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On Literature and the Aesthetic

Of the traditional transcendentals—the true, the good, and the beautiful—the lattermost is the one most frequently and most easily tossed from its noble rank.  The popular sentiment that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is among the many dominant cultural and psychological influences acknowledged to exist and yet seldom subjected to examination.  It seems reasonable, on observation of the sundry opinions as to what is beautiful and what is not.  Yet such reasoning is superficial and characteristic of a lazy inquiry.  It is easy to be swept along by commonality and never realize it, to consciously recognize only the variances amongst the dominance of taste—which is not to say that all dominant taste is good; on the contrary, the more prevalent an aesthetic criterion, the more unlikely it is to adhere to an objective standard, being driven instead by the masses of untrained aestheticians who demand sensory pleasure rather than genuine objective quality.  Consider popular music: the innovators of a particular style are not always the best musicians, and the best musicians are certainly not always innovators.  Neither sort is guaranteed any true popularity; instead, those who perform the style with little regard to either talent or innovation and focus instead on making their music accessible are guaranteed a large following.  Yet amongst the performers who garner a significantly populated fan base, the styles vary drastically, from saccharine cooing to dark, heavy metal.  Though some would see this as even more evidence of the relativization of aesthetic preference, it is the truth that—even if the majority of followers of death metal would not readily accede to such—all music, and indeed all art, even if in the smallest degree, is recognized as communicating some transcendental and objective aspect of the beautiful.

Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Judgment, wrote that “Fine art shows its superiority precisely in this, that it describes things beautifully that in nature we would dislike or find ugly.”1 While good art imitates nature, poor art imitates good art; and so in poor art, as opposed to the fine, which portrays the naturally distasteful there is found a diluted representation of this transformed beauty; and like all dilution, makes it easier to swallow, hence the popularity of the under-talented and accessible.  Of course, this raises the question, which regularly revisits civilization every few decades, “What is good art?”  When the societal norms dictate relativization of aesthetic judgment, the criteria are usually centered around the evocation of powerful emotion.  When objectively grounded in a transcendental conception, the criteria center around the portrayal and signification of truth or goodness, be it by a via negativa or by a positive relation.  This contrary standard of analysis indeed provides insight to the distinction between good and bad art; the latter being that which merely evokes emotion—sometimes quite powerfully—but passes away, while the former produces a lasting impression by connecting the perceiver with some eternal truth through means of the perceived.  This impression of truth is most powerfully achieved by the well-wrought literary work.

It is for this reason that William Shakespeare is a name known by almost everyone, whereas the Great Bard’s contemporaries Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson do not share such fame.  The latter two were excellent playwrights, make no mistake, but the brilliance of Shakespeare is universally recognizable, even by those who have great difficulty in articulating why he was so brilliant.  It could be said that Shakespeare’s brilliance resides in the fluidity of his language or the richness of his characters; but the same could be said for a thousand other deservedly lesser-known poets, playwrights, and novelists.  What Shakespeare constructed so well in almost all of his plays, on a level unparalleled, were symbols of essential and immutable human nature.  Were these constructs not immanently beautiful, they would retain their atemporal universality but lose the profundity of their atemporal accessibility.  The contemporary perception of Shakespeare as, to the common reader, impossibly recondite, shows not a lack of beauty in the writing, but a lack of comprehension in the undereducated reader; yet it shows the indomitable nature of Shakespeare’s symbolic constructs that the educated few persist in advocating for the bard, maintaining his status as the playwright par excellence.

But what is the significance of these symbolic constructs?  What is a symbol?  Man encounters symbols every day: in corporate logos, in ritual practices, and in all media of art and entertainment.  These symbols act as intermediaries between the perceiver and the signified.  As such they are signifiers, but not merely signs, for a sign, such as a word or a red octagon on which “STOP” is written have no substantial content in their functionality themselves; a word may be spoken or written or transmitted through sign-language, and a stop sign can be made of metal or wood or any number of materials.  A sign represents its signified by completely accidental means; that which they signify could be signified in a number of other ways, as both “rage” and “anger” connote a particular emotion (with nuanced differences) and both a stop sign and a red light signify that the driver must stop his car (with different rules for proceeding after stopping).  A sign does not share in the participation in being of the signified, of the signified’s substance.  The entire substance of a sign, as a sign, is to point to something else.  Contrariwise, a symbol shares in the participation of that which it ultimately signifies; which is why it is said that a good portrait “captures” an image of its subject.  Likewise a crucifix, though it ultimately signifies the Crucifixion of Christ, also makes present in its own being an aspect of the crucifixion, and is hence venerated.

