'The world will be saved by beauty' – but how?

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, August 2, 2006

Several of our coffee companions were intrigued by a quote in last week's column on conflict resolution. I concluded with a comment by the 19th Century Russian writer Dostoevsky: "The world will be saved by beauty." One reader, a pastor, even wondered how I, a Christian, could refer to that quote as a "guiding light" for this column.

Allow me to explain.

My own experience with this statement is through the writings of another Russian writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He used it as a diving board into his Lecture that, had he been allowed out of the Soviet Union to go to Stockholm at the time, he would have delivered upon winning the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature. I'd like to summarize parts of that Lecture, drawing from the English translation by Nicholas Bethell.

Solzhenitsyn himself was quite intrigued by what he described as Dostoevsky's "mysterious remark."

"What does it mean?" he asks. "For a long time I thought it was just a phrase. For how is it possible? When in our blood-stained history has beauty saved anyone from anything? Beauty has ennobled and elevated, yes, but whom has it ever saved?"

The answer is to be found in the very nature of beauty itself, he says. There is "this characteristic in the position of Art: a truly artistic work is completely, irrefutably convincing and bends to its will even the heart which resists it."

It's not like a slanted piece of journalism, a political speech, or some piece of propaganda. "All these can be smoothly and efficiently composed . . . on the basis of a mistake or a lie," he says.

"But a work of art carries in itself its own checking system. Strained, invented concepts do not withstand the image test. Both the concepts and the images collapse. They are shown up as pale and feeble. They convince nobody. But works which have drawn upon the truth and presented it to us in live, concentrated form capture us and draw us compulsively in. And never, even centuries later, will anyone be able to refute them."

He compares the three-fold nature of Truth, Goodness and Beauty to trees.

"The wise men of old used to say that the crowns of these three trees merge, while the branches of the Truth tree and the Goodness tree, being too obvious and too straight, are crushed, lopped off and not allowed to grow. But if this is the case, maybe the fantastic, unexpected branches of the Beauty tree could fight their way through the rest and right up to the same place, and thus achieve the task of all three?"

In this sense, then, he sees Dostoevsky's words as prophetic of the saving, healing, restorative role Art and literature play in today's world.

True artists, Solzhenitsyn says, acknowledge their apprenticeship under God. To them has been given the gift to see and express things more clearly than others. They choose to be neither deceived nor deceitful about the often painful realities around them.

He especially chides the comfortable mentality that failed to discern the plight of countless of his fellow political prisoners in the Stalinist era:

"It would see a boggy swamp and exclaim, 'What a charming little meadow!' It would see a set of concrete shackles round a woman's neck and exclaim, 'What an exquisite necklace!' And while some danced happy and carefree with songs and music, others shed tears which no hand could wipe away."

There is an ugliness in the world that artists and writers in particular have the obligation to overcome – the ugliness of intertwined Lie and Violence: Violence enforces the Lie, the Lie camouflages the Violence.

"Violence does not always, not necessarily, take people by the throat and strangle them. Usually it demands no more than an oath of allegiance from its subjects," he says. "They are required merely to become accomplices in the lie."

But this is exactly where the agents of Beauty come forward and fulfill Dostoevsky's prophecy. They are "not to take part in the lie."

Solzhenitsyn concludes his Lecture by stressing that, contrary to agents of the Lie and Violence, artists and writers "have no weapons of death." Theirs are weapons of truth, he says, in service to an old Russian proverb: "One word of truth is of more weight than all the rest of the world."

It is in this sense, then, that "the world will be saved by beauty." That kind of Beauty is the hallmark of Truth and Goodness.

And it is in that sense that I treasure Dostoevsky's quote as a guiding light for this column – and, I hope, as a guiding light for my life and yours.

© 2006 Warren Harbeck

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