Beauty, violence and redemption...

There is a fascinating paradox at work in the insight from Dostoevsky that “beauty can save the world.” As this morning’s NY Times makes clear in their accounting of the July murder of Marwa al-Sherbini in Dresden, Germany, this just “ain’t necessarily so.” At the same time, however, the testimony of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn – made explicit in his Nobel Peace Prize essay – continues to suggest that beauty and art have a unique and mysteriously redemptive role to play in creation that is always beyond our consciousness. (See:; and

In his article, “In Dresden Cultural Beauty Meets Ugly Bigotry,” columnist Michael Kimmelman wrestles with the fact that hate crimes are on the rise in the midst of this city saturated in cultural depth and beauty. Dresden is not only home to the Baroque music of Bach, it has become something of an icon to peace and human reconciliation.

For nearly 60 years the bombed ruins of the cathedral were left as a sober testimony to the wages of war and social intolerance. In 2005, the Frauenkirche was rebuilt to include over 2000 pieces of the original altar and images of its former destruction. Into this context, Kimmelman asks: “What are the humanizing effects of culture? Evidently there are none… (because) nothing can make sense of a senseless murder or help change the mind of a violent bigot.”

Here are the facts:

• Ms. Al-Sherbini was an Egyptian pharmacist who was stabbed 18 times in front of her three year old son in a Dresden courtroom. Her husband, a genetic research scientist, was also critically wounded trying to defend her – and when the police arrived “on the scene, (they) mistook him for the attacker and shot him in the leg.”

• What brought them into the courthouse is important: besides wearing a hajib, Ms. Sherbini had asked the man who would eventually murder her to give her son room on a playground swing set. His reply was to call her “an Islamist, a terrorist and a slut.” They were in court to settle and pay his fine.

How could a society that nourishes Mozart on its street corners, asks Kimmelman, simultaneously encourage such hatred and violence? Indeed, how could a culture that regularly celebrates the wisdom of multi-culturalism by showcasing the genius of European art alongside comparable gems from African and Asia – and attracts over 10 million tourists each year eager to witness the city’s sublime architecture and traditions – also support the senseless murder of Ms. Sherbini? Kimmelman concludes:

The lesson of Dresden, which this great city unfortunately seems doomed to repeat, is that culture is, to the contrary, impractical and fragile, helpless even. Residents of Dresden who believed when the war was all but over, that their home had somehow been spared annihilation by its beauty were all the more traumatized when, in a matter of hours, bombs kissed tens of thousands and obliterated centuries of humane and glorious architecture.

The truth is, we can stare as long as we want at that Raphael Madonna; or at Antonello da Messina’s “St. Sebastian,” now besides a Congo fetish sculpture in another room in the Gemaldegalerie; or at the shiny coffee sets, clocks and cups made of coral and mother-of-pearl and coconuts and diamonds culled from the four corners of the earth in the city’s New Green Vault, which contains the spoils of the most cultivated Saxon kings. But it won’t make sense of a senseless murder or help change the mind of a violent bigot. What we can do, though, is accept that while the arts won’t save us, we should save them anyway. Because the enemies of civilized society are always just outside the door.

I resonate with Kimmelman’s frustration. I share his horror. And I wrestle with what role culture, beauty and art play in the healing and redemption of the soul. Clearly as the NY Times’ chief art critic, Kimmelman’s observation that the “arts won’t save us but we should save them anyway” is not without gravitas.

The revival of Neo-Nazi ideology as well as the widening clash of cultures between Western Europe and Islam is authentically frightening. Christopher Caldwell, writing in Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West, notes that: “Through decades of mass immigration to Europe’s hospitable cities and because of a strong disinclination to assimilate, Muslims are changing the face of Europe, perhaps decisively. These Muslim immigrants are not so much enhancing European culture as they are supplanting it. The products of an adversarial culture, these immigrants and their religion, Islam, are “patiently conquering Europe’s cities, street by street.” (NY Times, July 29, 2009) The fears – and the violence – are escalating.

What is missing in Kimmelman’s reflection, however, is that longer vision of both the human soul and the arts that Alexandr Solzhenitsyn brings to the table. Nourished by a life time of spiritual discipline, critical reflection on human nature, worship, and engagement with the arts, Solzhenitsyn understands that there “a certain peculiarity in the essence of beauty, a peculiarity in the status of art: namely, the convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and it forces even an opposing heart to surrender.”

In the speech that he was to deliver upon receiving the Noble Peace Prize for literature – and which he was prevented from sharing by the Soviet regime – the Russian reflects on his own experience as an author as well as what he has learned from other artists. Without a hint of romanticism – or bitterness – Solzhenitsyn makes the case that during a season when both truth and goodness are wounded, it is often the presence of beauty that nourishes what is noble in humankind so that the diminished members of the ancient Trinity are able to be revived.

One day Dostoevsky threw out the enigmatic remark: "Beauty will save the world". What sort of a statement is that? For a long time I considered it mere words. How could that be possible? When in bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything? Ennobled, uplifted, yes - but whom has it saved?
But a work of art bears within itself its own verification: conceptions which are devised or stretched do not stand being portrayed in images, they all come crashing down, appear sickly and pale, convince no one. But those works of art which have scooped up the truth and presented it to us as a living force - they take hold of us, compel us, and nobody ever, not even in ages to come, will appear to refute them.

So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through - then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar TO THAT VERY SAME PLACE, and in so doing will fulfill the work of all three?

The essay is worth rereading from time to time: not only does the old master review how he was given strength and hope through beauty, but he also describes how through the writing of The Gulag Archipelago other artists were given strength to renew their own quest for truth and goodness. His conclusion warrants another hearing:

We shall be told: what can literature possibly do against the ruthless onslaught of open violence? But let us not forget that violence does not live alone and is not capable of living alone: it is necessarily interwoven with falsehood. Between them lies the most intimate, the deepest of natural bonds. Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence. Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his METHOD must inexorably choose falsehood as his PRINCIPLE.

At its birth violence acts openly and even with pride. But no sooner does it become strong, firmly established, than it senses the rarefaction of the air around it and it cannot continue to exist without descending into a fog of lies, clothing them in sweet talk. It does not always, not necessarily, openly throttle the throat, more often it demands from its subjects only an oath of allegiance to falsehood, only complicity in falsehood.

And the simple step of a simple courageous man is not to partake in falsehood, not to support false actions! Let THAT enter the world, let it even reign in the world - but not with my help. But writers and artists can achieve more: they can CONQUER FALSEHOOD! In the struggle with falsehood art always did win and it always does win! Openly, irrefutably for everyone! Falsehood can hold out against much in this world, but not against art.

My reflections on discerning the spiritual in popular culture – particularly rock music – is grounded in these insights of Solzhenitsyn. As a consequence of his wisdom, I have appropriated three broad spiritual disciplines from the work of Harvey Cox in The Feast of Fools to guide and shape my work. They include:

• Festivity as the cultivation of humility through humor: grace not judgment.

Fantasy as a type of playful prayer and embodied imagination: the word made flesh.

Hospitality as a prophetic critique of the status quo: life as a part of Christ’s living body/community.

Tomorrow I will spend some time of these spiritual disciplines – festivity, fantasy and hospitality – so that the conversation might go deeper.
Until then...dig this:


Amina1389 said…
I am absolutely speechless in hearing this remarkable story.
And yet, heartbroken at the very same time!

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