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Home WHAT’S NEW Dr. Glenn Arbery Leads Assumption Day Reflections

Dr. Glenn Arbery Leads Assumption Day Reflections PDF Print E-mail

Dr. Arbery (right)On Friday January 14, 201  at Assumption College, Dr. Glen Arbery, the sixth occupant of the d'Alzon Chair in Liberal Studies led the fourth annual Assumption Day reflection, focusing on St. Augustine and Beauty. The talk itself was, appropriately, such a beautiful thing that the medium became the message.

This was the fourth annual Assumption Day, an event inaugurated by Dr. Francesco Cesareo the first year he came to Assumption as president. It was his goal to find ways to bring the campus community together (faculty, staff, and administrators) to spend time reflecting on what an Assumption education is all about and what it is that unites and motivates us and distinguishes us as an academic institution. Dr. Arbery, a professor of literature, is the first lay-person to lead Assumption Day. Until now, speakers have included Sr. Clare Teresa Tjader, a religious of the Assumption, a trustee of the college and former superior general of her cngregation, who spoke on the friendship between St. Marie-Eugénie and Fr. d'Alzon, Fr. Richard Lamoureux, currently the superior general of the Assumptionists, who addressed Fr. d'Alzon social projects, and Fr. Barry Bercier, AA, professor of theology at Assumption, who last year spoke about the notion of mission and the specific mission of the College.

-St. Augustine -

It was evident from the two lively question and answer periods included in the session that Dr. Arbery's presentation was not only extremely well received but that it served to raise a number of important question and reflections about an Assumption education and how the College can build on this understanding of beauty which Augustine espouses.

Dr. Arbery, author of Why Literature Matters: Permanence and the Politics of Reparation, last year published an edited collection of the major essays by Southern critics, including John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson and Robert Penn Warren. He has published essays on Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Dostoevski, among others.

In addition to holding teaching positions in literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts and the University of St. Thomas, Dr. Arbery directed the Teachers Academy at The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Since 2004, he has been senior editor of People Newspapers in Dallas, where he has received first-place honors in state and national film reviewing, columns and editorials competitions.

Dr. Arbery's text follows.

 

St. Augustine and the Call of Beauty

What I propose to do this morning is to muse on the beauty of Assumption College—a preliminary meditation, a kind of incitement, I hope, to reopen the perennial question of what the college is and what it hopes to be. Why talk about beauty? It can’t be because it is less contentious than, say, talking about what is true or what is good. As Homer and Virgil both remind us, the Trojan War began with a beauty contest between the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. You remember the story. The goddess Discord threw down an apple among them inscribed “To the fairest.” Since all three claimed it, they needed a judge; the Trojan Paris got to choose, he picked Aphrodite (who promised him Helen) and not only did the other goddesses never forgive him, they never forgave his city or anybody who came from his city. The story suggests that the question about what is most beautiful lies at the very origin of the Western tradition and it further suggests that nothing can lead to a deeper sense of offense—or what Milton calls the “sense of injured merit”—than not being chosen as most beautiful. On the other hand, beauty seems to be precisely what stops quarrels and leads to wonder. When Helen walks out on the walls of Troy to look down at the Greeks in the Iliad, the old men of Troy look at her and agree with each other, “Surely there is no blame on Trojans and strong-greaved Achaians/if for a long time they suffer hardship for a woman like this one./Terrible is the likeness of her face to immortal goddesses.” My question will be what this beauty is for Assumption College. What is it that’s most worth contending for?

