Will Beauty Save the World?

Will Beauty Save the World

by Michael D. O’Brien

Toward the beginning of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, the central character Prince Myshkin is shown a portrait of a young woman named Nastassya Filippovna by a Madame Yepanchin, his hostess. She holds Nastassya in contempt because her moral reputation is tarnished.


“So, you appreciate that kind of beauty?” she asks the prince.

“Yes. That kind—” the prince replies with an effort.

“Why?” she asks.

“In that face—there is much suffering,” he says, as though involuntarily, as though he is talking to himself.

“Beauty like that is strength,” one of the other women in the room angrily declares. “One could turn the world upside down with beauty like that.”

Nastassya is indeed physically beautiful. She is also suffering from her victimization (she was seduced by a wealthy guardian at a young age). She continuously careens back and forth between despair and manipulative romances. She seeks to control men, in order to transcend her degradation by men.

“Beauty will save the world.” This off-quoted maxim of Dostoevsky’s, derived from The Idiot, is widely misunderstood and misused in our times. As the author demonstrates throughout the novel, beauty alone cannot save the world. However, one of his primary insights, well illustrated throughout the story, is that beauty and suffering can seize the human heart of the observer for reasons other than carnality or even romanticized idealized attraction, though these may be present at early stages of a relationship. As the lover grows in love of the beloved, he must continuously seek the ultimate good of the beloved. If his “love” is to avoid degenerating into selfishness, it must steadily become more and more Christ-like. I do not want to give away the plot of the novel to those who haven’t read it, but let me at least say that toward the end of the story Myshkin’s Christ-like love for Nastassya is put to a supreme test. He is asked to show mercy, to be a presence of Christ, to the very person who destroys his beloved. This mercy, made possible only by the power of indwelling divine Mercy, is the beauty that will save the world.

A recent rereading of The Idiot prompted in me a few personal reflections on Beauty and Love. Bear with me, dear reader, for they may throw a little light on the nature of art, and perhaps even say something about the appalling distortions of the meaning of love as it is presented in most of modern culture.

It seems to me that a great physical beauty can be a visible metaphor of the eternal beauty of the human soul. When such a person suffers in a devastating manner, the suffering itself is a metaphor of the degradation of the image and likeness of God in man through sin. This includes the sin committed against the sufferer, and also the sufferer’s own sins against others. Dostoevsky shows us that those who recognize the genuine beauty of the human soul (each and every human soul, even the most fallen), can by a divine indwelling love resist the alternative temptations of adulation and contempt. The saving force of love in this situation (and because all men are fallen, this means all situations) is continuous mercy. Mercy, and mercy alone, penetrates the lies, for mercy is a quality of true love that flows from a sense of compassion, a sense of unity with the sufferer. In a profound sense, the suffering person is my self, my father, mother, brother, sister, friend in need of help. Pity is not enough. Practical and theoretical solutions are not enough. Love alone can restore the damaged image and likeness to the original unity.

But a false romanticism blocks this kind of awareness, impedes our growth in this kind of love. Why, then, are we so easily misled by it? I think it is because the power of romantic impulse over the human emotions and imagination is the afterglow of something we were created to have in the beginning, before the Fall of man. It is the residual longing for the original unity of man and woman, for the apotheosis of Love.

Its presence in our nature points to an original Good, yet because this nature is disordered by original sin, the impulse veers in the direction of distortion. Man is divided within himself, and thus the love that seeks the good of the other is often at odds with the sensations of love which can tend in the direction of self-service. Genuine love is the antithesis of anything which feeds the ravenous false self-by false self I mean the part of our natures that would reduce all others to objects for consumption. The line between the promptings of the true self and the false self are blurred. Our problem lies in distinguishing one from the other.

Man is tempted to all manner of sexual sin and infidelity of the imagination, not so much because he desires corruption for its own sake, but because in his soul he desires what God intended for him in the beginning, but which he no longer can fully recognize nor achieve on his own. When surrounded by this “glow” of love, man’s reason and faith can be overwhelmed; he can be deluded into mistaking the sensation for the source.

