Monday, September 15, 2014

Art & Beauty Part I, Section VI: A Creating Creature

'The artist is not a special kind of person, but every man is a special kind of artist' (Ananda Coomaraswamy).

If art traditionally understood is something much different than our contemporary understanding of art, naturally the artist was equally someone very different than that person whom we currently call an 'artist'. First of all, as we have already touched on, the world of tradition was something hierarchically organized; just as a work of art has its own specific telos or purpose, so too does man have his particular vocation for which he is best suited, for which he is made: 'In the normal society envisaged by Plato, or realized in a feudal social order or caste system, occupation is vocational, and usually hereditary; it is intended at least that every man shall be engaged in the useful occupation for which he is best fitted by nature, and in which therefore he can best serve the society to which he belongs and at the same time realize his own perfection' (Coomaraswamy, 'Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art', p.67). Thus conceived, man is not dissimilar from a work of art himself, and indeed he is precisely that, a creature created by God. Like any work of art, he has a first and a second perfection, a telos for which he is made, and a capability to achieve that telos; unlike any work of art, however, he himself is the artist and artwork, the free agent who seeks to realize his own perfection and place in the world.

As we mentioned at the beginning of Section III, the artist was actually an artisan, a craftsman, simply a man who played a part in the making of things. A blacksmith was as much of an artist as an architect or a poet, and all of them were vocations to which men suited to those positions naturally found themselves, either hereditarily or by apprenticeship and guilds or some other circumstance; while in feudal society there was not a great amount of movement vertically, say from serfdom to landed gentry, but horizontally there were great opportunities of someone of any social standing to gravitate towards the vocation for which he was created. This was possible because this was a society that recognized the indispensable value of becoming what one is; in order to direct the talents of men toward their maximum potential, men needed to be doing what they do best, even if that meant the majority of men need to be doing something as 'mundane' as tilling a field or fishing the shores.

The purpose of the artist, then, was hardly to 'express himself', to proudly put himself forward as someone specially important or unique, but simply to locate himself in the world as a willing and productive member of its community - and find contentment therein. By working according to one's vocation, man inserts himself as a functioning, meaningful contributor to society, and 'perfects' himself thereby; he becomes the piece of the cosmic puzzle for which he was born, and attains that perfection that every work of art aspires to be: 'The man devoted to his own vocation finds perfection.... That man whose prayer and praise of God are in the doing of his own work perfects himself' (Bhagavad Gita XVIII). Man therefore is not simply an artist, but a work of art as well, one which he himself can perfect by the accomplishment of God's will.

In this way, the artist becomes someone 'anonymous'. This is because, unlike modern artists who reach celebrity status for their acclaimed 'genius' (often after they die for some morbid reason) and the charm of their personality, the artist is seamlessly ingrained into society as merely someone else who is doing his work successfully. In the Medieval era, aside from a few of the more prominent architects and poets, there is a remarkable absence of known medieval artists, which is due to this fact, that his work was ultimately no more or less important than that of the burgher or the baker. Everyone has work to perform, and every vocation is essential to the fluidity of social life: '[It] is not inasmuch as he is ''such and such a person'' that the artifex produces his work, but inasmuch as he fulfils a certain ''function'' that is properly ''organic'' and not ''mechanical''....' (Rene Guenon, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, p.64). (There is a definite reason for the deification of 'celebrity artists', namely that the artist has in some ways been the modern substitute for the priest, a point which demands additional explanation at some later date.)

Nevertheless, despite this character of 'anonymity', the artist, along with any other productive member of traditional civilization, possessed a personal identity, which was the representation of who he really was: 'the ''person'' is that which man presents concretely and sensibly in the world, in the position he occupies, but always signifying a form of expression and manifestation of a higher principle in which the true center of being is to be recognized' (Julius Evola, Ride the Tiger, p.109). Man is, in pagan society, the living symbol of some archetype; insofar as man succeeds as a person he succeeds in representing something impersonal, the immutability of which provides him with the meaning that he craves. The traditional person is therefore in stark contrast with the modern individual: 'So man as person is already differentiated thereby from the mere individual; he has a form, is himself, and belongs to himself.... Unlike the individual, the person is not closed to the above. The personal being is not himself, but has himself' (Ibid.). The personal being is more than himself because he is privy to something transcendent, which allows him to 'possess' himself in a sort of self-understanding that eludes the chaotic grasping of the rootless individual.

While this was unquestionably true in the ancient world prior to Christ's arrival, this was one of the things which the Incarnation changed on a fundamentally metaphysical level. In pagan society man is reduced to being essentially nothing more than any of the works of art, a walking, breathing, bipedic mimesis, the mere imitation of a form he is incapable of fully understanding; this was necessary, this was the perfectly organic means of attaining order in a chaotic cosmos. But what Evola failed to understand was that Christ changed everything, or how Christ changed everything. Man was no longer a 'persona', a mask of some god or rigid archetype as the word's etymology defines it; man is the Imago Dei, the embodied image of God himself. The person was no longer a servant of something impersonal; the person became a child of something superpersonal. To paraphrase Chesterton, God is not, like the pagans of every race have always thought, incomprehensible because he is impersonal; God is incomprehensible because he is superpersonal. God is too personal for us to comprehend, much like his mirth is too great for us to enjoy:

'We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear' (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy).

We do not, of course, mean to equate the personal with the vagaries of what one might call 'personality', but with the totality of the human being, the gestalt of his psyche, the very essence of what makes man himself. The true nature of personality is not the malleable, protean shape of the human character as he makes his way through life; personality is the inner determinant that shapes the human character. Personality is not conditioned; personality conditions. Personality is not altered; it is discovered: 'Personality is spirit embodied in nature' (Georg Nicolaus, C.G. Jung and Nikolai Berdyaev: Individuation and the Person, p.34), which means that personality is the link connecting us to the spiritual and to God. Being made in God's image, we share in his spiritual completion at the core of our being. But we are also fallen, which means that that completeness is disintegrated, and from the deepest provinces of our soul we yearn to be complete again: 'Personality... is God's idea of man, and that idea is the Gestalt man is called to realize, not a general idea, but an absolutely unique and yet universal content' (Ibid., p.58). If we are made in the image of God, and that image is the Person, then God must indeed be personal himself. God is not impersonal, not suprapersonal, but superpersonal - a being so like ourselves we cannot quite recognize him.

Evola is right when he says that 'the person needs a reference to something that is more than personal' (Evola, Tiger, p.109), but he is wrong in that the reference needs to be something impersonal. The human experience is necessarily founded on the subject, the inner consciousness that conditions our perception of reality - of what use is it to the needs of the subject to refer to something fundamentally objective? Man needs to integrate the objective into himself, not vice versa. If man is indeed the image of God, it follows that any 'reference to the above' means a reference to God; it follows that the health of the subject depends on our imitation of the Subject, the omnipotent mind whence we roughly, distantly, but assuredly do derive. It is the power of the subject, the power of the person that enables us to unite objective reality with ourselves. We exist in a world of objects, an inescapable matrix that conditions us in unpredictable channels, but the world of objects exists also in us; the way that we engage with them depends on how much of a hold they have over us, and how much of God, the supreme Subject, we have in us.

We bring God into us by imitating him. Now, the foremost activity that pertains to God is love, for the crux of his relationship with us is a 'going out of himself', and that is the essential definition of love. The result of this love is creation, for something needs to be outside of God for him to really love it; in his love, in his emergence beyond himself, he creates a necessarily imperfect mirror that is the world. He does this because it is his nature to love selflessly. Strictly speaking, he does not need us, since he is self-sufficient; God created us out of a divinely mysterious charity and an incomprehensibly free will, We, and everything else we see or know in the world, are the consequence of love; creation is the consequence. Love equals creation, so imitating God is simple: I love, therefore I create.

This is where the personal dimension in the artist is felt: in the recreation of God's most personal act, which is the continual creation of the world we live in. As we discussed in Section II, however, we create in different ways: God creates ex nihilo, he creates something from nothing whereas we can only mould the raw, primal matter of his creation into something worthier both of ourselves and of God. He sets everything up, provides us with a virtually infinite array of material, and we are tasked with the art of putting it all together according to the ideas of order and beauty that are imprinted in our mind. Despite this difference, the imitation is intact; we lack the might of God, so we act in the way that we can, in respect of our own limited technique. There is one further difference. In creating something, we proceed out of a love that is simultaneously selfish and selfless. It is selfish in that we create so that we may see an inner part of ourselves in projection in a fruitful attempt to capture the other part of ourself and thereby achieve completion; it is selfless in that it is a genuine going out of oneself, an earnest love that unites the thinking, feeling subject with the beauty that we perceive in the objective, outside world. In the selfish creation we reveal our human restrictions, but in our selfless creativity we reveal that we are indeed the children of God.

As this was all well understood in the Christian tradition, art (or what we would call 'fine art') was naturally substantiated with the unequivocally  personal, the unprecedentedly human character that graced the Gospels. The stories of saints became legends of mythical truth, endearing figures worth appealing to in prayer and in song; the icons of Christ and his apostles were concentrated into an intensely personal characterization, warm images of human virtue at the moment of its victory over sin; the liturgy something serenely evocative of heaven's splendour, using exclusively human voices to sing hymns and Holy Writ; cathedrals were each the entire Church in themselves, united congregations sharing communion with God and each other in a fraternal joy; saints like St. Francis personified the natural world, calling the sparrow his sister and the crow his brother. Nature was no longer something for man to identify with or recoil from or possibly lose himself in; it was something that man could enjoy to the full, because he recognized his place above it in the Chain of Being.

