Beauty Will Save the World – But Which Beauty?

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There are some quotations so arresting, so perfect in simplicity, that they never leave the memory. They are honeyed phrases for the mind: “Beauty will save the world,” says a prince in Dostoevsky’s unfortunately-titled The Idiot.[1] The prince speaks as one having authority: beauty will save the world. Or there is Keats in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: ” ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’-that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”.[2] Or St. Augustine saying to God in his Confessions, “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new”.[3] It is yet more surprising to find Genesis in league with each of the above, for in Genesis‘s opening chapter the refrain so quietly insistent, “And God saw that it was good,” contains a Hebrew word which may be translated either as good or as beautiful.[4] The feel of the whole chapter changes if one hears God proclaim that the light, the sun, the greenery, the animals are all beautiful, and mankind very beautiful.

Ah, the riddle of beauty and the craft of these writers in phrasing that riddle. Indeed, our prince in The Idiot is asked, immediately after his triumphal statement about beauty, just which beauty will save the world? That is a much harder question, but the Prince affirms in response who will save the world. In considering “the Good, the True, and the Beautiful”-our 2005 conference’s title-a temptation arises to forget the Person in view of the principles. Abstract ideas, concepts, and theories can take the place of God who quite physically incarnates those principles. “Beauty is the splendor of truth,” (veritatis splendor) announces Plato, and he has the Forms in mind here, literally Ideas. As compelling as Plato’s picture is of Beauty and Truth being like two slopes to a mountain, this is far different in nature from a God-Man who also announces, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”.[5] The latter statement makes the transcendent incarnate. Again, if Beauty will save the world, in Dostoevsky’s view, it will be a person.

Moreover, every man and every woman strongly desires this beauty, mediated (as Gerard Manley Hopkins would put it) in ten thousand places. C. S. Lewis is no exception. The appetite for beauty comes inscribed into every soul and it is a very large appetite. “By nature men desire the beautiful,” says St. Basil the Great (circa 379 A.D.)-and I might stress that they desire it immensely.[6] One knows already about the thousands of books Lewis owned by the end of his life, many thousands in fact-books that held up the walls of The Kilns. But why he owned so many is a theological question. Why did he want so many? What archetypal story did he want to read? What was he searching for when he lovingly described the binding size and price of a new book to Arthur Greeves during their teenage pilgrimage? And once owned, why re-read them so assiduously (The Iliad up to 10 times)? Plato himself describes the phenomenon in a famous section of his Symposium.[7] Men, Plato writes, have a thirst or an eros for the beautiful, and there are lesser satisfactions: endless beautiful bodies if one is a decadent Athenian, endless new ideas (analytic or imaginative) if one is a bookish Athenian, or endless C. S. Lewis conferences if one is an Anglo-philiac Athenian.

Appetites, however, want substance, and thus we come to the main course of this paper. The appetite for beauty is potentially misleading. Whether it is the character John in The Pilgrim’s Regress finding false joy in multiple brown girls or the millionaire finding transient beauty in his third car (or wife!), how can one see what kind of beauty satisfies? Which beauty will save the world? It was a dilemma of which Lewis was keenly aware. In one instance, he particularly admires J.R.R. Tolkien’s assertion in “On Fairy Stories” that “evil and ugliness seem indissolubly allied. We find it difficult to conceive of evil and beauty together. The fear of the beautiful [faerie] that ran through the elder ages almost eludes our grasp”.[8] Yet beautiful deceptions run throughout Lewis’s own storytelling. Thus one meets the indomitably beautiful Queen Jadis in Narnia; Edmund Pevensie was not an entire fool, for the queen is “a great lady, taller than any woman that Edmund had ever seen. She also was covered in white fur up to her throat and held a long straight golden wand in her right hand. Her face was white-not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing sugar, except for her very red mouth. It was a beautiful face”.[9] Evil and beautiful are here linked: and thus the directors have chosen Nicole Kidman to play the Queen in the coming film.

In The Magician’s Nephew, Uncle Andrew, though certainly more foolish than Edmund, yet too seizes upon the Empress’s beauty. Digory himself affirms that Jadis is “dazzlingly beautiful”.[10] All of the characters in The Magician’s Nephew are in fact transfixed by their first vision of Jadis. Lewis describes their reaction to her:

And well might [Uncle Andrew] stare. Digory and Polly stared too…now that one saw her in our own world, with ordinary things around her, she fairly took one’s breath away. In Charn, she had been alarming enough; in London, she was terrifying….But even her height was nothing compared with her beauty, her fierceness, and her wildness.[11]

Such an image of vitality and power is only betrayed by a subtle ripple on the features, suggestive of evil magic, according to Polly. Nevertheless, the emphasis is on beauty, and the beauty of evil only increases when it is not an earthly specimen. Thus, by extension, the most evil creature of all can appear as an angel of light.

