Superman and Dehumanity Part V — On Aesthetics

Continued from Previous.

Are the rules of drama subjective, conventional, or objective? The short answer is a qualified yes: a heavily qualified yes. Drama is subjective, but also conventional and also objective, even if the objective element is requires wisdom to discover, and even if the discovery can never be utterly free of doubt.

The first qualification is that any work of art follows the conventions of its genre, and these conventions, being conventions, are subjective from the point of view of the universe, but objective from the point of view of the individual. Like the rules of chess, the rules for how to write a sonnet cannot be changed by an individual. If you play a game where the pawns move backward, it is not chess; if you write a poem where not of 14 lines of ten syllables in iambic pentameter ending with a rhyming couplet, it is not a sonnet. Call it something else.

The second qualification is that personal matters of taste cannot be fully removed from the question. This does not mean we should fall into the opposite error of assuming all aesthetics is merely personal taste and nothing but: and yet it means that any conclusions admit of doubt, mayhap of grave doubt.

The reason why we know that more than mere personal taste is involved is that any reader, assuming him even partly honest, can bring to mind some example of a work of art he acknowledges to be good or even great, but does not appeal to him personally; or some work of trash he knows in the abstract to be without artistic merit, skill, or craft, but which he pursues with pleasure, and, if he is a snob, it is a guilty pleasure, because he learned to be ashamed of his taste for common things.

If you want my own testimony, I can list the BROTHERS KARAMAZOV or the short stories of Flannery O’Connor as acknowledged classics utterly not to my taste, intolerable to me, or the remake of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA—an artistic triumph I could not continue to watch because I abhorred the political themes intruding. I enjoy the Shadow novels by Maxwell Grant, even though these are mere pulp, the artless and execrable writing of HP Lovecraft, comics by Steve Dikto, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Do not leap to the defense of how great is the art of Kirby and Dikto: I acknowledge these are fine cartoonists, perhaps the best the industry has produced, but I do not take their work to be equal to that of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or Da Vinci’s fresco of the Last Supper.

The third qualification is that we must restrict our inquiry to what human beings living in the human condition can know and see. The speculation that Martians or Ghosts, Elves or Angels might have such different apparatus to sense and interpret the world that no rules of art which apply to our sphere and to the human condition could apply to theirs simply need not concern us: we are hunting for an objective rule of art the way a philosopher hunts for an objective rule of science. Let us not conflate universality with objectivity. Universal refers to what is true in all times, places and conditions: Objective refers to what does not change when the observer changes. Simply because the curve of an airplane wing will not, in outerspace, nor on the Moon, produce lift, does not mean Bernoulli’s Principle is merely a local prejudice.

The fourth qualification is that some works of true artistic merit are buried where the world has not found nor acknowledged them: consider that some of Maxfield Parrish’s work first appeared as advertisements, or Norman Rockwell as magazine covers.

Likewise, in the modern day, the Lord of the Hell has raised his iron scepter above its cindery lava plains, and at the signal of their Great Sultan, his reigning Dukes, Peers and Ministers, with folded wings of membrane, bowed their flame-crowned heads, and in his name commanded the world to acknowledge, and praise as if it is fine art high-flown the merest rubbish, junk, filth, poop, and vomit imaginable, starting with Picasso and ending with Piss Christ.

There are works of no merit whatsoever raised by the clamor of dog-eyed establishment critics and beauty-hating gargoyles to world wide fame. If you for a moment thought these gargoyles were not liars to the marrow of their crooked bones, you might wonder, all aghast, if perhaps all taste in art, all rules of craft, were not indeed mere personal preference and arbitrary and subjective.

But no, these things are not art, but anti-art, and they correctly express the world view of those that made and admire them. They are Morlocks, and their works consist, as Morlock-work must do, of taking the beautiful things of the sunlit Eloi world, dragging them down into the sewers, and chopping them into grisly strings of meat.

The leitmotif of all this modern art is the spirit of violent rebellion. For reasons I have stated above, drama and even a certain angular and sinister beauty can flow from such Promethean rebellion against established forms: but every other dimension of the human experience aside from the heady emotions rebels on the barricades can know are closed.

Example: An honest art critic can look at Duchamp’s NUDE DESCENDING A STAIRCASE, and see in it something jarring and startling and new, something that tries to tear his perceptions away from the human method of perception, something that shatters, and violently, the bourgeoisie conventions of representation and perspective.

