Friday, June 06, 2008

Tobias Wolff on the Power of Aesthetics

An essay in the New Yorker by Tobias Wolff offers some thoughts that might lead to a possible expansion on our previous conversations about evangelism.

Tobias tells us of a night in Oxford back in 1970 when he accompanied a friend to a showing of Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light at a local church. Tobias was moved by the film, but turned off by what happened after it was over:

...Now the minister motioned to the projectionist, and an image of Jesus holding a lantern filled the screen. I had seen it before, in the Keble College chapel: William Holman Hunt’s painting “The Light of the World.”

Let me say that up to that moment I’d been listening, really listening, attentive as the fisherman for an answer to the bleakness of our situation. And this minister was no Tomas: he was clear and confident, he knew he had that answer, and I’d begun to feel a sense of grudging assent—not surrender but the first stirrings—when that picture appeared. And then I lost it.

Because I really disliked that painting. It seemed to me a typical Pre-Raphaelite production: garish, melodramatic, cloying in its technique and sentimentality; pretentious humbug. The contrast between Bergman’s severe, honest art and this painting, on the same screen, chilled me. Was this what the minister held in his mind as the answer to all our problems—a kitschy figure from a calendar? I turned to Rob. “Let’s get a pint”...
But that is not the end of the story. It is the response of his friend that causes Tobias to reflect more deeply on our varied responses to aesthetics:

...But Rob was intent on this very image. Rapt. He barely glanced at me. “You go on.”

That night—to some extent, that picture—changed his life. He enrolled in Bible classes at the church, and went on to become a missionary in Africa. The same night sent me in the opposite direction, at least for a time. But would a different painting—Caravaggio’s “Conversion of St. Paul,” for example—have kept me in the pew? We like to think of our beliefs, and disbeliefs, as founded on reason and close, thoughtful observation. Only in theory do we begin to suspect the power of aesthetics to shape our lives.

And what drew me back, some time later, toward the possibility of faith? Poetry. George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot. One night, I was reading the last lines of “Little Gidding” to a friend, my voice thick with emotion, and when I looked up he was staring at me with kindly amusement. “So,” he said. “You really like that stuff?”
Here are the closing lines of Eliot's Little Gidding:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
Do read the entire poem. There's some other great lines to be found in it. To explore further what Eliot might have been doing in this work would require delving into Dante, among other topics, which would take this conversation off on a serious tangent, so maybe we'll bookmark that discussion for another time.

What I'd be interested in hearing is what role aesthetics has played in your own spiritual growth?

To be clear, here is a definition of the term:

1. the branch of philosophy dealing with such notions as the beautiful, the ugly, the sublime, the comic, etc., as applicable to the fine arts, with a view to establishing the meaning and validity of critical judgments concerning works of art, and the principles underlying or justifying such judgments.
2. the study of the mind and emotions in relation to the sense of beauty.
What works of music, art, poetry, drama or any of the fine arts played, or continues to play, a significant role in your own spiritual autobiography?

My thanks to Mark for pointing me to this essay.


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