The only distinction to be made between the 'sacred' and the 'secular' was in the former being used to designate those deeply, vocationally involved in ecclesiastic life, while the latter designated the laity. In the modern use of the word, there was no such thing as the 'secular', because the sacred permeated everything, lathering the entire society with the brilliant array of colours that the medievals loved so well. Yes, of course there were atrocities and all sorts of the moral abuses such as you would find in any society, but the medieval world was naive enough to love man and yet humble enough to recognize the extent of his depravity. Earth was sanctified by man's presence, who referred to God's wonder through the natural world, adapting her own beauty to create a vivid and dynamic symbolism in which they housed God's Word. We had received the New Testament, the poetry of God, and we responded to the best of our ability - we responded with Boethius and Dante, Ss. Dominic and Francis, and all the men in between who conspired to make their home worthy of its Creator.

Every man is creative in potentia because to create is man's foremost need. The impulse to create springs from the existential well of man's soul; the obedience of these impulses determines what or who a man will be. Man's central, most persistent desire is to complete himself, but to complete himself he must create himself; to create himself he must love, and to love he must imitate God. The imitation of God is the key to the re-integration of man with himself. Creativity is the perfection of the person, because it is the sincere appeal to the perfect Person; to share and participate in the love of the objective world is to make abstract ideals one's own pillars of personality. Christ is the symbol par excellence of this fact because he represents the bridge between God and man, between subject and object: 'God does not mingle himself with man, it is uniquely by means of Love... that there is dialogue and intercourse between the gods and men' (Plato, Symposium). Plato did not conceive of God's humanity, or how it was possible for God to also be man, but he nevertheless spoke the truth, a truth that Christ, whom Plato called Love, fulfilled. Christ, the God-man, suffered the weight of the world out of love for us, and created that selfsame bridge that allows us actual union with God. It is his example of love that we must imitate to fulfil the most urgent needs of the human experience; we show this love through creativity, through acting in the world to redeem the world.

'Man's creativeness is his duty before God and the fulfilment of his will: not to be creator and not to live creatively, not to take part in God's unceasing creative action in the world, is disobedience to God, and in the last resort rebellion against him' (Evgueny Lampert, Berdyaev and the New Middle Ages, p. 48).

Every man, therefore, is an artist; every man needs to create for his own sake as well as that of God. Whether it be the creation of an English madrigal, inter-city highways, a hearty breakfast, a half-dozen children, or simply a monastic silence, so long as it is done out of love man comes through creation to a profound satisfaction. The fundamental vocation of our species is a contribution to the reality in which we participate, which includes its spiritual as well as its physical dimensions. Guenon, Coomaraswamy, the Greek and Hindoo platonists were all right when they said that man is only man when he acts in the world according to his corresponding vocation (and remains 'anonymous'); Evola was right when said that man was only truly alive and truly personal when his life corresponds to something above himself. But all of this is only really brought together when we remember that we are all made in God's image, and purposed to do his will, and what is God's vocation? What is God's will? Simply, to Be, which evidently means also to create, or none of us would exist. The true vocation for any child of God, therefore, is to do as his Father does - to create.

'A Poet, a Painter, a Musician, an Architect; the Man or Woman who is not one of these things is not a Christian' (William Blake).

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Fall through the Ceiling

'And where sin abounded, grace did more abound' (Romans 5:20)

The tragic life is a fallen dove,
A thousand wars ruthlessly raged,
A thousand hawks wrathfully caged,
The submission to a foreign love.

The spirit is drenched in bloody rage,
A rising chaos left alone,
A king without a throne,
Impossible to assuage.

The body is a store of youth and lust,
Nervously tending its nervous wares,
Quietly counting its precious fares,
Dreading the day it all turns to rust.

The heart is an inept, fragile thing,
Sworn to others but possessed by one,
Pierced from without but is undone
By the mind's lonely wondering.

The story is yet to be truly told
Till we have reached the full extent,
Till our passions been wholly spent,
Our limbs exhausted, our soul sold.

The storm will continue unabated
Till we yield to its embrace,
Take up a tempestuous grace,
And find our hungers sated.

The babe is torn from mother's womb,
A seething scoop of skin;
But the father, old and thin,
Is gently laid in his good tomb.

Oh, a thousand sins and sorrows,
This old tale is said anew
With ev'ry world that's born true,
With the sun and all the morrows.

We are placed here in pain and pleasure;
Whatever the prudent path,
Whatever our personal wrath,
To do anything is itself a treasure.

To feel forgiveness we first feel guilt:
Felix culpa! O happy fall!
We crouch lowly and small,
Crawling through flowers that cannot wilt.

Defilement is sanctity's price;
The immersion in sins
Is where holiness begins:
The strongest virtue was once vice.

Even pride's thunder must finally give way;
Take me back, I beseech thee,
Proclaim everlasting mercy
And I fall in your soft arms to stay.

The blessed life is a risen dove,
A thousand wrongs made entirely right,
A thousand shadows shown under light,
The submission to an inner love.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Art & Beauty - Part I, Section V: The Symbol as Man's Overcoming Time

Now that we have an idea of what symbolism is on the theoretical level, it is necessary to discuss what symbolism is on the practical level, or how man has traditionally used the symbol. Since we are inhabitants of the 'profane' world, mired in a temporal, mundane reality, we are fixated upon time, upon the historically and physically exigent dimensions of the world that relentlessly pressure us into thinking that that is all there is. Caught in time, we lose sight of what governs us, of what remains when all else retreats: 'there is no greater obstacle to Union with God than Time' (Meister Eckhart). In time, we are disconnected from eternity, and we acutely, existentially feel that disconnect; it is this lapse from the transcendent, or rather our need to fill that lapse, that determines our deepest, most persistent problems. It is what drives our search for meaning; it is what compels us through so many wrong turns in life, if only in the quest for something that truly stills our soul, quiets our conscience. There are ways to do that, too, even in our restless realm of chaos and fragmentation; there are ways to access the eternal.

The principal way is that of mythology, and its actualization in the recurrent use of rituals, which includes of course the telling of myths at certain appropriate times in the annual cycle. The creation of myth is important in many ways: (1) it bonds a society of humans together, acting as a further adhesive that strengthens the community which lives by the myths, not only with the living but also with the dead and those yet to be born through the tradition that is remembered; (2) it enables us to experience elements in reality in a more essential form, uplifting accidental aspects into their real, archetypal identity by seeing them dramatized in story; (3) and most importantly myth solidifies, crystallizes something that only exists in sensible reality in its mythic shape, and that is the Sacred, the untouchable, invisible inferno of truth that nourishes us more than food or drink because it satisfies the spirit. The myths, and the sacred vehicles we create to host them, to transport them to living consciousness, are precisely what reconnect us with the eternal; they bring the prodigal son back home:

'[The] myths are true because they are sacred, because they tell [man] about sacred beings and events. Consequently, in reciting or listening to a myth, one resumes contact with the sacred and with reality, and in so doing one transcends the profane condition, the ''historical situation''.... The periodic recitation of the myths breaks through the barriers built up by profane existence. The myth continually reactualises the Great Time, and in so doing raises the human to a superhuman and suprahistorical plane; which, among other things, enables him to approach a Reality that is inaccessible at the level of profane, individual existence' (Mircea Eliade, Images and Symbols, p. 59).

So myth is the tangible reflection of what is a priori intangible: 'A myth represents in this world the realities which transcend the world; it brings two worlds together in images and symbols' (Evgueny Lampert). The symbol, then, is a unit of mythology, one which is used by a specific myth to convey a specific truth. While the symbol is in a sense subordinate to the myth as a whole, it contains in itself its own metaphysic, its own idea: the symbol is the microcosm to the myth's macrocosm.

The most obvious example of this is that of the Crucifix, whose part it plays in the supreme myth of the Incarnation is indispensable as the sacrificial instrument, but whose symbolic character is equally important as something in itself. The intersection of the horizontal and vertical beams represents the collision of the mundane and sacred worlds respectively, and the perfectly good and just man dead upon it represents the historical and mythical triumph over time and space. The communication between man and God, between earth and heaven is established via the erection of the Cross, the pre-eminent 'Cosmic Tree' that completes every other mythical image of that sort (i.e. Yggdrasil). The 'ontologization' of time, the transformation of becoming into being, is thus accomplished by the eternal nature of the symbol of the Cross and by the event actually happening in the flux of time; by acting through time, God has redeemed time, and thus saved man from its ouroboric labyrinths.