Nude Descending a Staircase by Duchamp — wait. Is that pic upside down?

But there is nothing else aside from this dimension to the work. You cannot study the perspective, because it is not a perspectival drawing. You cannot comment on the accuracy of the representation, because nothing is represented. You cannot notice the beauty of the nude’s face or comment on her rapturous expression, because she has no face. You cannot even comment on where and how the original myth is reflected or reinterpreted, because there is no myth, no tradition, no context, no nothing.

Ravishment of Psyche by Bouguereau

Contrast this with the RAVISHMENT OF PSYCHE by Bouguereau. You can remark on the composition because there is composition, and talk of the theme because there is a theme present; there is an erotic dimension (no pun intended) because the nude figures of Eros and his beloved are dawn well enough to see them; there is a classical dimension, as this is a scene from myth; there is a romantic dimension, as well as symbolic, as well as the technical skill required to draw the feathers on the wings of the love god, or the folds of the banner fluttering from the nude and swooning form of his ascending bride. There is even a religious dimension here, for any with eyes to see it, since this is an image of the soul ascending in to heaven in the arms of divine love. Anyone who has ever been swept aloft by love will know something of a shock of recognition studying this picture.

Your talk indeed might consist of nothing but dismissive contempt for the way the artist has handled his subject, theme, technique, perspective, eroticism, romanticism, classicalism, spiritualism: but at least you have something to talk about. There is something actually present in the work to discuss and judge, aside from merely rebellion against convention. (There is, of course, rebellion against convention in Bouguereau as well, albeit a jaded modern audience might not see how radical the rebellion is. Show this painting to a Marxist-Feminist, and listen to her tired and trite politically correct condemnation of it, and then you will understand against what the flight of Psyche flies.)

But for what it is, the eye-jarring rubbish of Duchamp does correctly what it means to do. This means we have to add another qualification: we must restrict our comments to what all art, including modern art, has in common. Whatever is actually present in modern art (and by design there is damned little of it) that speaks to beauty and to the sublime, must also be taken into account. There is indeed something brave and breathtaking in the rebellion of Lucifer.

These qualifications seem to leave us with very little room to establish an objective aesthetics. If the rules of art are not mere personal taste, nor mere conventions of genre, nor something created by specifically human biases of the human race, and if we cannot depend on the testimony of critics and experts to determine what is great art and great drama, and if we cannot even dismiss the deliberately rubbishy modernist rubbish as rubbish, how can any allegedly objective rules be deduced or discussed?

Let us start, as good Thomistic scientists must, with common sense observation. I remind you of the primary data that we all have experienced great art that does not appeal to our taste, and we have all seen art produced from other cultures which appeal to us even in translation, or even across the gulf that separates Orient from Occident. If you have not experienced this, dear reader, then read no further: my comments are not addressed to you.

All of us, if we are not merely children or possessed of childlike tastes, recall works that we had to work to learn to love, such as obtuse poems which has to be explained before they were beautiful, words of archaic or foreign cant, or novels referring to experiences in life we were too young, on first reading, to recognize or know. Even science fiction and fantasy has some introductory learning that needs be done, a certain grasp of the scientific world view or the conventions of fantastic genre that must be gained, before the work is loveable. The only art I know that has no introductory effort at all is comic books, but even they, in recent years, now require introduction, since no one unaware of the decades of continuity can simply pick up a comic book and read it with pleasure: they are written for adults, these days, not kids, and adults expect and are expected to try harder to get into the work before getting something out of it.

The reason why modern art can pass for art is that the Tailors of the Emperor’s New Clothes can claim, and the claim cannot be dismissed unexamined, that modern art merely is has a steeper learning curve than real art. Once you get all the in-jokes and palindromes and Irish and Classical references in James Joyce (so the Tailors say) you can read ULYSSES with the same pleasure that a student, once he learns Latin, reads Virgil. And as long as you are in sympathy with the effort at destruction and deconstruction, this modern art has the same fascination as watching a wrecking crew tear down a fair and delicate antique fane with fretted colonnades and an architrave of flowing figures recalling forgotten wars between giants and gods. What child will not cheer when he sees a wrecking ball crash through the marble and stained glass of old and unwanted beauty? How he will clap when the dynamite goes off, and squeal, and hold his ears! I am not being sarcastic: there is something impressive in such acts.

