Monday, October 10, 2016

`Our Lives Are Judged'

A defining quality of our time is the hatred of beauty. Art has been turned into its opposite. The reasons are many, mostly boiling down to egoistic nihilism, what Roger Scruton has called “a habit of desecration in which life is not celebrated by art but targeted by it.” Beauty frightens and offends the nihilist. It's a reproach to his sense of unbounded self-importance. Beauty cannot be ignored, so it must be vandalized.

 Zbigniew Herbert survived Nazis and Communists, oppressively unbeautiful and anti-beautiful regimes. In the nineteen-sixties, on one of his trips outside Poland, Herbert visited the Heraklion Archaeological Museum in Crete and experienced “a surprise of the unpleasant kind such as I had never had in any museum or in the presence of any work of art.” He was stunned by beauty. In the title essay of Labyrinth on the Sea (trans. Alissa Valles, The Collected Prose 1948-1998, 2010), he goes on:

“I was not then a youth thirsting for originality, which as we know is easiest to achieve if you are an iconoclast, if you scorn recognized works and don’t respect either authorities or tradition. This stance has always been alien to me—even odious, if I leave aside the short phase between my fourth and fifth year that psychologists describe as the phase of negativism. I always wanted to love, to adore, to fall to my knees and bow down before greatness, even if it overwhelms and terrifies, for what kind of greatness would it be that didn’t overwhelm and terrify.”

An iconoclast is a breaker of icons, a character Herbert rightly diagnoses as childish, not to mention petulant and self-dramatizing. Rather than gazing with wonder and gratitude at great works of arts, some grow angry and contemptuous, too proud and intimidated “to love, to adore.”  The hatred of beauty suggests a great poverty of spirit. Beauty is humbling. For some of us it is one of life's consolations. Scruton writes:

“The current habit of desecrating beauty suggests that people are as aware as they ever were of the presence of sacred things. Desecration is a kind of defense against the sacred, an attempt to destroy its claims. In the presence of sacred things, our lives are judged, and to escape that judgment, we destroy the thing that seems to accuse us.”

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