This is practically managed through the creation of religion. Because man is a fallen being, he is necessarily a religious being; if he were not fallen, there would be no need for religion, because he would already be in full communion with the divine and the fullness of his own nature. The religious institution, as the exterior (and interior) organization of mythology into something available to any man, is the means by which man strives to remember and redeem himself, to counteract the Fall, and to establish a genuine relationship with God and therefore finally overcome time. Since this is far and away the most important endeavour for man in this world, religion becomes our greatest tool, our most prized possession, the thing of the greatest use. Remembering what we said in Section III, then, and Aquinas's 'functionalist theory of beauty' (where the useful is equated with the beautiful), it follows that religion is also of the greatest beauty, which helps explain why it has traditionally been the single greatest patron of the arts in Western Civilization; in the Medieval era, of course, right through the Renaissance and beyond, the Catholic Church dictated European culture, promoting the artistic talents of its members to this religious end. This was most powerfully expressed in the stunning cathedrals that dominated both urban and rural landscapes:

'Artistic allegory reached its apotheosis with the maturity of Gothic art.... The cathedrals, the highest artistic achievement of medieval civilization, became a surrogate for nature, a veritable liber et pictura, although organised in accordance with rules of interpretation which were in fact not wholly applicable to nature.... cathedrals actualised a synthetic vision of man, of his history, of his relation to the universe.... In arranging this figurative discourse, the Gothic masters used the mechanism of allegory. The legibility of the signs which they employed was guaranteed by a solid sociological fact, namely, the medieval habit of grasping certain analogies, by interpreting signs and emblems in ways that tradition had determined, of translating images into their spiritual equivalents' (Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, pp. 61-2).

What this was was the 'power of symbolism', the directly intuitive relation between man and the consensual cosmology society creates to better understand our world. Art is objectively the communication of intelligibility, and it does this through utilizing symbolism, the personification and materialization of profound ideas in forms that we can easily comprehend and which deeply attract us: 'The Medievals inhabited a world filled with references, reminders, and overtones of divinity, manifestations of God in things. Nature spoke to them heraldically: lions or nut-trees were more than they seemed; griffins were just as real as lions because, like them, they were signs of a higher truth' (Eco, p. 53). The symbol was moreover not merely a secondary imitation a la Plato's theory of mimesis, but something which had a lasting value in itself, because it was the means by which man interacted with those things that are not directly found in sensible reality.

Beyond the obvious connotations that a lion, for example, offers in itself, such as the connection between its golden colour and the gold of royalty, tradition carries with it an 'hieratic language', a lexicon of symbols and allusions that anyone educated and participating in that tradition can share in. So the lion, as per the Proverbs, is said to be a symbol of the virtue of courage, and the Medievals, as an emphatically Christian civilization, exploited this symbol in their heraldry as well as in their literature. The Bible was indeed the principal source for this allegorical and symbolic material, offering an imaginative cosmology from the moral parables to the anagogical horrors of Hell; it was the root of everything definitively Medieval and the touchstone by which everything of pagan origins was judged. This included the living folk legends, for instance, which were duly and organically incorporated into the Catholic consciousness. This great symbolic weltanschauung imbued all poetry, all songcraft, all of the plastic arts, all religious artefacts, even seemingly innocuous household items with a decisive, universal power that enlivened the ordinary, making the natural into something supernatural.

In pagan societies, too, everything that pertained to a man's reality was useful in a way that was more than its mechanical use - as we said in Section III, a man's shovel was not only something with which he planted vegetables, it was equally a symbol of the direct connection between himself and his forefathers and the perennial continuity of the harvest. This not only 'enlivened the ordinary', making his world something so much brighter and adventurous than it might otherwise seem by a purely economical perspective, but it attached him both to the the land which he shared with his ancestors and to their common faith. This symbolic lens allowed him to view 'beyond time' and experience the immediate connection between himself and his fathers who shared his trade, and between himself and the gods, who were expressed through specific rites of the harvest; everything in this world contained something more of that world, that divine dimension to which any healthy society adheres:

'Primitive man made no real distinction of sacred from secular: his weapons, clothing, vehicles and house were all of them imitations of divine prototypes, and were to him even more what they meant than what they were in themselves; he made them this ''more'' by incantation and by rites. Thus he fought with thunderbolts, put on celestial garments, rode in a chariot of fire, saw in his roof the starry sky, and in himself more than ''this man'' So-and-so' (Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, 'Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art', p.32).

The Medieval man retained much of this as well, but superimposed upon it the the stamp of a monotheistic, transcendent God who was nevertheless immanent, present and working in the world. This was expressed via the miraculous stories of the saints, including the 'cephalophore', or a beheaded martyr who carries his head as he continues to preach post-mortem. The most famous example is St. Denis, who, according to the Golden Legend, journeyed over ten kilometres with his head in his arms to his burial site, which became the Basilica of St. Denis. Whether this was historically true or not was a concern for the Church hierarchy to determine, but to the common man it made little difference; such events were mythical, which meant that they held greater importance as legends of a superior nature, as examples of God's holiness at work in the world, of his making exceptions to the laws of his own creation. There was thus a lively mythos at play in Medieval society, one which did not (usually) compete with the Church, but subsisted beneath it, providing it with a grounded mythology that satisfied the inherent demands of man's imagination.

Just as Christ came and fulfilled the Mosaic Law, so did the Church Militant conquer the pagan mythology, ameliorating its darker substance with the light of the sacred heart; it came to provide the fullness that the pagans had only been hinting at all along. The antecedent mythical force, however, was preserved, only it was 'christened by Christ', as it were, in which the vestigial heathen elements were cleansed and sublimated into the redemptive authority of the Roman Church. The sites of old pagan shrines, for example, were sustained for their primeval power, for their genius loci, for their being 'magical centres' at the soul of primitive man; but these were invariably purified by the Cross, whose soldiers built churches of their own over these locations, and often named them after St. Michael (who is typically known as a 'demon-slayer') to represent Christ's triumph over the natural world even as he dwells in it. By the unification given to the European nations by the Christian tradition, they all received a 'common denominator' that exalted the truth of the Incarnation yet preserved and dignified the indigenous traditions themselves:

'By the fact of their Christianisation, the gods and the sacred places of the whole of Europe not only received common names but rediscovered, in a sense, their own archetypes and therefore their universal valencies: a fountain in Gaul, regarded as sacred ever since prehistoric times, but sanctified by the presence of a divine local or regional figure, became sacred for Christianity as a whole after its consecration to the Virgin Mary. All the slayers of dragons were assimilated to Saint George or some other Christian hero; all the gods of the storm to holy Elijah. From having been regional and provincial, the popular mythology became ecumenical. It is, above all, through the creation of a new mythological language common to all the populations who remained attached to their soil... that the civilising mission of Christianity has been so remarkable. For, by Christianising the ancient European religious heritage, it not only purified the latter, but took up, into the new spiritual dispensation of mankind, all that deserved to be ''saved'' of the old practises, beliefs and hopes of pre-Christian man' (Mircea Eliade, Images and Symbols, p. 175).

With the Bible as the revelational source, the tradition of the Early Church, the philosophical and political vestiges of Classical Greece and Rome, and the basic legends of the European people were thus synthesized into an organic worldview that, just like Coomaraswamy's 'primitive man', failed to separate in any meaningful way the sacred from the profane; just as their artwork was the integration of the useful and the beautiful, so their religious life was fully integrated into their work and play: '[In the Medieval civilization] secular art hardly exists, or rather the distinction between the sacred and the profane is immaterial since everything proceeds from Christ' (Ernst Kitzinger, Early Medieval Art, p. 92). On the micro level, this was all connected by their shared network of symbols, and the existential contentment that they derived from them - but fundamentally, from daily Mass to the urban marketplace to the potato fields, everything was motivated by a love for God. This profound integration allowed for an easier ontological transition from one world to the next:

'All of the exterior life was a rite, namely, an approximation, more or less efficacious and depending on individuals and groups, to a truth that the exterior life cannot produce by itself, but that allows a person to realize one's self in part or entirely, provided it is lived in a saintly way. These people lived the same life that they had for centuries; they made of this world a ladder in order to achieve liberation. These peoples used to think, to act, to love, to hate, and to wage war on each other in a saintly way; they had erected the one temple among a great number of other temples through which the stream of the waters ran. This temple was the bed of the river, the traditional truth, the holy syllable in the heart of the world' (Guido de Giorgio, 'Action and Contemplation').

The symbolic function is that ladder, the spiritual highway on which man drives his soul to higher planes of being according to his own inner vocation. By providing anything and everything with a symbolic reality, with an identity that transcends something considered merely as a material or historical fact, traditional man remained in touch with the sacred; all of life could in this way be conceived as a clear reflection of the higher or primal life. The old wars, for example, were never just about familial pride or economical gain or even religious dominance. War was essentially the opportunity for man to express both his love for patria and his pent-up destructive energies in a creative manner, in a manner that agrees with providence or divine destiny; Roman society figured that a war was already lost when its generals forsook the necessary sacrifices, failed to make the proper prayers. Serfdom, merchants, nobles, even prostitutes all had symbolic equivalents that made their occupations in the world more than what they were in an economic or sociological sense; they made them direct participants in the timeless reality by their connections to eternal vocations. This was truest of the priestly and kingly functions, of which Evola has the following to say:

'In the world of tradition the most important function of the authority and of the right of kings and chiefs, and the reason why they were obeyed, feared, and venerated, was essentially their transcendent and nonhuman quality. This quality was not artificial, but a powerful reality to be feared.... Traditional civilizations... completely ignored the merely political dimension of supreme authority as well as the idea that the roots of authority as well as the idea that the roots of authority lay in mere strength, violence, or natural and secular qualities such as intelligence, wisdom, physical courage, and a minute concern for the collective well-being. The roots of authority, on the contrary, always had a metaphysical character.... The root of every temporal power was spiritual authority, which was almost a "divine nature disguised in human form"'(Julius Evola, Revolt Against the Modern World, pp. 7-8).