Let us add a second observation: great novels and great paintings, symphonies, even great comic books, are ones that reward a second rereading or heeding or viewing. A book is something you read once and enjoy and throw away. A good book is one you read twice, and get something out of it a second time. A great book is one that has the power to make you fall in love, and each time you reread it, it is as new and fresh as Springtime, and you see some new nuance in it, the same way you see more beauty each time you see your wife of many years, and will forever, no matter how many years you see her face. (Those of you who are not in love, or not happily married, or who have never read a truly great book, will not know whereof I speak. Alas, I cannot describe the colors of a sunrise to a man born blind.)

Let us assume that there is no beauty in art, no objective rules. If that were so, how do we explain the two observations noted above, first, that some art must be learned before it is loved, and second, that some art rewards additional scrutiny indefinitely, a fountainhead that never runs dry. The explanation that the learning is not learning but merely acclamation, an Eskimo learning to tolerate the tropics, a Bushman growing to enjoy the snow, would make sense if and only if any art or rubbish would reward equal study with equal pleasure.

If the pleasure I get out of a work of art I had to grow and learn to like was merely due to me and my tastes, and the learning was not learning at all, but merely an adjustment of taste from one arbitrary genre convention to another, then the outcome or result could not differ from artwork to artwork, as long as I were the same.

If I can see more rich detail each time I reread Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, and if indeed there are beauties that piece like swords, and if this were due to me and only to me, and not due to something in the work, I should be able to study a pile of rocks besmirched with stains of oil and offal in a rubble heap, and with the same passage of time and effort, force myself to see equal beauty within.

But I cannot, nor can any man. Therefore the sublime is not just in me the observer; logically, it must be in the thing observed. There must be something really there.

If this argument satisfies, it tells us, with the clarity of a Deist argument, that there is an objective beauty in the world, but not what it is.

As in theological argument, in aesthetics we can only know more of the beauty of the universe if it comes to us in the artistic equivalent of revelation. We have to look at beauty in nature and see what is there, and what its rules are, before we look at beauty in human handiworks.

This requires a leap of faith. To my atheist and agnostic readers, I apologize, for now the discussion leaps across a gulf you cannot, with unaided human reason, cross. Only to my fellow theists can I make the next step and draw the next conclusion. Again, my apologies, but to you, aesthetics will always remain a branch of philosophy either of no interest, or the source only of frustration.

Jews and Christians, Heretics, Heathens and Pagans, you know we live within a living work of art, the handiwork of heaven. If there is a Platonic Form or Idea of beauty, all art is art which correctly reflects this, and the same author who established the Form in its place in the hierarchy of true ideas, also created the cosmos with cosmic beauty in it, and created our hearts so that they leap with joy and recognition when that beauty is revealed.

Beauty is the emotional apprehension of truth and goodness in the same way that truth is the rational apprehension of what fitting and perfect, and in the same way that goodness is apprehension by the conscience of what is true and fair. A beautiful thing that has a piece missing is imperfect in the same way a truth that hides part of the truth is a lie, or a virtue exercises in service of vice is vicious. We are dealing with three different types of integrity or perfection. If there is One divine author or fountainhead of Truth, Beauty and Goodness, there can indeed be, and perhaps must be, a integrity between them: if there is no God, there is no explanation of any coherence between the three, nor any reason why we humans should just so happen to be able to apprehend the same, and no reason why, given a choice, we should.

Skeptical Deists like Thomas Paine do not think God wrote scripture, but do think the Creator wrote creation; and even skeptics such as this will look to nature to see what the rules of art and beauty are.

In general, beauty reflects integrity and perfection; a nude figure otherwise well featured who has a hook for a hand, or whose one breast is larger than the other, or a symphony with one theme in jarring disharmony with itself, or a landscape painting of a factory with dead fish heaped above a polluted shoreline. Even a woman who is outwardly fair to the eye and inwardly vain and shallow and cruel is repulsive because of the imperfection, the disharmony, the lack of symmetry between her physical and spiritual appearance. There are exceptions, of course: the Venus di Milo, or unfinished symphonies or poems, can be beautiful, perhaps in a melancholy way, but the perfection is those cases in implied; these are not works deliberately meant to be marred, nor meant to praise and draw the soul toward imperfection.

The rules of drama found there are roughly what we discussed above. In the cycle of the year, for example, we see the elements of plot drama. Spring is filled with love stories, Summer with war and work, Autumn with Harvest, Winter with the still coldness and frozen beauty that reminds us of the graveyard or the inhuman beauty of Elfland; and then, as all great drama must, the plot turns to themes of redemption, salvation, transformation, and the world is saved from the grip of monstrous winter by the heroic yet fragile armies of spring, green twigs, twittering birds returning from far exiles like Elves returning to the Blessed Isles, while the white knight who saves the maiden Mother Nature and ends her snowy woes rides in his triumphal car in heaven, Apollo, too bright to look upon.

