The Persuasion of Beauty
"Beauty will save the world." This simple but confounding phrase uttered by a character in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The idiot, remains an inexhaustible source of unanswered questions. What does it mean 'save'? What is the world saved from? What are we saved for? What does it mean 'the world'? Does it mean people? Systems? Nations? Power structures? Politics? Religion? Society itself? How will beauty save the world? When has beauty ever saved anything? One could argue it's the only thing that ever has. What can it mean to persuade with 'beauty', or to be persuaded by it? Let's try to explore a few examples.
"Didacticism is an attempt at the coercion of another’s free mind, even though one knows that in these matters beyond logic, beauty is the only persuasion". ~ Thornton Wilder
Inspired by the late authour Brennan Manning in writing about the need for artists, mystics, and clowns to express the transcendent or kabod divinity (weight, glory, and majesty of God), it could also be true of needing them to explore and express 'beauty'. Manning, arguably a kind of mystic himself, first introduces this concept in his book Ruthless Trust, starting with how clowns persuade us with 'beauty'.
He writes: "Dostoyevsky passionately believed that he had embodied the soul of the Russian peasant in Marmeladov, the discharged town clerk and disgraced town drunk of Crime and Punishment – a clown, a buffoon, and the father of Sonia, a prostitute. In a tavern in St. Petersburg, besotted with booze, Marmeladov engages the young rationalist Raskolnikov in conversation. Though the object of derision and mockery by the locals, Marmeladov insists that he is not to be pitied."
MARMELADOV: But He will have pity on me Who has pity on all men, Who has understood all men and all things. He is the One. He too is the judge. He will come on that day and He will ask, “Where is the daughter who had pity upon the filthy drunkard, her earthly father, undismayed by his beastliness… He will forgive my Sonia, He will forgive, I know it.
MARMELADOV: Then He will summon us. “You too come forth,” He will say. “Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!” And the wise and those of understanding will say: “Oh Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?” And He will say: “This is why I receive them, oh ye wise, this is why I receive them, oh ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.” And He will hold out his hands to us and we shall fall down before Him… and we shall weep… and we shall understand all… and all will understand… Lord, Thy kingdom come!
Manning goes on in the chapter to describe the role of clowns in transmitting beauty and wonder and joy to us: "Clowns are instruments of grace… Their somersaults, back-flips, and unpredictable high jinks tinker with our straitlaced logic, which alleges that ultimate significance can be found in the tangible, the visible, the perishable… As we stare at their outlandish costumes, we recognize a lighthearted, whimsical stance toward life. As we respond to their offer of unaffected graciousness and sincere friendliness, our inflated sense of self-importance rushes out of us like air from a pinpricked balloon. They invite us to reclaim the child we once were, to suspend temporarily our mortal seriousness about the image we project to the world… Their unexpected presence encourages us to re-examine our priorities, and does so with far greater effect than the apocalyptic threats of the doomsday preacher..."
Of course, Manning here is not necessarily talking about performative or traditional clowns, but those who in their unorthodox thinking, strange behaviors, or even "foolish" ways, reveal something beautiful about ourselves, the Sacred or Divine, and life itself. Manning concludes by quoting a French proverb: "Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner” (to understand all is to forgive all). “We should enter everyone’s situation." he says. Entering into someone else's story and understanding them is a 'beauty' that could save the world, if we all did it, all the time.
In comes the role of the artist in persuading with beauty. It is through telling the stories of others and telling our own stories that this can be possible, but only as long as there are those who are willing to listen. English philosopher and writer Roger Scruton says 'beauty' is...
"...a realm in which we try to raise up the human condition, with a light that shines from elsewhere, the light of the Divine... We can look for it in art. We can look for it in the Divine. The search for beauty in earthly things ultimately takes us firstly to art, and through art, to the ideal in which the Divine is prefigured."
In the play Freud's Last Session (9th Hour presented the Canadian premiere), Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis are fictionally set in robust conversation about many of life's big questions, unfolding against the backdrop of WWII. At one point in the exchange, they speak about 'transcendent experiences' in which Freud has significant doubts about them and Lewis defends them, having had his own while in the side car of his brother's motor cycle on the way to the zoo. This was preceded earlier by a stroll at Addison's Walk with his friend J. R. R. Tolkien (authour of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.) This final 'transcendent experience' he claims ultimately converted Lewis to Christianity in his adult years. C.S. Lewis was persuaded by beauty.
In the play written by Mark St. Germain, Freud explains the persuasive essence of art and the mystery of music, but without concluding its connection to something greater than the art.
FREUD: Works of art have a powerful effect on me, but music mystifies me. Something within me, something rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why it moves me. It's like being spoken to in a foreign language and being asked to agree to a statement you can't comprehend. LEWIS: The attraction of music is its appeal to the emotions, not the brain. FREUD: I understand that. LEWIS: But you're saying that if you can't process your feelings intellectually, they don't exist for you. You object to simply being moved. FREUD: I object to being manipulated.
Here, it's quite interesting that Freud objects to something he can't intellectualize. 'Beauty' that would save the world perhaps has to be experienced, but is not necessarily easily understood.
The 'beauty' that would save the world is a persuasive one, and can bring about change from within that grows from there to bring about change without, whether in relationships, communities, entire nations, or the world. This 'beauty' is not coercive, or manipulative as Freud suggested, but an irresistible, alluring, and mysterious force that beckons and invites us into greater Life, Love, and Liberty and that spreads and manifests in the lives of others around us as a result.
"Surely this gift-like quality is also true of beauty, which is always gratuitous, always pouring itself out, which can be shared and shared without depletion." ~ B.D. McClay
'Beauty' that would save the world is inspiring. It's regenerative. It's healing. It's plentiful. It's uncontainable. 'Beauty' is a gift. In the words of Thornton Wilder, "in these matters beyond logic, beauty is the only persuasion."
This is Part 4 of a multi-part blog series about 'beauty'.