Beauty will save the world

There's a dialogue between Ange Mlinko & author Iain McGilchrist in the October 2010 issue of Poetry. McGilchrist, a sort of cross-disciplinary brain-scientist/literary scholar, published The Master and his Emissary, a new meditation on right/left brain differences (shorthand : right brain = holism/synthesis/emotion; left brain = definition/analysis/abstraction). Mlinko & McGilchrist explore some of the implications for poetry of McGilchrist's work.

This dialogue appears around the same time as Elif Batuman's lengthy review of Mark McGurl's book The Program Era, on the impact of creative writing programs on British & American fiction-writing (which I haven't read). Both Batuman and McGurl address the academic divide between MFA programs and the other intellectual disciplines (humanities & sciences) - the split, generally, between "knowledge" and "creativity."

All of which makes me consider the possible connection between the two. Is the MFA/humanities divide a symptom of a deeper distinction between two dimensions or functions of the mind?

I wonder if this old conflict between knowledge & creativity, or what used to be called science & art, has something to do with an absence in our civilization of a philosophical ground in aesthetics - of a viable ontology of Beauty. The ancient Greeks (Plato, Aristotle) had a notion of beauty as musical harmony, rooted in natural proportions, which they were able to synthesize with ethics and metaphysics - natural beauty had its analogue in moral rectitude. The Middle Ages, in turn, synthesized the knowledge of nature with the metaphysics of divine creation, so that all intellectual investigation & knowledge was believed to have its origin in God, and its end in wonder & mystical contemplation. But the disenchanted naturalism of the Modern era was rooted in a scepticism about the metaphysical grounds of knowledge. Scientific truth was opposed to the superficial ("accidental") illusions of beauty. Thus the ground for aesthetics no longer existed.

Postmodernism & deconstruction, stemming from Nietzsche & Heidegger, attempted to dismantle the hegemony of scientific positivism by means of a sort of language-oriented but anti-rational vitalism, centered in a notion of poetry & art as displacing scientific reason. Hence postmodern literary Theory pushed a sort of intellectual wedge between American MFA programs, on the one hand, with their "naive" devotion to self-expressive creativity, and traditional academic disciplines, with their "naive" roots in "logocentric" rationalism. Yet postmodern Theory's anti-rational propositions were destined to fall by the weight of their own self-contradictions - and thus the contemporary scene seems to have returned to a strange state of intellectual dispossession, with echoes of 19th-century naturalism & scientific positivism emerging in the contemporary devotion to brain science and reductive biological determinisms.

"Beauty will save the world," famously reported Dostoevsky. Perhaps a new metaphysics, able to discern purpose & meaning in the mysterious phenomena of art and beauty, will tend somehow toward the fulfillment of that prophecy. & I suppose at the center of the chessboard will have to be a new challenge to the deeply-rooted modern-positivist doctrine - that beauty is a surface illusion, floating over a structure of what are simply forces : of non-human, abstract, cosmic physics, and of amoral, remorseless biological nature. Keats's taciturn (but stubborn) urn long ago set all the pieces into play :

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

- Grace Ravlin (Venice, 1908)


Orpheus & Stephen Hawking

Physicist Stephen Hawking, in his new book, argues that God (or a god) is not necessary for physics theory, with regard to the origin of the universe (or multiple universes). Curious image of the wheelchair-bound savant, surrounded by near-infinite invisible strings of M-theory, declaring his un-belief in theology (& God). Here is one of the most highly-respected exponents of contemporary scientific rationalism, stepping from experimental science into the realm of philosophy & religion (as Einstein & other physicists have done before him).

If this represents an authoritative viewpoint (though certainly not the only one) of Science on a crucial & controversial matter, what about Art? Is there an approach to God and theology from this direction?

