Wednesday, February 01, 2017

When God Knocks You Over

I need to clear the desk of books that don't merit a whole post or series of posts, but nevertheless might contain some nuggets of joy. Books without merit are consigned to the closet, while the essential ones are in smallish bookcase to my right. Other books are categorized by subject in the much more expansive surrounding shelves.

These deskborne books occupy an ambiguous limboland. Usually they were disappointing in some way, beginning with this one on Aesthetics, by the Catholic theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand. Like any Raccoon, he

understood the centrality of beauty not merely to art but to philosophy, theology, and ethics. In his ambitious and comprehensive Aesthetics, Hildebrand rehabilitates the concept of beauty as an objective rather and purely subjective phenomenon. His systematic account renews the Classical and Christian vision of beauty as a reliable mode of perception that leads humanity toward the true, the good, and ultimately the divine. There is no more important issue in our culture -- sacred or secular -- than the restoration of beauty.

Agreed. Well, maybe not quite. I would say there is no more important issue in our culture than the restoration of truth. But where truth is like the foundation or axis, beauty is more like the ambiance or aroma. Its absence is suffocating, or dry and desiccating. It can chap your soul real bad.

Where truth speaks more directly to the mind, beauty.... whispers or something to the soul. In any event, you really don't want to have one without the other, nor obviously is there any clash between them. They are two sides of the same summit named God.

The author has one Big Idea, namely, that beauty, like truth, is objective. I've always suspected this, even when I was ten years old. For example, I knew the Beatles were objectively superior to most of their competitors.

How can this be? This is not the sort of assertion that is susceptible to objective proof. Nevertheless, it is objectively the case. In the words of the Aphorist: The relativity of taste is an excuse adopted by ages that have bad taste. So, Madonna is indeed as good as Beethoven, if only you have sufficiently bad taste.

It reminds me of what Stanley Jaki said about words. From a distance words have sharp outlines, like clouds in the sky. But approach the cloud and its boundaries become blurry and eventually nonexistent. Inside the cloud you can't see the boundaries at all.

Many of our fundamental concepts are like this: beauty, time, virtue, origins, etc. Indeed, we know that matter itself, which seems so solid, dissolves into vibrating waves of nonlocal energy. So, everything is a little blurry if you look too close.

Because of its objective value, you might say the genuine work of art judges us rather than vice versa. If a university department stops teaching Shakespeare on the basis of "diversity," who is being judged -- condemned, even -- Shakespeare or his tenured despisers?

Back to the distinction between truth and beauty. Where truth elicits a dispassionate consent, beauty is more direct and unmediated. One of my favorite aphorisms is that A work of art has, properly speaking, not meaning but power. You might say its power comes first, the meaning(s) second; conversely, with truth the meaning comes first, the power second. Think of the problems that occur when truth is conflated with power.

That is the way of the left, as is the insistence that art begin with a predigested and superimposed meaning. So much modern art has no power, nor can you know what it means unless the artist tells you what sort of idiotic idea he is trying to convey. But genuine art not only speaks for itself, but says things completely independent of the artist's intentions.

In short, in our postmodern aesthetic hell, beauty is deemed "a social fiction or political strategy with no objective connection to nature or reality."

Interestingly, while most people probably convert to Christianity for emotional or social reasons, a relative minority for intellectual and apologetic ones, in Hildebrand's case it was for aesthetic reasons, including the radiant beauty of the saints:

"It was the metaphysical beauty of Christian holiness and of the God-man of Christianity that caught and fired Hildebrand's religious imagination." Recall what was said above about power: Hildebrand was knocked over by the beauty before assimilating its truth. Or, one could say the experience of being knocked down made him want to explore what or Who did the knocking.

Now, if this beauty is objective, it means that people who fail to register it "also fail to experience what is really there." Just as the untutored mind will be foreclosed from various dimensions and modes of truth, so too will the vulgar soul be exiled from objective dimensions of beauty. This beauty registers on the soul no less than light does on the retina. This means we must render ourselves adequate to the task; again, failure to experience the power is a judgment on us.

Note that light and sound waves have a "carrying capacity" that far exceeds the naked physical phenomena. In other words, one of the most striking aspects of our cosmos -- perhaps the most striking one -- is its ability to convey information from one mind to another, AKA its intelligence and intelligibility.

When we listen to the radio, for example, it is because voices are able to ride piggyback on the radio waves. But what's happening when we, say, stare at Michelangelo's Pieta? It's just light and shade, photons striking the back of the eyes. How is the aesthetic power encoded into the waves, such that it is impossible to miss the power?

