We’ve been talking about Beauty, what it is and what it isn’t. That leads us to some very strange places, and long words like kataphasis, apophasis, and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagate. Apophatic thinker that I am, I see this simply as a human predicament: the less we’re comfortable with something, the harder it is to understand, the more we take refuge in
very long words.* So there is something startling, something radical in its simplicity, when Jenna find the chutzpah to write this:
All I can say is that beauty can be found anywhere on this earth, and in wildly different things, if one only troubles themselves to search it out.
This underlies, I think, the core disagreement between Jenna and Masha. Whereas Masha directs us to the Good, the universal, Jenna directs us to the immediate, the particular. This is the distinction that divides Western thought between itself. The line may be a fine one, but it seems my compatriots are on opposite sides. (For myself, if you’re interested, I explore the particular and the apophatic, and I think that probably tells you more about me than either of us think.)
Masha draws from Jenna’s subsequent, and eloquent, discussion of beauty to reemphasise the role of the individual artist:
In so many ways, the role of the artist is similar to the role of the prophet, a "necessary other" existing and creating, not in "untrammeled freedom" but in an "exacting form of discipline" (Kathleen Norris) that submits the Artist to the demands of his vocation and demands from him not only talent, but devotion and commitment as well. It is a communal role, a social role – creating the "lie that tells the truth" (Picasso) and presenting the world as it really is, in all it’s intimacy, passion, failure, and ultimate, glorious beauty. That is why, when the artist fails to call forth the riches of his world, when he calls his world poor, empty, and uninspiring, he fails to create art.
I don’t know the source of the Picasso quotation, but I’m not sure I like it. A lie can’t tell the truth. A lie is just a lie. The truth may look like a lie if we’re not ready to perceive it, but a lie is a lie. My difficulty may be semantic but it’s there.
More important to me is this idea of the artist as a sort of prophet. This is a concept that’s intrigued me for some time, owing partly to how it was put forward by Novalis, and its subsequent influence on George MacDonald. But there’s another parallel I’m exploring, which I’ll explain, somewhat, below the jump.
Abraham Heschel, in The Prophets (1962), says the prophet has two faces: the face of judgment, God toward the people, and the face of supplication, the people toward God. The unique role of the prophet is to inhabit both roles at once. Heschel says quite a lot more about prophets, but this dual-aspect struck me. It echoes, I think unwittingly, what Tolkien writes about fairy tales. In ‘On Fairy-stories’ (1947), he writes that:
fairy-stories as a whole have three faces: the Mystical toward the Supernatural; the Magical toward Nature, and the Mirror of scorn and pity towards Man. The essential face of Faerie is the middle one, the Magical.
Tolkien offers three faces as opposed to Heschel’s two. But that’s fitting for the subject matter, and the tradition of the third road. As the Fairy Queen explains to Thomas the Rhymer, there’s the path of Righeousness, the path of Wickedness,
And see ye not yon bonny road
That winds about yon fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.
Artists, like the prophets, confront and wear all these faces at once. They occupy that strange and liminal space of living within a communal role, as Masha notes, while being a voice in the wilderness. They dwell on the borders, on the third road between nature and supernature, between the people and God, and speak what they see as they turn from one to the other. Art is capricious and dangerous, as are all things in that perilous shade, and the artist dances a deadly step of mockery and wonder. They belong to neither world and to both. So they hold the Mirror of Scorn and Pity, the face of judgement, up to the people, while knowing irrevocably that the reflection is their own.
Much, much more could be said but this, I think, is enough for a start.
*Does anyone know what epistemology means? Well, that’s the whole question, isn’t it?