Addressing the Lady of Shalott


At All But Dissertation the Lady of Shalott has given those of us who are interested in the arts a lot to think about. So much so, that I'm reprinting much of the post and will try to comment line-by-line. There was no other way, structurally, to say all that needed to be said, both in agreement and disagreement, and indeed, this exceedingly long post could well be the start of an entire book.

This little exchange came to mind when I nabbed a few copies of Crisis yesterday. Stevens' allegiance, if I remember correctly, was to aesthetics above all.

Just a note here, Stevens is one of my favorite poets also, and while the stated aesthetic may have been art for the sake of art, the end accomplishment vastly exceeds the poet's intent. In fact, it is apparent from a casual reading of most of the oeuvre that despite a stated aesthetic stance, the poet's concerns were far reaching. I note not in contradiction to the Lady, but in support of my ultimate argument.

Ruminating on this, I recalled a quote by Keats: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know." As a Christian I don't quite agree with the latter portion of that statement, . . .

Agreed, and this quote is part of the trend that we see building throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. Knowingly or unknowingly Keats collapsed the classic platonic triad of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty into Truth and Beauty. Now, it may be in his aesthetic theory goodness could be classed under either beauty or truth, but it fact, this collapse caused a major collapse in aesthetic theory and resulted eventually in Art for Art's Sake, the Pre-Raphaelites (not such a bad thing) and such monstrosities as Huysman's A Rebours and La-Bas.

On a side note, I have the feeling that Keats very deliberately chose to collapse this triad. After all the quote does occur in "Ode on a Grecian Urn." It seems more than coincidence that such an aesthetic theory should make its debut in this poem. I believe Keats very deliberately used the Urn and its associations to forge his aesthetic theory and give it a solid grounding.

but let's think about the former portion for a minute and relate it to Joyce and Tolstoy and how each author handles, for example, the issue of adultery. Both Joyce and Tolstoy write truthfully about adultery, Joyce most famously from the perspective of Molly Bloom, who is quite clearly in favor of the act and says something like "if that's the worst people do, they're not doing too badly." I'm not saying that I agree with this sentiment, only that it's true that many people believe it. Tolstoy, on the other hand, portrays the terrible cost of adultery in agonizing detail. Both are true characterizations of the deed; both are stunningly written in their own very different ways, and so both are beautiful. That much I'm sure about. But I'm still struggling with the idea of ultimate truth, and whether that need be present for a piece of literature to be considered truly good, and not just aesthetically so.

Now this presents a good case study and an interesting example. Because there is another way of thinking about the two works. In Anna Karenina the end result is ultimately immoral (Anna's suicide), whereas in Joyce the end result is the exultant reaffirmation of the commitment to marriage, (Molly's "Yes, Yes. Yes). So looked at from this perspective, one might view Tolstoy's work as an example of "Crime and Punishment," but with no real hope of redemption and Joyce as offering us a redemptive reaffirmation. In addition, one must keep in mind that there are agendas outside the literary in operation here. Joyce was very probably profoundly conflicted about the life he found himself living with Nora (to whom he was not married). All assertions to the contrary could be read simply as an immature attempt to further flout the rules of the Church. Obviously, he must support a view that says "Adultery isn't the worst thing," because he would otherwise be convicted by his own words. And even Dante supports that view. Though adulterers find themselves in Hell, it is only in the second or third circle and it seems to me that he makes the point that "Love gone wrong" is, in some mysterious way less bad that a total lack of love.

T. S. O'Rama in the comments below gives some really interesting but rather disturbing quotes from Shelby Foote addressed to Walker Percy:

"..The best novelists have all been doubters; their only firm conviction, the only one never shaken, is that absolute devotion and belief in the sanctity of art which results in further seeking, not a sense of having found."

Against all modern evidence to the contrary, I want to disbelieve that "a sense of having found" kills good art.