Clearly Art (just as with Science) does not allow for a single authoritative opinion on this question. It's not the proper work of the artist (nor of the scientist) to manufacture opinions on what is, finally, a mystery, unavailable to proof. On the other hand, opinions and personal predilections are unavoidable regarding God's existence or lack thereof. It seems to me that Hawking's statements fall into this category. They are opinions. His statement, quoted in news articles, to the effect that God is unnecessary in the light of "M-theory" - in which universes emerge naturally out of "nothing," as a simple consequence of the laws of physics - this is certainly no proof; it's not even an argument. It skirts the question : where did these laws of physics come from? Whence comes the "logos" (word, order, ratio - law)? According to another authoritative (& theological) opinionator (the Gospel of John), "In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was God, and the Logos was in God. He was in the beginning with God, and all things were made through him." Another free-standing opinion.

What, then - beyond a reasonable detachment (or division of intellectual labor) - might be Art's relation to theology or belief in God? It seems there are two ways to think about Art : as a means or an end. As a means, the application of art gives elegance, practicality, usefulness and appeal to all sorts of made things. That is, it makes them beautiful. As an end (in what's called the "fine arts"), art involves the production of objects which are beautiful-in-themselves : whose main purpose is to reflect and express beauty.

We have been musing, in this incipient blog, on relations between the figure of Orpheus, poetry, music, harmony, beauty. I'd like to oppose (facetiously) the image of Hawking, surrounded by the hypothetical string-threads of M-theory, to the image of Orpheus, strumming the taut strings of his harmonic lyre. Scientific rationalism as opposed to artistic imagination. Disenchantment vs. enchantment. (I say facetiously, because, put so baldly, it sounds like a washed-out version of old binaries from the Romantic period... but I guess I'm not quite ready to forego this contrast.)

The end of a good scientific theory is useful elegance, which is beautiful in its own (scientific) way. The end of a work of art is a sense of harmony & rightness (whether happy or sad, comic/tragic, or some Shakespearean gumbo-combination) - the beautiful in itself. Art achieves this end by way of both imitation (mimesis) and expression - in which identifiable things or events or ideas are harmonized and synthesized into one beautiful whole. Just as the scientist harmonizes disparate facts within an elegant theory, so the artist harmonizes disparate elements into a beautiful representation. These are two distinct acts of synthesis.

But I would say that at the root of the distinction between "Hawking" and "Orpheus" lies the issue of consciousness. Science proceeds by way of the abstraction and measurement of universal forces and material. In the realm of such analysis, even "consciousness" or "mind" becomes an abstraction : reduced to one factor among others involved in the theoretical harmonization of phenomena. Art, on the other hand, represents the workings of consciousness suffusing every dimension of human experience. Reality here is inseparable - inalienable - from conscious action & reception. Philosophical idealist George Berkeley is the unacknowledged patron saint of every artist. And with art, there is no consciousness without personhood. Consciousness is not an abstraction or a force; it is the personal presence of "mind" (which is, in a cosmic perspective, of course, a mystery). Thus art is inescapably personal and dramatic. Even the abstract designs of, say, Islamic art are produced within a context of dramatic personal affect, in that the prohibition of imagery in Islam is considered a part of the submission to the will of Allah. (Strict iconoclasm is nothing if not dramatic.)

Russian poet Osip Mandelstam had a word for consciousness, by way of art & poetry, synthesizing and suffusing our comprehension of reality in general : he called it "hellenism" (or "domestic hellenism"). In his essay On the Nature of the Word, he wrote :

"Hellenism is the conscious surrounding of man with domestic utensils instead of impersonal objects; the transformation of impersonal objects into domestic utensils; and the humanizing and warming of the surrounding world with the most delicate teleological warmth."

(Henceforth to be known as Acmeist Osip M-Theory.) The notion of some kind of "cosmic humanism" - wherein consciousness is recognized as the (mysterious) origin, end and foundation of the cosmos - is obviously not a "proof." It is not even a theory. To assert its existence is no more or less valid than for a physicist to assert the contrary. Yet whenever the scientist (Hawking) dares to reduce consciousness to an abstract law, then the artist (Orpheus) is bound to emerge again, in defense of consciousness.


