Because beauty is not truth, or justice, or love.
Because it is something to love.
-Jeff Gundy, ”Inquiry into the Nature of Beauty, or the Tale of the King of the Cats”
The beauty of the world is the mouth
of a labyrinth. . . . And there God is waiting to eat you.
-Simone Weil, Waiting for God
I will be beautiful when I explode.
-Jeff Gundy, “Inquiry into the Technology of Beauty”
For the 2017 Theopoetics conference, I propose to read my own poems and others that engage the complex relations of beauty to ethics, justice, and love, with commentary and embroidery as time allows. In poems and essays, I have brooded on, pondered, and written from the intersection of beauty, creativity, and peacemaking, for several decades. In “The Farm Boy’s Thoughts Turn Toward Beauty,” a section of my recent book on theopoetics Songs from an Empty Cage, I explored the Mennonite suspicions of “worldly” beauty and the ways in which the desire for beauty persists through all of our lives, in manifold variations and with multiple connections to other human perceptions, drives, and realities.
“Beauty will save the world,” says Prince Myshkin, the title character of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot; he is mocked by the “realists” he moves among, but never abandons his convictions, no matter how naïve they may be. French poet Guillaume Apollinaire wrote from the trenches of World War I about the startling beauty of shells bursting like flowers or breasts, and insisted “we must still consider Beauty the one thing on earth which is never evil.” Under the enormous pressure of World War II, Simone Weil proposed that “The soul’s natural inclination to love beauty is the trap God most frequently uses in order to win it and open it to the breath from on high,” although she also pointed out that “The beauty of the world is almost absent from the Christian tradition. This is strange. It leaves a terrible gap.”
Both the perception and the creation of beauty and art, I am convinced, are fundamentally human, humane, democratic, even subversive, and also (as Weil insists) sacred and holy, in that they lead us toward God—though beauty may also be subverted and twisted for lesser purposes, commercial, industrial, and nationalistic. Still, beauty’s roots are in the reckless individuality of artists, in the uncontrollable way that our souls rise up in response to it, and also in the fundamentally communal and communicative nature of that response; even the loneliest, most alienated artist writes, paints, or sings because someone may hear, see, read, connect. Yes, beauty is dangerous—as is God.
My presentation will include poems, images, and reflections on the various ways that beauty is intertwined, in ways that are both elemental and extremely complicated, with truth, justice, peace, and indeed just about everything that makes us human, and that makes us seek the sacred.