Friday, February 17, 2006

The Beauty of the Infinite

"The infinite is beautiful because God is Trinity; and because all being belongs to God's infinity, a Christian ontology appears and properly belongs within a theological aesthetics."
--David Bentley Hart

19 comments:

scribe said...

To assist this discussion, here is a link to an outline summary of David Hart's book "Beauty of the Infinite" for those who have not read this work.

http://www.leithart.com/archives/print/001145.php

Michael Dodaro said...

Thanks! I won't claim to have read The Beauty of the Infinite. I own a copy and bang my head against it now and then. Leithart is very helpful.
I'd call him Hart-Light.

Michael Dodaro said...

Leithart on Hart:
"For Hart, beauty is necessarily associated with the particular, with form, and is not concerned with timeless abstract wisdom. Thus, to grasp the aesthetic character of Christian thought is also to understand the irreducible historicality of the content of Christian faith. Hart offers a thematics of beauty under several headings:
A. Beauty is objective.
B. Beauty is the true form of distance.
C. Beauty evokes desire.
D. Beauty crosses boundaries.
E. Beauty is anti-gnostic.
F. Beauty resists reduction to the symbolic."

scribe said...

From Leithart's summary, I thought this was interesting about Hart's analysis of Beauty--

"E. Beauty is anti-gnostic. First, because it shows creation to be a theater of God’s glory, and second because it shows the world to be unnecessary, a free gift of glory, ‘framed for God’s pleasure.’ In this section, Hart offers a wonderful summary of the Gnosticism of Bultmann, suggesting that in the end demythologization means dehistoricization. Bultmann assumes that history is a ‘closed continuum of causality,’ and treats as ‘myth” everything that doesn’t fit that model. In such a scheme, there can be no salvation in history (other than within the individual soul), and thus leaves the particulars of history without value. This arises in Bultmann because Bultmann does not see the ‘aesthetic continuity between God and creation, ‘that is, the fact that creation manifests the glory of the Creator.

F. Beauty resists reduction to the symbolic. Hart is not opposed to symbols per se, but argues that symbolic robs beauty of its force by treating the aesthetic as an ‘appropriation of the aesthetic moment in the service of a supposedly more vital and essential meaning.’ Symbol turns the ‘semeia of the world simultaneously transparent and adiaphoral.’ In this context, Hart offers a brief discussion of Tillich, where symbol is another means of escaping the specificity of the biblical narrative of cross and resurrection."

I'm not sure I understand why Beauty is anti-gnostic. I never thought of it as gnostic in the first place--but on the other hand, it could be seen as the provence of wise.

How does Beauty resist reduction to a symbol? What does that mean for Art? The only thing I can think of in this context is Leo Tolstoy's novel "Anna Karenina". In it, one of the main characters, Lev, slowly drifts from agnosticism to some kind of reattachment to Christianity. I won't call it conversion, because his reattachment doesn't express itself on the person of Christ, but on the aesthetics of the Church.

Michael Dodaro said...

Anti-Gnostic because beauty does not under-rate the material world and because the world is created for God’s glory, not as a test to see if man can evade entanglement in it.
The un-symbolic nature of beauty would mean that beauty is real in itself, not as a representation of something else that is supposedly superior to the existing beautiful landscape, poem, or song.

From this analysis it seems that Hart would agree that Christianity is always acculturated. The question for our purposes is whether acculturation in the music of a rock concert or hootenanny does irreparable damage to the church.

scribe said...

"The question for our purposes is whether acculturation in the music of a rock concert or hootenanny does irreparable damage to the church."

These musical forms seem to make worship next to impossible. It seems that when CCM entered the church, it overwhelmed the church, removing much of its devotional aspect and energies, reducing the congregation to partakers of entertainment, not active communicators with God. It doesn't fit in liturgies at all--hence the return these day to Latin forms by the Catholics from the guitar masses.

However, the same could be said for classical music in the church, where the congregation sits and listens passively to a high-brow concert.

Music, like language, is a symbol. Is anything of it real? When God spoke words, actual worlds came into being. What happens then when we speak or sing? What's called into being, if anything?

Michael Dodaro said...

