CIVILISATION: by Gregory WolfeNews Weekly
Is culture more powerful than politics?
, October 15, 2011
We live in a politicised time. Culture wars and increasingly partisan conflicts have reduced public discourse to shouting matches between ideologues. But rather than merely bemoaning the vulgarity and sloganeering of this era, says acclaimed author and editor Gregory Wolfe, we should seek to enrich the language of civil discourse. And the best way to do that, Wolfe believes, is to draw nourishment from the deepest sources of culture: art and religious faith.
Wolfe has been called “one of the most incisive and persuasive voices of our generation”, and his penetrating and wide-ranging recent book, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age (see page 21 of this issue of News Weekly for further details), makes a powerful case for the importance of beauty and imagination to cultural renewal.
He begins by tracing his own journey from a young culture warrior bent on attacking the modern world to a career devoted to nurturing the creation of culture through contemporary literature and art that renew the Western tradition.
Along the way, Wolfe finds in Renaissance Christian humanists like Erasmus and Thomas More — and their belief that imagination and the arts are needed to offset the danger of ideological abstractions — a “distant mirror” in which to see our own times.
Beauty Will Save the World offers a revealing introduction to the artists and thinkers who are the Christian humanists of the modern era, from well-known figures like Evelyn Waugh and Wendell Berry to lesser-known authors like Shusaku Endo, Andrew Lytle and Geoffrey Hill. A section on visual artists Mary McCleary, Fred Folsom and Makoto Fujimura (accompanied by reproductions of their works) demonstrates that there are artists who can re-imagine the Western tradition in strikingly contemporary terms.
Finally, Wolfe pays tribute to the conservative thinkers who served as his mentors: Russell Kirk, Gerhart Niemeyer, Marion Montgomery and Malcolm Muggeridge — all of whom rejected rigid ideology and embraced culture and tradition.
At a time when our public discourse has come to be dominated by warring factions with little regard for truth, Wolfe’s affirmation of beauty as a redemptive force is both refreshing and encouraging.
The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), a non-profit American educational organisation which has published Gregory Wolfe’s Beauty Will Save the World, interviewed the author about his work:
Your prologue speaks of the way you relate to “the four cultures”. What does that phrase mean to you?
It comes from a marvellous book by John W. O’Malley and it refers to four of the most central “languages” we speak as Westerners. These four tongues might be called the prophetic/theological, the rational/critical, the literary/rhetorical, and the visual/performing.
The first two — the religious and academic cultures — are extremely powerful, but they tend toward abstraction and ideology unless they are balanced by the second two — the literary and visual arts — which clothe ideas with concrete metaphors and lived experience.
I love all four cultures, but my career has been defined by the way I’ve pursued the second two as counter-weights to the first two.
In the first section of your book, “From Ideology to Humanism”, you recount a journey that began in the conservative intellectual movement but then veered into the world of the arts. Do you see any continuity in that journey?
Ironically, I came of age in 1980 just when conservatives became triumphant on the national stage. But at that moment I saw a troubling trend toward politicisation and ideology among conservatives.
It struck me then that culture is prior to politics — that the stories and metaphors emerging from the culture shape the political debates far more powerfully than the other way around. So by devoting my life to nurturing contemporary art that makes new the Judaeo-Christian tradition, I see perfect continuity with my youthful immersion in the conservative movement.
You’ve been a critic of the “culture wars”. Why?
Because in the end they have become more about each side preaching to its own choir than a real political struggle over real issues. Cultural change occurs not because of the arguments we win but because the stories we tell are more compelling, more human, than those told by others.
What do you mean by “politicisation”?
The reduction of all civil discourse to slogans shouted by utopian factions. In a sense, “politicisation” is the true enemy of politics itself: by reducing everything to ideology and power the whole conception of politics as a process of debate and compromise is thrown out the window. We are reaping that whirlwind today.
The phrase “Beauty will save the world” is provocative, if not downright absurd. Where did you come across it and why does it serve as the title of this essay collection?
