Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Oh Happy Fault! God Permits Ugliness in the World So That Its Beauty Can Be Even Greater

Gargoyles and dissonant chords have a role in our appreciation of beauty, through the ancient Via Pulchritudinis Negativa - the Way of Beauty by Negation.

If beauty is good, and ugliness is the absence of beauty, then isn’t ugliness always bad? The answer is yes…generally. However, if we accept that all that is bad is permitted by God so that a greater good can arise from it, then this principle must apply to ugliness too. That is, that ugliness is present in this world so that a greater beauty can arise from it.

This was the view of some medieval commentators, who believed that the juxtaposition of ugliness and beauty can be used to enhance our ability to apprehend what is beautiful. For example the Irish Neo-Platonist philosopher John Scotus Eriugina wrote in the 9th century AD: 
For anything that is considered deformed in itself as part of a whole not only becomes beautiful in the totality, because it is well ordered, but is also a cause of Beauty in general; thus wisdom is illuminated by the relation to foolishness, knowledge by comparison with ignorance, which is merely imperfection and wanting, life by death, light by the opposition of shadows, worthy things by the lack of praise for them, and to be brief, all virtues only win praise by comparison with the opposite vices but without this comparison they would not be worthy of praise...As is the case with a beautiful painting, for example. For all that is ordered according to the design of divine Providence is good, beautiful and just. Indeed what could be better than the fact that the comparison of opposites lets us sing the ineffable praises of both the universe and the Creator?
De divisione naturae, V; quoted in The History of Beauty by Umberto Eco. 
Johns Scotus Eriugina depicted on the Irish 5-pound note.
One might perhaps think of this as a sort of apophatic aesthetics. We approach the apprehension of Beauty by contrast with what it is not. This is analogous to apophatic theology (apophatic is Greek for negation), alternatively referred to as the via negativa (in Latin the ‘road of negation.’) These are commonly used terms for a way of approaching God that emphasizes His unknowability and the inadequacy of positive theological attributes to define Him. By the via negativa we describe God by referring to what he is not. For example, He is not finite, rather he is infinite; He is not bound by time, rather He is eternal. By this principle, we can also follow what one might call the via pulchritudinis negativa - the Way of Beauty by Negation - help us apprehend beauty.
Artists and musicians have applied this principle creatively through centuries.
As a general principle, artists will know that in a painting if everything is in accord with a perfectly idealized template or pattern it tends to look sterile and dull. When he introduces judiciously small and occasional deviations and aberrations, however, suddenly the whole work looks richer and more interesting and, paradoxically, more perfect. As an artist, I aim to paint things that incorporate principles of order, symmetry, harmonious proportions, and balance in the application of tone and color. Nevertheless, I always introduce anomalies that subtly break free of a rigid application of the idealized pattern in small details because I have found that it adds to the beauty of the whole.
Through centuries, artists who paint in Christian figurative traditions have always deviated from strict adherence to natural appearances. This partial abstraction is present in all authentic Christian art. The fact that we recognize that a piece of art conforms to, say, the iconographic, the gothic or baroque styles is because artists deviates from strict naturalism in accepted ways. The fact that when we look at traditional paintings in these styles and typically it doesn’t even think of this partial abstraction as ugly distortion is testament to how well traditional practices employ the via pulchritudinis negativa to raise the beauty of the painting.
Christ Pantocrator, by the 20th century iconographer Gregory Kroug
Similarly, when a virtuoso musician plays a piece of music, they do not play precisely what the composer has written down. So when Glenn Gould plays Bach, or Alfred Brendel plays Bach, they deviate subtly from the precise rendition of the score, lagging slightly in the rhythm here, leading slightly there, as they interpret the score. These tiny subtle aberrations contribute to what becomes a brilliant interpretation of the piece as a whole. And again, if we are even aware of what the pianist is doing, the effect is so powerful that we never interpret his variations as mistakes. It is often said that the greatest artists, musicians and composers master the rules and then know how to break them. I would say that in fact, they are not breaking the rules, rather, they are transcending them. By this I mean that they understand that such rules are simply man’s attempt to capture the beauty of an ideal and will be incomplete. They are necessary, but can only get us so close. The virtuoso intuits the ideal to which the rules are directing us, but which they cannot capture completely.
So we see gargoyles in Gothic cathedrals, which are skillfully and intricately carved distorted figures arising from the imagination of the mason that add to the overall beauty of the edifice.
A gargoyle from Salisbury Cathedral
Similarly, when illuminating manuscripts, monks would deliberately introduce ‘mistakes’. The reason often given is that this reflects an acknowledgement that man cannot match the perfection of God; this helps to remind us that even the ‘perfect’ version that would have been produced without the deliberate mistake cannot in fact match the perfection of God. To the modern eye is is difficult to see the ‘mistake’, but the beauty of the whole is still apparent.
A folio from the Lindisfarne Gospel
Traditional Christian chant makes use of this. Both Gregorian and Byzantine chants are often sung with an accompanying drone - a single unmoving (or rarely moving) note added to the melody. The addition of a drone ensures that there are always two notes in relation. As the melody moves up and down, the relationship between drone and melody constantly changes as the intervals vary. In our imaginations, therefore, we naturally reach for a steadily changing third note so as to complete a constantly changing variety of suggested major and minor chords. This is natural to us, whether musically trained or not. Music ‘theory’ is simply a discovery of combinations of notes that sound good (or bad) to most people. For this reason, chanting with a moving melody and stationary drone is musically simple, but harmonically complex. When the melody and the note come very close to each other, there is also momentary dissonance. This discord however, is fleeting and is always resolved at the end of the piece when usually melody and harmony converge and are a single note. Here is an example of Byzantine chant.
More recently, in the last 150 years particularly, the works of composers such as Janacek or Walton - with occasional - emphasizing the word, occasional - dissonance can draw our attention to the beauty of harmony. Skilled modern composers use this device. It works well provided that the dissonance does not dominate our overall impression of the composition. The occasional stepping out of harmony adds to our sense of peace and resolution when the music finally resolves. If the aberration is scripted by the composer, the orchestra will still interpret the score as described above, adding to the effect.
All these examples manifest the paradox: that is, the inclusion of what are, according to the rules, imperfections, elevates the perfection of the piece when considered as a whole. It is precisely as John Scotus Eriugina described in the opening sentence in the quotation above:
For anything that is considered deformed in itself as part of a whole not only becomes beautiful in the totality, because it is well ordered, but is also a cause of Beauty in general.
It is, it seems to me, a visual manifestation of similarly paradoxical words of the Exultet, the great hymn of the proclamation of Easter: “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!” Art that incorporates this principle of the via pulchritudinis negativa becomes a sign, through its beauty, of Christian joy and a peace that ‘passeth understanding.’

