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)