Friday, July 20, 2007

Teaching Beauty: Art, Philosophy, and Religion

(reflection on a review by Joseph Phelan of ONLY A PROMISE OF HAPPINESS: THE PLACE OF BEAUTY IN A WORLD OF ART by Alexander Nehamas in THE WEEKLY STANDARD. Phelan is editor of I've also read Nehamas, "An Essay on Beauty and Judgement" in the Threepenny Review, 2000, printed at

Teaching kids drama, music, and literature, I'm often asserting that there is quality in the arts that one can appreciate whether or not the art is to one's taste. Pushed to explain, I would say that good art will show human invention or ingenuity, that it will display some kind of abstract pattern or design, and in some way these elements will touch our view of our world outside of the art. Work that adds no value of imagination, design, or insight to a found sound - image - object - story is of little or no artistic merit.

For our musical show and tell, we found much to appreciate in all the recordings that students brought in, with one exception. One dismal rap recording was a poor excuse for art, the words being formulaic, the music being merely repetitive -- no design, no development, no buildup, the insight nil, and the emotion a generalized attitude. It was like listening to bathroom graffiti. But John Cage's infamous "piano" piece called "Four Minutes" (and some seconds) is a work of art, because the performer's not touching the keyboard for four minutes makes the audience aware of the sounds of their world as a kind of music in a way that they had not done before. I'd be willing to argue that it's not exactly musical art, but it's good theatre.

A professor of philosophy at Princeton, Alexander Nehamas, has recently published a book to reopen discussion of beauty, a concept that's been dismissed as an old-fashioned relic of social elites who made their ideals of aesthetic beauty something that had to be studied in prep schools and universities to appreciate. "What is art?" became a rhetorical statement instead of a question, and John Cage knock-offs in all genres chipped away at the idea that any human creation of any sort could be judged better in any way than something else.

The reviewer of that book emphasizes a relationship between beauty and love that I didn't find when I went to an essay by Nehamas. The reviewer, Joseph Phelan, begins with an anecdote: Rainer Maria Rilke was so taken by a fragment of Greek sculpture -- torso of Apollo -- that he thought to himself, "You must change your life." Phelan goes on to write about his own experiences "loving" works of art in such a way that he wants to live with them, spend time with them, think about them, explore side avenues.

This is what Nehamas also talks about, that art is beautiful when it attracts us by pleasure. This isn't the kind of pleasure that pornography promises, something that swells then loses its attraction the way chewing gum does. Instead, it's the pleasure of anticipation. This is where earlier writers on art, such as Immanuel Kant, Matthew Arnold, and Harold Bloom get it wrong, along with many many teachers I know: interpretation will not get you to appreciate the beauty. The beauty attracts first, promising depth, and then you want to dive in. Interpretation is part of the diving.

Thus, those of us who find the works of Shakespeare, Sondheim, Updike, or John Adams beautiful will read every word we can find about them, and will chat about them endlessly in web sites.

Here's how Nehamas says it, several ways:

To find something beautiful is to believe that making it a larger part of our life is worthwhile, that our life will be better if we spend part of it with that work. But a guess is just that: unlike a conclusion, it obeys no principles; it is not governed by concepts. It goes beyond all the evidence, which cannot therefore justify it, and points to the future. Beauty, just as Stendhal said, is a promise of happiness. We love, as Plato saw, what we do not possess. Aesthetic pleasure is the pleasure of anticipation, and therefore of imagination, not of accomplishment. The judgment of taste is prospective, not retrospective; the beginning, the middle, but never the end of criticism.

Nehemas imagines that art can become something shared, enjoyed, and the basis of a community. "Harold Bloom describes a solitary encounter, but like everyone who is in love with a book or a picture, he can’t wait to tell us about it. In telling us about it, he participates in a community he is in the very process of creating." Nehamas adds, "It is a dangerous game, pursuing the beautiful. You may never be able to stop." -- because exploring some good work of art makes you want more, and to appreciate what's different in other works, widening your understanding and community. This is what Sondheim did for me, pointing me to composers that influenced him (Ravel, Gershwin, Reich), to artists who included him in their repertoire (jazz singer Cleo Laine - who took me to a whole new stable of composers), and to poetry as a branch of lyric writing.

This brings me again to the radio interview I heard a couple of weeks ago, and wrote about here in this blog. It was a discussion with Christopher Hitchens, who's touring with his book GOD IS NOT GREAT. He showed himself to be a wise guy, not wise. He did point me to Philip Larkin, whose work I've been enjoying ever since. But his critique of religion begins from reading Scriptures as a fundamentalist would. When the interviewer pointed this out, Hitchens snapped back, "It's either God's word, or what use is it?" He thinks that ends the discussion, but of course, it's only a start.