The point is, "beauty mysteriously exceeds the aesthetic capacity of the visible and audible elements out of which it arises." It can by no means be reduced to its carrier, but uses the medium the way our brains deploy sound vibrations to convey meaning from mind to mind.

Well, what I hoped would be a quick wrap-up has turned into a windy introduction. To be continued...

13 comments:

julie said...

In any event, you really don't want to have one without the other, nor obviously is there any clash between them.

But when there is, yikes. For instance, when a person who is physically beautiful turns out to have a vile character, there is often a sort of cognitive dissonance. At least, until you mature enough to realize that people who try too hard to look attractive often have little else to recommend them. And often as not, it is only a surface sort of beauty - formulaic, in a way, but lacking in depth.

Recall what was said above about power: Hildebrand was knocked over by the beauty before assimilating its truth.

I'm reminded again of a field trip to a museum a once took in college, where there was an exhibition by Paul Jenkins. I don't usually like abstract art all that much, but these were gorgeous, large format paintings and the colors had a startling purity. Almost a sort of "eye candy," because they looked how Jolly Ranchers taste. Anyway, almost everyone had a positive reaction, but there was one kid who hated it. He said he couldn't stand the beauty of the colors.

Gagdad Bob said...

I really like Kandinsky for the same reason. It seems to me he was trying to deal with the form beneath form.

Gagdad Bob said...

Many powerful representations of O.

Gagdad Bob said...

Have you ever noticed that certain colors can affect you the same way that certain smells do? This especially occurs with unusual shades I haven't seen since childhood. Recently Iowahawk had a number of tweets of photos from a hot rod car show, and some of the colors reminded me of model cars I built as a kid. Like this bluer than blue one.

Gagdad Bob said...

Meanwhile, Citizen Therapists, that is, mentally ill psychologists who advertise their mental illness as a virtue. So that's convenient.

Gagdad Bob said...

Here are some so-called characteristics of Trumpism, but which are more applicable to Obama-ism, including

-Scapegoating and banishing groups of people who are seen as threats, including immigrants and religious minorities.
-Degrading, ridiculing, and demeaning rivals and critics.
-Fostering a cult of the Strong Man who:
Appeals to fear and anger
Promises to solve our problems if we just trust in him
Reinvents history and has little concern for truth
Never apologizes or admits mistakes of consequence
Sees no need for rational persuasion
Disdains public institutions like the courts when they are not subservient
Incites and excuses public violence by supporters

julie said...

That blue on the cars is amazing. It looks like it has layers and layers of depth.

Re. Trumpism, there's that irony again. Good grief. At least they put their names out there, so we know who to avoid if the need arises...

julie said...

Back to colors that bring you back, there was a painting Sipp commented on years back, of a sort of ordinary scene from inside a grocery store. Something about it totally brought me back to childhood, when cars were made of heavy steel and had cracked leather seats that you slid around on in the back of the car because hardly anyone wore seat belts.

Gagdad Bob said...

I'm blown away by this chart of colors. Amazing that we can make so many fine distinctions, and even have names for them. My eye is definitely drawn to the blues...

julie said...

From a computer to life perspective, blues can be really challenging. There is a richer array of them available on screen than in print (as cmyk); it can be frustrating, if you design something with a lot of deep rich blues only to have them print out flat and dull.

Van Harvey said...

"That is the way of the left, as is the insistence that art begin with a predigested and superimposed meaning. So much modern art has no power, nor can you know what it means unless the artist tells you what sort of idiotic idea he is trying to convey. But genuine art not only speaks for itself, but says things completely independent of the artist's intentions."

Or as one eminent scientist was once quoted as saying: "It's alive!... it's ALIVE!!!"

Van Harvey said...

"But what's happening when we, say, stare at Michelangelo's Pieta?"

That's one of the first sculptures that I recall being deeply 'got' by... just so moving, throughout. And then you turn to some modernist lump with a doodad stuck on it, and looking between the two, you can't not be shaken into painfully puzzled "Why?!" And no, a caption proclaiming its symbolizing of being 'down with the struggle' doesn't help. Unless you're talking about the cyclops' struggle to pluck the smoldering stake from its eye and chase 'nobody' down, but still... Nope and Why?!

robinstarfish said...

Kandinsky - a wonderful muse and influence. And master of fine quotes: http://www.wassilykandinsky.net/quotes.php