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Can Beauty Save the World?

“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at a rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it–but all that had gone before.”– Jacob Riis

I spent this past week in the Himalaya foothills with students from my school on a camping trip. It was an excellent week of hiking, rappelling , creating art using things found in the natural environment, swimming in a mountain stream. I loved experiencing all the things I don’t get to participate in while living in Delhi. Walking up a forest road, I looked up to see a group of yellow butterflies swirl through the sky. Later, I stood at the foot of a waterfall, staring up into the mossy ledges of brilliant green through a rainbow arc. Another day, while hiking I noticed the shining gossamer wings of a dead cicada lying on the path as I walked by. The world is indeed full of wonder and magic, or at least it can be if you are in the right location.

As we drove down the mountain and back toward Delhi, I experienced a different kind of world–one filled with honking horns, a layer of trash covering the roadside for miles, traffic congestion, and road-side fires–a world where where smoke and the resulting haze made visibility increasingly difficult. As the sky grew increasingly dark and the sun went down in a great ball of pollution-orange, I thought to myself, “What has happened to beauty?” People who grew up in this world, who have never been outside of it, are bound to think that this is the whole of the world–the way life is. Three mornings in a row now the sun has risen as an orange ball into a haze-filled sky, the kind of sky I have seen before in California when the hills have caught on fire. We have made a kind of hell for ourselves to live in it seems. We light the fires. We burn the world. How is it that we have come to this state of being?

Yesterday I received this poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay in a letter from Monasteries of the Heart.

God’s World
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!
Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart. Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year.
My soul is all but out of me, let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

What a very different world Millay was observing than the one I live in with its pollution filled skies–where the natural world is pushed aside for the demands of roads and buildings, where people live in substandard housing or live on the streets, where there is so much trash that it has become a literal mountain in the city. Given this reality with such pressing social and environmental needs, what is the role of beauty? A prince in Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot, states that “Beauty will save the world.” How can this really be and what does this mean? Beauty can lift us above the mundane, restore and renew us when we feel worn down, but can it save us?

If we look at the work of the journalist and photographer Jacob Riis, we can see one way in which it’s possible for the artist’s eye can lead to change in the world. Riis is noted for raising social consciousness through his photographs in the late 1800’s of the tenement houses and slum areas of New York City, in particular of Mulberry Street, where many Italian immigrants lived in some of the city’s worst slums. The Italians were willing to live in these areas because many of them found them no worse than what they came from, and in some cases actually better, and they looked on their living situation as somewhat temporary. They had dreams of building a better world for themselves. Riis looked at the plight of those who lived in these conditions, and looked deeply. He used his photographs to not merely document or bear witness to other’s suffering, but to motivate others to make social reform. While some may have questioned his relocation efforts, nonetheless, the effect his photographic work had on others is remarkable. His work led to more diligent police patrol in NYC after President Roosevelt walked with him through areas Riis had been photographing. Riis photographs of sewage falling directly into New York state’s water supply led to the state becoming aware of the connection between these behaviors and the possibility of an outbreak of cholera after Riis spoke with doctors about the connection between this behavior and the disease. His photography work also helped others to see the need for replacing unsafe tenements with parks. Because he looked deeply, and use that sight to create powerful photos that helped convince people of the need for change, Riis made a difference for good in the world. While it was not Riis’s main goal to create works of art, nonetheless, his photos are a kind of work of art. Social reform, however, is not generally the goal of art. Should art be political? Maybe from a certain perspective all art is political, but I wouldn’t argue that art should be political, though artistic efforts can lead to social reform, as did Dickens’ writing.

Though I’ve not yet read Gregory Wolfe’s book, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age, the title attracts me, as does Wolfe’s own comments about the book, and I want to put it on my wish list of books to read because since living in Delhi, I’ve been struggling with this question of whether my need for beauty is frivolous or a true need. I long for access to the natural world, a walk in a forest rather than a city park. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a place where I could roam the hills behind my house, climb up granite bolders and look out over the valley and hills beyond. Maybe it is just a part of my spiritual geography that I think I need this access to the natural world. On the other hand, couldn’t it be that we really do need beauty to survive? Humans have made art since the days when we lived in caves and were hunter-gatherers. I have been working on accepting where I am–learning to be happy where I am, even if where I am doesn’t have the beauty I need that feeds my soul. In truth, I have been given much to be utterly grateful for every day of my life. Could it be, however, that I long for beauty because as human beings we truly do need it?

I don’t have to have the kind of beauty every day that Millay talks about in her poem where I feel  stretched apart. It would be too much to actually bear that kind of beauty every day. My first trip to Italy several years ago made me wonder how people could live every day with so much beauty all around them. After a while, one must just accept it as the world as it is, just as here in Delhi with the polluted skies people accept this as the given world. Though they saw it, the children on the bus ride down from the Himalaya weren’t focused on the lack of beauty around them. They simply continued singing as we rolled through the streets lined with trash and burning fires. This is a way to survive–to just keep singing. Which leads me back to the question of what role beauty can play in helping us act in ways that create a better world. Just because art exists around us or because people are producing art doesn’t necessarily make the air pollution go away. Riis took the photos which piqued people’s awareness, but he also had to get out there and motivate the change of policy. We need policy changes to make the world a more livable place, and in order to preserve the beauty.