The symbol is precisely the effect of that relationship - it is 'divine nature disguised in human form'. The traditional understanding of kingship, which considered the royal power as something very near or identical with the divine power, possesses the symbolic function par excellence; he is the active, temporal centre of civilization, whereas the pope or high priest is its contemplative, eternal centre. Joseph de Maistre says that 'God makes kings in the literal sense. He prepares royal races; maturing them under a cloud which conceals their origin. They appear at length crowned with glory and honour.... The truth is that they arise as it were of themselves, without violence on their part, and without marked deliberation on the other: it is a species of magnificent tranquility....' (de Maistre, 'Essay on the Generative Principle of Constitutions'). The idea of being a king is manifest in the king, the human form who bears the divine ideal of kingship; he himself becomes something eminently symbolic, a direct correspondence to the transcendent reality here on earth. This is important of course for his own vocation, but how much more so for his subjects who rally to that temporal centre! The necessity of a king becomes obvious once we realize both the need for a pseudo-divine personhood that rules in God's place in the world, and the need for the natural hierarchy of man. In this emphatically symbolic political organization, man can be taught to realize that this world is indeed not the end, but that it is the place through which the divine expresses itself, with or without our help.

If the symbol is fully utilized in the active arena, it most certainly is in the religious one, which brings us back to the beginning of this Section. It is important at this point, however, to distinguish between a strictly utilitarian judgment of art and the complete judgment of art, which includes not only the use of a thing but the good of a thing as well. The former pertains to the analysis of a work of art according to its purpose alone, i.e., a land mine is a good work of art if it performs its intended function, which is the destruction of anyone or thing that triggers it. The complete judgment of art, however, might state that such an instrument is ethically criminal, that it has no place in Christian society, especially if it is used against fellow Christians. This is why the Catholic Church, the traditional arbiter of culture in European history, outlawed the use of crossbows amongst the Christian nations - a crossbow might be well-made, it might even be beautiful from a certain point of view, but it was morally repulsive, and thus could not be completely beautiful. The strictly artistic judgment pertains to what is made; the complete judgment pertains to what ought or ought not to be made.

Conversely, if a work of art has highly noble content for its subject matter, it by no means attains to a greater artistic judgment; regardless of how well it may meet our moral demands, if such a work fails to express its idea in an artistically captivating and vigorous way, it can only qualify as something in the lower order, because 'expression in art proceeds from the work itself and the means employed and not from the subject portrayed' (Jacques Maritain). A monument sculpted in loving imitation of St. Mary, for instance, is nevertheless something quite classless if it is discoloured or misshapen or bland or otherwise deficient in form. Friedrich Schiller explains: 'In a truly beautiful work of art the content should do nothing, the form everything; for the wholeness of Man is affected by the form alone, and only individual powers by the content'. The content exists as a kind of neutral, malleable matter that is controlled by form; it can be moulded into something great like Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli or it can devolve into something like the average 'Christian' radio-rock song. In the first example the content becomes so much more compelling because of the form which wonderfully propels it; the listener is profoundly stirred by the beauty of the sacred words all the more due to the purity and elegance of their expression - according to Schiller, the 'whole of Man' is successfully moved. In the second unfortunate example, the content subsists merely as something sentimental, attracting the listener by means of secondary, non-musical kinships (the relationship between man and his faith), and not by the art itself, with which the listener would be entirely estranged if it were not for its need to invoke 'Awesome God' in its lyrics. The man as a whole has failed to be moved; it is only a vague emotional attachment that has responded to the music, and this cannot be called the complete artistic experience.

So any religious art if it is to be worth its name must avoid the fault of being beautiful in its concept, but sterile in its form. That this is one of the principal difficulties is obvious, because most of religious art is going to be an effort at representing the deeply spiritual, the invisibly sacred that requires our utmost reverence as servants of God; most of religious art is going to be 'conceptually beautiful', because the sacred cannot be conceived as anything but the highest degree of beauty. This sword is doubly edged, however, because if it is vulnerable to portraying a terrific image in a boring language, religious art is also privy to a vast host of terrific images that earnestly plead with us to be revealed in a thunderous communication; the march of the Saints, the Passion of the Christ, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary are all inimitable moments that nevertheless await imitation by our best artists. Due at once to the objective beauty of their relationship to the fallen world and to the inheritance of our own religious tradition, such moments offer an inexhaustible supply of artistic subject matter, and, from the humble iconography and engravings of the early Medievals to the sweeping splendour of the Baroque period, Europeans have been perfectly eager to utilize it. Art is a natural ally to religion:

'Art creates beauty. The beautiful is a transcendental of being, and to approach being as such is always to reach the threshold of the sacred.... The beautiful is... the most modest of all those modalities of being, since it is merely the good of sensible apperception of being, when there is conformity between the object of sense and the sensibility of an intelligent subject.... So also, religion mobilizes all the arts to press them into the service of the deity. Only, they themselves are not religion, and they first have to be art in order to serve any conceivable cause. And art should be at its best when the cause to be served is religion' (Etienne Gilson, The Arts of the Beautiful, p. 182).

Beauty serves as the gateway to the truth. Insofar as the arts capture and signify something true, they express something beautiful. As God possesses the highest, fullest degree of truth, naturally he commands the most beauty; as religion aims to unite man with God, naturally it demands its own beauty, which the arts hasten to provide. Genuine religion is something true, so likewise it requires its own 'gateway', and this has historically been supplied firstly in the shape of the Sacraments, but also in the creation and ornamentation of the Cathedrals, the hagiographies of the Saints, the poetic homilies that spiritually sustain the masses year after year after year. In several interesting studies using censors and surveys that were described in his book The Catholic Imagination, Andrew Greeley outlines the difference between Catholics and Protestants in regard to their perception of the arts, which is namely that 'Catholics are more interested in the fine arts than Protestants, and those Catholics who go to church regularly are the most likely to be interested in the fine arts.... Among Catholics the correlation between graceful imagery and regular churchgoing is positive. Among Protestants it is negative' (p.44). Greeley goes on to argue convincingly that it is the Catholic ideals of community, festivity, as well as their greater emphasis on a gracious, loving God are all part of what causes this divide. This hardly required a modern, empirical study to be observed, however, as the Protestant vision has historically been scornful of the material world, which included its representations of the spiritual world; the bold extravagance (even sometimes to excess) of the art of the Counter Reformation serves as proof enough of this, as Catholics sought to display the intrinsic truth of their faith through the unquestionable beauty of the material world. They did this through Bernini, Rembrant, Veronese, Rubens; they did this through art.

In conclusion, the symbol, as the gestalt of the relationship between the spiritual idea and the material expression, is the crucial element in any work of art, because it is the point where invisible concept and visible form meet in union; it is that crucible that makes known the unknown, and this in a specially inspired way that meets both our aesthetic and intellectual demands. The symbol is in any healthy society organically installed at every level in the hierarchy through an elaborate complex of colour and images that signify to man that he is not only an integral part of the workings of this world, but also of the other world as well. This is chiefly done through the religious arts, which enlist the symbolic function in their 'beautification' of the universe; all reality becomes something more than what it seems due to the symbolism achieved by pen, brush, hammer, and voice. Mythology and the religion which carries it offer an abundance of symbolic wealth because they are what help man out of his anxiety in time and into the security of eternity; the Gospels are the symbolic vision par excellence because God's Word is not only the theandric energy that sustains the universe, it is equally the success of the convergence between the mythical and the historical, and the consequent redemption of time. Through the Cross time becomes eternity - nunc fluens becomes nunc stans.

The Cross stands triumphant over hell because of what Christ performed, but the Cross stands over the earth because of what the Church performed and continues to perform - and not the least part of that conquest is thanks to the artistic enterprises of its membership. We end this Section with a highly apropos prayer for the restoration of sacral art:

'There is one thing which I would like and which I pray for; that everything beautiful be recovered for God and serve His praise. All that we see in creatures and in creation must be brought back to Him, and my sorrow is to see His Spouse, our holy mother the Church apparelled in hideousness. All her outward manifestation is so ugly, she that is so fair within; every effort is to make a fright of her; at the outset her body was bare, made over to beasts; now then artists set their souls to her adornment, next vanity, and last of all the trade, butts in, and so caparisoned, she is given up to ridicule' (Marie-Charles Dulac). 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

True Detective: Light Versus Dark

Disclaimer: spoilers are in full effect for this review!

Like so many other HBO shows in the last fifteen years, True Detective is awash in flesh, drugs, violence, and the various other vulgarities that simultaneously repulse us from the labyrinths of sin and yet draw us deeper inside. Like the rest of them it is set on exploring the dark under-belly of humanity, and like the rest of them it rivals the massive production values of the average Hollywood film. Unlike the typical HBO series, however, True Detective is decidedly unique in that it is essentially a story of 'Good Versus Evil'. Now, is it a traditional one, no, it cannot be; the increasingly tired use of the 'anti-hero' in contemporary storytelling prevents that from being true, with the two TD protagonists being as 'anti-heroic' as you might find anywhere in television today. And yet there is a definite warmth in them that develops in a way that comes across as more authentic than in the usual 'mysterious' bad man who is supposed to appeal to the viewer for his negative qualities instead of his 'good' ones, which commonly consist merely in being rather less negative than those of the antagonist. The generic anti-hero is simply an evil character whose particular form of evil resonates with the audience. Rust Cohle and Martin Hart, being atypical anti-heroes, fight evil not because they are merely less evil, but because they are fundamentally good men afflicted by evil; in a word, the detectives fight evil because they are human, party to devils and angels alike.

