Can Beauty Save the World?

Christianity is a highly personal religion. One could write many essays making this point, without much overlap. The word “personal” can be understood many ways, but in the crux, God is a person and we are persons, and our relation with Him is personal. As Christ is with us, so are we with our neighbors.

And this is no transient affair. In the Christian teaching and understanding, all of these persons are immortal. Even the most evil person is immortal, which is why, if you think about it, there must be a Heaven and a Hell.

Nor can this be analyzed, as we are wont to analyze the birds and the bees. No person, be it noted, can be understood externally. It is only through self-disclosure that he may come to be known.

This is as true of my neighbor as it is of God. It is not up to me what he will disclose. And he is as dark as God is dark; as love is dark until it is disclosed. We may be blind to it. Or we may have only the slightest intuition, the slightest streak of dawning light.

We may not see deeply into these things; we cannot report on places we have never been. The full “meaning” of a person, of what constitutes a person, retracts into mystery. But we can know enough for our needs; that a person is not merely a thing.

Example: to say “all men are equal” means as much as to say “men are all unequal.” These statements are equally beside the point. A human person is unique, created, as it were from nothing, but not returning there. We are already free to the extent we exist, and we exist absolutely.

These are words, and words do not always perfectly correspond to their “referents.” Sometimes, however, they sing. Even to say that words may convey falsity, is to imply that they may convey truth. Personhood is very much a reality, as we may apprehend immediately through our senses – which is to say, through our experience of the world.

“One and one is two,” as we say. Mother and child are demonstrably two persons. Even a baby knows when his mother has gone away.

When we say “saved,” we are not saying something frivolous. Neither are we saying something impersonal, for the salvation Christ offers is not that of saving refuse from a dump. It is a salvation in Christ that is utterly mysterious, but again we know enough to know what it is not.

The famous line from Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot – “Beauty will save the world” – invites the question: What does he mean by “beauty”? He put it in the mouth of the simpleton, Prince Myshkin. Another character, Terentiev, actually asks Myshkin if he said it, and thus to explain what really explains itself.

The context is enlarged by the fact of Myshkin’s love for the abused and then abusing Nastasya Filippovna, whose physical beauty no man could doubt, though whose intelligence he might fear. A portrait of her had conveyed to Myshkin the suffering that underlay a beautiful face. Men love her possessively, even murderously. Myshkin’s own interest is taken for infatuation. He has grasped the suffering and responds to it with a love that is incomprehensible to the shallow – for it is innocent and selfless.

*

Beauty cannot be detached from suffering.

The epileptic prince, the Idiot of the novel, seems the only sane person in a world that has gone mad, and his remark itself seems mad to others.

His reaction to paintings – to art – is not frivolous. Specifically of an image by Holbein showing the dead Christ**, enslabbed in the tomb, he says, it could destroy a man’s faith. But attend closer and one discerns a terrible beauty. It is the opposite of any chocolate-box picture of something sweet and pretty – of that beauty we can dismiss as being only in the eye of the beholder.

Prince Myshkin is not swayed by the beauty that is fashion, or a vanity of self; rather by a beauty the opposite of subjective, and fully paradoxical.

The beauty that will save the world may be a terrible beauty.

Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, largely drafted by his predecessor Pope Benedict, and with a history in the homiletics of Pope John Paul II, dwelt on this saying. It makes the same point Russian Orthodox writers, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn, have made about this selfless, naïve, and “idiot” beauty, whose power Prince Myshkin said would save the world.

This is a beauty that is not isolated, constrained. This Beauty is finally indistinguishable from the True and the Good. It is embodied in art of the highest order, and it is reflective of that mysterious light of faith – that “saving grace” with which Christ enlightens the world.

The truth of Christ’s love for us, transcending death, has not been hidden in Holbein’s painting.

We do not take art seriously, or when we do, it is seldom for what it is but for external qualities, such as what the painting might be worth in the art market. Others, intimidated by that price, are mesmerized by the painting’s “importance.” To the art historian, too, the painting has a value, but for its place in an historical development. It is significant for what it comes after, and before.

Paintings are objects; I could “equally” mention poems, or musical compositions, or other instances of high art. The very idea of “fine art” is lost on our contemporaries, for whom discussing relations between goodness, truth, and beauty, is taken as the equivalent of “white nationalism.”

Prince Myshkin’s saying implies no view of such a debate. Rather it is a prophecy of that terrible beauty which cuts through the surface of any prettiness, to that Truth which is a Person.

 

*Image: Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Ivan Kramskoi, 1883 [Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow]

**Below: The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1521 [Kunstmuseum, Basel]

David Warren

David Warren

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.

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