Here is as close as I come to disagreement with the fair lady. The first portion is a quote from other sources and I would revise it
before I could affirm it. I would say that all the best novelists have been searchers. By that I mean, they may stand fully aware and accepting of the presence of God, but with St. Paul, they are "working out their salvation in fear and trembling." They haven't stopped in their growth toward God. Poor novelists (search the ranks of the fiction in most "Christian Bookstores" and you'll find them by the drove) already have all the answers laid out nicely on a platter. Anyone who disagrees is very simply damned, and growth toward God isn't nearly as important as bashing a few heads with some biblical truth. Now, I admit, the last statement is a gross oversimplification and does not represent my view of every "Christian" novelist, but reading these works you get the sense of a completely "settled" universe. Great art is the result of struggle and friction. Being completely settled would not be conducive to such a struggle and is likely to result in the Helen Steiner Rice and Rod McKuen school of writing.

One point further on the quotes. Foote goes on to say that O'Connor is a minor minor novelist because she hadn't the time to develop. This is chronological arrogance at its height. Neither Foote, nor Vidal, nor Updike, nor Wolfe, nor any person alive today can accurately predict what will be read and how it will be read 200 years from now. Such assertions are simply personal preferences disguised in a critical framework.

The point on which I find myself disagreeing with the fair Lady is her own statement regarding, "Despite all evidence to the contrary." Indeed, there is a plethora of abhorrent writing, of half-baked plots, ideas, characters, and even structures. No argument there. I would point out, however, that time has a winnowing effect; and it is my contention that such evidence has existed in abundance as long as there has been public writing and reading for pleasure. I am reminded of the Executioner's Song from The Mikado in which one of the lines listing those who should be summarily executed includes something like, "And all the lady novelists... not one of them'll be missed, not one of them will be missed." So dreck has always been more abundant than quality work. So, I guess my demurral is one of degree and it amounts to me saying simply, "Yes, you are right, there is abundant evidence in the form of putrid art. But how many artists who "have doubted" (to quote Foote) have also produced works that reek to heaven? "

Past masters belie this opinion. Augustine, having been ravished by God, writes prose that ravishes his readers: "beauty ever ancient, ever new ..." Dante's Divine Comedy is the supreme example of "finding," ending as it does with the beatific vision, "the Love that moves the sun and other stars."

As I said before, the winnowing of time has left us with the past masters and with very few of the past dilettantes and dabblers. The chronological sense is that much more good work existed in the past than is present now; however, that is a distortion of the lens of time.

I'm not yet willing to give up hope that our times and our God can inspire good that is beautiful and true in every sense.

I concur, and believe this to be the wisest course, and I have waited until now to spell out why. God created the world and it was all good. The innate talent or creative faculty is good--what makes a work less than good is its effect upon the reader. The effect is controlled by how much an artist allows his or her fallenness to interfere with talent. In the case of a Huysman or a Crowley, the ultimate effect is that the creation is bad or seems bad, flawed, and ugly., However, in the case of a Joyce, the talent is prodigious, some of the things exposed are bad, but ultimately the effect of the book is reaffirming and reaffirming in the right sort of way. A great artist can talk about less-than-moral things and God can use that to overshadow even the intent of the artist.

We are ultimately co-creators with God. Every creation in which we allow His will to predominate will shine out in that goodness and light; every creation that we subject to ourselves, will ultimately hide in our shadow. Truth, beauty, and goodness still exist, there is still writing and art that bring them forward and there will continue to be because God ultimately informs all of creation with His being. This is where those confusing statements Jesus made come in. In one place He says, "He who is not for me is against me." This is at the realm of conscious thought and choice. In another He said, "He who is not against me is for me." That is, an artist, whether an acknowledging Christian or not, if he does not purposefully stand against goodness will ultimately allow that goodness to play through--sometimes brighter, sometimes darker.

One last note on the effects of modernism. Modernism and its horrid mutant step-child Postmodernism have so infected the culture, taste, and ideas of every one of us that we are hard pressed any more to truly see what is good and beautiful. Our notions of beauty have grown so outré and so distorted, and we have been told by many voices that we cannot communicate any more, that we are no longer able to see clearly when something truly magnificent comes along. We must first deconstruct it, analyze it, tear it apart, and see what happens when we put it back together. Modern critical method is less about the work being examined than it is about the opinions of the persons examining the work. Truth, beauty, and goodness have a hard time fighting through that deliberate obstacle.

One last note, much of this is thinking on the fly, and probably needs some careful consideration and revision. I welcome all comments toward that goal. I've already been through twice, and I see places where the thought needs much better fleshing out--but that will undoubtedly emerge in subsequent discussion. Thanks to all.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on August 9, 2002 2:23 PM.

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