Before traversing the more crucial and frankly more interesting subject of the two main characters, it would behoove us to discuss the environment in which they act, and the atmosphere which they oftentimes strive against. It is the first test of a cinematic artwork to convey a setting as though it were alive, with its own identity, its own heartbeat; as though it were a real place, a new, foreign world waiting to be opened, its stories waiting to be told. Unlike the novel, where the writer is allowed by the nature of his art a certain liberty in the expression of his work, leaving the reader a measure of interpretation of events, people, places, the director of a film (or TV show) is in nowise so free; what he creates on the screen, what is captured on video, that is what everyone who watches the screen sees. There is no room for interpretation in that way, so he must invent room in other ways - this is what is known as 'cinematography' in the more specific sense, or the art of creating a mood or a vision by showing something happen in a particular light, in one way and not another. The choice of what is shown, the construction of sets, the addition of a soundtrack, and so on, all contribute to this one principal aim - the creation of a universally understood atmosphere that serves a purpose in the overall production.

In the case of True Detective, that atmosphere is most of all of a dark, dangerous beauty. In the portrayal of the long, absent landscapes and natural spectacles, for example, the atmosphere is something that is indeed beautiful in its Edenic, wild allure, but also one that the viewer wonders is not also conducive to the wickedness of man. Did not the serpent, after all, quietly emerge from the tangled trees of Paradise? Certainly the evil elements in this show seem to be the most at home in the undergrowth of the terrain, far removed from civilization; the invocation of the American literary mythology of 'Carcosa', too, and the distinctly pagan, superstitious charms ('devil-nests', the antlers affixed to the dead, etc.) used to present it to us, is unquestionably of something primeval, of something terrifyingly natural.

While the truly evil powers retreat to the wilderness to practise their madness, the atmosphere that issues from the scenes set in 'civilized' locales possesses a darkness of its own. From whores exiting trucks as they finish sessions to grizzled, impenetrable biker bars to a short but intensely fascinating war in the Negro neighborhood, it is clear that human development carries with it its own peculiar malice; in this there is a different but even more threatening sense of evil because it strikes nearer to the normal human, guilty as he is of wants and perversions even if he is not prone to the murder and rape of children like the serial killers are. It is moreover in the churches set up by a 'Christian' organization, ostensibly a force of civilization, that spawned these enemies of civilization, and possibly allowed them a greater freedom in their activities.

In a more neutral sense, however, the atmosphere succeeds wonderfully in enlivening the locations that this story is immersed in. Like Breaking Bad introducing the arid, toxic dimensions of New Mexico in a way that enriched the show's content, making the environment an integrated element in the story's development, True Detective likewise establishes a lush, sincere atmosphere that invites the viewer to engage with it. The lively, green stretches of sparsely populated land imbue their own sense of hostility that matches the savages to whom it plays host; yet we cannot help but delight in this profoundly natural aura, where life and death are weighed so precariously, almost arbitrarily. The music, from the mood-setting theme song that captures the sinister, bucolic tone of the show to the minimalistic motifs that invariably afford a stoic bleakness to any which scene, is invaluable in this unforgiving presentation of unforgiving Louisiana, providing as it does that singularly pensive, melancholic attitude that really defines this show. The human element, too, in the interviews with the various residents and related characters, is faintly reminiscent of As I Lay Dying; the rustic honesty and graceful, familial issues that persist through generations are present in TD, even if Faulkner's depth is deeper. The Gothic motifs of Lovecraft and Poe are likewise invoked through the aforementioned references to something occult and otherworldly, and add colour and substance to an already mythical setting.

It is worth noting as a solitary complaint that, purely in terms of pacing and quality of narrative, the first five
episodes far exceed the final three. The tension and the excitement of the pursuit of the original suspect, Reggie Ledoux, are extremely high: we experience the rising action in the first few leads as the struggle consists not only against the criminals but also those who try to cover their identities; we experience the most insightful dialogues between Rust and Marty as their two characters are excellently juxtaposed over the backdrop of a confusing, seemingly vicious reality; we experience Rust at his most comfortable, sinking to the bleary lowliness of human corruption in defiance of his own mental health (or lack thereof); and we experience a terrific line of action that runs from infiltrating a seedy biker gang to stirring up trouble in the Projects to hunting the Ledoux cousins in their own property. This more or less perfect pacing is then interrupted by a lacklustre aftermath; the 'intermission', as it were, trips up the gallop, and the level of excitement is never again reached in the same way, even as the hunt for 'Lawnmower Man' reaches its conclusion. The eccentricity of Cohle's crusade to catch the one they missed does not garner enough interest; what the two Black detectives have to reveal about the case does not keep the viewer watching, desperately awaiting the answers, eagerly turning the next episode on as he did during the first five.

That the story does go on, that it indeed needs to go on, is due to the personal resolutions of the detectives' storylines. The characters demand closure. Rust Cohle, for starters, has been established to be an intensely disillusioned person, tormented by the death of his daughter and the dissolution of his marriage. He has crafted a frightening pessimism from his heightened reason, uncaring introversion, and past experiences, and which pushes most people away from him. His weakness is naturally that of liquor, which allows him to retreat from the pounding in his head, the unenviable answers to life's most pertinent problems, the existential crisis of an intellect mutated into hatred and futility. For all of his intelligence, however, the best that he can come up with for Marty's precise question of 'why get out of bed in the morning' is either (non-verbatim), 'I lack the constitution required for suicide' or 'I am not strong enough to overcome my programming'. This is not good enough. This tells us that he lacks the full balance of such a broken worldview, that there is something else that commands him to go on. He caustically questions the institutions of religion and state and family, turning his hatred for life and consciousness into a deadly cynicism for anything that emerges from life and consciousness; and yet his criticisms are shallow, hollow, trite, and we become aware that these are not his essential positions, that they are more the result of bitterness than of genuine contemplation.

Whereas Cohle represents a figure of lonely pessimism, a conscientious objector, an eminently individual player, Martin Hart roughly corresponds to his opposite, a defender of community and the every-day, healthy values that the community espouses but which Cohle claims to see through. Marty says himself, 'I'm just a normal guy... with a big-ass dick', which contrasts wildly but usefully with how Cohle describes himself, which takes place through his dark musings about the nature of reality. The high school stereotypes of the jock and the nerd come immediately to mind. We may learn about Cohle through his thoughts first, but we learn about Marty through his actions, whose own weakness is women. While his strength should come from the women of his family, instead he loses himself in two mistresses at two different points during the course of the series. He defends these lapses as the need to nourish the family's health, to prevent them from receiving all the pent-up negatives of his work: 'You gotta take your release where you can find it... for the good of the family'. These rationalizations come across as equally hollow as those of Rust, and amount to the same thing, namely a failure to realize one's most inner needs in the chaos of ordinary life. Marty at heart loves his wife, his family, and he knows at heart that he fails them in these adulterous excursions; but he only truly realizes this when he comes face to face with their consequences.

The biggest success of True Detective consists in its character development, and how the two detectives interact with one another. This is where the show actually says something about the human condition, and which therefore constitutes its real value. While they are both coming from two very different places, ultimately both detectives are seeking the same thing: to be at peace with themselves. This search manifests itself in Marty in the ongoing problems with his wife Maggie and their two daughters; the resolution of this fault, we feel, seems to be the resolution of Marty as a person. It is never a problem of whether he loves her or not; we recall when he asks Cohle whether a man can love two women, for example. The 'love' for the other woman is of course not the true love a man feels for the one to whom he is married, but something else, something symbolic. Both mistresses are younger, and reminiscent of a young Maggie. Combined with the revealed hints of Marty's dissatisfaction with his aging, we can read into this a 'terror of time': he feels the irrevocable presence of time closing in, and lashes out by pursuing someone who reminds him of his youth, and vicariously experiences it thereby. It is in those moments when Maggie distances herself from him, however, that Marty is at his most expressive, his most violent, which again reveals his intimate connection with his family, even if at times he feels it growing cold. His truest, internal life is found in his family, which makes him a part of something. When he is deprived of that, he is deprived of reality, specifically of the reality he wants to believe in. Without his family he is reduced to the loneliness of whiskey and; without his family he is no longer a part of something.

This search reveals itself in Cohle through his oddly brilliant but nevertheless self-defeating monologues. With Marty in their car or the two detectives interrogating him, Cohle discusses everything from how it is 'hubristic' to create a child, to raise a soul from the depths of nothingness to the 'meat' of humanity, to the idea of eternal recurrence, of time perpetuating itself in a circle so that nothing we do matters because it will all happen again and again. That latter point was made in a particular period in the show which was supposed to be a moment of victory, right after the justice meted out to the evil Ledoux cousins. This was the nadir of the series in an existential sense; right when we are supposed to be rejoicing in triumph, we sink lower into the mire of Cohle's impossible nihilism, and it was sincerely, completely depressing. We realize at this point just how hostile he is to the potentials of joy and reconciliation; he is almost Calvinistic in this crazed detachment from the world, in this gnostic sort of disbelief in any goodness that is here. By the end of the series we can indeed recognize this as a 'false victory', because there were others out there whom they had not caught. This argument is falsified, however, when we witness the finale, in which a genuine sense of victory is enjoyed despite the fact that there were still a host of men like the Ledoux cousins and Errol Childress, even in relation to the Louisiana serial murders. The truth is that Cohle had not yet experienced his inner crisis of faith, his revelation at death's door, that lifelong obstacle which halted him from the opportunity of living life with love. This prevents him from being at peace with life's terrors, with the reality that there will always be evil. You cannot fight evil purely for the sake of destroying evil; you have to fight evil for the sake of love.