Perhaps it seems that I’ve given away my own conclusion already by entitling this talk “St. Augustine and the Call of Beauty.” Augustine was a saint, though he did not begin as one, and the call of beauty led him through many lesser things before it ultimately led him to God; in his Confessions, he writes at length of his early infatuations and excesses, especially in matters of love. Beauty fascinated him, so much so that he wrote several books on it in his twenties before his conversion. But it took many years before he found in God the source of all other beauty and the perfection against which any other beauty must be measured. The early books of the Confessions recount his errors, failures, and partial successes. In Book VII, for example, he writes, “I was drawn toward you by your beauty but swiftly dragged away from you by my own weight, swept back headlong and groaning onto these things below myself; and this weight was carnal habit” (130-31). Not until Book X can he speak with confidence of the beauty he has been seeking:

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you! Lo, you were within, but I outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong, I, misshapen. You were with me, but I was not with you. They held me back far from you, those things which would have no being were they not in you. (203)

It is true that I think what distinguishes Assumption College is its openness to this call—in other words, that any student who finds himself or herself moved as Augustine was can find the way encouraged, both intellectually and spiritually. But my question is what the call of beauty means here, what it looks like now. Both in Augustine’s circumstances and in ours, the world is obsessed with beauty but usually in a way that has little to do with this philosophical and spiritual ascent.

Any encounter with beauty dazzles. As Elaine Scarry puts it in her book On Beauty and Being Just, beauty “brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.” In this regard, Gisele Bundchen or Nicole Kidman or Penelope Cruz might conceivably inspire someone to write another Divine Comedy, but the prospect seems unlikely; instead, their beauty has a distinct economic value. If we’re thinking about Assumption College in terms of beauty on this level, we think about everything that attracts—that is, everything that would bring back a student after an initial encounter. We think about the looks of the campus: the view of La Maison across the pond, the great glass curve of Testa on the hill, the approach to the Admissions building, the chapel in its setting amid the trees at the end of a great sweep of lawn; we think about the website and the impression it makes, the look of our publications, the graciousness of the staff who meet the public and the students who lead tours of the campus. We ask what it is about the college that would lead anyone who comes here to want to duplicate and reduplicate an initial good impression, and for potential students, what would deepen that impression so much that it would become part of the crucial decision to enroll here. Better still, what would make other colleges want to copy us? The consideration of beauty in this sense guides every presentation of our programs and offerings—and the more consciously, the better.

Attracting students here has an economic value, as Chris McCarthy would no doubt tell you, but the visible beauty of the college would be false if it were not the outer manifestation of what Assumption actually is. Keeping students here has more to do with the beauty of the action in which they are engaged. In the Poetics, Aristotle writes that anything beautiful, including a beautiful action, has to have a certain magnitude. “The greater the length, the more beautiful will the piece be by reason of its size, provided that the whole be perspicuous.” In other words, the larger it is, the more beautiful it is if the whole can still be clearly seen by the mind. My discipline is literature, so I think in terms of poems or plays or novels. The Iliad, for example, is a massive epic poem, but it is possible to hold the entire shape of the action in mind without losing it in a profusion of details. Over the course of four years, the student experiences any number of such works, any one of which can be apprehended as beautiful. Each course the student takes is itself an action, and in devising the syllabus and thinking through the nature of the semester, each professor no doubt fashions the course, regardless of whether it’s biology or business or psychology, with an eye to an orderly arrangement of parts of a certain magnitude— in other words, more or less consciously with an eye to beauty. Ideally, if a student’s courses work together well, then each semester of coursework will fit together in some revealing way, and if over four years there is a progressive deepening and amplification of the action of learning in which the student participates, then the completed education will have a beauty that endures in the mind for life. And the academic dimension, of course, is only part of what the student experiences alongside his or her participation in various associations, teams, and friendships. If Elaine Scarry is right, this beauty will bring copies of itself into being—in other words, it will inform whatever else the student does.

But this description sounds altogether utopian, much too smooth, and not at all like the often anguished process of getting through four years of college. The poet Richard Wilbur has a poem for his daughter called “The Writer” that seems to me to come closer to the real experience. (You’ll find a copy in your packet.)

The Writer

In her room at the prow of the house

Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,

My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing

From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys

Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff

Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:

I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,

As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.

A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,

And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor

Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling

Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;

How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;

And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,

We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature

Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove

To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,

For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits

Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,

Beating a smooth course for the right window

And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,

Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish

What I wished you before, but harder.

