Poetry : speech made beautiful.

But then, how do you define "beauty"?

Umberto Eco on Joyce on Aquinas on Aristotle...

Eco sheds clear light on an oscillation between Symbolism/Modernism, Symbolism/Acmeism, Plato/Aristotle, idealism/materialism... the halves of these binaries overlap.

More later, hopefully. Must get coffee.


J. Latta quoting Kundera today. Want to read that book, too. Though Kundera seems to have developed a fiction vs. poetry polemic. He condescends to the poets. A worthy antagonist, I guess.


My post of yesterday, on the duplex perplexity of it all (verbal toy or compelling vision?) is what got me asking myself about Beauty.

Joyce (see Eco link, above) follows the general materialist trend of the 20th century, when he tweaks Aquinas' 3rd of the three aspects of Beauty (integritas, consonantia (proportion), claritas) - claritas - toward the radiant actuality of the thing-in-itself. The artist's "epiphany" is a recognition of this unique and particular radiance - the essence of the thing itself - its quiddity.

Joyce's attitude paralleled the Russian Acmeist revolt against Symbolism (at the same period - around 1910 - roughly, birth of Modernism). The Acmeists aimed to praise and celebrate this world (not the cloudy otherworld of the Symbolists) - mirrored in the autotelic craftsmanship of the Modernist art-work.

I think if we took Aquinas' triform definition as a starting-point today, we might bend it slightly differently.

Poetry : speech made beautiful.

Beautiful : and beauty is a kind of end-in-itself. The existence of a work of art is justified by its beauty.

But what is beauty? Joyce's equation relating to the 3rd aspect (clarity = radiance = object's quiddity) - perhaps, for us, falls slightly short.

Today we might relate claritas to intelligibility.

Radiance is not merely self-contained in the object, autotelic, self-generated. Claritas (as well as integritas or wholeness and consonantia or proportion) interpenetrates, transcends its own borders, surpasses itself. The harmony of these aspects is both 1) reflected in the perceiving mind, and 2) echoed & magnified in general experience or reality as a whole. Thus the object is radiant with its own quiddity, but only in the context of universal wholeness or integrity.

This is a shift I guess slightly away from Aristotelian analytics toward Platonic synthesis. But both Aristotle and Aquinas can show a continuum or relation (which Modernism downplayed) between the object's quiddity and universality. Eco's comments (see link above) point the way.

In Aristotle, art understood as craft shows a duplex beauty. An axe can be both 1) beautiful to look at, and 2) beautiful or fitting in fulfilling its purpose, its end (telos). The axe is designed so as to chop wood beautifully. The ship is beautiful in fulfillment of its practical purpose - it sails well.

As Eco notes, for the ancients and the medievals, humankind's existence was understood as having a spiritual purpose or telos. Inasmuch as art serves that end, it is beautiful in Aristotle's second sense. Beauty, Goodness and Truth coalesce in that spiritual telos. Here is where Plato unites with Aristotle.

The radiance of intelligibility is a measure of an art work's integration with universal human purposes. Truth, vision, wisdom... this is the range toward which art can rise, by way of claritas-intelligibility.

Can you see where I'm tending with this?

I'm going back to the issues raised yesterday, with reference to Virgil and the mystery of the poet. The "audacity" of the poet is a spiritual audacity : the willingness to stand at the border between "Iron Age" and "Golden Age". Between humanity's universal purposes, and more short-term (seemingly practical) aims and desires.

In this sense the poet is only a more acute representation of the writer in general or the artist in general, just as the writer or artist is only a "signifier" for Everyman and Everywoman, for humanity in general. That is, the contradictions at the heart of human experience - between now and forever, earth and heaven, self and other, universal and particular - are signified - emblematized - by the artist.

It's this inward contradiction which accounts for the "outsiderness" of the artist - again, perhaps most acutely represented by the poet. In the context of practical America, consider the unique (& very personal, very idiosyncratic) estrangements at the core of the lives of Whitman, Dickinson, Melville, Poe, Pound, Eliot, Crane, Bishop... etc. et al.

Because the oscillation between Iron and Gold, earth and heaven, body and soul has both psychological and political - personal and social - ramifications.

"I had come to hear that great things might be true. This I was told on the Christopher Street ferry. Marvelous gestures had to be made and Humboldt made them. He told me that poets ought to figure out how to get around pragmatic America. He poured it on for me that day. And there I was, having raptures, gotten up as a Fuller Brush salesman in a smothering wool suit, a hand-me down from Julius. The pants were big in the waist and the shirt ballooned out, for my brother Julius had a fat chest. I wiped my sweat with a handkerchief stitched with a J."
- Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift


p.s. of course the 20th-cent. Moderns illustrated their own forms of "spirituality". There's a spiritual-scientific aspect to the artist's personal renunciation in pursuit of the "objective correlative" or the Joycean epiphany. Yeats's "profane perfection of Mankind".

No comments: