Saturday, June 16, 2007

Toward a Catholic Aesthetics

Our friend and fellow Mahwahvian Mark S. has contributed a thought-provoking guest post about the formal and aesthetic implications of our faith.

"Now that the second annual Southwell Conference has drawn to a close, and the Mahwahvian movement can celebrate its one year anniversary, I thought it might be time for a little reflection on "the movement" and what its all about. Specifically, I want to consider Mahwahvian poetics.

Those of us who participated in the Southwell poetry seminar will probably realize that we have become a part of two discernible "movements." The first is the larger effort of the Southwell Institute to revive the literary arts among Catholics, and the second is the effort to help revive the formal techniques of poetry which have largely gone out of use over the last several decades. The thesis I wish to propose is that these two movements are not coincidental, but rather, we value and seek to revive the tradition of formal poetry because of what we believe as Catholics.

This is an enormous topic, and I can only hint here at the shape of an effective argument, but what I am asserting is that the aesthetic standard which we employ as artists implies certain ethical and metaphysical commitments on our part. Isn't this evident throughout the works of the twentieth century? Aren't the fragmented narratives of Joyce and Faulkner a reflection of the fragmentation of personal identity which is such a consistent theme in modern philosophy? Aren't the syntactic abnormalities of an Ashberry or a Graham a reflection of post-modernist doubts concerning the efficacy of language? Isn't the vulgarity of Ginsburg's poetry a perfect analogy for the vulgarity of Ginsburg's politics? Isn't the bleakness of so much modern poetry a consequence of the bleakness of so much modern thought?

So, in what way does our Catholicism dispose us to value the tradition of formal poetry? The first and most obvious answer is simply that it is the tradition that has prevailed for millenia in the Western world, and we as Catholics are inclined to respect tradition, particularly the traditions of the West. Then there is the fact that a poet who is using formal techniques is very deliberately and sincerely pursuing a kind of beauty, and an affection for beauty has always been one of the distinctive elements of Catholicism. I would think the clarity and coherence that generally characterize formal verse are more congenial to the Catholic mind, with its respect for man's rational faculty, than modernism's tendency towards obscurantism, which is always the handmaiden of irrationality.

Most fundamentally, the appeal of meter and rhyme and stanzaic pattern stems from human nature - human biology, even - which is drawn to rhythm; a poet working with meter and rhyme is a poet respectful of human nature and willing to gratify it through his art. Well, isn't it true that as Catholics we consider human nature a wonderful, though tragically deficient, thing? And don't we understand the divine will to be in the most profound sense gratifying to our nature - as Dante wrote, in His will is our peace? So as Catholics, we are accustomed to consider spiritual growth, in some sense, a matter of satisfying human nature, and as poets working through form, we are attempting just such a thing. A Catholic and a formal poet are both people who regard human nature to be a proper and adequate vehicle of divine grace, or divine inspiration.

The argument is scant, as it must be here, but I wanted to put the thesis out there. So, fellow, Mahwavians [and anyone else who's interested! -- ed.] what do you think? Is there truly a significant relationship between our creed and the aesthetics involved in formal poetry? Or is there a danger of stultification in attempting to limit the range of stylistic options available to a sincere Catholic? I invite your thoughts on this topic. "


F.P. Seamus said...

This is an encouraging post, pointing us back to the intrinsic connection between the transcendentals (one, good, true and beautiful). An aesthetical commitment always involves an ethical and metaphysical commitment because the one, good, true, and beautiful all hang together. The oneness of the Catholic Church, the goodness of Catholic morality, and the truth of Catholic doctrine can never be separated from the beauty of Catholic literature. Likewise, good Catholic literature should possess a certain unity and should draw from truth and goodness. Theologians should have a deep appreciation for beauty, and artists for theology (and it's hard to say who has failed more in this regard).

Yes, Catholic writers should gravitate towards form and structure. The Catholic instinct is that all reality has a unifying purpose and therefore a structure. As Cardinal Ratzinger has observed, "catholic" (universal) does not mean universal in the sense of everything thrown together willy-nilly (I'm paraphrasing). Rather, the word indicates all things brought together with a certain unity, harmony, and structure. The Catholic theologian thus seeks to harmonize the truths of doctrine. And the Catholic saint (each of us!) seeks to bring unity, integrity, and harmony to a soul wounded by sin. So it should not surprise us if the Catholic writer gravitates to structure and a traditional form of poetry. That attraction is a Catholic gut-instinct.

This discussion should also involve a consideration of the traditional definition of beauty provided by St. Augustine: "Beauty is nothing other than a numbered equality, or a certain situation of parts, accompanied by the suavity of color." Does Augustine insist on unity and structure simply because he was a neat freak...or because it has some bearing on reality, on truth, on goodness - and therefore on beauty?

A man who has written and spoken a great deal on this is, again, Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict. While still head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - i.e. in charge of the Church's doctrinal purity - he remarked that the most convincing aspects of the Catholic Church are the beauty of her saints and her patrimony of art. Interesting that he did not point first to doctrine or morality. He understands that Catholic doctrine and morality bestow a certain beauty. And it is the beauty that attracts first. (Cf. also John Saward's "The Beauty of Holiness.")

Mark S. said...

"And the Catholic saint (each of us!) seeks to bring unity, integrity, and harmony to a soul wounded by sin. So it should not surprise us if the Catholic writer gravitates to structure and a traditional form of poetry." That's what I would have said if I had the eloquence to say it! The unity that is brought to poetry by meter is so unappreciated; essentially, meter makes a sensual whole of a single poem in a way that mirrors (in a good poem at least) and enhances the unity of theme and plot. Its good to recognize that this pursuit of unity has its origins in our faith, as well as in our nature.

I think a contrast with modernism and its creeds is particularly enlightening on the Catholic attitude towards human nature. I am thinking especially of Rimbaud's call to "disarrange the senses." That is the rallying cry of a mind at total war with human nature, a distinctly un-Catholic frame of mind, I would think. It would not be hard to argue that modernism was simply the attempt to be faithful to Rimbaud's call; Jacques Barzun emphasizes the modernist disgust for human nature in a number of his books. Certainly, from such antagonistic conceptions of human nature, radically different aesthetic standards must be derived.

The quote from St. Augustine is one that is new to me; I think what's interesting about this definition is that it might easily appear rather basic, almost bland, unless understood (as it is here) in light of Augustine's whole theology. A theologian I always think of when considering this topic is St. Bonaventure, particularly "The Soul's Journey Into God," in which the sensual apprehension of unity and form (ie, beauty) is represented as the first step towards comprehending divine. David Hart wrote a work a few years ago called "The Beauty of the Infinite" which attempted to ground aesthetics in theology and to argue for the importance of beauty in the process of conversion (though, unfortunately, the book is so laden with the post-modern jargon of the philosophers he was attempting to refute, that it is not very easy to understand his point through most of the text).

Well, I'm glad to have found a sympathetic mind out there; I wasn't sure if I was making a claim that was a little too bold.