Wilbur starts the poem by comparing the house to a ship: his daughter’s room is at the prow of the house, the eastern side where light breaks like waves and the lindens toss like sprays of water. As he pauses on the stairs and listens to her typing her story, the sound—this was obviously in the days of actual typewriter keys instead of keyboards—reminds him of chains being hauled over the gunwale as it takes in cargo. “Young as she is, the stuff/Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:/I wish her a lucky passage.” He plays on the word passage, which is both a voyage and the section of the story she’s working on. But then, as he is about to move on, she stops typing:

But now it is she who pauses,

As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.

A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,

And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor

Of strokes, and again is silent.

Her own pause makes him abandon his first comparison to a ship as an “easy figure.” Her concentration makes him concentrate. “A stillness greatens”—and the word greatens almost makes the poem. If he had written “a stillness gathers” we would miss the momentousness of what she is doing. It is something great, but it is also pregnant, as in a woman great with child. Then, after another burst of typing and another pause, a kind of miracle comes in the middle stanza of the poem. Wilbur remembers something that happened in that same room two years before, and suddenly, instead of the sound of chains hauling cargo aboard—his daughter pulling things from her life into her story— the same sound suggests a very different, more poignant metaphor. In their pauses and bunched clamor, the keys sound like the frantic escape attempts of the starling trapped inside the room. Writing her story becomes his daughter’s means of escape from entrapment.

Already there’s been a kind of metamorphosis, not least in the way he sees the starling. Of any bird, a starling is probably among the most unlikely to attract anyone’s attention for its beauty. It has a commonness to it that makes even sparrows look fairly noble. But in the poem, now associated with his daughter, it becomes “the sleek, wild, dark/And iridescent creature.” His daughter’s sleek, wild, dark and iridescent spirit batters against the brilliance of the closed windows, the false exits, then retreats on itself humped and bloody until it can try again. On one level, the comparison beautifully captures the experience of writing—first the frustrations, then the escape, the lucky passage. What makes the starling metaphor painful is that, at least metaphorically, the adolescent daughter struggles to escape her room and the house she has been brought up in, the house that only a few stanzas ago was the ship sailing into the morning. Ambivalence informs the last lines of the poem. “It is always a matter, my darling,/Of life or death, as I had forgotten.” Like a professor who has been through too many stacks of essays, the poet has experienced the act of writing many times; he has forgotten how important it is to her, how much it’s a matter of life and death, and he wishes for his daughter what he wished before, but he wishes it harder—more intensely but now also with the hint of more difficulty, since now he sees that she has to save her life, and her liberation is in part an escape from everything he has done to protect her.

It is not difficult to make the comparison to a student finding his or her way through various false starts before suddenly “Beating a smooth course for the right window/And clearing the sill of the world.” The freshman comes to college and finds himself on his own for the first time. He starts any number of flights in the wrong direction, moved by what seems beautiful, including the kind of friendship that led Augustine as a boy to steal pears for no reason, “attempting a shady parody of omnipotence,” as he puts it, “by getting away with something forbidden” (40).  Whatever seems to hold in it some kind of deep attraction, not least the promise of freedom, will be tempting, because the student does not yet know himself or herself sufficiently to see the right way. But one thing is very clear: the student is never simply being stocked for the journey of life with the cargo of knowledge; Wilbur is right to reject that easy and inaccurate metaphor out of hand. Instead, there’s something much more important going on, something recognizably Augustinian. It’s possible to see Augustine in Wilbur’s poem. For example, when Augustine describes himself in the aftermath of a major philosophical insight, he sounds a little like the bird dashing itself against the window: “Then indeed did I perceive your invisible reality through created things, but to keep my gaze there was beyond my strength. I was forced back through weakness and returned to my familiar surroundings, bearing with me only a loving memory, one that yearned for something of which I had caught the fragrance, but could not yet feast upon” (131). Perhaps there’s another implication here—that the best teacher is not the one who displays an effortless mastery of his or her material, but the one who shows what it means to be looking again and again for that liberating beauty.