Hitchens thinks religion is lies, and art is good. I'd simply retort, "Religion is art." That's not to say that Christianity and the Bible are fiction. The Bible isn't a book, but a library, and it contains legends, poetry, law documents, official histories, informal histories, letters, sermons, and song lyrics. All of these, taken together, are also the testimony of a people whose primitive concept of themselves as a tribe with an exclusive tribal god gradually enlarged to see themselves as agents of one, only, all-inclusive God. It's fact, not fiction, that they saw themselves that way, and continue to do so since the canon was established. Millennia of art, including the participatory drama that is liturgy, have developed from the growth of that community. Can Hitchens see that a leap of faith is an act of imagination? Add Nehamas to the picture, and see also, faith is a pleasure that changes lives and builds community.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Skeleton Man by Tony Hillerman: Skeleton Plot?

After one of those evenings when I "couldn't put it down," reading Tony Hillerman's SKELETON MAN to its conclusion, there was a part of my mind that was involved not in the story, but in noticing how Hillerman put it together. This is the part of my mind that has always wanted to write a thrilling detective novel, and it's learning how little it takes.

Tony Hillerman's detective novels do their job, and more. Besides following detectives who are following a criminal, interesting us in seeing sympathetic characters get through all right (and bad ones get their due), Hillerman also gives us what he knows of life among modern-day Navajo and Hopi people. He has a loyal fan base, respect from his peers in the business, and a PBS series based on his early novels.

The plot of Skeleton Man is simplicity itself: everyone suddenly has a reason to find a cache of diamonds lost in the Grand Canyon. The title refers both to an ambiguous Hopi god who taught his people "not to fear death," and to a hermit who resides near a spot associated with that god. Naturally, in the last chapters, all the characters converge at that spot.

There's the premise. The first chapters show us the different characters, and we hear the same story again and again about the lost diamonds and that hermit who may possess them, as each character discovers an urgent reason to locate that hermit. The middle chapters show us the characters' paths crossing as they come closer to arranging their different routes to the hermit's hideaway. This sounds more intricate than it is, as each character naturally heads to question the same source in the same general location. Finally, of course, Hillerman staggers their arrivals on the same scene, and makes sure that they coincide with a long-building storm of unusual intensity.

Each chapter reminds us of the Skeleton Man myth, and each chapter reminds us that recurring character Jim Chee and his bride-to-be have worries about their impending wedding, amounting to these questions: Will she want to live in his old trailer, close to nature? Will he learn to stop treating her the way he did when he was her boss? Each chapter tells us something about Navajo or Hopi customs -- and mostly the same things, that you don't interrupt someone else's story, that you wait to be invited in without knocking.

While this novel, like others by Hillerman, has a clear plot and all the right ingredients, it lacks one thing: texture. The mythology, the characters' pasts, the characteristics of the land, and the customs are all things that would be worked into a texture, but they're left in separate compartments. I suspect that they are accessories to the story, added to each chapter to fill out the skeleton plot. Otherwise, they'd all meet in the canyon and fight over the diamonds, and be done with it by page fifty, and that's not enough to make a novel.

That's a legitimate way to write detective fiction. It works for me. But it also limits the involvement we can feel when we read. I'm thinking how this compares with the Raymond Chandler novels, which are thick with texture. They draw you into a whole way of seeing the world, and that vision -- including the characters who are part of the texture -- stays with you long after you've forgotten the plot.

Monday, July 02, 2007

No Failure of Imagination: Atheists Find Something More

(reflections on an interview with Christopher Hitchens, a poem by Philip Larkin, and Ian McEwan's ATONEMENT)

On the radio program CITY ARTS AND LECTURES tonight, I heard an interview with Christopher Hitchens, columnist at and author of GOD IS NOT GREAT. The interviewer was a believing Catholic who finally reached a meeting of minds with Hitchens around the author's appreciation of the "numinous" in literature. Hitchens went on to speak the following words from his friend, novelist Ian McEwan.

For [Ian McEwan], novels are not about 'teaching people how to live but about showing the possibility of what it is like to be someone else. It is the basis of all sympathy, empathy and compassion. Other people are as alive as you are. Cruelty is a failure of imagination'.

I found the quotation on several web sites focused on McEwan's book ATONEMENT. Maybe Hitchens added something, because I thought I heard him say that this sympathy / empathy is also the basis for morality. It should be.

Hitchens also allowed that a poem "Church Going" by non-believer Philip Larkin could be his creed, so I looked it up. It's wonderful, all right, neatly and regularly formed and reflecting on an anecdote -- the speaker enters an empty and very old countryside church, and hatless, removes his bicycle clips and takes in the silence. His reflection brings him to imagining a future when no one will be left who enters a church for the reasons it was intended. He thinks:

It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete . . .
Not to brag, but all this is also contained in my essay "So Many Possibilities: The Religion of Stephen Sondheim" (Sondheim Review, Nov. 2006) which focuses on the atheist composer-lyricist's trademark ability to give all the characters their own voices, practicing ultimate empathy. In fact, I wrote that, for Sondheim, sin is a failure of imagination. The phrase came naturally to me -- did I dimly recall it from McEwan's wonderful ATONEMENT, or have we both taken the idea from a common source?