Happy Birthday, Edwin Honig

Edwin Honig, who turns 91 today, took an interest in the figure of Orpheus. One of his books is titled Affinities of Orpheus. I am speculating that his interest may have originated in the death (from cancer) of his young first wife in the early 1960s, which he took very hard. (I'm sure there are others who have more definite information on this.) This dimension of mourning, loss & shock in Honig's poetry is fairly pervasive - he was also obsessed with the death of his brother, a young child hit by a truck on a Brooklyn street. The experiential/biographical shades, with Honig, into the symbolic & the allegorical (he wrote a massive critical-historical study on allegory, with the excellent title Dark Conceit). Orpheus (as we have been exploring here) is the symbolic or allegorical figure for the poet and for poetry : a figure through whom poetic myth mythologizes itself.

Honig may have identified - emotionally, experientially - with the figure of Orpheus. For me, on the other hand, Honig in a sense represents the figure of Hermes. Hermes, the messenger, the guide, the communicator, who leads Orpheus to Eurydice. For me, the figure of Honig is rather "hermetic" in this sense : he helps me knit together various disparate threads of my own knowledge & experience. A poet-teacher & mentor, he was a guide & source of encouragement as I entered that (shady) world. & now as I look back so much later I note several "affinities" which are still at play in my thinking about poetry.

For example, there was Honig's connection with John Berryman (the title of the first edition of Affinities of Orpheus was Shake a Spear with Me, John Berryman). Berryman was only a few years older than Honig; both of them shared a scholarly passion for the Renaissance dramatists (Berryman's focus was Shakespeare; Honig's, Ben Jonson & Calderon). & Honig brought Berryman to Brown University as a visiting professor in the late 60s (Berryman lived briefly at his home in Cranston). After Berryman's death, Edwin asked me to organize a memorial reading at Brown.

Then, there is Honig's introduction to the important anthology he co-edited with Oscar Williams, the Mentor Book of Major American Poets. Here Honig describes what is distinctive about American poetry in terms of that tradition's down-to-earth this-worldliness, its celebration of the particulars of things in nature and of ordinary life for its own sake. This emphasis, as I have pointed out elsewhere, rhymes with the program of the Russian Acmeists : anti-Symbolist, aiming for the clarity of things-as-they-are (Gumilev's "chaste" vision). (See, by the way, the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert, for a Polish take on this "way of seeing").

But how would one reconcile the "mythic" Orpheus - the visionary/Romantic/lyric poet, the shaman, the antagonist of disenchanted rationalism - with this down-to-earth, practical, transparent, "realist" aspect of American writing & culture? I suppose this may be somewhere near the perennial crux of the "problem of the poet" in America...

But if we look at both the Russian Acmeist phenomenon (again, Gumilev's concept of "chasteness", the integrity, the dignity, the quiddity of things on earth), and at the characteristics of the original Orpheus - who was connected with Apollo - maybe we can recognize something like an answer... let me sketch it something like this : Orpheus (ie., the poet, and poetry) is the manifestation of the integral harmony pre-existing in life, in things. Orpheus sings (expresses, shapes, imitates, celebrates) this order. And celebration as such changes our perception of the nature of that order. Like M.H. Abrams' Romantic "lamp," the human eye of poetic vision humanizes reality as a whole (see, in this regard, Mandelstam's concept of "domestic hellenism"). Even a poet as "disenchanted" as Zbigniew Herbert still proposes a moral order of humanizing wonder : an eye for the poetry of the ordinary (& of the marginal, the powerless, the weak) as opposed to the rhetoric of power, and the power of rhetoric. (Herbert famously said he believed, contrary to everyone else, that poetry should "make men sober.") In Herbert, in Gumilev - and in Honig's introduction to perhaps the classic anthology of classic American poetry : here perhaps we are beginning to make out the lineaments of a poetics which is both cosmopolitan and deeply, truly American; which is both Orphic-visionary and normative, of the everyday.

For her heart was a mediterranean cradling the earth
- E. Honig,, "For an Immigrant Grandmother"

Happy Birthday, Edwin.