In one sense, it’s strange to talk about the action of the college as though it were a single thing, because it differs for each participant in it, yet it cannot hurt to think about consciously trying to make the action beautiful. There is a particularity to be discovered in each student, a matter of life and death. The aim is trying to provide those circumstances in which a student’s self-correction can take place. In the poem there’s only one initial intervention: lifting the sash. There has to be an open window for the student’s spirit—”the sleek, wild, dark/And iridescent creature”—to find. If the direction of this meditation is right, then the real action of the college consists almost entirely of opening that window, but only after bringing into being the room in which that window exists. Wilbur’s line about “clearing the sill of the world” gives us that feeling of coming out of imprisonment, after many attempts, into the whole grandeur of freedom. “Oh brave new world,” as Shakespeare’s Miranda puts it when she sees the promise of what exists beyond her island. Ordinary men seem to her beautiful. As Elaine Scarry writes, “the beautiful thing seems—is—incomparable, unprecedented; and that sense of being without precedent conveys a sense of the ‘newness’ or ‘newbornness’ of the entire world” (22). Take a little poem by Robert Frost called “Dust of Snow” as an example—and a pretty timely one, given the circumstances. It’s just eight lines with a stanza break in the middle:

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

This small episode liberates the poet; it breaks his dark mood; it gives him a poem that we’re still reading almost a century later. That’s what seems to be implied in the aim of the liberal arts—not just the education of free men and women implied in liber, free, but something like this renewal of the world that makes it appear once again as beautiful.

Before I turn back to Augustine, then, let me say a little about beauty and the liberal arts. Elaine Scarry uses an image from the novelist Marcel Proust to try to get at this relation—and part of the charm of it is the startling leap that Scarry makes from Proust’s image to the idea of the university. Here is part of the passage from Scarry (which is also in the handout). She writes that Proust is fascinated by the face of the girl serving milk at a train stop:

I could not take my eyes from her face which grew larger as she approached, like a sun which it was somehow possible to stare at and which was coming nearer and nearer, letting itself be seen at close quarters, dazzling you with its blaze of red and gold.

Proust wishes her to remain forever in his perceptual field and will alter his own location to bring that about: “to go with her to the stream, to the cow, to the train, to be always at her side.”

“This willingness continually to revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty,” Scarry writes, “is the basic impulse underlying education.” She goes on to meditate on what this means: “One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet makes its sweep through a certain patch of sky.” She could be talking literally about learning from, say, Georgi Georgiev, but the comet, I take it, is a metaphor. One submits to a teacher in order to be in the right place and looking in the right direction when beauty appears. The example of the comet is considerably more subtle than it seems at first glance. Despite the popular image of a comet—the long bright tail, for example—it’s very difficult to see a comet at all unless you know the night sky very well already. Most of us remember the name of Comet Hale-Bopp, which appeared in 1997 and led to the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult, but I doubt if any of us actually saw the comet or even knew where to look. Apparently the brightest comet in forty years appeared three years ago this month, but I dare say none of us knew it at all, much less saw it, unless someone like Georgi told us exactly where to look. It is possible that a young man or woman might happen upon this cosmic visitation of beauty unaided, but education in this sense is a matter of increasing the chances that a student will see it in Keats or Mozart or Matisse, but also in mathematics and physics, for example, or biology and chemistry. I always suspect that there’s a secret harmony between Hubert Meunier’s science and his love of music. As Wordsworth once put it, “Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science.” By poetry we could also read beauty.

Let me be clear, as the politicians say. I am not saying that any freshman takes math or history or politics because of the call of beauty, but I am saying that anyone who truly falls in love with a discipline does so because he or she has glimpsed its beauty, more or less the same way that Dante glimpsed Beatrice as a child in Florence or Proust glimpsed the face of the girl at the train stop. All of a sudden, there it is, and once experienced, it cannot be denied. As Scarry puts it, “The beautiful, almost without any effort of our own, acquaints us with the mental event of conviction, and so pleasurable a mental state is this that ever afterwards one is willing to labor, struggle, wrestle with the world to locate enduring sources of conviction—to locate what is true.” I remember having this experience when I was studying high school geometry and we came to the properties of a straight line that touches the circumference of a circle. A tangent touches it at only one point, you recall, and no matter how you try to slant it across the edge of the circle, this line is always exactly perpendicular to the radius. Something about this struck me then and still strikes me now as beautiful—perhaps the juxtaposition of the straight line and perfect curve of the circle, perhaps the sense of it as a metaphor for something. But part of what I experienced was undoubtedly “the mental event of conviction.” In other words, if I knew the definition of a circle and the definition of a line, I had to see their relation, and once I saw the image of it unfold from my ruler and compass, the beauty of it was simple and strangely luminous, undistinguishable from its truth.