It comes from Dostoevsky’s great novel, The Idiot. I use it in several senses. First, it’s a way of shocking the reader into questioning the role of beauty and imagination in our lives. The thing about beauty is that it resists being reduced to subservience to power and interests — beauty in some ways is an end in itself. (Of course, art and beauty can be turned into propaganda but then they cease to be beautiful and artful.)
“Beauty will save the world” means that seeing the world truly, and gaining knowledge through contemplation, is more meaningful and constructive than dominance over the world through power.
At a time when many culture critics bemoan our time as a decadent wasteland, you’ve consistently championed a wide range of contemporary artists and writers. Isn’t that just sentimental optimism?
I’ve termed the penchant for declaring the present the worst of times “declinism”. It’s very tempting because it immediately enables the critic to score easy points: things were better way back when. But the truth is that there is rise and fall, loss and gain, in every generation. We usually forget that art we celebrate from the past was controversial in its own time.
Declinists don’t bother to truly look at what’s going on around them and so they see the good that is taking place. It may be less sexy, but championing what is excellent — and perhaps difficult to grasp — is ultimately a more important task for the critic than panning what is awful.
The word “humanism” has come with negative connotations for quite some time, as in “secular humanism”. You speak of “Christian Humanism.” Isn’t that an oxymoron?
Recent connotations of the word “humanism” are 180 degrees from the word’s origin. Humanism grew out of the religious vision that saw each human life as endowed with dignity. And so a “humanist” was someone who cared about the “humanities” — things like literature, rhetoric, history and philosophy — that explored our identity as individuals. Humanists typically are peacemakers and bridge-builders because they make connections — they see underlying relationships where others insist on differences.
What interests you in the legacy of the Renaissance thinkers like Erasmus and Thomas More? How are they relevant to our time?
They lived in a time remarkably like our own — they lived through a period of intense “culture wars”, technological change and ideological extremism. Erasmus and More sought to counter both secular power-mongers and religious fanatics by stressing the importance of literature, rhetoric and imagination. In many ways the Renaissance humanists, steeped in Christianity, brought us much of what has been claimed for the secular Enlightenment. But it was thinkers like Erasmus and More who gave us modern textual criticism, a historical sensibility, and the shape of the modern university’s emphasis on liberal arts and humanities.
Many of the writers and artists you cover in these essays work in modern forms like irony and ambiguity. Aren’t such styles antithetical to tradition? How can you say they are renewing the Judaeo-Christian tradition if such styles are tainted by modernity?
Ambiguity and irony cannot be demonised because they are not ends in themselves but fundamental building blocks of art. The Western tradition from Plato onward emphasised how limited our human understanding is, so ambiguity is the way that art renders our incapacity to always perceive the truth. In the hands of many great writers and artists who embrace the religious truths of the West, irony can become a way of contrasting what we have lost with what we once had. Or of what we have but don’t appreciate.
The above interview is reproduced in News Weekly by kind permission of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) Books, Wilmington, Delware, USA.
Beauty, truth and goodness
We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it.
Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.
We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.
Extract from the writings of Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988).
SOURCE: Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Volume 1, Seeing the Form (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1982), p.18).
No single style can encompass all of reality
One of the things I run into in the conservative movement today is the notion that there is only one aesthetic style appropriate to a conservative vision — neoclassicism. I find that to be simplistic, this notion that all poems must be sonnets and all buildings must have Greek columns.
Conservatives have a much more calcified attitude toward the arts than they should. They should be more Burkean in their understanding of how culture changes.
They should remember that culture, in order to preserve the mystery of perennial truths, needs to seek new forms. This goes back to the issue of contingency and humility: no single style can encompass all of reality.
Eliot wrote “The Waste Land” as a series of fragments that reflected modern fragmentation, and some conservatives have damned him for that. Yet if you read the poem carefully, you will see how those fragments point to a wholeness that can heal the divisions of modernity. Eliot, the non-classicist, imaginatively inhabits modernity but subtly undermines it, demonstrating a truly conservative vision.
Extract from Gregory Wolfe, in an interview with Jeremy Beer, “Cultured conservatism”, The American Conservative, June 1, 2010.