What drama do we see in nature? That depends on the insight of the onlooker. Let us list them from least to most.

Those dull-eyed and scientific people who see nature merely as a battlefield of infinite battle, red in tooth and nail, the meaningless and remorseless struggle for survival of selfish genes manipulating hypnotized beasts to carry out their blind and mindless program of endless Xeroxlike self-repetition, pointless as wallpaper, do not see the drama or the melodrama.

The pagan view of the world is like an island of joy in a melancholy sea of chaos. The bright armies of Spring, the rose with her thorn, array in battle against the hosts of Winter, icicles like spears, and the Summer King dies and is reborn, and Demeter walks the Earth hooded and weeping, seeking her daughter in Hell, who in due season will rise again. One eyed Odin roars with laughter, hearing the japes of Loki who will soon betray him, and he needs no other food aside from his horn of mead and the mystic waters of the well of wisdom, in which he sees the visions of the Twilight of the Gods, from which nor man nor god shall rise again. The worm Ouroboros eats its own tail, the very world serpent himself, and the endless cycle of endless sorrows endlessly return.

The world view of the Orient reflects this theme of endless return, and submission to cosmic law and order. Confucius, eminently practical, speaks only of the order that must obtain among gentlemen, if a life of virtue and a virtuous rule is to be maintained. Lao Tzu places his finger on his smiling lip, and says that the truth when spoken of is not the truth, but this truth guides the way of the world. For the Hindu, as for the ancient Egyptian, the beauty of the world is in the cosmic order: karma, maat, me, Tao. All of Asia might agree, with the one exception of the Buddha, the Enlightened One, who lifts a lamp from the windless sea beyond the edges of the world, from Nirvana, and tells of a place where all sorrows are dissolved in selflessness, and one can become one with nothingness. The stoical resignation to fate and cosmic law is mingled with the hints of an escape into a perfect void, where mourning ceases because there is no mourner.  For the Buddhist, the beauty of the world is part of the illusion of the world, therefore the Buddhist sage closes his eyes when he meditates.

The Jew is a rebel to all this. They are a people apart, for they were told the great secret. The world was created, and the creator pronounced it very good. Light and heaven and earth and sea, the green growing things, fish and fowl, and all that creeps and walks and runs, all are good and very good, and the crown of creation who walks upright is made in the very image and likeness of God: a work of art that is also the self portrait of the Divinity.

The religion of Abraham, like the religion of Odin, ends in the cosmic war, except that, unlike Ragnarök, in the battle of Armageddon, the forces of heaven are promised victory and joy unmeasured, and not glorious sorrow in glorious defeat. The final winter of the world is ended, and the endless Springtide rules.

Here is the element of drama, the great story, in which the numberless lesser stories are woven like the curls of a Celtic knotwork: the great tale begins with a sympathetic protagonist, Love Himself, brighter than Apollo, encountering the challenge of the Fall, an obstacle as terrible and final as the tears of Demeter when she found her daughter lost from the fields of Enna. The Messiah descends as the main act in the plot, albeit Christians say this happened already, and Jews say not yet. Then salvation, judgment, the reward of the just, and the punishment long over due of the sneering mustachio-twirling villains, and all swords are bent into ploughshares and all tears wiped away, and all lovers reunited. Roll credits.

Tragedies are those tales that end, as Milton’s PARADISE LOST, or Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA, with the triumph of sorrow. Eden ends in exile from Eden, and as the dead body of sweet prince Hamlet is drawn away, Horatio stands aghast, and wonders at the death of the whole dynasty. To my fellow Christians I can tell you the secret that tragedies have such power to move us because we know in our souls that this world is tragic, and that Eve ate an apple as filled with poison as the cup Queen Gertrude raises to toast her son.

Comedies end in marriages. True comedy is not mere witty sarcasm, japery, or gallows humor: true comedy is joy. To my fellow Christians I can tell you the secret that comedies have the power to bring joy because we know in our souls that one day our prince will come, and the long exile in this land of death shall end, and the bridegroom shall marry his mystical bride the Church, and heaven and earth shall wed.

