”
Hippolite is an invalid. He has a relentless sickness that seizes him with incapacitating coughing fits. More importantly, though, his disease promises to put an end to his relatively short life of 17 years. His death is imminent. Because of this “sentence,” he has ventured to the dinner party to see the Prince and explain to him and all the guests the final statement on his life.
Now, amidst this dinner party celebrating the Prince’s birthday, Hippolite stands out. That he stands out is not due to some impressive, prodigious accomplishment, beautiful countenance, or affluent inheritance. He stands out because of his “wretched” disease, his “loathsome face,” and his empty, crazed speech. One guest finds his presence utterly insufferable: “Tell me, Prince, why has this wretched boy forced himself on you?”
Sick and suffering, Hippolite fitfully longs to find a possible answer to the conundrum concerning his existence determined by death and despair, so in the middle of the party he stands up to give a speech. And as he looks around at all the faces of the prestigious aristocrats and prosperous, powerful war generals who know their good standing in society; as he sees all the wealth, beauty, and happiness on display in attractive gardens and ostentatious parties; as he witnesses the over-confidence of a Russian, “Christian” world that boasts of the “rarity of famine,” the “rapidity of the means of communication,” and the strength of the railroads, what overwhelms him is how inconsequential his presence is in all of this. In other words, he knows that he is a misfit, he knows he is ugly, he knows that society doesn’t know what to do with him other than look on him with pitiful glances that mask a contemptuous opinion. He stands as a signpost of death in the midst of a world that dares only to consider the positive, bourgeois optimism in all things. Toward the end of his speech entitled “My Essential Statement,” he describes his condition:
What use do I have for your nature, your Pavlovsk park, your sunrises and sunsets, your blue skies, your contented faces, when this whole festival, which is without end, has begun by excluding me from it? What is in all this beauty for me when every minute, every second I am obliged, forced to know that even this tiny gnat, buzzing near me in the sunlight now, is taking part in all this banquet and chorus, knows its place in it, loves it, and is happy, and I alone am an outcast and only through cowardice have I refused to realize this until now!
Because of his suffering and the necessity of his impending death, Hippolite declares that he intends to exercise the one final freedom that he can and kill himself before the cruelty of Providence steals his breath from him. This declaration is met with indifference and mockery: he is said to be a ridiculous fool. To counter all these responses, to the surprise of all Hippolite jumps up and places a pistol to his head, raises a glass with his other hand, and pulls the trigger.
But nothing happens. The gun does not fire. Hippolite faints, but then the jeering returns: “The general alarm of the first moment quickly gave way to laughter; some were even roaring with laughter, finding malicious delight in the situation.” At his suffering, despair, and suicide, the guests—laugh. They find his ramblings foolish, his depression ridiculous, and his pessimistic perspective listing towards suicide wholly ludicrous. There is no sense that perhaps what appears in Hippolite is genuine forsakenness and dereliction; and there is no sense that Hippolite’s exclusion is cultivated and perpetuated, at least in part, by those very same party guests who laugh as he pulls the trigger to the gun pressed against his temple.
Freidrich Nietzsche would have been proud of the Prince’s guests. They embody his admonishment, “You ought to learn the art of this-worldly comfort first; . . . Laughter I have pronounced holy: you higher men, learn—to laugh!” That the party guests laugh betrays a subtle, implicit imagination that sees suffering as something that needs to be transcended by being excluded or ignored. Genuine suffering and genuine sympathy for sufferers have no place at the table. But, of course, in such a setting, how could it? For, as Nietzsche has shown through his prophetic mouthpiece, Zarathustra, real, sympathetic pity requires an ontology that profoundly suggests that this world is not the way things are supposed to be.
Albert Camus’ argument in The Myth of Sisyphus brings out more clearly what is so troubling about the party guests’ response in The Idiot, as well as Nietzsche’s solution. To be sure, Camus wrestles with the profound absurdity and wretchedness of existence as it confronts Sisyphus who is confined by the gods to roll his rock up a mountain into eternity. But Camus’ conclusion resembles Nietzsche: “Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. . . . Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. . . . One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” According to Camus, Sisyphus looks at his burden, his suffering, and is—happy. One could imagine, following Nietzsche’s prescription, that perhaps he even laughs. But, by laughing at suffering, by being happy at suffering, by staring suffering in the face and saying “all is well,” Nietzsche’s “beautiful savior” Zarathustra, and Zarathustra’s antitype Sisyphus, fail to grasp the depth of our human problematic, for in the end we find that Nietzsche’s Beauty exists only for those who are already saved and “beautified” and need no help.
This kind of Beauty has no time for the ugly one, the stranger, and, thus, there is no salvation of the ugly world at all. Transcendence comes by transcending the sufferer who thinks that this world actually is suffering, by refusing to deal with his grotesque condition: transcendence comes by stoically recognizing that this is the way things are and that we must learn to deal with it. In other words, Nietzsche’s Beauty resolves to deal with ugliness and exclusion by plunging it more deeply into its exclusion that it might remain there, quietly forsaken, cut-off, an outcast. Thus his claim that the object of the higher man is “to attain that enormous energy of greatness which can model the man of the future by means of discipline and also by means of the annihilation of millions of the bungled and botched, and which can yet avoid going to ruin at the sight of the suffering created thereby. . .”