Cohle's heartfelt antithesis to the possibility of love is again made clear in one of his conversations with Marty, in which he bluntly says, 'I don't think that man can love, at least not the way that he means. Inadequacies of reality always set in'. So the irresolvable divide between an ideal and a fact prevents that ideal from being true; it prevents a man from being able to love. We say that it is a 'heartfelt' antithesis because what drives Cohle as a character is his innate love for his deceased daughter, even if he does not recognize it consciously. His relentless pursuit of the evil men, who have punished numerous little girls themselves, when everyone else are all too inclined to give up, suggests an affinity between Cohle and the murdered girls; that the show repeatedly pictures him driving past that billboard which reads, 'Do you know who killed me?' is significant in that it is both a reminder to him to discern the truth and a clue to his own state of mind, that his vindication possibly resides in tracking the killer down, in knowing who killed her. This is exemplary of what connects him to his daughter, the death of whom he places at the hands of God or simply a cruel, inchoate reality. However much he might deny it through his vague, heart-rending suppositions about the total lack of meaning in the universe, Cohle is driven by the death of his daughter, who represents a part of himself that he is struggling violently to reintegrate into his psyche. That explains the passion of his hunt for the killers, and the lives saved thereby, and that is what throws his entire life-negating philosophy into open contradiction. He unconsciously feels a latent love, but his experiences and his own genius steer him clear of recognizing it in favour of a warped cynicism that redirects that love into a disingenuous, bewildered hatred.

This contradiction reveals itself in other ways, namely in Rust's attempts to help Marty with his infidelity. In Episode Three, for example, knowing that Marty is having an affair, Rust visits his wife and cuts their grass. In doing this, Marty's position as patriarch is undermined, and he can catch a glimpse of what he has to lose. Rust wittingly shows Marty what he has taken for granted in the hope that he sees the faulty choices he has made. Marty is angered by this, of course, and yet does not realize the deeper meaning of what Rust is trying to say. This subtle piece of compassion for his partner is surprising, but it would not make any sense at all if Rust were not inwardly motivated by something more than what he lets us on to, something more than his esoteric, despondent, drawling nihilism allows for.

Now, to return to our original thesis, what makes True Detective special is that, to an extent, its characters actually find what they are looking for. In other, lesser shows writers are often content to leave the 'heroes' as they were, still struggling with inner conflict, claiming in their defense (not without reason, mind) that the human condition is something naturally conflicted, that it is more honest to leave characters in a state of crisis or some mild form of self-appeasement. In True Detective, on the other hand, that search to be at peace with the world and with oneself is actually satisfied. There is a genuine resolution that not only flies in the face of current trends in the medium of film, but in the context of the series itself; the heavy, oppressive atmosphere, the persistence of moral weakness in the protagonists, the terrible scale of evil manifest in the antagonists, and the truly disheartening weltanschauung expressed by Rust Cohle all prepare the viewer for an inevitable victory for the darkness. Was there anyone watching who expected both Rust and Marty to survive the final skirmish with Childress in 'Carcosa'? The fact that they did serves the purpose of the show far more than if they did not - death might offer a dramatic denouement and a heightened confession of pathos that profoundly touches the audience, but in this case it would be a convenience, an escape for the writers in that they would not have to resolve these two elaborate, sympathetic, and patently real characters that they have been patiently, lovingly constructing this whole time.

So they had to survive, and this survival was twofold: one in the literal sense, that they did not die in fighting Childress, and secondly in the personal sense, that they survived the two main existential crises of their storylines. First we see Marty recovering in the hospital, surrounded by his ex-wife and his two daughters. He dissolves into tears in their company, stirred into a frenetic activity of the heart as he approaches what he has been searching for, namely that intimacy between himself and those whom he loves. This is also how he is finally able to see himself as a 'good man', in his strength as the family leader. There is a recurring question for Marty, one which he directly asks Rust: 'Do you ever wonder if you're a bad man?' Marty struggles with seeing himself as a good person, which is what he yearns to be; his wife tells him multiple times that he was a better man when he married her, and this helps provoke his infidelity. The second mistress, Beth, says to him in Episode 6, 'You're a good man; anyone can see that'. She seduces Marty not so much through her body, but through her validation of Marty as a person, as 'a good man'. That he is left wanting after the fact is evident both through his body language and the focus on a couple ornaments in her room, an angel and a demon, with the latter being the prominent figure. Now, whether Maggie actually reunites with her husband as with the time they took down the Ledoux cousins, is left unknown, and is more or less insignificant anyway. The point is clear: he sees his wife and his daughters, whom he has loved and created, and can finally see himself as a good man. He has destroyed another pillar of evil in Errol Childress, he has made a family, and he sees enough in that to vindicate his place in the world. His connection to the reality he wants to live in is re√ęstablished.

The existential survival of Rust Cohle is understandably a much different affair. This is firstly true in its taking place in a spiritual revelation while he was immersed in the darkness of a coma. Rust describes it, through stuttering though perfectly comfortable tears, as a 'vague awareness' where he feels his 'definitions', all his abstract musings about the world, his definition of himself possibly, fading away, becoming meaningless as he nears the ultimate meaning. There is a deeper darkness yet, but it is warm, and he feels, finally he feels a substance in that darkness: his daughter. He feels as though he were 'a part of everything I ever loved' in that black space. That love that lurked in the shadows of his soul, that flickered here and there throughout the series but was always masked by a veil of invincible cynicism, shows itself to him in its wholeness, its necessity, its grace; that love has filled in the lonesome cavern which was once the source of all his bitterness. Where Marty required outward validation to confront and overcome his personal conflicts, Rust had to descend into the kingdoms within himself to defeat his own - but the result is essentially the same. They both sought a bond to reality, a way to intimate themselves with the world they lived in, for otherwise they were lost to whatever their respective frailties of conscience and introspection revealed - and they both found it.

It is fitting that the finest, most endearing lines of the series are reserved for the final conversation. After all the philosophical bleakness and haughty condemnations of various ideas that the common man values, it is absolutely natural that this is all reversed in a new, precious insight that is paradoxically as unlike the Cohle we know as it is like him. Marty brings up when Rust told him about how he looked up at the stars as a boy, and made up stories, but Rust presently says, 'There is only one story: Light versus Dark'. If that is true of this story, the two detectives can only be representatives of the Light; they can only be good guys. This is the moment of the show that defines the show, brings everything into focus, and reveals to us finally that it was all along Good Versus Evil. The evil is obviously apparent in the varying villains that are overthrown, but the evil in themselves is just as manifest, and arguably just as repulsive in a more intimate sense as the serial murderers are in the most basic sense. Both characters had to defeat the darkness inside of them at the same time as defeating the darkness walking the world, which acted to symbolize in an ugly, horrifying way the depths of depravity present in us as a species, as individuals. The terrors are real and universal and fully capable of subverting our human authority, even to the point of driving us to hopelessness; and yet, as Rust says, 'Once there was only dark [in the sky]; if you ask me the light's winning'. This is a radical change from when he advocated the idea of eternal recurrence, in which nothing we do matters because it all happens ad infinitum. Now there is a linear creation, a cosmic warfare between principalities that we directly participate in; now there is beauty, and a purpose to our actions. Now there is light where once there was none, and now there is love where once there was none.

In summary, then, True Detective was wildly fascinating from the start. The smoldering intensity of Rust's convictions, the struggle against the disintegration of Marty's family life, the sudden changes in pace between meditative reflection and resplendent acts of violence, the organic, frightening atmosphere that purposefully pervades the entire story were all sufficient in captivating my attention to what I thought was a real good show; but what captivated my deeper interest and what makes it a truly exceptional show was only conveyed in the final episode, when the myriad of personal problems are finally solved in a way that makes them seem so much more real, so much more humanely gratifying than you often find in the cultural vacuum of modern art. Beneath the depressive, heartless atmosphere and the stench of Babylon and human weakness, there is a delightfully subtle narrative that opposes the darkness with a quiet light, that brings the chaos into context. Prior to the final scene, there were only two guys riddled with crises, overcome by chaos, inspiring not confidence in humanity but contempt; but after the final scene there was sublime catharsis and a supremely articulate hope. For there really is only one story, and it is the one that we all live within ourselves and in the world: it is Light Versus Dark, Good Versus Evil, and the greatest hope inheres in our faith that Good really does trump Evil, that the Light of eternity presides when even the blackest void has succumbed.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Art & Beauty - Part I, Section IV: Symbolism & the Imaginative Power

The essential part of any work of art is its symbolic component. We have discussed the pressing need to know the specific nature of an artwork, its first and second perfections, its formal and intellectual qualities, and so forth. But while all of this is useful and important for conceptual reasons, in order to attain a full understanding of art as it operates in the world we must first understand its actual role in the mind of man, and to do this we must know the value of the symbol.

