Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age
reviewed by Franklin Freeman
Reading Gregory Wolfe’s Beauty Will Save the World, I was reminded more than once of a movie, The Lives of Others (2006), that William F. Buckley, Jr., said was the best he had ever seen. In that movie, an East German secret police (Stasi) officer is assigned to spy on a famous playwright. This officer, Wiesler, is a true believer in Communism, unflinching in his ruthlessness, if needed, in interrogation, and seemingly unbending in his convictions. But as he eavesdrops on all that goes on in the playwright’s apartment, he learns that a high party official is behind the surveillance because of his passion for the playwright’s girlfriend, and also that his immediate superior, Grubitz, is a man without principles, a man who would be a top official of whatever party was in power. Wiesler, the true believer, as he becomes disillusioned by the corruptness of the party officials, is also drawn into the personal lives of the playwright and his friends, and on a search mission in the apartment while the playwright is out, he steals a book of Bertolt Brecht’s poems and takes them home to read.
The most wonderful scene in that movie, for me, was when Wiesler reclines on his couch and we hear a voiceover of him reading one of the poems:
As he reads this poem, the actor, Ulrich Muhe, is somehow able to show the audience that the beauty of Brecht’s poetry (forget his Marxism for the moment) is changing Wiesler for the good, that beauty is saving him. This moment leads to the later moment when Wiesler destroys the evidence that would have put the playwright
And that is the point of Wolfe’s book: how art can reach deep into a person and/or a culture of whatever ideology and change minds and hearts in a way that neither politics nor the academy can. “Whereas,” Wolfe writes, “I once believed that the decadence of the West could only be turned around through politics and intellectual dialectics, I am now convinced that authentic renewal can only emerge out of the imaginative visions of the artist and the mystic.”
Whom Had Beauty Saved?
Wolfe was inspired to move from politics to art and culture by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “Nobel Lecture,” in which the great Russian writer said that Dostoyevsky’s phrase, “Beauty will save the world,” had for years seemed to him “a mere phrase.” For “when had it ever happened in the bloodthirsty course of history that beauty had saved anyone from anything? Beauty had provided embellishment, certainly, given uplift—but whom had it saved?”
Wolfe, founder and editor of Image, a journal devoted to art, faith, and mystery, and writer in residence at Seattle Pacific University, also turned from politics to art because of his own personal experience as a true believer in the heady conservative days leading up to and beginning Ronald Reagan’s first term as president. Wolfe was working at National Review at the time:
He went on to study literature at Oxford, joined the Roman Catholic Church and, trying to emulate the Christian humanism of Thomas More and Erasmus, started the journal Image.
Rejecting the Fortress Mentality
This book records this journey in its first part, “From Ideology to Humanism,” but then goes on to discuss in the second part, “Christianity, Literature, and Modernity,” the forgotten richness, uniqueness, and paradoxes of a Christian aesthetics. Wolfe also argues that the practice and enjoyment of art is “an invitation to virtue,” that even though art is vitiated when used for a specific political or moral purpose, its practice entails the dying of the artist to himself so that the good of the object he is making is born into the world.
Wolfe points out that,
Wolfe deplores the fortress mentality as being a dead end in all ways, in the long run, but especially in the realm of culture. The problem is, he says, that Christians and other traditionalists have barricaded themselves in their enclaves but, in so doing, rely on political argumentation that leads to a dearth of Christians playing a role in the cultural milieu:
In the rest of his book, Wolfe writes about writers, artists, and men of letters who have not barricaded themselves into fortresses but have made things—books and paintings—that have entered our culture and helped shape the minds and lives of others.
A Certain Naiveté
But isn’t there a contradiction in Wolfe’s thinking? If Wolfe wants us to help with the building up of culture, if he wants Christians to enter the secular world with their artifacts, then why have a journal such as Image that focuses on art, faith, and mystery? Shouldn’t Christian artists go to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, as Flannery O’Connor did, or become doctors who write novels, as Walker Percy did, or go to the Pratt Institute, as the painter Fred Folsom did? Isn’t Image just another version, albeit more nuanced and cultural, of the fortress mentality?
Wolfe deals with this topic, though I’m not sure how successfully, in his chapter on his mentor, Gerhard Niemeyer, who, Wolfe writes,
Wolfe’s idea is that Image would present art open to spiritual realities, “positive experiences,” and “new visions of order.”
One could also accuse Wolfe of a certain naiveté. I began this review with a description of a movie, The Lives of Others, but at some point another movie came to mind, Casablanca (1942), especially the scene wherein Captain Renault raids Rick’s casino with the famous words, “I am shocked, shocked, to find that gambling is going on in here!” Renault is obviously being facetious, but Wolfe is not when he speaks of the moral revulsion he felt when so many of the anti-government Reagan campaign workers suddenly clamored for government jobs.
But what did he expect? In any movement there are those who are merely opportunists. I have felt plenty of moral revulsion in the English departments with which I have been involved, and I’m sure the same goes for those in creative writing departments and the journals they produce, some of which seem to me to be elevated forms of vanity publishing—you publish my poem and I’ll publish yours.
But despite this, and though I am not totally convinced of his argument, in Beauty Will Save the World Wolfe has written a book that puts me in mind of Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners (1969), Dorothy Sayers’s The Mind of the Maker (1941), and Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism (1923). Anyone needing a respite from the culture wars, and wondering if there is something more, would do well to read it.
Franklin Freeman is a freelance writer living in Saco, Maine, with his wife and four children.
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