I’m beginning to think that if I had finished reading Gregory Wolfe’s Beauty Will Save the World when I started reading it four or five years ago, I would be further along in my struggle to understand art, truth, beauty, and goodness.
On the other hand, if I had finished it then, I likely would have gotten much less out of it, because Wolfe’s words would have been mixing with the words of others I was reading at the time. They would have been rattling around in a brain that had not yet grasped and lived through and understood what it has accumulated in the intervening years.
We need to read and reread. Books are like people: a first reading is like meeting someone for the first time. If they make a good impression and you find commonalities, you walk away happy about this new person in your life, but you cannot know someone after spending just a few hours with him. You need more opportunities to talk and explore more deeply what you learned at first encounter and then move beyond those topics.
Chapter eight begins with a familiar theme: the movie Amadeus and the composer Salieri’s despondency over God giving an unworthy person such divine talent. Salieri has devoted his life to praising God in his music, but no matter how much time, effort, and prayer he puts in, he’ll never be able to write music as sublime, beautiful, and glorious as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a whiny, annoying, lustful, immature, disrespectful brat. For a moment, I wasn’t sure if I was reading Gregory Wolfe or Peter J. Leithart in his post “Can Moral Monsters Make Good Movies?” Maybe I was reading Michael Rennier’s post at Dappled Things, “Do Saints Make the Best Art?” It could have been Jonathan Mcdonald’s “Purifying the Source,” also at Dappled Things—or Flannery O’Connor, or Jacques Maritain, or Saint Augustine, or Saint Thomas Aquinas. It is a question that has been wrestled with for centuries. In modern grapplings with it, I see the same examples used and 90 percent of the time, Oscar Wilde’s name comes up.
Oh, and then there’s Roman Polanski. That one is especially interesting, since so few people seem to know more than just the bare bones of the story of his raping 13-year-old Samantha Gailey. A few years ago, I read The Girl, Samantha’s biography. While Polanski certainly did commit a crime or two, his flight from justice was motivated by the realization that a less-than-honorable judge was going to renege on the deal that had been struck among Polanski, Gailey and her family, and the court.
Everyone seems to have an ill-informed opinion on the matter. I did, until I read The Girl. In its pages, I’ve learned that Gailey (who changed her name to Geimer; I can’t remember why), received at least one sincere apology from Polanski, has forgiven him, wants the warrant for his arrest rescinded, and would love to just finally put it all behind her. It all reminds me of Kristin Lavransdatter, when one character accuses another of forgiving but never forgetting, and he reminds her that the Church teaches that a confessed sin is to be forgotten.
We live in such strange times: when we want to erase history by tearing down monuments, on the one hand, but on the other, insist on punishing people, demanding apologies, and stripping them of all past honors if they once said the wrong thing, did something amiss, or voted against something that is now enshrined as a sacred and inalienable “right.” We find hypocrisy everywhere we turn and scratch our heads over how someone in an industry that profits off the exploitation of human beings could possibly go on to exploit a human being. Should a crime such as rape be prosecuted? Yes. Should a lewd comment result in the loss of a career? No. But we seem to be having a hard making such distinctions. Even more difficult (and a problem for much longer) is separating a person’s actions from a person’s work.
If the art exists as an end in itself, it is autonomous, and moral judgments passed about the artist’s lifestyle have absolutely nothing to do with the work of art. Today in Magnificat, I read about Saint Spiridion, a shepherd and bishop who died in the fourth century:
Once Spiridion came upon some robbers who had been plotting to steal some sheep. Rather than attacking them, he invited them to pray with him and then presented them with their own ram—“so you may not have watched all night in vain.”
In Jordan B. Peterson’s talk on tragedy vs. evil, he shares his thoughts on the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel. Peterson goes into a little detail on what happens to Cain after God discovers that he has murdered his brother, and it is fascinating. Peterson says:
Well, God doesn’t punish Cain, and you think, “That’s kind of strange. I mean the Old Testament God, He’s punishing people left, right, and center. Why not Cain?” And you think, “Well, He marks Cain and He says to the people who are around that they should leave him alone. Because he’s been marked by God as to be left alone, and the reason for that I think—and this is something that is reflected in our legal system, is that murder promotes revenge, and revenge destroys societies. And so God puts an end to the situation right there and then by telling people that, despite the fact that Cain has committed a terrible crime, there will be no retribution.
You may have noticed that I didn’t deal with the contents of Wolfe’s chapter eight. That doesn’t surprise me in the least. You? I’m tempted to say that I’ll some day reach my destination in writing about the these topics, but I won’t. There is no destination. There are questions, always more and more questions, and discovering new ones is half the fun.