Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Terrifying Angel

Reginald Shepherd has a wonderful essay, “Notes Toward Beauty,” on his blog. As he says, “It is very fashionable, indeed almost de rigueur, to condemn beauty as oppressive.” He goes on, “It was Edmund Burke who first distinguished between the beautiful and the sublime as that which submits to us versus that which overwhelms us,” and then he points out that genuine, “Rilkean” beauty is the sublime. I think Shepherd is profoundly right to make this personal—“I have felt haunted by the beauty of men that I did not possess and could not make mine”—because it is through such personal haunting that we are compelled to submit to beauty in our everyday lives.

In the myth of the judgment of Paris, Paris must choose between Athena, goddess of wisdom, Hera, goddess of marriage, and Aphrodite, goddess of beauty. It seems possible that, like us, Paris would have condemned beauty as oppressive. He would have wanted to choose the wisdom of Athena or the constancy of Hera. But he was overwhelmed and made the inevitable choice, and so began what Joyce called the nightmare of history: the Trojan War and ultimately all wars.

It seems to me that this is the connection between beauty and justice, beauty and truth, that Shepherd (and Keats!) are talking about. We can’t truthfully say that life is happy or just, only that it is beautiful. In that sense beauty and tragedy are intertwined, and the wariness people have of beauty is justified to the extent that beauty can be used to rationalize a complacency towards tragedy, as if it’s the way things will always be so you may as well not try to change anything.

The image of Aphrodite anadyomene (Aphrodite rising from the waves being born) is a classic image of beauty, but what do we mean by that? Is this beauty as “sublime” or beauty as “pretty”? There’s certainly an erotic component (Venus in wet T-shirt), but that’s not all. There’s something deeply moving and beautiful when contradictory elements are united (when “the fire and the rose are one,” as Eliot and Dante said), and in this case it’s something about how the water from which Aphrodite is rising is reflected in the watery texture of the gowns—and all of this communicated through the medium of stone!

There’s something about how the sculptor is learning to convey the presence of a human body beneath the pleated fabric of a gown—again, both the flesh and the fabric (that both conceals and reveals) created out of marble, out of nothing, a solid nothing. And there’s also something about how the illusion of flesh is more real because the illusion of fabric is real. Seeing the flesh through the fabric, we forget that all we are seeing is stone, and the flesh within the fabric becomes a metaphor for the real mystery, Rilke’s terrifying angel rising within the stone. If stone can become water and flesh, then what metamorphosis is impossible?


Diane K. Martin said...

Wow, Robert. Brilliant, just brilliant. And beautiful.

Diane K. Martin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Robert,

This is a beautiful (appropriately enough), eloquent post. I'm honored that my essay inspired it.

It's true that beauty can appear to justify injustice, that form can reconcile us to suffering. Beauty is sometimes what Kathleen Fraser has called “That urgency we call romantic, but which might actually be, in part, the willingness to be told lies." But a lie can often tell the truth (that's what art does), can be truer than the truth. I think that this is one way in which beauty is not immoral but, as I wrote, amoral. As Arthur C. Danto has written, perhaps some things should not be made beautiful, because beauty can make us forgetful, can make us accept what shouldn't be accepted: the eye can trick the mind. It's not always for the good to forget oneself, or to forget others. But the pain that beauty often causes can also remind us of pain. The distance between what beauty proposes and what our actual lives present can highlight the wrongness of injustice, its failure of form.

Your words about Paris and Aphrodite remind me of Merwin's poem "The Judgment of Paris," in which, no matter what choice he makes, he loses. And yet he must choose, and so he chooses the one whose words "made everything seem present/almost present/present."

Thanks again for this lovely and moving post.
all best,


Robert said...

Thanks for the comments, Reginald and Diane. I agree that art is a lie that tells the truth. I fear that often it's not so easy to distinguish between a lie that tells the truth and a plain old lie--especially when you're writing a poem! I think, though, it has something to do with Coleridge's distinction between imagination and fancy, or maybe between dream (the lie that tells the truth) and mere daydream.