I don’t think music is a symbol; this is where we get blind-sided by the argument that it doesn’t matter what kind of music we use in church because what we are trying to communicate is something represented by the symbol. Docetism is a heresy that God didn’t actually become a man, but only passed through humanity like water through a pipe. On this view Jesus is just a symbol of God’s intent to redeem the human race. If we understand art as a symbol for something else, we disembody the supposed message and it’s only an abstraction, like the four spiritual laws. I remember when the four spiritual laws were used on campus and my fraternity brothers all got the mail that proved they had followed the steps to salvation, but the pile of mail in the mail room was seldom even picked up. Going through the four-step abstraction had no effect on their lives.

Dave said...

I have Hart's book, and it's been high on the "to read" list for a while now. I guess I'll pull it out tonight and get started.

Michael Dodaro said...

You can breeze through it and critique in the morning. :o)

Michael Dodaro said...

I'd like to get back to the discussion started by Chares where we read Paul's antimony as the conflict between the psychical body and spiritual body. I’m sorry to put it this way, but I can’t think of a better example of a psychical challenge to the spiritual body than a rock concert.
On the question of a theology of aesthetics, there is much to discuss with regard to the integration in the human soul that can be abetted through music, drama, and poetry. A concept from engineering called resonance may be useful. But right now my wife is waiting for me to join her for breakfast.

Ray said...

OK Mike, let me pose a question. Is this conflict you refer to intrinsic or extrinsic? In other words, does the conflict exist because we want it to? I grew up in the 60s being taught that rock music was of the devil, so I have been taught to view it negatively. Scribe mentioned waltz music in the other thread. In the mid 1800s waltz music was "of the devil" and probably created the same conflict in some people that rock does today. Today it is perceived as innocuous and we laugh that it possibly could have created any conflict.

How was breakfast?

Michael Dodaro said...

Breakfast was very good; it was extrinsic until I ate it, then it was intrinsic. Same thing goes for music.

I'm writing an essay that is going to be shorter than it needs to be, but about what is possible in the time available. By Monday I should be able to post a theory of aesthetics and then shut up for a while.

Ray said...

I'm taking bets privately that you won't shut up for a while.

Dave said...

Charles and I had a pretty fine time friday night drinking beer and/or port (usually "and") and talking rock music and dualism with Thomas Howard, Fr. John Heidt and a dozen or so very bright students from the college of St. Thomas More.

Dr. Howard brought up some good points about the danger of frenzy and the excess of volume at the typical rock concert. I tend to agree that these are dangerous elements -- probably not as dangerous as they're made out to be, but dangerous neverthe less.

But this is my experience at a typical modern rock or post-punk concert: boredom. I'm bored by it. It's all been done, first of all. After the No-Wave stuff that came out of New York in the late seventies, and then the west coast punk like X, or east coasters like Minor Threat, it's hard to get excited about the so-called "excesses" of rock. 30 years after Iggy Pop, it all starts to look like kitsch, and the kids that buy into it look silly. It'll be intersting to see how long watered-down Stooges-rehashes like Limp Bizkit continue to pop up in the next 20 years or so. Even the excesses of the Rave culture seem to have played themselves out to a large degree. Not that there won't always be some audience somehwere for every kind of goofy music (I mean, Yanni has a career, for crying out loud), but rock seems to be on the tail end of all the shock-cycles it had in it. So culturally speaking, the next decade or two will be interesting to watch, to see how long the "mythology of excess" in rock can sustain itself.

But even from an aesthetic standpoint, I think that to grant any music some mystical power over the soul, or the ability to name some dark, Dionysian element waiting to charge to the surface of nubile young bodies, is really reading more into it than is there. Insofar as art is art, it can only name something true, and what's true about the human soul is not, as Nietzsche would have us believe, that there is some ravenous beast in our soul just waiting for an excuse to return to the savage, ecstatic Oneness of Nothingness at the core of Being, to throw off the fetters of illusory Reason keeping us chained to the Apollonian principle. Rock cannot do that because the human soul isn't constructed that way. It's an ontologically false anthropology.