Something like this, it seems to me, must have been the experience of Augustine. But what he proposed, as Plato and his followers had proposed before, was that beauty has implications. Why is it that beauty calls us at all, and how do we distinguish what is really beautiful from what isn’t? The problem that Augustine posed to himself was how it was possible for him “to appreciate the beauty of material things in the sky or on earth, and why the power to make sound judgments about changeable matters was readily available” to him. In other words, there had to be some measure by which he knew whether something was beautiful or not—but where is the measure that can apply equally to a line of poetry, a fashion model, a snowfall, and a proof in geometry? Augustine pursued the matter into the mind itself (second reading in handout):

Thus I pursued my inquiry by stages, from material things to the soul that perceives them through the body, and from there to the inner power of the soul to which the bodily senses report external impressions. The intelligence of animals can reach as far as this.

I pursued further and came to the power of discursive reason, to which the data of our senses are referred for judgment. Yet as found in me even reason acknowledged itself to be subject to change, and stretched upward to the source of its own intelligence, withholding its thoughts from the tyranny of habit and detaching [not attaching] itself from the swarms of noisy phantasms. It strove to discover what this light was that bedewed it when it cried out unhesitatingly that the Unchangeable is better than anything liable to change; it sought the fount whence flowed its concept of the Unchangeable—for unless it had in some fashion recognized Immutability, it could never with such certainty have judged it superior to things that change.

And then my mind attained to That Which Is, in the flush of one tremulous glance. Then indeed did I perceive your invisible reality through created things, but to keep my gaze there was beyond my strength.

I confess to a constitutional preference for images as opposed to abstractions. To me, an abstraction sits there like a forlorn bachelor until it marries a good image; I know I can’t be a philosopher because the examples are always more interesting to me than the ideas they’re supposed to exemplify. But my point is this: Augustine is not talking about an idea or an abstraction, but a source of light that “bedews” his reason—notice the image of a morning freshness; it is a fountain from which the concept of the Unchangeable flows—and flowing seems to contradict the very nature of the Unchangeable; his mind mounts, not toward an abstraction, but toward the Being behind all other beings, and when he sees it, he sees it as a lover might, “in the flush of one tremulous glance.” Everything about the passage, in other words, has to do with his experience of the source of beauty. Although he falls back from it like the starling in Wilbur’s poem, he nevertheless knows where to go now; he sees what he’s after, and the question will be how he rearranges his life to place himself in the path of it—or put another way, to find the window left open for him.

What I hope to reopen is the question of beauty at this college. We can get caught up in representing the truth as though it were ugly and unpleasant or insisting on ethics as though good actions had nothing to do with beauty. One of the most controversial choices of a recent translation of Aristotle’s Ethics is the translator’s choice of “the beautiful” for to kalon instead of “the noble.” Joe Sachs justifies his choice by saying “the word is usually translated elsewhere as ‘the noble’ to avoid ‘aesthetic’ implications, but the Greek uses the word in exactly the way we might say ‘that was a beautiful thing you did’… The beautiful is what makes an action right, in the same sense in which a painting or a poem or musical composition might get everything exactly right.” Sachs also insists that a beautiful action is something others can perceive with their senses. I remember reading many years ago an interview with the survivors of the Bataan death march. One of them described the way a fellow soldier had done something brave and self-sacrificial, though I don’t remember exactly what it was. But I remember exactly what the man said about it: “Courage is a shining thing, when you see it.” A shining thing—a beautiful thing, in other words, that stands out from a dark or neutral background. And the thing about beauty is that it beckons. As Scarry puts it, “ancient and medieval philosophers always referred to it acoustically: beauty is a call.” As Augustine puts it in Book X, drawing on all the senses, “You called, shouted, broke through my deafness; you flared, blazed, banished my blindness; you lavished your fragrance, I gasped, and now I pant for you; I tasted you, and I hunger and thirst; you touched me, and I burn for your peace.”