The shock of Digory, Polly, and Uncle Andrew comes not from wondrous admiration alone. Lewis mixes into the aesthetic recipe of Jadis another characteristic component of our responses to striking beauty: the humans are terrified. For a more extended expression of this mixture, one may turn to Till We Have Faces. Psyche, the golden beauty of the land of Glome, is of course a morally good character, but her effects are not dissimilar to those of Jadis. When Psyche wades out into the plague-ridden peasants of Glome, Lewis portrays the scene as follows:

But a minute later the wailing and shouting died utterly away. Every man (and many a woman too) in that crowd was kneeling. Her beauty, which most of them had never seen, worked on them as a terror might work. Then a low murmur, almost a sob, began; swelled, broke into the gasping cry, ‘A goddess, a goddess’.[12]

Beauty is strictly aligned here, as we saw in Jadis, with terror. Moreover, the beauty is a divinizing feature; the Glomians recognize something immortal, something eternal in the very quality of beauty which leads them to mistake the bearer of that quality to be divine herself. Psyche is not a goddess, but it is in the nature of beauty to suggest the divine and the eternal.

This alliance between beauty and terror in Lewis’s fiction has an early historical pedigree. As early as 1916, Lewis coins a word in a letter to Arthur Greeves to express the combination of two experiences they enjoyed in romantic fiction: Terreauty. Lewis goes on to note that the experience of such a joint shock of wonder and fear is seldom desired in our own world-that is, the world outside of books.[13] Put another way, would one really want to meet Gandalf or Galadriel? One notes, also, that Lewis’s discovery of beauty and terror in concert is not necessarily theological in nature; he derives it from his taste from books, and he coins the word in the period of his life which could justifiably be called pre-Christian. Nevertheless, Lewis’s insight is a spiritual one, and not merely a literary one. The nexus of beauty and terror comes precisely in those books which are haunted, where the supernatural invades or inhabits the natural, that is, in what are loosely termed “romances”. Lewis expresses his delight in Terreauty in his own later fiction, particularly in The Space Trilogy, but this is simply a culmination of an early literary taste. As Lewis earlier expressed to Arthur Greeves while both are adolescents, “For myself I think I am true to the old canons-romantic beauty, eeriness, terror, homeliness, solidity – & absurdity. These were the gods we worshipped in the golden age”.[14] With the exception of absurdity, one might find this an apt description of so much of what Lewis later wrote.

Indeed, these were the insights which give Lewis some of his savoir faire when reconceiving of the supernatural and the world of fairy. Again, would we really want to be in old Narnia-to meet a faun and/or Fenris Ulf? Or for that matter, would one really want to see an angel in this world? How apt is Lewis’s revisionist theology about angels in his preface to The Screwtape Letters. As he says, “In Scripture the visitation of an angel is always alarming; it has to begin by saying ‘Fear not.’ The Victorian angel looks as if it were going to say, ‘There, there'”.[15] Our contemporary version of the angel still pays homage to Baroque putti with their chubby cherubs and to the sentimental seraphim in television shows like NBC’s Touched by an Angel.

Fortunately, Lewis holds tightly to his paradox of beauty and terror. The decay he notices is only an affirmation of one side of the paradox to the omission of supernatural terror, and, as Pascal says about a true paradox, geniuses touch both extremes at once. Thus when Orual is “touched by an angel” in Till We Have Faces, the touch burns-but with a fire that does not incinerate (one thinks here of the burning bush in Exodus Chapter 3). “[Cupid] took me,” says Psyche, “in his beautiful arms which seemed to burn me (though the burning did not hurt)”.[16] In fact, no book of Lewis is so redolent with paradoxes of this dual nature than Till We Have Faces. Hence one reads about an insupportably beautiful Cupid who for the very force of his beauty insists on veiling his face from Psyche, his bride; hence that same God of Love is named the “Shadowbrute” by the Glomians and the Priest of Glome declares that, with respect to the gods, “the loving and the devouring are all the same thing”.[17] Burnless fire, brutish beauty, and devouring love-seen in this light, it is not anomalous for Lewis to combine beauty with terror. Orual herself maintains both the beauty and the terror of Cupid when she hears his voice: “It was no ugly sound; even in its implacable sternness it was golden. My terror was the salute that mortal flesh gives to immortal things”.[18] Lewis, via Orual, has here made an ontological claim: it is in the nature of mortal things to feel both alarm and admiration at those beings higher than us in the great chain. Mortality is frightened by immortality, transient beauty by permanent beauty, those subject to death by the deathless.

