Thu 24 Mar 2011
In my previous two articles in this series on Christianity and Literature, I discussed the benefits of literature with a focus on wisdom: namely, the idea that literature offers readers the opportunity to experience ideas, words, and actions which are different than their own. Wisdom comes in weighing this Experience and judging whether it be true or false, good or bad – separating the fruit from the chaff, in Chaucer’s words. We might call this the didactic aspect of literature – it teaches us, whether intentionally or not, about creation, our place in that creation, and our relationship to its Creator.
But of course, good literature is not just about imparting knowledge – if that’s all literature were, the dictionary would be the most thrilling book around. Instead, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, all works of true literature have two sides: logos (something said) and poiema (something made). Narratological musings, the dialogues and life experiences of fictional characters, and the consequences of these experiences might all be considered part of the logos. But the second aspect of literature, poiema, refers to artistic construction and the reader’s artistic reaction to the text. Put simply, the logos is what the author and his characters say; the poiema is how they say it. And just as the logocentric Experience is one of the good things literature gives us, so too is poematic Beauty.
All literature has poiema – that sense of purposeful construction created as the author decides what to cut from one draft to the next, what word is the “right” word for this particular context, what voice is proper for the character of the story. Even texts that we might generally consider “unliterary,” such as sermons or philosophical works, are shown to be literary in their poiematic construction: their use of rhetorical flourishes, analogies, and the like. Dictionaries, as I have suggested earlier, provide a good example of what a totally logocentric text looks like. While “constructed,” they are done so according to a pattern neither creative nor engaging. The same thing (or nearly the same thing) could be written by a thousand different people. Logos without poiema is not literature. Indeed, in Lewis’ words, “It is only by being also a Poiema that a Logos becomes a work of literary art at all.”
Of course, just as there is good logos and bad logos, there is also good poiema and bad poiema. If a text is full of clichés, for example, if it is constructed solely of ideas and experiences according to a pattern repeated a hundred times before, without any originalities or creative interjections by the author, we may rightly consider the work to have low aesthetic value. Not that newness for the sake of newness necessarily leads to aesthetic goodness either. A good piece of literature must blend originality with tradition.
There are of course additional standards by which we might choose to judge good literary construction from bad (Aristotle’s Poetics has been used in just such a way). But let us bypass for now discussions of aesthetic criticism and come to what is the more important matter in this series of articles: namely, if poematic Beauty is a principle good of literature, as I argue, what exactly is good about it? The Experience, as we have seen in previous articles, offers wisdom. What similar good does Beauty offer that Christians should care about it and earnestly seek to encounter good examples of it in literature?
The reader may have noticed my failure thus far to define what I think “Beauty” is. This is, I assure you, intentional. While I make some very meager attempts here to articulate what “Beauty” is like, I do so knowing full well that a comprehensive definition remains forever elusive. There is a depth of mystery to aesthetics which cannot be fully plumbed. Indeed, one must approach a discussion of Beauty in the same way that George Herbert approached the subject of prayer. In a poem on the subject, Herbert gushes forth a number of descriptions which attempt to define prayer. It is “the Church’s banquet,” he writes. It is “God’s breath in man returning to his birth.” In the anger of man, it can become an “engine against the Almighty.” Herbert hazards various other definitions, but finds them equally incapable of defining prayer. By the end of the poem, he realizes that although human words can provide an approximation of what prayer is, they can never truly give a full definition of the thing. In the end, prayer is not something that can be defined; it is instead simply “something understood.”
So too beauty. Aesthetics cannot be broken down into a series of underlying mathematical formulae; it is not a science, Aristotle’s opinions on the subject notwithstanding. But while critical reflection cannot explain fully what beauty is, it can nevertheless help us to begin approaching such a definition. Consider: if two men should be sitting near a fire place, neither experiences the full heat of the flames; they are only near the fire, not in it. But if one should step nearer to the flames than the other, he experiences more directly the heat and light than does his friend. Critical consideration and appreciation of Beauty helps move us closer to the fire.
And as we come nearer that fire, we begin to understand, if only intuitively, what good thing Beauty offers readers. Not that it can be explained in words, but that it can be suggested in image. The heat which rolls over us in waves, the flash as the flame fills our vision depicts, in a way, how Beauty acts on the reader. It is baptism by fire, a death and resurrection as the water of poeimic Beauty mixes with the Experiential word. It is the fire in which rides the still small voice. It is the burning coals which permit sinful lips to speak. It is, in the end, not something explained, but something encountered. Something felt. Something understood.
[This is the fourth article in a series exploring why and how Christians ought to engage in literary studies. You can see all the current essays in the series here.]