And yet, there is danger for the immature soul lurking in the Rolling Stones, in Nine Inch Nails. I myself have no problem listening to them, and appreciate a great deal of it (particularly Exile on Main Street), without finding myself drawn to the excesses of lasciviousness. And I defy anyone to tell me either of the following about The Band's eponymous second record: 1) that it is not a rock record, and one of the finest extant examples of the genre or 2) that it is a sinful, concupiscent exercise in bacchanalia.

Here's what I think is missing from most Christian's discussion of the music: an inadequately worked out theology of sin, vis-a-vis the ontological character of sin in the human soul (it seems to me Augustine has a great deal to say here), and an over-emphasis on Hellenic metaphysical categories.

I want to be able to affirm my basic intuition that Marilyn Manson is probably not good for your 12 year-old's immature ears, without granting the big idiot's music some kind of absolute mystical power, which is what I think the Greek view does. Manson himself revels in the idea that he's tapping into dark primordial forces, dangerous, subversive forces (mwuhahahaha!!).

Whereas I just think he's a big dork, and the most devastating critique of his music is to completely de-fang him, take his mystique and appearance of power away. I think the Christian view does this, but I don't know how to cash it out. I know this kind of music doesn't affect me, it just amuses me and makes me pity the kids that think they're being dark and scary (oooh, heavy eyeliner, ooo the dark baggy pants that your mom bought for you at the mall, oooh the mohawk that was passe around 1978...scary!! Where's Count Floyd when you need him?)

Michael Dodaro said...

Good point, Dave:
"Insofar as art is art, it can only name something true, and what's true about the human soul is not, as Nietzsche would have us believe, that there is some ravenous beast in our soul just waiting for an excuse to return to the savage, ecstatic Oneness of Nothingness at the core of Being, to throw off the fetters of illusory Reason keeping us chained to the Apollonian principle. Rock cannot do that because the human soul isn't constructed that way. It's an ontologically false anthropology."

I think you've got this right. There is no savage, ecstatic Nothingness at the core of being. Nothingness is just nothing, and my remark about the psychical challenge is more about disorientation and confusion, especially for kids who are already confused enough. This nothingness at the core of being is, of course, the flooding of the Rhine at the end of Gotterdammerung. But it Wagner's orchestration that creates the ecstasy, if there is any, and Wagner's hyper-romantic music is rationally constructed. It works because it stretches and remolds classical idioms.

There is something vivid and exciting about rock music that I can accept as legitimate art. To the degree that it makes us pay attention to the sensory delight of existence, I think it is healthy. Zorba the Greek was onto something; dancing can drive away the devils. Add a good beat and everybody dances more vigorously.

Even in church I might be able to accept it if it didn't drive out everything else. Unfortunately, there aren't many churches where guitars and Palestrina can co-exist. I sing in a Catholic church where there is a separate contemporary service. The walls have not come down, and the place is full for both services. As long as I don't have to sing the liturgy against electrically amplified guitars and a drummer, I can live and let live.

I've been thinking this weekend about how I'd describe art in positive statements instead of the cynical polemics I tend to write. I'm not a rigorous philosophical thinker, but I can imagine some metaphors that may communicate some of my experiences with art and liturgy.

Ray said...

"As long as I don't have to sing the liturgy against electrically amplified guitars and a drummer, I can live and let live."

Mike! Wake up! You're going over to the dark side.

Ray said...

"I want to be able to affirm my basic intuition that Marilyn Manson is probably not good for your 12 year-old's immature ears, without granting the big idiot's music some kind of absolute mystical power..."

Dave, what is the basis for your intuition that Manson is not appropriate for a 12 year old? And at what age would Manson become appropriate and why?

Dave said...

Ray queried, and rightly so: "Dave, what is the basis for your intuition that Manson is not appropriate for a 12 year old? And at what age would Manson become appropriate and why?"

I think I'd be more worried about the underlying reasons for said 12 yr-old's resonance with Manson, than the thought of any permanent effect the music would have on the kid's soul, pace Plato/Aristotle.

