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Go, Wash in the Pool of Siloam Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 25 April 2012

I had the gratifying experience, at a recent conference on Dante, of being on a winning team. Those who took Dante at his word, and read The Divine Comedy as the artistic expression of a profound and intellectually satisfying Christian faith, were pitted against a few scholars, Straussian by training, who believed that the poem was an elaborate ruse concealing a secular view of man. 

My lecture was on the motif of the face in Dante’s poetry, particularly the faces of Beatrice, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Mary, and Christ. When I finished, to the applause of my compeers in the faith, and addressed questions, it struck me that there were some in the audience who had simply never considered what I was saying. 

It’s not that they interpreted passages in different ways. Instead, passages that fill me with such awe and gratitude as to draw tears – for example, Dante’s image of the pilgrim from Croatia who travels to Rome to view the “veronica,” the cloth that wiped the face of Jesus on his terrible path to Calvary, and says, in astonishment, “And did you look like this, was this your face, / O Jesus Christ my Lord and very God?” (Paradise 31) – had apparently evaded their attention entirely. They were thunderstruck by the omission, and a bit abashed.

At dinner a question arose, cordially, that has been on my mind ever since. “To what extent does one have to accept the views or the faith of a poet to enter into the work of art?” 

Let me attempt here what I could not do then: to venture an answer to that question. Here are the last few sentences of an old introduction to Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, a play of Christian redemption and resurrection:

All truths . . . are related to the Truth; all good stories will have – to use the term of Erich Auerbach – a “figural” quality. The Winter’s Tale, like many other stories, deals with sin and forgiveness, and with the triumph of time – also a Christian theme. But we value it not for some hidden truth, but for its power to realize experience, to show something of life that could be shown only by the intense activity of intellect and imagination in the medium of a theatrical form. It is not a great allegory or a great argument, but a great play.

Those words, by the great literary critic Frank Kermode, very likely could not be written today. At least, such words are not often written. They lead us too dangerously close to what Sophocles called the “more than man,” and therefore resist any reduction to narrow political or sociological concerns. 

The Winter’s Tale is a great play because it is a great allegory, but it’s clear to me that, whatever Professor Kermode held to be true in his own mind, in his heart and his imagination he knew what it was to hear the call of the prophets and of Christ, when Paulina addresses the “statue” of the dead Hermione in the final scene, but is actually addressing her repentant husband Leontes and all of us sinners in the audience:

                              Music, awake her: strike.
         ‘Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach;
          Strike all that look upon with marvel; come;
          I’ll fill your grave up. Stir; nay, come away;
          Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him
          Dear life redeems you.

Be stone no more: “And I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and will give you a heart of flesh” (Ez. 36:26). Bequeath to death your numbness, for “when this mortal hath put on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54).

An imaginative entry: that is what is required, at the least. Initially this requires what Keats called “negative capability,” the self-emptying submission to another world, so that we can stand in the place of someone or something we are not, and provisionally believe what we do not believe. 

This self-emptying is then completed by love. I see no way around this. I can, provisionally, put myself in the place of a Muslim beholding the Dome of the Rock, and appreciate its grandeur. But if that appreciation does not give birth to love – I am not necessarily speaking yet of religious conversion – then it will remain, at least partly, extrinsic to me, outside my heart, and therefore unknown. I may say many true things about the work, but will not plumb its truth.

To return to The Winter’s Tale: if I exercise that humility, I may come to hear the strains of the theme, which Shakespeare repeats in many variations, that we must die to live again. But without love, there is much that will escape me, since only love reveals the heart. 

For example, late in the play, the once-jealous sinner Leontes, now sixteen years older, sees before him the son of the friend he once suspected of committing adultery with his wife. With that lad is a beautiful young woman, who is his own long-lost daughter, though no one on stage knows this yet. 

As they stand there, hand in hand, Leontes suddenly “sees” in their youthful faces his old friend and his deceased wife – the pair he wrongly saw as adulterers. So much the humble critic notices. But only the lover can be stirred to wonder; a wonder that will remind him of the words that unless we become like little children, we shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.