What does Assumption College look like now in terms of the call of beauty that Augustine heard? Without his response to that call, there would have been no Confessions, no City of God, no Augustinians like the monks who lived in rock shelters on tiny Skellig Michael off the west coast of Ireland in the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire (I think that qualifies as a tangent), no Fr. d’Alzon, no Augustinians of the Assumption, no Assumption College. What else but the truest beauty could have such a profound and lasting effect? What should the college look like, then, in all its dimensions, from student life to sports to academics in response to this founding call? To what extent could the ever more conscious pursuit of the beautiful—or “the noble,” if you prefer—make a difference here? These seem to me crucial questions, not because they have been ignored, but because they need to be asked afresh all the time with the best thinkers and artists as guides. Elaine Scarry says that beauty is lifesaving, and she cites episodes in Homer, especially the Odyssey, which is of course about the long homecoming from the war caused by Helen. “Homer is not alone in seeing beauty as lifesaving,” she writes. “Augustine described it as ‘a plank amid the waves of the sea.’ Proust makes a version of this claim over and over again.”

Let me turn for the last word to Augustine himself. Shortly before his mother’s death, he and Monica shared a conversation that Augustine records in great detail—again an account of the ascent from the beauties of the senses to “that land of never-failing plenty where you pasture Israel forever with the food of truth.” This time he and his mother imagine that all creation falls silent, pointing beyond itself: “for if anyone listens, all these things will tell him, ‘We did not make ourselves, he made us who abides forever.’” They proceed upward in thought to that moment of touching That Which Is, and they imagine not losing the moment, but abiding in it. What moves me, though, is the detail that Augustine includes about where they were as they talked: “We stood leaning against a window which looked out on a garden within the house where we were staying in Ostia on the Tiber.” The same instinct for the crucial metaphor works in Augustine as in Richard Wilbur: the transparent barrier between one reality and the next, both a separation and a threshold. His mother, who had worried about him so much, finds him now “Beating a smooth course for the right window/ And clearing the sill of the world.” Where would we be if he hadn’t succeeded? Where would Assumption be if that window were not open? The call of beauty, as we had perhaps forgotten, is a matter of life and death.

St. Augustine, Confessions (Trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B.)

From Book IV. To my friends I would say, “Do we love anything save what is beautiful? And what is beautiful, then? Indeed, what is beauty? What is it that entices and attracts us in the things we love? Surely if beauty and loveliness of form were not present in them, they could not possibly appeal to us.” I applied my mind to these questions and it struck me that in material objects there was both a quality inherent in the whole—beauty—and a different quality that was seemingly in something that was harmoniously adapted to something else, as a part of the body to the whole, or a sandal to the foot, and other similar things. This realization welled up in my mind from my innermost heart, and I wrote some books entitled The Beautiful and the Harmonious, two or three books, I think—you know, oh God, but it escapes me, for I no longer have them; they have somehow been lost....
I did not yet see that the whole vast question hinged on your artistry, Almighty God, who alone work wonders. My mind scanned material forms, and I defined and distinguished what was beautiful in itself from what was harmonious because fittingly adapted to something else, supporting my distinction with material examples. I turned to the nature of the soul, but here I was sparked by the false opinions which are held concerning spiritual entities, and unable to discern the truth. Truth was thrusting itself upon me, staring me in the face, but I averted my trembling thought from incorporeal reality and looked instead toward shapes and colors and distended mass....