Adventure stories end in victory, and romances end in consummation. There are feminists who object to tales where knights and princes disguised as churls or shepherd boys rescue princesses chained to rocks from the leviathan in the sea, and carry her off on his white charger, or, better yet, carry her aloft in his winged shoes to a royal wedding.  The feminist called such tales, where the princess is merely the prize to be won, examples of male chauvinism. Blind vipers! Were only their eyes opened, they would call this female chauvinism, because this is a type or a shadow of the rescue of all the soul of the Church by our beloved Bridegroom. He saves us not to win us as a prize; He saves us because He prizes us, and knows us worthy to be won. Compared to Him, we are all women, our souls are female: they receive, like soil receiving a seed, the inspiration and infusion from which new life shall grow in us. Speak no more of Man’s search for God. Speak instead of God perusing and wooing Man, and carrying off our souls like Psyche in the arms of Eros. He first chose us.

In addition to comedy and tragedy and adventure and romance, this one grand true drama also contains the modernist elements of shock and rebellion. Nothing is more shocking to the Jew or Mohammedan that the thought of God Himself, pure and unstained and divine from eternity, entering into time in the womb of a mere woman. This is as jarring to convention as any mere cubist abstraction. And as for rebellion, Christ defied the Prince of Air and Darkness that rules this world, spoke back to Pontius Pilate, and not merely rebelled against the world system, but overthrew it.

Even you atheists and your dramas are not absent here. When the crucified Savior cried out on the bloody tree, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? surely he cries with your voice. Or perhaps you are an atheist because you rightly scorn the hypocrisies and lies of smug established churches and their niggling rules: when the Messiah faces the Pharisees and called them sons of vipers, hypocrites, blind fools, and he overthrew the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple, His anger and disgust at all the folly of false religion was as great as yours.

All the elements of great drama are present in the tragic world in which we are trapped, and in the heavenly comedy, adventure, and romance beyond the shores of this world reaching like a beam of starlight down to us, smiting the heart with hope that burns like cold iron.

Here we have the most likeable protagonist of all, whose suffering all men have alike in each his own life; the stakes are high, nothing less than the salvation or damnation of the world, or of each soul in the world; the foe is ferocious and mighty and dark, no less than death itself, and monarch over all creatures on earth, no less than Lucifer, the greatest and noblest and wisest of the archangels that fell; the plot is ripe with shocking surprises, almost to the point of absurdity, secret princes born in stables, mages following strange conjunctions in the starry sky, signs and wonders, blind men weeping with eyes once more opened to light. There is intrigue, betrayal, courtroom drama, torment and death. And then there is the one thing every springtide hints of.

And this is only the end of Act Two. Somewhere down the corridors of time rages the knightly battles of the Twilight of the Gods, and the clamor of the end of the world, and the roar of the last trumpet is so loud that prophets can hear the echoes from the future in their dreams, and haunt us with riddles and signs of things to come.

The setting is the infinite and infinitely precious world around us, the globe of Earth as an island of life in a sea of endless night, galaxies above so vast the numbers themselves must fail before the immensity. Do not wonder at the width of the universe: our Bridegroom must prepare a wedding gift as large enough to represent an endless love to give us when waiting is done. To human eyes the cosmos looks dark. In truth, it is filled with light.

The characters,  beloved readers, include you and include me. We are the players. (My role is comedy relief: Bottom with an asses’ head beloved of a bewitched fairy queen of supernal beauty.) Have any characters ever been so well drawn in any drama?  Are any villains as horrific as what human beings can be?

As to the style of the drama of creation, there words fail. You must consult both scientists and artists to see the intricacy and elegance of the laws of nature and the beauties of nature.

And the theme is the theme that makes for the most dramatic tales: we are living, all of us, even those poor atheists who cannot see it, in the middle of a desperate tragic drama with a possible ending, for some of the characters, of joy beyond immensity.

This life, and the life to come, is a tale of salvation and redemption and forgiveness, of transformation and reformation. It is a Divine Comedy. We are all the poet. We will one day see our beloved Beatrice again. First we must go through the pits and fires of Hell and climb the cornices of mount Purgatory.

Why did the Creator put creative people in His creation? Why did He give us, like Him, the power to speak Words, a power no beast shares? Why do poets exist?

Life is a Divine Comedy. We need a Virgil to lead us up as high as worldly art can reach.

Finally we can reach the final question. What is it about Superhero movies that make them better than mainstream Hollywood movies? But this will be explored in another installment.