02 February 2011

When Drab Is a Favorite Color

Anthony Esolen on beauty:
A man who wishes to remain an infidel, Lewis later said, had better be careful what he reads. I know this from my experience as a teacher of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance literature. Almost before a student has any real sense of the complexity of thought to be found in Augustine or Boethius or Dante or Milton, he is confronted with the dangerous power of beauty....Satan is surprised by two stripling cherubs as he tries to whisper evil dreams into the mind of the sleeping Eve; but worse than his being caught is his confrontation with angels still holy, and therefore still lovely:
So spake the cherub, and his grave rebuke,
Severe in youthful beauty, added grace
Invincible; abasht the devil stood
And felt how awful goodness is.
The student finds himself at such moments -- and loses himself in wonder.

The converse is also true. If the sudden irruption of beauty threatens to pull heaven down about us, then one good way to ensure that a human soul will be armored against the divine is to cultivate the drab, the slipshod, and the ugly.... We could consider the folk ballads of old, like the lilting Loch Lomond -- arranged in subtle four-part harmony for community singing clubs that once filled the halls of many a town with music. Then we could compare them with our contemporary counterpart, those sneers and sublingual grunts mass marketed for teenage boys wearing their pants around their knees, like people suffering from some hitherto unknown bone disease.
When a lost soul wanders into the silence of one of our churches, it should not feel to him as if he had walked into a doctor's waiting room, or the department of motor vehicles, but into a new world, mysterious and true.