The dutiful critic, then, may get many things right, but remains outside the feast, occasionally glancing through a window. The lover enters in, and beholds the guests as they feast. And they who believe? What they see, they alone must report to the rest.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College.
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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Trish, April 25, 2012
Mr. Esolen: Your excellent reflection here reminds me very much of John Saward's book "The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty", in which he discusses the relationship between sacred art, truth, virtue, and holiness. Reading that book made me see that sacred art is beautiful in proportion to the truth it expresses and why secular art or sacred art of another religion may be to some degree beautiful but will, for me as a Catholic, never come even remotely close to the beauty found in Christian sacred art. For instance, the classical Roman art I come across in my Latin studies can be lovely, but it cannot hold a candle by a long shot to, say, the breathtaking beauty expressed in Rembrandt's Prodigal Son painting.
written by Louise, April 25, 2012
From Trish: "art is beautiful in proportion to the truth it expresses"

I hear so often about the beauty of the dome of the rock, but I have never found it beautiful--even before I knew what it was. For some reason that I can't put my finger on, I find it out of proportion, awkward, poorly designed--curve to height, height to width--or something. It the same with all Moorish design. I wonder whether I am the only person who feels that way. It it quite off-putting to me.
written by William, April 25, 2012
To Louise:

I read somewhere that Muslim architecture is always and intentionally out of proportion or "off" in some way because only God (Allah) is perfect.
written by Nestor, April 26, 2012
Greetings from Croatia, it's nice to be mentioned on the catholic thing ! :)
written by Louise, April 26, 2012
Thank you, William.

I have long heard that Persian or oriental rugs always contain a deliberate error in the weaving for the reason that you state. That may certainly be true in the execution of Moorish design and patterns, but I'm not sure about whether that applies to the intent of the artists in creating the patterns themselves. To me, they lack grace, for all their very elaborate form. It occurred to me that what is missing in the dome of the rock is just that: grace--and, therefore, life.
written by Trish, April 26, 2012
Louise, I wouldn't call the Dome of the Rock beautiful either, at least not per se, but I would say it contains more elements of beauty than, say, the vast majority of modern art that express relative chaos. The Dome of the Rock at least has a sense of order to it, whereas most modern art seems to lack order, and I would suspect that this is becase there is at least some pursuit of the divine in Islam and in its art and architecture, whereas so much modern art is focused on self-expression and leaves God out of the picture (no pun intended!) entirely. So, while Islam is far from the truth, it at least admits that there is a god, which is less untrue than modern art's ignoring God, and so its art contains more beauty than modern art, if that makes sense. Or if you consider the Dome of the Rock ugly, I would opine that it's at least less ugly than anything you'd find in your typical art gallery today.
written by Louise, April 26, 2012
Thank you, Trish.

" it at least admits that there is a god"

My goodness, this thread could go in all kinds of directions. One, for instance, is Allah God? Is Moloch God? Is Baal God? God under a variety of names--an accommodating God that is anything anyone wants him to be. My own thought is that if the word "Allah" is just another name for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, He is lying to one of us about who and what he is. Another thought: Where does the divine leave off and the supernatural begin? Or is all that is supernatural divine?

I agree with you certainly about most modern art.

I didn't say that the dome of the rock is ugly, but that it lacks grace. Although, I do, in fact, think that it is ugly as it squats there, squashing all that it sits on in the city. It looks heavy, ponderous, earthbound--ungraceful.

If the nature of God (I'm not sure what word to use here; nature will have to do) is the expression of the Good, the Beautiful, and the True, and, as Mr. Belloc says, an attack on one of these is an attack on all, and therefore an attack on God, Beauty must express Truth and Truth must express Beauty, and both must express the Good that is. Are there degrees of Truth and Beauty? of the Good?

These are certainly question to ponder and meditate on while I pull the melamine panelling off the bathroom walls.

written by Louise, April 26, 2012
Trish, this expresses it, I think:

It is a bad imitation of a dome; a bad imitation of art; a bad imitation of Beauty; a bad imitation of Truth, and a bad imitation of God.
written by Tony Esolen, April 27, 2012
And then there's the travesty of Hagia Sophia ...

It would be interesting -- and maybe I should do this -- to write about the destruction of art, from iconoclast Muslims to iconoclast Cromwellians to iconoclast post-Vaticanites to professors in the humanities today.
written by Louise, April 28, 2012
I can hardly wait for your essay, Dr. Esolen.

Re: Hagia Sophia: travesty or tragedy? It brings tears to my eyes to think of it.

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