Till We Have Faces affords one further crucial point. Because its protagonist is congenitally ugly, the book makes beauty (of both soul and body) a central theme. Adapting Apuleius’s original depiction of Venus, Lewis makes the goddess-who anyone might expect to be ravishing-into the mottled boulder Ungit: an ugly name for an ugly idolized goddess. But this is merely superficial; Ungit’s features are a distortion by the Glomians (Venus is in fact beautiful) while Orual is ugly both inside and out. More importantly, it is easy to lose sight of the third and final task Psyche performs in the underworld on Orual’s behalf. For all the aid that Psyche gives Orual, her most important task is “bringing the casket of beauty from the Queen of the Shadows”.[19] As Psyche puts it, “I went on a long journey to fetch the beauty that will make Ungit beautiful,” and Ungit here refers to Orual’s disfigured soul. Readers of the story remember that Orual is made beautiful, of course, just before the arrival of Cupid himself; she is now capable of being in his presence, reflecting a beauty yet more powerful than her own. Again Lewis’s description of Cupid combines (by now) two familiar elements: “And [Cupid] was coming. The most dreadful, the most beautiful, the only dread and beauty there is, was coming”.[20] It may be a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God, but Orual wants nothing else.

In closing, Lewis has articulated both our insatiable appetite for beauty and the quality of that beauty itself. With respect to the appetite, few passages more potently express the eros for beauty than a section from “The Weight of Glory”. Lewis declares: “We do not want merely to see beauty….We want something else which can hardly be put into words-to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it…to bathe in it”.[21] This is perhaps why even a phrase like the “Beatific Vision” is too weak (we do not merely want to see beauty). Dostoevsky comes closer with “the Holy Spirit is the direct seizure, the grasping of Beauty”.[22] Our appetite for beauty wants to be satisfied, yes, but more fully than that, it wants to be saturated with the Holy Spirit.

Readers of Plato’s Symposium will here again remember the ascent of the philosopher which Diotima describes to Socrates, an ascent from ephemeral beauties to the Form of Beauty. A true lover of beauty, says Diotima, must ascend from a particular person, however beautiful, to all beautiful people: from beautiful physical bodies to beautiful activities, from activities to beautiful reasonings (for thoughts endure longer than bodies and actions): from beautiful reasonings the philosopher may then, just possibly, see Beauty itself-unchanging, eternal, and ageless. Crucially for Plato as for Lewis, the appetite for a dreadful Beauty never ends: one wants to be united with beauty not just for a space, but forever. Beauty will save the world, but He will not stop there. With this in mind, I offer the final passage from The Last Battle:

And as [Aslan] spoke he no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page; now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read; which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.[23]

Andrew P. Cuneo
Hillsdale College

[1] This is, in fact, a statement attributed to the prince by Ippolit. See Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: Bantam, 1981), 370.

[2] John Keats, Selected Poetry, ed. Elizabeth Cook (New York: Oxford, 1998), 178.

[3] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford, 1991), 201.

[4] See Paul Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon: a Theology of Beauty, trans. Steven Bigham (Redondo Beach: Oakwood Publications, 1990), 2. Importantly, unlike most English translations which give the translation “good,” the Septuagint version chooses to give the Greek for “beautiful” (kalon) instead of “good” (agathon).

[5] Evdokimov, Art of the Icon, 1.

[6] Ibid., 10.

[7] Plato, Symposium, trans. Robin Waterfield, (New York: Oxford, 1994), 54-55.

[8] “On Fairy Stories” in J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf (London: Unwin Hyman, 1988), 59.

[9] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: Macmillan, 1988), 24.

[10] C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (New York: Macmillan, 1988), 55.

[11] Ibid., 61.

[12] C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (San Diego: Harvest/HBJ, 1984), 32.

[13] C.S. Lewis, They Stand Together: The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Collins, 1979), 97.

[14] Ibid., 219.

[15] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1982), ix.

[16] Lewis, Faces, 112.

[17] Ibid., 49.

[18] Ibid., 171.

[19] Ibid., 305.

[20] Ibid., 307.

[21] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 16.

[22] Evdokimov, Art of the Icon, 2.

[23] C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (New York: Macmillan, 1988), 173.