The lights were low that Sunday night as the raw-voiced minstrel sang in the corner of Session House, an Irish pub in Manhattan’s Midtown East. I was standing at a bar table beside the band, by turns following the ballad and making conversation with my friend beside me, soaking in the rich pleasure of good music in good company. Jonah the tipsy law student approached our table and glanced at the title of the book beside me on the table: Beauty Will Save the World.
“Do you believe that?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, without hesitation.
He cocked his head, one hand on his glass of Budweiser, his tuxedoed elbow leaning on the table. “So, what kind of beauty? Like the Playboy kind?”
I shuddered inside at such a notion. A counter image rose in my mind of a blazing brier and a desert herder tremblingly removing his sandals.
I said, “The kind of beauty that makes you fall down and worship.”
“And that is worthy of worship,” my friend quickly, and wisely, added.
The conversation shifted to other matters. But I continued to think of the incompetence of words. Even if I had been able to produce a paintbrush from my purse and quickly render the fiery image from my mind’s eye onto canvas, I could not know if Jonah would have seen what I saw.
But what else could I have said? What use were mere words? What image could I point to and say, “This is beauty itself”? I was too eager to exclaim with Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin, “Beauty will save the world.” And, like Myshkin, I was tongue-tied when asked to explain further.
“Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” wrote T.S. Eliot. Neither can we bear very much beauty, which is much the same thing. Our eyes dull, our spirit staggers, and we must return to the ordinary sense of things. Why do we not weep every time we hold a newborn child, and why do we not swoon at the sight of a tree?
Because we are only human, after all. We could not bear beauty always undisguised. It would destroy us.
In The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto writes that “the mysticism of love,” which is “seen in that ‘consuming fire’ of love whose burning strength the mystic can hardly bear, but begs the heat that has scorched him may be mitigated, lest he be himself destroyed by it.”
Likewise, when we encounter beauty unveiled, its power will not leave anything ugly untouched in us. Beauty will destroy the smeared, seared world, and from its ashes create a new one.
Perhaps this is why I’ve heard friends sometimes say that, though beauty has saved and will save, beauty will also destroy the world. It is too much akin to “that consuming fire of love” to do anything otherwise. It is something holy, like a fiery bush in the desert.
I am not talking here of Keats’s “thing of beauty,” but of that beauty which is ultimate—that to which all streams lead, the beauty of being itself, terrifying in its purity.
I once was in a philosophy class that was discussing the triad of truth, goodness, and beauty. One intelligent young lady grew impatient with the vagueness of our terms and finally demanded precise definitions for those three transcendentals. In nearly every other case, I would have joined my voice with hers. But her request was tricky, and perhaps impossible. David Bentley Hart writes that, though it is “impossible…to offer a definition of beauty,” it “is the true form of distance … the distance of delight.”
Beauty, says Hart, “is the showing of what is,” “a relationship of donation and transfiguration, a handing over and return of the riches of being.” Gift is then essential to beauty:
“There is an overwhelming givenness in the beautiful, and it is discovered in astonishment, in an awareness of something fortuitous, adventitious, essentially indescribable; it is known only in the moment of response, from the position of one already addressed and able now only to reply…
How can we precisely define beauty, when it is something that must be met, encountered? And if no neat denotation can be offered, will we abandon the search, chalking it up to the foolish talk of philosophers? Will we ask, as Pilate did of truth, What is beauty?, and not stay for an answer?
The reply to both questions, if Pilate had stayed, would likely have been the silent presence of the Christ before him. The further answer may have been the crucifixion on the hillside, the darkening of the sky, and the sepulchered Christ.
… though beauty has saved and will save, beauty will also destroy the world.
Months after Session House, I went to hear Fr. Peter John Cameron speak on beauty at NYU’s Thomistic Institute.
“Beauty is love in disguise,” he said. And I thought of the risen Christ. Love was veiled to the Emmaus travelers, who did not yet believe that their faith could be recovered; for them, the emaciated Christ lay still in the tomb. Only later was love revealed to them. (And is not love also a consuming fire?)
When Thomas doubted the resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus appeared to him and told him to touch his wounds and believe. But we do not read that Thomas did touch the wounds, only that he cried out, “My Lord and my God!”
The rest of his response is concealed by the silence of the text. But what more could he do but weep and worship?
I believe that beauty saves the world. But as our fairy tales tell us, beauty also destroys, and love consumes. And love never destroys without giving new life. The broken spell is coterminous with transfiguration, as in the old French tale of “Beauty and the Beast.” At the end of the story, it is not the wicked beast that stands before Beauty, but a new man, transformed and made human by love.
So perhaps what I could have said to Jonah the law student that night at Session House was that beauty is a gift, a medium of love. It begets the fires of wonder and delight. And if I could not point to beauty itself, I could point to the beautiful: the music of the balladeer, the tale of “Beauty and the Beast,” conversation over a glass of gin.