Man’s true self emerges only through self-denial, which he experiences not only as suffering but at times as a suffering very much like death. His instinctive feeling about death is that it is the radical loss of self. In the life of God this is not so, for death is the passageway to ultimate realization of one’s true and eternal identity. But man in exile from his true nature cannot yet fully know this, except by an intimation or by “blind” faith.

Thus, in order to be restored to the apotheosis of Love, he must die, and die continuously until he reaches Paradise. Even the best of human loves in sacramental marriage are only approximations of the apotheosis, because both partners, no matter how holy, still bear the common wound of mankind. Each must die for the other in the union that is their sacramental commitment, and at the same time they must die at every turn to the allurements that would pull them away from the process of dying.

The powerful attractions of romantic longings contain both a truth and a falsehood, because man himself experiences all things through split perceptions. He must understand that the allurement that would pull him elsewhere in search of the lost original Love, is in fact an illusion. When he responds to those imaginings, he is feeding upon the pleasurable sensations of the afterglow, but risks betraying the core meaning of what that glow represents. If he chooses sin, the partaking of forbidden fruit leaves him wearier and weaker for the true labors of love. It delays his restoration to the original Good, and in the worst situations sabotages it altogether.

Our senses, even our minds and emotions, will often tell us otherwise. Thus the danger of romanticism, which elevates the false allurement to the status of a saving path, and rejects the Cross as darkness, destruction of love, annihilation. How, then, do we rediscover the true saving path? We need to remember in this regard that along with selfishness in love there is an inevitable over-reliance on self. Thus, we will have to discover another great truth-namely, that we cannot save ourselves. Unaided, we cannot find the path. God will lead us and re-form our hearts and thoughts to the degree that we ask him to do so. The reorienting toward truth—truth regarding the reality of our nature and our salvation—is not dependent on our own limited strengths, but on how sincerely we ask for grace, and the degree to which we cooperate with grace.

How does this apply to the Christian artist? First and foremost we must understand that cultural works that integrate truth and beauty and virtue are signposts along the saving path. Such works can only be created as the fruit of life in Christ. That is why the Church has frequently called artists to open their hearts completely to Christ, so that his living words might flow through them. Christ and the Church ask them to be willing to suffer in order to “give birth” to such works. In the age of comfort and materialism many artists draw back in revulsion from this invitation and, like the rich young man in the Gospel, turn sadly away. They fail to understand that within the mystery of suffering with Christ is hidden a great joy, and inexhaustible riches.

The beauty that will save the world is the love of God. This love is both human and supernatural in character, but it germinates, flowers, and comes to fruition only in a crucified heart. Only the heart united with Christ on the Cross is able to love another as himself, and as God loves him. Only such a heart can pass through the narrow gate of the Cross and live in the light of Resurrection. The good news is that this resurrection begins here and now.

Finally, a few pertinent quotations:

“I appeal to you especially, Christian artists: I wish to remind each of you that, beyond functional considerations, the close alliance that has always existed between the Gospel and art means that you are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man.
“Human beings, in a certain sense, are unknown to themselves. Jesus Christ not only reveals God, but fully reveals man to man. In Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself. All believers are called to bear witness to this; but it is up to you, men and women who have given your lives to art, to declare with all the wealth of your ingenuity that in Christ the world is redeemed: the human person is redeemed, the human body is redeemed, and the whole creation which, according to St. Paul, ‘awaits impatiently the revelation of the children of God’ (Rom 8:19), is redeemed. The creation awaits the revelation of the children of God also through art and in art. This is your task. Humanity in every age, and even today, looks to works of art to shed light upon its path and its destiny.”

Letter of Pope John Paul II to Artists, n.14, April 4, 1999


“The artistic temperament has its dangers, and not only if the artist fails to understand the sanctity of his calling. The danger is that the artist may rest satisfied with the creation of the image, as if no other demands were made on him. Our meaning will become especially clear in the case of the image of the Cross. There is scarcely a believing artist who will never have felt the urge to represent Christ crucified or carrying his cross. But from the artist, too, the crucified Lord demands more than such an image. He asks of him as from very other man that he should follow him: that he should form himself, and let himself be formed, into the image of him who bore the Cross and died on it.”

— St. Edith Stein, The Science of the Cross


“Trust, and nothing but trust, should lead us to love.”  — St. Thérèse of Lisieux

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