The joy of the Christian life is so much more than a life without anxiety, anger or sadness. Rather it is one that transcends such negative emotion and suffering. Through grace, the Christian faith offers us the chance to place it into a context that opens us up to consolation that is deeper, more permanent and more powerful than suffering. This is the power of the cross. Now, that we have put on Christ we are raised up and can look at our own lives and all that we connect with, and see that all things that exist contribute, sometimes in their very imperfection, ugliness and evil, to a picture that is even more beautiful for their presence in the world.
This is how I reconcile the great truth that the presence of every single person, even me, warts an’ all, adds to its overall beauty and goodness, and thus contributes to the joy of mankind and the greater glory of God.
I will close with a final light-hearted example of the via pulchritudinis negativa. Believe it or not, there is an annual face-pulling competition that takes place in Egremont, Cumbria in northern England that can trace its history back to 1269 without gaps. This is about the time that gargoyles were first being carved. This art of face pulling is called ‘gurning’ and, by the principle of the via pulchritudinis negativa, I assert that it is adding to the beauty of the world!
So compare the above with the gargoyle below.
When I look at these medieval carvings I always think that we can be certain that the masons of the 12th century had a pretty good sense of humor!
Okay, I will admit I have no evidence whatsoever that there is a connection historically between gurning and gargoyles, this is just fanciful thinking on my part....but you never know!

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