First of all, as we will discuss at greater length in the next Part, the symbol is often seen as something 'illusory', as an image meant to distract from the thing in itself - and is therefore considered to be 'unreal'. What this perspective fails to account for is the precise relationship between the formal thing and its symbolic representative, which consists in the idea dressing itself in the garments that sensible reality offers it and thereby creates the symbol. The idea is not 'obscured' in this operation, nor does it remain an abstraction; on the contrary, in partaking of the material substance and participating in reality as we see it, the idea is elevated in a way that it could not be if it had remained aloof from the sensible domain. The matter contains the idea in a symbiotic relationship that at once presents the formal thing in a concrete, tangible shape, and imbues the material with the principled organization that allows it a real identity. The idea of the Parthenon, insofar as it remains unmade, is virtually unreal, existing as a concept alone; the matter of the Parthenon would likewise remain a mass of marble and stone if these materials were not used to make that idea a fact in every sense of the word. The Parthenon as a construction is a symbol at once of itself, of the idea of the Parthenon, but even more it is a symbol of at first the Greek Goddess Athena, and later the Holy Theotokos, the Mother of God, because that was its ordained function.

We can see, then, how this relates to what we have already discussed concerning Plato's theory of mimesis, albeit with more of an Aristotelian angle. What we mean by 'symbol', however, is more directly influential in human society, because it is something that is made exclusively by humans; the symbol is the principal way by which we establish contact with the transcendentals and, eventually, with God. We cannot understand a transcendental except insofar as it reveals itself in this world, dressed in this world's attire; the creation of symbols is our way of dressing these ideals, specifically in the garments germane to our own particular traditions, whatever they may be. The Christian virtues of love, mercy, forgiveness, etc., are therefore given symbolic form in ecclesiastic iconography much like the Indian concepts of detachment, inner peace, and the outer wars of this world are given symbolic form via their own colourful mythologies. The symbol does not distract or detract from the ideal, but offers us a clarity and a tangibility through which we can approach that ideal:

'[It] is easy to see in a general way that in a civilization [the arts] have a character all the more manifestly symbolic as the civilization itself is more strictly traditional, for their true value lies less in what they are in themselves than in the possibilities of expression which they afford, beyond those to which ordinary language is confined. In a word, their productions are above all destined to serve as ''supports'' for meditation, and as foundations for as deep and extensive an understanding as possible, which is the very raison d'etre of all symbolism....' (Rene Guenon, 'The Arts and their Traditional Conception').

All symbolism, and by extension all art, is therefore more of a means than an end; a symbol is the visible and comprehensible image through which the invisible and incomprehensible presents itself. The contemplation of that image, whether through story, music, painting, or the ornamentation of a cathedral, leads one to a more immediate and impacting grasp of the idea behind the image. This is useful because we cannot wholly understand something without the aid of our other faculties; the consequence of trying to do so is the separation of mind from body, which means an empty abstraction on the rational side and an unrefined materialism on the sensible side. The symbol is what connects the mind to the senses - it connects what we see to what we know; and, from the perspective of the artist, it connects what he knows to what others see and therefore know.

Kant proclaimed that the noumenal, conceptual domain was something isolated, that we cannot truly access the 'thing-in-itself' except as it appears to us through the phenomenal domain, when it ceases to be the 'thing-in-itself'. This is similar to what we have spoken of as Plato's metaphysics, but is different in that Kant believes these things to be inaccessible by reason, while Plato of course is confident in the ability of disinterested discursive power to attain sufficient knowledge on a level independent of mind and matter. Kant's argument makes reality into something that is represented by one's mind, by one's perspective of it; Plato considers reality as something independent of how anyone perceives it. The Good exists regardless of whether we know it or not, but the point is that we can know it, even in its 'pure' state thanks to the capability of discursive knowledge.

While this is all very well in theory, this line of thinking, particularly Kant's with his more solid disconnect between knowable things and unknowable things, tends to become dried out with the dust that abstraction brings. The noumena are lost, distant principles that, because they cannot be known, are sufficient in philosophical terms but vague and remote on any other terms; Kant was little more than a skeptic in this way, for, while he did suppose that there was something that caused the appearances which the skeptics thought was the entirety of reality, he nevertheless left that something unqualified and doomed to remain in doubt due to the limitations of our understanding. By reducing reality to the confines of our perception, Kant and the other idealists shut us out from self-transcendence, from the authentic overcoming of the human condition and the fallen world which we inhabit; this conception is unable to lift itself beyond the sphere of the immanent, which makes its claims about the 'ultimate reality' mere abstractions, and which causes Charles Taylor to ask: 'how does a Hegelian philosopher pray? ....What he can do is contemplate his identity with cosmic spirit, which is something quite different' (Charles Taylor, Hegel, 1975). Without a truly transcendent entity, there can be no faith.

Contrary to the idealist's belief that we are hopelessly cut off from the underlying reality, traditional philosophy in the West has ever maintained a strong balance between a reason capable of the apperception of being and an intuition capable of experiencing being. Not only can we know to a certain degree Kant's 'external' reality, but we can also live it in a way. This is essentially what the Christian tradition has achieved, in the theoretical sense in the Scholastic classrooms, but more tangibly in its ecclesiastic life, where the living stream of religious consciousness is imbued upon those willing to receive it. This is where symbolic knowledge comes alive. The things which are taught and conceived rationalistically are thereafter introduced as new avenues for man to understand them in their fullness: 'Symbolism alone, by a delimitation of the spheres of spirit and nature, by putting a barrier to the competence of rational knowledge, and by opening up new ways of knowledge, safeguards the inalienable rights and the eternal truths of religious life' (Nikolai Berdyaev, Freedom and the Spirit, 1935).

One can never make a spiritual ethos out of the immanent, objective, viscerally arid philosophy of Immanuel Kant; to do so would result in the same abstractions, the same ouroboric circling that results from Cartesian philosophy. The rationale of these systems does not allow for them to have true, existential life, because their epistemology is a cul-de-sac. What breaks that dead-end wide open is firstly the existence of a reality independent of our individual representations of it, and then the symbolic understanding that enables us to perceive that reality without in any way diluting it to our consciousness; as a matter of fact, as the idea is transformed into the vivid, visually incisive allure of the symbol, it actually attains a greater meaning for us than if it were to remain in its purely intellectual form. The idea is comprehended in the symbol in its complete form, because it is perceived from every angle of the human person who now understands the idea as part of himself:
'Rational knowing operates with concepts, and presupposes the intentional abstraction of the knower from his subjectivity, whereas the participatory knowledge of existential knowledge presupposes a basis in metaphor and symbol, and can only come about where the whole person as thinking, feeling and willing subject is totally involved' (Georg Nicolaus, C.G. Jung and Nikolai Berdyaev: Individuation and the Person, p. 91).

Symbolic understanding is moreover important because of its location at the core of the human person. It is at the centre of everything, lying in the 'middle' of the senses, the memory, the imagination, and the intellect. It is not a faculty in itself, but is rather the conduit through which every other faculty receives and utilizes its information. Language itself is a form of 'symbolic understanding' because of how we use it to communicate what would otherwise be abstract, intangible concepts. Every word is a sign of something else, and a series of words are strung together to form a composite whole that allows us to understand one another in a relatively fluid manner. The arts are simply a more eloquent expression of this; Aristotle called this 'rhetoric', the pleasing patina of something that is meant to provide it with a more effectively persuasive character. The arts, when properly constructed and received, are indeed the 'language of the gods', the means by which the divine can communicate with the human, and vice versa. The delight we take in Hesiod's epic myths or in the fugues of Bach is this very process of communication; the portions of reality that were seized on by such artists and represented in musical and poetic form are conveyed to us in these forms which are innately delightful to men of sensibility. This supreme pleasure is innate because of our intuitive yearning for the real, and this yearning is therein satisfied because of the intensely real nature of such arts.

When we perceive something of symbolic value, identifying it with something we already know, identifying it as something true, we experience the real pleasure of art, which is as we have already explained at once intellectual and sensual. This is what happens when we call something created ex materia beautiful: we sensually perceive the object, intellectually recognize its form, and unite the two together symbolically to thereby complete the experience. We not only gain moral and metaphysical knowledge through the contemplation of symbols, we do it in such a way that the whole human person engages in the experience, which makes it the most complete means by which we view the world. The intellectual and sensible functions share equally; the entire soul rejoices.

'In principle everything in the realm of existence is a symbol of a reality above, the only exception being the Divine Principle which is only itself and not the symbol of anything else. This doctrine also deals with the process whereby symbols descend from the purely intelligible realm... through the power of creative imagination to their manifestation in an external form' (Seyyed Hossein Nasr, foreword to Every Man an Artist, ix-x).

