Beauty Will Save the World
by Gregory Wolfe
Toward the end of my undergraduate days, I came across a passage in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Lecture which I found startling and even a bit disturbing. Solzhenitsyn begins his address on the nature and role of literature with a brief, enigmatic quotation from Dostoevsky: “Beauty will save the world.” Solzhenitsyn confesses that the phrase had puzzled and intrigued him for some time. And yet, he told the distinguished audience, he had come to believe that Dostoevsky was right.
For a young college student, possessed of a boundless confidence in rational debate and political action, the implication that beauty alone could harbor such redemptive powers was unsettling, to say the least. It was the kind of idea one would expect of an Oscar Wilde or some other fin de siècle decadent; it seemed perilously close to a hedonistic endorsement of “art for art’s sake.” What of Truth and Goodness, the other two “transcendentals”? And yet here were two great Russian novelists, known for their stern, prophetic, and intensely moral sensibilities, as well as their stark depictions of nihilism and human degradation, applauding the redemptive force of beauty.
But the phrase stuck in my mind, and found corroboration in my studies of the role of the imagination in the social order. Like Solzhenitsyn, I have been won over by Dostoevsky’s wisdom.
Whereas 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. This does not mean that I have withdrawn into some anti-intellectual Palace of Art. Rather, it involves the conviction that politics and rhetoric are not autonomous forces, but are shaped by the pre-political roots of culture: myth, metaphor, and spiritual experience as recorded by the artist and the saint.
My own vocation, as I have come to understand it, is to explore the relationship between religion, art, and culture in order to discover how the imagination may “redeem the time.”
In the process of discovering this vocation, conservatism played a somewhat paradoxical role: it both inspired and hampered my search. On the one hand, conservative thinkers helped me to understand what culture is, and they introduced me to the riches of our Western heritage. But on the other hand I found that conservatives were so deeply alienated from modern culture that they had retreated from any serious engagement with it. This retreat, it seems to me, has had damaging consequences for the long-term success of the conservative mission.
For a time, I concurred with most conservatives in their wholesale rejection of modern culture. But eventually I saw this as a very un-conservative position to take. A culture is a delicate, organic thing; however ill it may become, we simply cannot stop caring for it, shutting down the life-support machines. When a civilization truly dies, it cannot be easily resurrected.
In what follows, I’d like to retrace of few of the steps that led to my sense of vocation and current ambivalence about the conservative attitude toward culture and redemptive power of the imagination.
Literature in The Waste Land
I was singularly fortunate in having two distinguished conservative scholars, Russell Kirk and Gerhart Niemeyer, as teachers throughout my undergraduate years. They took me—a raw youth very much caught up in the ephemera of the present—and provided me with a past. By grounding me in the Western tradition, they taught me, in M.E. Bradford’s phrase, the importance of “remembering who we are.” Only then was I prepared to return to the present. Armed with that knowledge, I become aware that the crisis of modernity was not merely the work of Democrats and Communists, but the product of a deeper spiritual malaise.
The essence of modernity, according to Kirk and Niemeyer, is the denial that man can know and conform to the transcendent order, and that he must therefore construct his own order, as an extension of his mind. The motto of the modern project was first uttered by Francis Bacon, who said that “knowledge is power.” Later, Karl Marx would proclaim: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The political expression of modernity, of course, is the ideological regime, founded on a rigid system of abstractions which are imposed on society by force.
But totalitarian regimes are not the only expression of ideology, or else the dissolution of the Soviet Union would signal the end of modernity. As Kirk, Niemeyer, and other conservatives, such as Richard Weaver, have pointed out, ideology also infects Western liberal societies. Though it can take many forms—logical positivism, radical feminism, deconstruction, and soon—ideology involves a fundamental alienation from being.
While ideology often claims the certain-ties of an absolutist intellectual system, its effects on the actual experiences of individuals tend to produce feelings of alienation and dislocation. The modern project, which began with the elevation of the self and the assertion of its nearly limitless power, has resulted in a world in which the individual self is a precarious fragment, without ties to true community or allegiance to legitimate authority.
Read more: www.theimaginativeconservative.org