We, of course, are not immune from this resolution, for we, namely 21st century Americans, like to think that perhaps as a society we have or can transcend the horrors of the 20th century; that the old and ugly religiosity and traditionalism of past epochs can be delivered by a new, Oprah-esque, Osteen-inspired self-improvement ideology that ignores suffering rather than lamenting its grip in our lives; that we can cover up our physical blemishes and deny the inevitability of death with a simple gloss, a soft cream, or perhaps a thoroughly beautifying surgery; that the virtual aesthetic regime is the regime that will liberate our image from the spatial and temporal, uncontrollable ugliness that is on display when we meet people in living conversation; and that perhaps the best decision for us is to begin picking and choosing genes so that we can eradicate the existence of the bungled and botched, ushering in a new, Spartan-like society where there is no longer weakness or outcasts because they have been filtered out. We imagine that perhaps our beauty can and will save us from the ugliness that surrounds us. In every case, it is an optimistic confidence in the ability of humanity to save itself, to look to the humanity of the future for redemption from the ugly of today.
We must return to Hippolite. We cannot leave him in his exiled state for it is obvious that the “Beauty” that exiled him has been exposed. The superficial, attractive gloss has cracked and underneath the façade that screams “all is well,” our shameful nakedness is revealed: all is not well, we cannot always laugh, and we must pity the sufferer because the face of the derelict one stands before us and speaks the word that haunts us all: death. Only when we contemplate this face and see the ways that we have participated in his being-towards-death do we realize that we cannot save ourselves. It is, in fact, our “selves” that need to be saved.
Ironically, it is Hippolite himself, the seeming “atheist” in the novel, who provides the way forward in answering his own riddle: Will beauty save the world? What beauty saves the world? Prior to his suicide attempt, Hippolite recounts a curious memory of a painting he encountered while touring the house of Rogozhin, one of the guests at the dinner party who holds Hippolite in contempt. Hippolite remembers,
The picture represented Christ just taken down from the cross. I believe that painters usually have a way of depicting Christ, either on the cross or being taken down from the cross, with a trace of extraordinary beauty still in his face; they strive to preserve this beauty in him even during his most dreadful agonies. In Rogozhin’s painting there was no beauty; it was a faithful representation of the corpse of a man who has borne infinite agony even before crucifixion . . . his body on the cross was fully subject to the laws of nature. In the painting his face is dreadfully disfigured by blows, swollen, covered with terrible swollen and bloody bruises, the eyes open, the pupils turned up, the large open whites of the eyes bright with a . . . deathly, vitreous gleam.
This is the image of a Jewish man from Nazareth, crucified. In fact, his is the face of “the King of the Jews” and yet, it is supremely grotesque, bearing all the marks of suffering. His face reveals real forsakenness; his body aches of real bodily torture and real agony. His corpse lies mangled and bloodied, and his eyes, like Hippolite’s detestable physiognomy, proclaim the dreadful word that causes all who hoped in him to shudder: death. There is nothing at all glamorous, desirable, or romantic about this image of the crucified One.
But, of course, what is so profound about the face of this human is that his is also the face of God. His face radiates the Beauty of divinity, for he is Light from Light uncreated, the perfect image of the Father. He is, as Hebrews 1:3 says, “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature . . .” The beauty of this person, wholly man and wholly God, lies in the mystery that he brings salvation to the world not by excluding suffering but by uniting himself to it. He refuses to recoil from a world that has become repellent; he does not laugh at the dereliction of others; he does not look at all that is bad and conclude, “all is well.” He does not stand far off. In his beauty, he comes near and embraces the “ugly” ones. He associates with strange and lonely and exiled folk, bringing the outcast in. He is the servant who suffers, and, protesting against “the way things are,” he takes up Hippolite’s lament and cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He exemplifies and creates a people committed to what David Hart calls “strange, impractical, altogether unworldly tenderness” to those whom Nietzsche would have annihilated. Even to those who, like the dinner guests in The Idiot, laugh and mock and forsake the stranger he says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He brings the whole festival of divine grace to a world that has excluded itself from it and invites Hippolite and the rest of humanity to take part, to enjoy a feast of resurrection where all divisions, segregation, and exclusion are transcended, where all have their place at the supper of the Lamb, where all, who see the face of the Beautiful One and in that seeing are transformed, are inundated and radiated by Beauty itself. In a word, to paraphrase St. Athanasius, he becomes the Ugly One so that we, the original ugly ones who have made this world ugly with our violence, might become beautiful.
In this respect, Hippolite’s story reveals the scandalous message of the Christian aesthetic regime, an alternative regime to that of our time: Beauty saves the world, but only by facing the Ugly head on and actually uniting himself to the regime of the Ugly. We cannot be saved by beauty as long as “beauty” is held captive by immanent attempts to achieve transcendence. The thought that we can be saved by immanent beauty is the presumption of a contemporary secularity that thinks that humanity can ever slowly, by carefully putting one foot above the other, ascend the ladder towards infinite beauty that awaits an enlightened race of humans. The truth that will always confront all of us at the top of that ladder, however, is the face of the God who, beyond history, came into history and became ugly, mangled, and ripped apart by deep dereliction and thorns, a face that unbearably whispers: you can only be saved by the beautiful one who has become the ugly one. In other words, the Ugly one alone can save us, the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, whose divine Beauty is manifest in his descent to become—Jesus of Nazareth.
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Jimmy Myers is a recent graduate of Covenant College and is currently a master's student at Duke Divinity school. He is studying patristic theology, with a special interest in the Greek Fathers. He is pictured here with his fiancee, Mary Lynn Alexander.