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Filtering by Tag: David Bentley Hart

Beauty Inherent

Tom Sturch

sturch Over the years our family has enjoyed a place in Georgia, the farm my mother and her three siblings grew up on. It is in the middle of the state, fifteen miles west of Interstate 75, just outside of Fort Valley on Old River Road. The place names are particular. Some are obvious in their connections like Railroad Street or College Street as the sources of their meanings are still intact. Other names, Five Points, Fox Valley and the name of the farm, Breezy Hill, are less secure and open to interpretation, their corresponding stories lost to time.

But we know Breezy Hill. Our family locates about eighty years of time there. The stories of six generations include formative days on that place. On it we discovered singular aspects of our essence and being as people and family, to wit: why the name Hezzie is revered, why chinchilla means cold house, that Bush Lady is a sister, that cancer is brutal and devastating, that Leader-Tribune means real writing, that the green of spring is the whisper of flushing pecans, and that Bonzite is what it is to truly have dogs.

Signs and signifiers, words and their meanings, in the particular world of lives lived collapse the considerable breadth of time into sensations more brief and powerful as any fusion of atoms in the heart of the sun, and move us to recall and respond with pleasure and pain so precise as to know we are wholly unique, an imprint so recognizable, so relational, so phenomenological, it is a proof of true personhood, essential and there.

Breezy Hill, from anyone's point of view, was once a beautiful place. It is less so now owing to time and its ravages. But even as the physical appearance suffers, there is another way in which time cannot destroy its beauty. It is ransomed from time in the memories of the ones who lived there. The beauty of Breezy Hill now comes in such ways that sentiment and nostalgia are gathered and perfected in beauty transcendent.  

Such seeing is the way we come to know beauty in its ultimate, overcoming sense. It is how, counter to any general definition, we can view lived experience, full of joys and heartaches, successes and failures, and count them all good. It is how we can see in the tragedies of those we love the moment that beauty returns. Such familiarity becomes the merciful judgment seat of Truth.  

Any general knowledge of the Christ  –  in his tragic story, in unattractive appearance, in his low position, in his grandiose claims  –  must report that he is not God since God resides in infinite perfections. He is the inconsistency that proves his falsehood. And yet, for those who know him, who know beauty, these are the very signifiers that resonate in us as most substantial and true. We know he is the Christ because we know what beauty is, because we know its costs.

David Bentley Hart articulates the transcendental concepts of beauty and being in the kenosis (or, outpouring) of Christ better than anyone I've read. I strongly recommend this video to you. I will close with an excerpt:  

The experience of the Beauty that awakens us to the special force, to the difference between being and beings, that awakens us to the sheer fortuity of transcendent being's revelation in things, is also a revelation of the originally and ultimately peaceful economy of being. It tells us that between infinite Beauty and finite beauty there is no conflict, no dialectical tension, no betrayal of the divine, rather, Divine Beauty is that transcendent truth of being in which creation graciously participates, and which creation discloses again and again as pure grace.

Beauty, Any Beauty

Brad Fruhauff

Poetry Editor Brad Fruhauff, pictured with flower Poetry Editor Brad Fruhauff read two things about beauty today and couldn't help but put them together.

Mark Jarman in "Tea Fire"* tells of driving toward a forest fire one evening, "seduced / like night moths," to witness its terrible beauty. He and his unnamed, unnumbered companion(s) are in awe of the way the smoke turns silver as it passes over the moon and the way the "red body" of the fire seems to desire to follow the waves of "ashy cumulus" into the sky. Then, however, they come upon homes threatened by the fire and turn back "embarrased--"

Not moths at all but dazzled lovers of beauty, any beauty.

The poem works because Jarman convinces us as readers of the beauty of the fire just as the "we" of the poem saw it, but then we share, too, in the abashment of realizing that this beauty comes at the cost of people's homes. It is immaterial whether the homes are the extravagant vacation cottages of the wealthy which, when we hear of them, we often want to think were extraneous and expendable anyways; for Jarman, they are still homes - "doomed homes," in fact. The valence of the poem is that the dazzling beauty of the fire momentarily dislocated the speaker from the heaviness of this world of responsibility and care.

"Not moths at all" could be read as "not drawn to the fire by a morbid fascination with death - our own or others," for it is the threat of destruction by fire that embarrasses the travelers. But "dazzled lovers" does seem to suggest that their difference from moths is not in their volition but in the object. They are drawn by beauty rather than destruction, but they are drawn just the same. As "lovers," they exist in a timeless, even exclusive state - the state of early passion familiar from our adolescence that, we must admit, while pleasant is not without blame. Yet the poem affirms that what they pursued was, indeed beauty - any beauty, beauty wherever it can be found when it is so rare a thing.

I've been thinking about beauty ever since I started studying the sublime. Beauty is often figured as the pacific, angelic counterpart to the dark, excessive sublime - roughly the attributes of Blake's Heaven and Hell, respectively. Suffice to say that Hell and the sublime are quite chic these days, while beauty is trite at best (think Snow White) and dangerous at worst (something like her wicked step-mother). Classical beauty, after all, entailed an ability of the viewer to perceive it adequately, which we nowadays recognize as the road to violence.

Enter David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Eerdmans, 2003). There are a number of bold and counterintuitive aspects to this title, but suffice to say Hart does not find beauty violent or trite. Instead, he attributes to beauty a "gratuity" and a "prodigality" that gives of itself - sometimes in startling and disturbing ways: "a village ravaged by pestilence may lie in the shadow of a magnificent mountain ridge . . . ; Cambodian killing fields were often lushly flowered." Beauty is saved from the violence of abstraction precisely by its particularity, its inherence in just such a arrangement of things. Christian beauty, he argues, inheres in the unavoidable and often offensive narratives of the gospels; most centrally, of course, in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

In "Tea Fire" Jarman registers our modern ambivalence about beauty - something we're drawn to but also embarrassed about. It's a tension also present in "The Heronry." Seeking the solace of a forest preserve, he reflects on his own processes as he sits quietly observing a pond and its many birds. Among his many reflections are these final ones, which I hope I'm okay in quoting at length:

I almost think I could write about it forever, Adding word to word like coral in a reef, An excess of language like the genetic code, an extravagance like all the stars, Too much ever to be needed except By the need for there always to be more, That need which, when the end comes, looks past it For woods and hills and ocean, For fields and streets and houses and horizon, Repelled by blankness, expecting beyond sleep The dream country and its population.

Here he finds himself caught between beauty, language, and desire. Is his experience a projection of his own need "for there always to be something more"? (And if so, what?) Or does it inhere, as Hart would argue, somehow in the world itself, if not in any precise way? Or is it a function of language, words that spring up in the mind as a coral reef?

Jarman's poems may lack the confidence that faith ostensibly offers, but they are nonetheless compelling meditations on beauty because they are full of the desire that faith, in many ways, is - desire for there to be more than what is given and at the same time desire for the given to be "given," as a gift, as what is not labored for or dubiously "earned." Sometimes the challenge for the (American) Christian is to clear away the screen of faith to see - really see - the manifestations of glory that so many have pointed us toward without knowing their name.

* Jarman's poems can be found in the Autumn 2010 edition of The Hudson Review.