With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Friday, September 08, 2006

On Satanic Beauty

As one of the three united transcendentals, beauty has historically received the least amount of theological attention. Perhaps the reason for this is simple: people perceive beauty in its relative dimension and therefore believe it is opposed to concrete, unchanging truth. Of course, the end result of this is that truth and goodness, cut off from beauty, have ended up being relativized.

Beauty attracts and brings joy; it shows us the way to the truth in goodness: the three are different perceptions or ways of seeing the same ontological reality. However, one might ask, “If beauty is good, what are we to make of Satan, and with him, any evil Satanic beauty?”

One could easily say that in his beauty Satan is good. There is truth in this, a truth that many people forget. Satan is not pure evil. His intellect, his beauty, must in themselves be seen as good. He has obviously perverted them, and used them to turn others away from God, the source of all goodness, and towards himself, a false, illusionary good.

It is here that we must begin our analysis. Beauty’s aim is for the good, and any beauty which turns us away from the good is not beauty pure in and of itself, but a perversion of beauty. It either is beauty which has been warped, or an imitation of beauty, that is, a hollow illusion which externally imitates beauty. It could also be both. If truth cut off from goodness and beauty ends up becoming a dead, cold logic, and goodness cut off from truth and beauty becomes a harsh, cold tyranny, then beauty when cut off from truth and goodness becomes maya, a perverse momentary joy that ultimately leads to suffering and death. Just as there is a foundation for idolatry in a perversion of truth, we find here the foundation of idolatry in the realm of beauty.

True art, true beauty must itself represent an experience of truth and goodness in order for it to be qualified as art. Certainly there can be works of art which can technically be works of genius, and the talent of the artist cannot be denied. Yet in their perversion of nature and in their morbid curiosity, they have not fully enshrined the subject they are repesenting: instead, they have destroyed it. They create, as Sergius Bulgakov would say, a corpse of beauty. Instead of enlivening the spirit, their work ends up suffocating us. For Bulgakov, Picasso represented this destructive deconstruction of beauty:

But when one enters the room where Pablo Picasso’s works are collected, one is surrounded by an atmosphere of mystical fear amounting to terror. The veil of day with is reassuring multiplicity of colours is blown away, and one is encircled by horrible, formless night, full of dumb, evil phantoms and shadows. It is stifling like the grave. --Sergius Bulgakov, “The Corpse of Beauty,” in A Bulgakov Anthology, ed. James Pain and Nicolas Zernov. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), p.67.

By its mystical nature, by its attraction, art and beauty are an important part of our creative freedom, the creative freedom we are called to live out in our Christian life. Creation is the free creative act and art of God; being in the image of God, we are, as Tolkien tells us, sub-creators called to freely share in the creative act of God. Because of its potent nature, when it is perverted, it turns into a demonic, dark art, perhaps more deadly than the perversion of truth or goodness, because “art, in contradiction to philosophy and even more to science, is connected with the inmost depths of the spirit.” Ibid, 71. This can explain the tendency to associate idols with demons, because this perversion of beauty possesses its worshiper and spiritually kills them. Bulgakov believed this demonic art, unleashed into the modern world, requires a new exorcism that only the Church and her full grasp of beauty can fulfill.

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  • At 9/09/2006 12:12 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    But....but...I really like Picasso....

    After all, the "horrible, formless night" is unfortunately all too real for many in this world. Should art not penetrate into these realms in the hopes of redeeming the "evil phantoms and shadows"?

    And herein lies the true debate.
    For even if bad art (and I would most certainly NOT put Picasso in this class) has brought even one human person to a greater awareness of the divine - something that could never be objectively ascertained - then the power of beauty, which is I think its redemptive capacity, has performed its role.

    And here is where I am inclined at this stage in my career to elevate beauty even above the other transcendentals - with qualification of course.
    Ontologically, they are all joined, as you already explained. As modes of Being, and manifestations of divine Being, they are one and the same.

    However, insofar as they are constituted by their relationship with the natural order, their differences are brought out. Now, it is too much to go into here in this response, but it is a potentially great conversation.

    Broadly speaking, I would say that Beauty is the residue of Goodness even when one thinks there is no more goodness (like Satan, perhaps, though I am reluctant to speculate on what tradition holds to be the most intense presence of evil...). Again, the emphasis here is on the individual intellect, but when one can see nothing good, the immediacy and ineffabilty of beauty is goodness almost imposing itself. And because this can happen in as many ways as there are intellects - or eyes - it simply cannot be finitely measured.

    Thus, it is precisely on acocunt of, and NOT in spite of, beauty's ability to give itself over to complete subjectification (thus making the subjectivity relative to the individual and not to its own intrinsic quality) that furnishes beauty with a power greater than anything else. I think here of the cross, when Christ willingly gave himself over allowing us to do with him as we pleased. Anyway, it's too grand a suggestion to develop here, as I said.

    Admittedly, this is one of the areas where I tend to part ways with some Eastern thinkers like Bulgakov or Florensky. They tend to be quick to condemn Western art after the Middle Ages, exhibiting a certain aesthetic snobbery. They seem to neglect the strength in beauty's subjective dimension.

  • At 9/09/2006 4:02 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    The problem is, beauty is indeed good, but it can be a good which is abused and lead people astray when it is cut off from its spiritual whole. Satan can appear as a beautiful angel of light, and we must be careful.

    Yes, even in this perversion and abuse of beauty, this siren so to speak, and return to their senses through it and find the divine again. One person, two people, thousands of people, however many, it does happen -- even as people can find conversion experiences through false apparitions. When this happens for either, what happens is the divine is able to work through what good there is and use it to inspire to a fuller, deeper truth beyond the one that is trying to draw them in.

    This is to say, we must not follow Mani -- even in the corpse of beauty to speak, there is good. In that good, some people can indeed find their way home. The problem is through this good, through its beauty, it is also trying to be a siren to distract and to become through its limited good the full good for those who follow it. That is what makes it "Satanic Beauty." Even in the corpse, even in the illusion, there has to be some beauty there to put on the show -- but the beauty looks to be greater than it actually is.

    As for Picasso -- I think he is a great genius, and some of his works are true works of beauty and art. Other works, however, seem to me to be cruel perversions of humanity, and hate-filled attempts to destroy those whom he once loved.

    One last comment about this little work -- it is connected to one idea I have in my developing theology of religions. What is beautiful in other religions speaks to me of places where God worked with the peoples of those traditions and so should find its home with us, but in looking for this, we must not confuse the sirens for true beauty.

  • At 9/09/2006 4:08 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    Yes, even in this perversion and abuse of beauty, this siren so to speak, and return to their senses through it and find the divine again.

    Should be

    Yes, even through this perversion and abuse of beauty, this siren so to speak, people return to their senses through it and find the divine again.

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