As to the question of mere exposure at a distance, I think I'd be most concerned about the sheer agression Manson conveys -- there's a physical threat in the music, in the contorted, monstrous voice, in the jackhammer rhythms, the buzzsaw guitars -- that might cause actual fear in my child, because that's what Manson is communicating: pure, asexual rage. It's broken and distended. I wouldn't want my child exposed to it any more than I'd want him exposed to some other broken, distended thing, like a dead body or scenes of brutality and fear. So yes, it's a question of maturity, and beyond that a question of good taste. I don't want to see Saw II or Hostel, no matter how old I am. Brutality and fear are not images anyone should revel in. I think Manson tries his best to be the musical equivalent of a horror flick, and with today's technology and volume levels, he can acheive that. But there's nothing absolute or mystical about his music, just base, ugly, brutal and pathetic.

But I think I'd actually be more concerned for, say, my six and three-year old, than my future 12-yr old, who, if all is well in their soul, will see it as merely ugly and trivial, and not be attracted to it. What really drives a teenager to Korn or Limp Bizkit or NIN or Slipknot or (name your scary goth band) is much more important than the music itself. Removing the music won't fix the anger and agression in their soul that caused them to resonate with the music to begin with. To some degree Aristotle was right that music is mimetic of our emotions, and it's this mimesis in the music that alienated teens resonate with. But I think Aristotle was wrong in asserting that this music actually habituates us into the emotions of the music. The emotion has to be present prior to the performance for there to be resonance; there has to be an existing experience, a memory or condition of the soul for the music to work on. I hear the aforementioned bands and I feel sad for the kids whose homelife drove them to the extremes the music portrays (and virtually all of the bands I mentioned have broken homes and anger at parents -- not sex -- as their primary lyrical themes). But no matter how many hours I hear the music, I simply don't have the material in my soul for the music to work with. 5000 hours of non-stop Korn and Slipknot would not habituate me into the anger, agression and alienation of a dejected, self-pitying teenager from a broken home. I suspect, and it's been my experience with many kids, back when I worked with youth quite a bit, that kids who are well-adjusted and have active, attentive parents find no attraction at all to that music. The kids who did resonate with it were invariably from divorced or in some way troubled families. This was pretty much true across the board.

That said, I have not hesitated to play other, quality rock for my 6 year old, even some punk, like The Clash or The Pogues (with some filtering for occaisional profanity -- they are Irish, after all), both of whom he likes a great deal. Both of those groups, particularly the Irish band The Pogues, have strong melodies, tight rhythm sections, a strong lyrical bent and vital sense of fun and humor in their music. I've played Stevie Wonder, The Band and Neil Finn, all with positive responses. The Oh Brother, Where Art Thou and Fiddler on the Roof soundtracks also get very heavy rotations for my 3 and 6 yr olds.

And yet he still found it in himself to react spontaneously to Bach, Mozart, Arvo Part, and some 16th-century chant that came on the radio the other day that I can't remember the name of, but he loved it. There's a place in his soul for all of it: effervescence and exuberance, repose and reflection, and even the mournful and tragic, which he recognizes in the Folkways Anthology that I play a lot when I'm working on the house.

I don't think this answers the question, but I hope it can help triangulate some of my intuitions about the ugly and the brutal as bad, versus the physical, rhythmic and energetic, which are not bad in themselves. Marilyn Manson is not bad music because he's rhythmic; his music is bad and destructive because it's brutal and ugly, and exploits negative emotion and attempts to exaggerate the ugliness some teens feel about their parents and themselves.

Dave said...

You know, I would qualify this statement a great deal: "The emotion has to be present prior to the performance for there to be resonance; there has to be an existing experience, a memory or condition of the soul for the music to work on."

I'm not saying here that you have to have experienced an emotion in life before music can provoke that emotion in you. One of the great powers of music is to provoke feelings we've never had before, to open us to genuinely new emotions, and many interviews I've read with composers say that's precisely what they've tried to do. I had no precedent for what I felt listening to Gorecki's 3rd Symphony for the first time, or Messiaen, or Mozart's Requiem or Great Mass for that matter.

But for all of those, I had a receptive disposition to the intention of the music. And I have to think that Christians from a liturgical tradition are going to resonate with the Great Mass in ways that others can't, and I speak as someone who's been on both sides of that divide.

I think that's what I was trying to say: there has to be a receptivity to the intention of the music. Aristotle gave music, as he also gave rhetoric, a kind of sovereign power over the soul. I think the soul retains much more autonomy than this.