Literary Critic Allen Tate

Literary Critic Allen Tate

While the symbolic nature of the plastic arts, or even the well-designed corporate logo, is plain to see, perception of pervasive symbolism in good literature is more difficult.  After all, was it not said just above that words are merely signs, and is not literature composed of words?  Most certainly literature is; but despite its material building blocks being themselves signifiers, the words from which literature is made are accidental to literature itself, the whole instead being something greater.  This accidental nature of the parts is well demonstrated by translation, through which the same work, though homogenous in its original language, may be presented in great variety by multiple translations into another language.  The quality of a translation, it ought to be noted, is not determined strictly by the most precise terminology, but rather by the best connotation.  For example, it is debatable which description of Odysseus in Homer’s Iliad is better:

This one is Laertes’ son, resourceful Odysseus,
who grew up in the country, rough though it be, of Ithaka,
to know every manner of shiftiness and crafty counsels.2


That’s Laretes’ son, the great tactician Odysseus.
He was bred in the land of Ithaca.  Rocky ground
and he’s quick at every treachery under the sun—
the man of twists and turns.3

Each translation has its merits, but the latter carries the description awkwardly and with some vagueness and imprecision—“tactician” being of narrower meaning than “resourceful,” “twists and turns” being less indicative than “shiftiness and crafty counsels”—whereas the former has both linguistic fluidity and richer connotation of Odysseus’ character; the reader is given a better image of the man and of Helen’s perception of him.  But even this image, like all individual literary images, is not itself the symbolism of the work or even a symbolic particular, properly speaking, for it is a mere fragment of the work as a whole and may serve simply to frame some more significant action or individual.

Wherein, then, does the symbolism of a literary work as a whole reside?  First, let a particular symbol of a work be examined; in this case, a simile in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet, “God’s Grandeur.”  Though the poem is explicit in reference to its subject matter, it nonetheless corroborates its explication through the use of imagery.  The first two lines,

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

say directly what is meant, and yet use a symbolic image in order better to convey meaning through to the corporeally enmeshed intellect; the world is full, energized, by the greatness and the glory of God, which will become visible through bursts of brilliance, which resemble the light which comes off a piece of foil when shaken.  The foil, as that which reflects light—which catches light so to speak—acts as an analogate for the world, and the light as an analogate for the divine grandeur.  The foil as a symbol participates in the same sort of being of the world, the receptivity of a greater and nobler beauty, and the world in turn serves as a symbol that participates in the grandeur of God.  This imagery of transitive significance is what Allen Tate once so succinctly and insightfully described: “The symbolic imagination conducts an action through analogy, of the human to the divine, of the nature to the supernatural, of the low to the high, of time to eternity.”4

Although actions are usually considered as individual elements, when the whole of a literary work is realized by the reader, there is a totality constructed by the various individual actions; as such the action of a Shakespearean tragedy (or any good tragedy) is complete when, through freely-willed human action and the unpredictable vacillations of fate, the life of an extraordinary man ends in calamity, death, or complete disintegration of harmonious existence.  In such a tragedy—Macbeth, for instance—the totality of action becomes symbolic by analogizing the particular to the universal, of showing in the actual fall of one man the potential fall of all; by showing how anyone may capitulate to lust for power and the consequences that may thereby be suffered, regardless of societal norms or provincial circumstances.  This whole signification is achieved by mediate significations, such as the Weird Sisters—the word “Weird” in Elizabethan English connoting that which has to do with fate—who symbolize the impersonal machinations of a world that acts in ways contrary to and independent of human will.  Such intermediaries, which stand between the perceiver and the signified, act as lenses by which, individually, aspects of the total significance are perceived, and together, as that which shows the whole while yet retaining the particulars.  Indeed, the well-wrought literary work is at once a telescope and a microscope to sempiternal truth and reality.

But this is not all that good literature and other successfully crafted works of art do; for it is not merely the communication of truth and goodness, but the communication of truth and goodness in a particular manner; namely, a beautiful manner.  Certainly, as any Catholic metaphysician worth his salt could attest, the true, the good, and the beautiful are fundamentally the same in their per se existence, much like the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  And yet the manifestations of the good, the true, and the beautiful are as diversely realized as those of the Trinity.  The Father may stand for the Good, the Son for the True, and the Holy Ghost for the Beautiful; but there is goodness in beauty and beauty in truth and truth in goodness, each in the other and the other in each.  Nonetheless it is through the manner of being of the individual human person, tied to the immanent and particular world as he is, that man naturally perceives the Three in One as Three, as through particular symbols and analogates by which the universals of his experiences are known.  This is the task of the aesthetic, to perceive that which is portrayed by a symbol and thereby enable the recognition of the universals which indicate the supreme Universal; through grasping the signs of words, a symbol can be grasped; through grasping a symbol, that which it signifies can be grasped; through grasping the whole of a series of symbols, the greater symbol is realized, and with that realization comes the possibility of tasting eternal truth.

Google Books, p.180
2 Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Lattimore, Richard. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961) 105.
3 Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Fagles, Robert (New York: Penguin Books, 1998) 135.
4 Tate, Allen. Essays of Four Decades. “The Symbolic Imagination.” (Wilmington DE: ISI Books, 1999) 427.  For explication of the symbolic in literature, this essay is highly recommended, particularly when read in juxtaposition to “The Angelic Imagination.”

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