Is the role of imagination, art and beauty at its base a political action, however? Does political action trump imagination? Dr. Eric Cunningham explains in his review of Wolfe’s book, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age that Wolfe asserts that it is beauty, not ideology, that will save the world. “Throughout this twenty-five year exploration Wolfe has struggled with the most nagging characteristic of the time, i.e., the tendency of modern consciousness to reduce all forms of cultural expression to the status of propaganda, leaving those who would strive for the spiritual redemption of our culture with few strategies other than political action.” I care about preserving that beauty so I can continue to enjoy it, yet my life is wrapped up in work not directly related to preserving the natural world. Our modern world’s love of “stuff” plays a big part in the destruction of natural beauty, and while I make efforts to reduce my needs and to recycle, I struggle with what I should be doing in order to make a difference in the world when I am not a political activist. Cunningham in his review of Wolfe’s book responds to this question and presents Wolfe’s alternative viewpoint, “Where I have long argued that the tendency of modern people to politicize every aspect of their lives, religion included, is the inevitable product of a flawed historical narrative, Wolfe argues, with convincing clarity, that “the problem” is essentially an aesthetic one, and can be remedied through a renewed appreciation, and a re-appropriation of the aesthetic sphere.” So, what is the role of aesthetics in saving the world? What part does the imagination play? Art does, indeed, bring people of divergent perspectives together. To what extent does it or can it change the way we relate to the world at large?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn when pondering Dostoyevsky’s statement about beauty said, “It is vain to affirm that which the heart does not confirm.” It is not a matter of one thing over the other he seems to suggest. If the heart isn’t involved, nothing is going to happen. The trajectory of western history has made us rely on reason and remain skeptical of the heart. If the heart is not involved, however, the brain isn’t in full function. The heart and brain work together. (You can attend a conference in Paris about this idea if you are interested!) The heart helps engage the brain, and in fact acts as a second kind of brain. Solzhenitsyn goes on to say in his essay about beauty, that if  “Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light—yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three.” Beauty, he suggests, will serve in the place of Truth and Goodness if they are destroyed. Beauty is somehow stronger. When it comes to matters of basic survival, however, is it enough that a person offer poems, or make music, or take photos when people across the street from me live without water, when people are without adequate clothes, medicine or food? Is it okay that some offer beauty while others assist with the other more basic needs? Can we work together to meet the world’s needs?

Joan Chittister, a follower of the Benedictine tradition, talks about three aspects of what it means to do good works; celebrating beauty, honoring the word, and practicing nonviolence. It has never occurred to me before that celebrating beauty is doing a “good work.” Chittister explains that “The monastic life exists in pursuit of the beauty of the invisible God. Wherever you find the beautiful you discover another incarnation of God. Members of Monasteries of the Heart know that to revive the soul of the world, we ourselves must become beauty, become contemplatives. And to be contemplatives, we must surround ourselves with beauty, and consciously, relentlessly, give it away until the tiny world for which we are responsible begins to reflect the raw beauty that is God.” She lists the following as ideas for celebrating beauty:

•Begin a garden in an inner city neighborhood or your own neighborhood
•Donate art pieces to inner city schools
•Give away flowers or art postcards on street corners
•Take inner city children to hear an orchestra or to the museum or to a play or dance performance
• Join or start a threshold choir. These women choirs visit those who are sick and dying:www.thresholdchoir.org

Chittister suggests that yes, beauty is a basic need. After reading the list she provides, I can begin to see new ways in which beauty can, indeed begin to save the world by helping people to honor the natural world and to see ourselves in relationship to it as well as to each other. I love the idea of sharing beauty with people living on the street, of taking art to the homeless or offering flowers. Maybe I can’t assume that because I need beauty, they, too need it, but who could reject the beauty of a flower?

I remember several years back when our biking group had been out for a ride in the rural areas several hours outside of Delhi. Our van broke down on the way home, and we had to wait four or five hours on the road for a car to be sent from Delhi that could carry the van to a location where it could be repaired. In the mean time, we sat on a charpoy in a roadside farmhouse compound where joint Muslim families were living together. They fed us a dinner of chapati and vegetable curry. While there, I asked one of the children what he thought was the most beautiful thing where he lived. He replied, “The mosque, and the pond.” His response makes sense. In God’s house we are brought in touch with the wonder of life and the world. In nature, we are brought in touch with the wonder of God, and of Life itself–we see how we are part of the bigger wonder of the universe and can stand in awe.

Riis watched the stone cutter hit the stone with the hammer, and it wasn’t until the hundredth time that the blow made a difference. Singing our songs, writing our poems, telling our stories, carving our stones, maybe they don’t make the pollution go away but these acts in the least help to restore the soul and the more we grow toward wholeness, won’t it also help others to know how to create wholeness as well? I am not a politician. Neither am I Jacob Riis. I don’t know how to change the things in this world that are much bigger than what is in my power to change. Suffering, such as living in a world of polluted air, is part of life. We have collectively created our suffering. But inside this place of suffering it is still possible to find a way to share beauty with others. Are the ones who long for beauty those who Jesus was speaking of when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit?”  When we share beauty with others, we are brought into their heart, and perhaps through touching others we can be brought into the heart of seeign our connection to the world and to Life itself.

The threshold choirs sing to the dying, singing to people as an act of healing and beauty in the midst of suffering. Can beauty save the world? Mark Helprin in his novel, Solider of the Great War says, ” To see the beauty of the world is to put your hands on the lines that run uninterrupted through life and through death. Touching them is an act of hope, for perhaps someone on the other side, if there is another side, is touching them, too.” Perhaps if we all offer the beauty we have to those spirits choking in the world’s pollution in its myriad forms, an answer will emerge that we didn’t expect. Perhaps it takes more than a hundred strikes on the stone before we will be able to move into a different way of living and being. As in Poco’s song, we can keep on trying.