This brings us to the most important component of the creation of a symbolic lexicon, namely, the imagination. When we perceive something, say a sword on the ground, we potentially see two things: the first is that it is simply a steel sword lying where it should not be, with its hilt extended away from us; the second is that of a cross, with the cross-guard forming the intersection between the hilt and the blade. The first is strictly empirical or ratiocinative or literal reasoning, the act of determining what the thing is based only on what our memory and inductive knowledge tell us what it is; the second is an act of the imagination, speculating what the thing could also be based on the creative part of our intellect. This again hearkens back to the dual uses of our instruments, how something used for one specific thing could also be symbolically considered as something very different; it is no coincidence that the Crusaders venturing into the Middle East bore broadswords that resembled the religious image of their spiritual leader par excellence. Or maybe it was coincidence at first, but it is an indisputable fact that these soldiers saw in their weapons something useful for destroying their enemy - and something explicitly Christian in their imaginative figuring. Julius Evola makes this very observation in Revolt Against the Modern World:

'In the Middle Ages we witness a blossoming of treatises in which every weapon of the knight was portrayed as a symbol of spiritual or ethical virtues; symbols that were almost intended to remind him of these virtues in a visible way and to connect any chivalrous deed with an inner action' (Julius Evola, Revolt Against the Modern World, p. 84).

In order for art to create a valid symbolism, the artist needs to possess a thriving imagination, because it is by this tool that he 'connects the dots', so to speak, this tool by which he can sensibly express what he apperceives on the intelligible level. It is one thing to claim to reveal the nature of feminine beauty by drawing a beautiful woman, and that is well enough; but it is something else, something more subtly poetic, to reveal that nature by the exposition of lunar or oceanic splendour; in focussing on these other things, which are virtually omnipresent characteristics of femininity in traditional symbolism, he can directly unveil his thesis with more rhetorical conviction, and he can directly approach those things which are the essential qualities of feminine beauty. Her grace, her fluidity, her nocturnal dependence, etc., are all explicated in this symbolic artwork.

There is moreover the tendency to represent archetypal feminine qualities through the mythological creation of female gods who express these qualities; these include, for example, the goddess Freyja, who in the Norse vision symbolized the pre-eminent feminine quality of fertility, and the goddess Diana in Roman mythology who was the personification of the relationship woman has with nature, sharing the same passivity and unpredictability that characterizes the elemental dimension. This was sometimes even made literal, an historical presence, as in the Vestal Virgins who fuelled the spiritual fires of Rome, or in the Christian convents which served as pillars of chastity, and whose inhabitants had love only for God. This reflected not only the healthy relationship that man had with the divine, but also that he felt the need to 'sacralize' his world by making it into something of a mirror image of the heavens; he did this through symbolism, the medium by which archetypal ideas are given material life, and through the imagination, the faculty by which we can visualize things that cannot be seen or heard by our eyes or ears.

The imagination is not only needed for the creation of symbols, but also in our understanding of symbols. It would indeed be futile for the artist to create a whole pantheon of accurate and endearing symbols only for them to be misinterpreted or missed altogether by the intended viewer. Like the artist, the viewer must also 'connect the dots'; in order to understand the work he must be mindful of the tradition in which the artist is working, of the transcendental things as eternal and influential objects, of their metaphorical values, and finally of how they are all connected inside the work. He does this chiefly through that part of the intellect called the imagination, or the picturing of things which have no direct equivalent in sensible, mundane reality. There are no positivistic properties that suggest the inherent royalty of the sun; but nevertheless traditions from time immemorial have attached kingship to the sun, from the Egyptian God-man called Pharaoh to the universal God-man called Jesus Christ ('But unto you that fear my name, the Sun of righteousness will arise, with health in his wings', Malachi 4:2). They do this by the natural spiritual associations these things have with one another, associations that are more real than the empirical fact that rocks are associated with the quality of being hard or with shades of grey. The imagination is the retrieval of these spiritual associations within the inner confines of man's being; he reaches deep into his 'psyche' and locates what every man possesses by the right of his being another member of the human species. The organization of this imaginative process is mythology, the stuff that the great religions are composed of.

When we experience a work of symbolic art, it is our imagination that can gaze beyond the immediate meaning of the work and comprehend their full meaning. Our sense of storytelling, the healthy pleasure that we take from the narrative is no doubt important, but this is a pleasure that exists at first only on the literal, surface level; the real pleasure is the intellectual one that emerges when we finally understand the symbolic import of the story, its meaning as a whole, and how the artist has managed to convey all of this with the material he has at his disposal. There is in this respect the Medieval theory of the 'four-fold' or 'polysemous allegory', which refers to the four ways in which a work of art communicates its ideas. The first is the literal meaning, which is simply what the text means in the most concrete way, for example, 'the bird escaped its cage and flew out of the window' means that the bird literally flew out of the window. The second is the allegorical (or typological) meaning, which is a connection made between two natural or visible things; the bird fleeing his cage might allegorically mean, in the context of the story, the future progression of a child character growing into adulthood and leaving the house of his family. The third is the moral (or tropological) meaning, which is of course the moral significance of an event; again depending on the context of the entire story, the bird flying out of the window could either be a warning to the character, say, to not disobey his family, or it could be an encouragement, an optimistic sign prodding him to make his own way. The fourth and most important meaning is the anagogical, which is like allegory except that it signifies transcendent reality, not natural reality; the bird fleeing the cage could be anagogically understood as the ascension of man towards the heavenly, as the triumph of the character's will to vanquish his worldly constraints and advance into the freedom of God. This whole act, both the creation of the story and its fourfold understanding, is effectively an example of symbolism; the bird and its escape scene forms a symbolic impression on the mind of the viewer via his imagination because of all that it represents.

'The first [sense of a text] is called the literal, and it is the one that extends no further than the letter as it stands; the second is called the allegorical, and is the one that hides itself under the mantle of these tales, and is a truth hidden under beauteous fiction. As when Ovid says that Orpheus with his lyre made wild beasts tame and made trees and rocks approach him; which would say that the wise man with the instruments of his voice maketh cruel hearts tender and humble; and moveth to his will such as have not the life of science and art; for they that have not the rational life are as good as stones.... The third sense is called moral.... Thus we may note in the Gospel, when Christ ascended the mountain for the transfiguration, that of the twelve apostles he took with him but three; wherein the moral may be understood that in the most secret things we should have but few companions. The fourth sense is called the anagogical, that is to say ''above the sense''; and this is when a scripture is spiritually expounded which even in the literal sense, by the very things it signifies, signifies again some portion of the supernal things of eternal glory; as may be seen in that song of the prophet which saith that when the people of Israel came out of Egypt, Judea was made whole and free. Which although it may be manifestly true according to the letter is none the less true in its spiritual intention; to wit, that when the soul goeth forth out of sin, it is made holy and free in its power' (Dante, The Convivio, Second Treatise, Chapter I).

William Blake said that 'Imagination is the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is only a faint shadow'. The imagination is what Blake calls the anagogical method of communication; they both refer to how we understand the 'real and eternal world', namely, by wrapping the eternal things in the guise of things wholly durable. Dante's Commedia, perhaps the finest example of the 'fourfold allegory', conceives of the cosmos in this way by telling a story that expresses all of the above but none quite so well as the anagogical; every other element, the literal, moral, and allegorical meanings, are there merely to support the fundamental conclusion conveyed by the anagogical reality. The collapse of the self into the dungeons of hell, and the slow but inexorable progression back into the warmth of love and heaven, anagogically reveals the quintessential story of the human being and more or less everything in between; we are shown the overpowering realness of the transcendent through the ebb and flow of the story, through the particular events that take place as short but archetypal examples of the human experience.

William Blake does the same thing in his own poetry, in which he says, 'All Things are comprehended in their Eternal Forms in the divine body of the Saviour, the True Vine of Eternity, The Human Imagination'. His cosmology (one could arguably call it a mythology, even) seeks to express eternity through his heroes and villains, gods and devils, his whole array of characters who wage war over the soul of fallen man. The most important to him, however, is Los, the symbolic figure of the imagination who fights his rational counterpart Urizen, who in turn strives to dominate man. Los is envisioned as working in the furnaces of the world, tirelessly creating things to combat the strict, ratiocinative control of the tyrant; creative energy is thus supposed to be the true fount of human health, not a merely empirical reason that governs by looking downwards instead of upwards. He is right, too, for reason as such must be subservient to the objective demands of the eternal reality; if it considers only the literal and historical dimensions, it fails in its role, it cannot understand the higher dimensions. If it is enlightened by a creative intuition and an active imagination, on the other hand, the intellect will be able to symbolically reconstruct the cosmos in a meaningful, concrete, and decidedly non-abstract way. It will be able to understand the world in which we live in every aspect. Through the imagination we can conceive of things in their eternal sense and communicate that conception in a language that appeals to the inner compartments of our being: 'Around the Throne Heaven is open'd; the Nature of Eternal Things Display'd, All Springing from the Divine Humanity. All beams from him'.

In conclusion, then, the symbol is the most important piece of any work of art because it unites the sacred with the mundane, a union whereby man man can easily comprehend how and why he exists in what might otherwise seem to be a chaotic and random universe. The imagination, as the creative part of the intellect, is precisely how the symbol is created and comprehended; by picturing things that have little material relevance but whose spiritual associations are of the most fraternal nature, man can unveil those deeper parts of his nature that connect him to the whole of humanity in ways that all those other particular, fragmentary things cannot. The mystical significance of how we grasp the eternal truly goes beyond language, art, politics, all culture; being dependent only upon God, the forms exist independently of all that. The way that we interpret them might be different on a superficial level, but at the heart of the matter traditional man in whatever society is united in that he shares a common language of the transcendental, which he called mythical truth.

In a word, the Imagination is the visualization of the divine in all the shining sensibility of the material world - its quintessential result is the Symbol, which breathes life into remote concepts to familiarize ourselves with their total meaning.