Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tasting Honey

And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a whoring. 
—Numbers 15:39

Then said Jonathan, My father hath troubled the land: see, I pray you, how mine eyes have been enlightened, because I tasted a little of this honey.
—I Samuel 14:21

When I was in high school, I had no friend who understood me better than Leo Tolstoy. He was my rabbi, my kind but stern uncle, my companion on sleepless nights. When Allan Bloom insulted him I was furious; when my senior seminar didn’t grasp his apocalyptic message I preached it to them. Along with Heschel, he made me a believer. He was capable of bringing me to flights of ascetic fervor, but just as much of reducing me to a nervous, wide-eyed state of anxiety. 

That enthusiasm has faded by now into a low-burning gratitude to my old teacher. One scene of his, though, still has the ability to grasp me in an emotional and intellectual headlock. It’s from War and Peace: Natasha, engaged to the good Prince Andrew, goes to the opera. There, in another box, she sees Anatole, a handsome hedonist who—besides his incestuous relationship with his sister—has married and abandoned an anonymous Polish woman. Natasha, who knows nothing of this, falls passionately in love with him:
In the fourth act there was some sort of devil who sang waving his arm about, till the boards were withdrawn from under him and he disappeared down below. That was the only part of the fourth act that Natasha saw. She felt agitated and tormented, and the cause of this was Anatole whom she could not help watching. As they were leaving the theater Anatole came up to them, called their carriage, and helped them in. As he was putting Natasha in he pressed her arm above the elbow. Agitated and flushed she turned round. He was looking at her with glittering eyes, smiling tenderly. 
Only after she had reached home was Natasha able clearly to think over what had happened to her, and suddenly remembering Prince Andrew she was horrified, and at tea to which all had sat down after the opera, she gave a loud exclamation, flushed, and ran out of the room.
After reaching home Natasha did not sleep all night. She was tormented by the insoluble question whether she loved Anatole or Prince Andrew. She loved Prince Andrew—she remembered distinctly how deeply she loved him. But she also loved Anatole, of that there was no doubt. “Else how could all this have happened?” thought she. “If, after that, I could return his smile when saying good-by, if I was able to let it come to that, it means that I loved him from the first. It means that he is kind, noble, and splendid, and I could not help loving him. What am I to do if I love him and the other one too?” she asked herself, unable to find an answer to these terrible questions.

Natasha’s deep-founded love, strengthened over months and confirmed by virtue, falls apart in literally minutes as soon as she is exposed to a resplendently beautiful sight. What does this say about the love she had had before?

What it does not say is that her previous attachment to Andrew had been founded on air. No: Natasha and Andrew had a loving, noble, happy relationship. But here is Natasha’s problem: when it comes to aesthetics, such a solid attachment is on equal fighting grounds with a love that is empty, vain, and sinful. Her most human instincts are no help to her in deciding between them. How can she live a life that she knows to be good if her eyes and beating heart can lead her so far astray?

This is something that’s been troubling me recently. In a calm moment, I’ll profess an unwavering belief that ethics and aesthetics are orthogonal. In English, that means that what’s beautiful has nothing to do with what’s morally good; that you can just as easily have something good and hideous as wicked and resplendent. All that glisters is not gold, and not all that’s gold glisters.

All well and good. But like any good Greek, I can’t quite leave it there. A generous share of my moral sense does indeed come from what shines resplendent in front of me. I became an Epicurean in part because of the painful beauty of a certain poem. I turned away from the strictures of Jewish law in part because I found it morally questionable, but more honestly because it came to feel stuffy, colorless, and heavy.

For Plato, the just and the beautiful were two reflections of the same heavenly quality. Thus his highest word of praise for a man was καλὸς κἀγαθός, or “beautiful and righteous”. In the Republic, as Allan Bloom has lucidly explained, he accordingly has Socrates teach justice to Glaucon by appealing again and again to his erotic sentiments. I can’t assent to this outlook, but it’s obvious to me why it has been so compelling to countless souls.

In this light I want to look at a famous prayer by Augustine:
You called and cried, and broke my deafness; blazing alight you shone forth, and put my blindness to flight. You were fragrant, and I breathed in and panted for you; I tasted you, and I hungered and thirsted for you; you touched me, and I burned for your peace. (Confessions, Book X, my translation.)
This is the linchpin of Augustine’s understanding of God. To Augustine, we are all sinners: burning with desire for the world, our eyes and our flesh lead our helpless souls into ruin. But God reveals to some his own beauty, which is far more sensuous, far lovelier, than anything you can find in a brothel in Carthage or a Roman emperor’s villa. This is what calls us up to heaven, and this is what saves the elect.

There is something perplexing about this. Here is the problem: Pharaoh’s magicians worked wonders just as well as Moses and Aaron.  If all God has to offer us is sensuous delight, then what if we find something—well—more delightful? Thus Faust, aching for celestial pleasure, found nothing in Christian faith, and gave up his soul to grasp the roots of delight. Don Giovanni did the same, and bore the full wrath of God rather than drop the reins of the horse that carried him to ruinous love.

And the woman saw that the tree
was good for food, and that
 it was pleasant to the eyes.
As my friend Matthew pointed out to me, Augustine did not believe that the Devil can possibly allure us as much as God—thus resolving the problem neatly. If this was Augustine’s view, though, it’s not the Bible’s, and it’s certainly not mine. Evil and sin can be the most overwhelming and erotic experiences available to humanity. They can outshine the sun, and they can outshine God. As I never tire of saying, the Nazis had the most uplifting songs of the twentieth century, and most Jews have never done anything in synagogue but tunelessly mumble.

This puts any religious teaching based on aesthetics on shaky ground. And yet I do think that Augustine was onto something. If we entirely renounce beauty in our search for what’s good, it’s hard to know how to proceed. Even God, when he gave his stern moral law at Sinai, prefaced his injunctions on stumbling-blocks and sodomy with a fantastic display of thunder and lightning and trumpet-blasts.

So I’m caught between Augustine, who says that aesthetics are everything in finding the good; and my deeper sense that says that they’re nothing. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"To be good, according to the vulgar standard of goodness, is obviously quite easy. It merely requires a certain amount of sordid terror, a certain lack of imaginative thought, and a certain
low passion for middle-class respectability. Aesthetics are higher than ethics. They belong to a more spiritual sphere. To discern the beauty of a thing is the finest point to which we can arrive.
Even a colour-sense is more important, in the development of the individual, than a sense of right and wrong. Aesthetics, in fact, are to Ethics in the sphere of conscious civilisation, what, in the
sphere of the external world, sexual is to natural selection. Ethics, like natural selection, make existence possible. Aesthetics, like sexual selection, make life lovely and wonderful, fill it with new forms, and give it progress, and variety and change. And when we reach the true culture that is our aim, we attain to that perfection of which the saints have dreamed, the perfection of those to whom sin is impossible, not because they make the renunciations of the ascetic, but because they can do everything they wish without hurt to the soul..."


The Critic As Artist is one of my all-time favorites... there are too many pertinent passages to list them all.