From Book VII. Thus I pursued my inquiry by stages, from material things to the soul that perceives them through the body, and from there to the inner power of the soul to which the bodily senses report external impressions. The intelligence of animals can reach as far as this.
I pursued further and came to the power of discursive reason, to which the data of our senses are referred for judgment. Yet as found in me even reason acknowledged itself to be subject to change, and stretched upward to the source of its own intelligence, withholding its thoughts from the tyranny of habit and attaching itself from the swarms of noisy phantasms. It strove to discover what this light was that bedewed it when it cried out unhesitatingly that the Unchangeable is better than anything liable to change; it sought the fount whence flowed its concept of the Unchangeable—for unless it had in some fashion recognized Immutability, it could never with such certainty have judged it superior to things that change.
And then my mind attained to That Which Is, in the flush of one tremulous glance. Then indeed did I perceive your invisible reality through created things, but to keep my gaze there was beyond my strength. I was forced back through weakness and returned to my familiar surroundings, bearing with me only a loving memory, one that yearned for something of which I had caught the fragrance, but could not yet feast upon.

From Book X. Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you! Lo, you were within, but I outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong, I, misshapen. You were with me, but I was not with you. They held me back far from you, those things which would have no being were they not in you. You called, shouted, broke through my deafness; you flared, blazed, banished my blindness; you lavished your fragrance, I gasped, and now I pant for you; I tasted you, and I hunger and thirst; you touched me, and I burned for your peace. (203)

The Writer
By Richard Wilbur

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.



From Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just

Beauty is sometimes disparaged on the ground that it causes a contagion of imitation, as when a legion of people begin to style themselves after a particular movie starlet, but this is just an imperfect version of the deeply beneficent momentum toward replication. Again beauty is sometimes disparaged because it gives rise to material cupidity and possessiveness; but here too we may come to feel we’re simply encountering an imperfect instance of an otherwise positive outcome. If someone wishes all the Gallé vases of the world to sit on his own windowsills, it is just a miseducated version of the typically generous-hearted impulse we see when Proust stares at the face of the girl serving milk at a train stop:
I could not take my eyes from her face which grew larger as she approached, like a sun which it was somehow possible to stare at and which was coming nearer and nearer, letting itself be seen at close quarters, dazzling you with its blaze of red and gold.
Proust wishes her to remain forever in his perceptual field and will alter his own location to bring that about: “to go with her to the stream, to the cow, to the train, to be always at her side.”
This willingness continually to revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education. One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet makes its sweep through a certain patch of sky. The arts and sciences, like Plato’s dialogues, have at their center the drive to confer greater clarity on what already has clear discernibility, as well as to confer initial clarity on what originally has none. By perpetuating beauty, institutions of education help incite the will toward continual creation.… To misstate, or even merely understate, the relation of the universities to beauty is one kind of error that can be made. A university is among the precious things that can be destroyed. (6-8)

One can see why beauty—by Homer, by Plato, by Aquinas, by Dante (and the list would go on, name of unnamed, century by century, page upon page...)—has been perceived to be bound up with the immortal, for it prompts a search for a precedent, which in turn prompts the search for a still earlier precedent, and the mind keeps tripping backward until it at last reaches something that has no precedent, which may very well be the immortal. And one can see why beauty—by those same artists, philosophers, theologians of the Old World and the New—has been perceived to be bound up with truth. What is beautiful is in league with what is true because truth abides in the immortal sphere. But if this were the only basis for the association, then many of us living now who feel skeptical about the existence of an immortal realm might be required to conclude that beauty and truth have nothing to do with one another. Luckily, a second basis for the association stands clearly before us: the beautiful person or thing incites in us the longing for truth because it provides by its compelling “clear discernibility” an introduction (perhaps even our first introduction) to the state of certainty yet does not itself satiate our desire for certainty since beauty, sooner or later, brings us into contact with our own capacity for making errors. The beautiful, almost without any effort of our own, acquaints us with the mental event of conviction, and so pleasurable a mental state is this that ever afterwards one is willing to labor, struggle, wrestle with the world to locate enduring sources of conviction—to locate what is true. Both in the account that assumes the existence of the immortal realm and in the account that assumes the nonexistence of the immortal realm, beauty is a starting place for education. (30-31)

Last Updated on Tuesday, 18 January 2011 11:24
 
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