In my last post, I spoke about the reasons for postmodernity’s rejection of beauty and its declaration that beauty is an illusion in the midst of the ugliness of reality. In this post, I speak about why beauty is in fact real, and how the ugliness that does exist in our world does not overcome true beauty.
In his desecration of beauty, postmodern man declares that it is nothing more than an illusion, that the truth of reality is instead fundamentally ugly. If artistic beauty has any value, it is only in the fact that we can use it to cushion ourselves from the absurd and ugly world which we inhabit. As the precursor of postmodernity, Nietzsche, put it, “we have art in order not to die from truth.”
We need not look far to see the influence of this view on contemporary art and literature. In fact, it is one of the underlying messages of Donna Tartt’s recent bestseller The Goldfinch. The protagonist, Theodore Decker, having tragically lost his beloved mother and, later on, his father, struggles to make sense of his troubled existence and the absurd hand that life has dealt him. He turns to drugs to escape from the cruel reality of his life, and, interestingly enough, he also turns to beautiful art, symbolized by the painting from which the novel takes its name. For him, “beauty alters the grain of reality”; it makes the world more bearable and life more livable. Truth is an illusion and reality is undesirable, but, “where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, and where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists…”
For Theodore Decker, beauty is a happy dream while reality is a living nightmare. The best that one can do in such an absurdly cruel world is “wade straight through it, right through the cesspool.” Through her character, Tartt articulates well how beauty fits into the postmodern worldview: it is nothing more than an anomalous parenthesis in the fundamentally meaningless and ugly reality of our existence.
While Tartt’s realist fiction does mirror Dostoevsky’s, there is nevertheless a big difference: where Tartt sees only meaningless suffering and illusion, Dostoevsky sees meaningful suffering and salvific beauty. Although his literature is painfully unrelenting in its realistic depiction of human depravity and anguish, glimmers of hope nevertheless shine through. The Idiot is perhaps one of the clearest examples. Prince Myshkin is the center of a high society circle in 19th-century St. Petersburg whose members are complicated characters with complex, selfish, and often downright evil motives. The Prince, by contrast, is characterized by incredible goodness and innocence. His only motive is the well-being of others, and he pursues this to his own detriment. While his love and goodness are attractive (although perplexing) to some, others take advantage of him and cause him great emotional and physical suffering.
Prince Myshkin is clearly a literary icon of Christ, the suffering servant, and we find insight into his character in Hans Holbein’s Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, which is mentioned twice in the novel. Holbein’s painting shows an emaciated cadaver in the early stages of putrefaction. His eyes are slightly open and his skeletal hand is reaching out, giving the body a disturbing semblance of life that makes it seem as if Christ’s suffering continues. The body is shown without the onlookers who are usually present in such artistic renditions of Christ’s Passion, thus intensifying the isolation of death.
Holbein’s painting, like Dostoevsky’s Idiot, are works of art that do not shy away from showing human suffering in all of its ugliness. Nevertheless, their art simultaneously points to a beauty that goes beyond appearance; it points to the beauty of love.
In the suffering of Jesus Christ, the undeniable ugliness of evil has been subsumed into a greater beauty – “the beauty of love that goes until ‘the very end,’” as Pope Benedict described it. This is the beauty that will ultimately be our salvation; this is the beauty to which Dostoevsky refers in the same novel when he says that beauty will save the world. When the world asserts that reality is actually ugly, we can point to the Face of him who was “crushed for our sins” to show that there is a deeper beauty behind the ugliness of evil, an unvanquished beauty that offers us hope and meaning in a world full of despair.