December 24, 2010


Makoto Fujimura - The Art of "The Four Holy Gospels" from Crossway on Vimeo.

The Artist and the Beautiful (Makoto Fujimura, 2/12/2010)

I was introduced to Hawthorne's delightful short story by reading Dr. Denis Donoghue's Speaking of Beauty. This title, too, is a subtle, but significant shift from books that speak directly "at" the subject of beauty, but alluding to the issue. Dr. Donoghue, a T.S. Eliot scholar at New York University, spoke for International Arts Movement's "Return of Beauty" conference on this subject in 2003, and subsequently released the book. I find this book, over the years, to be the best book on the subject of beauty available; he writes about beauty indirectly, delicately, giving a panoply of literary examples. He wisely points out that beauty, goodness and truth cannot be spoken of separately, or we will end up with an unhealthy imbalance. The book depends on literary examples, all of aesthetic delight, to illustrate this principle. Here, he describes Hawthorne's short story:

In the Artist of the Beautiful(1844) Hawthorne tells of Owen Warland, a young man who works as a watch-repairer but who lives his true life in search of the beautiful. He is gifted with an acute sense of the delicate and the minute. Mind and hand are turned toward the exquisite. Owen thinks of his work as a tribute to Annie Hovenden, whom he loves and regards as his ideal companion, the best recipient of the beautiful. For her he makes a metal butterfly that perches on one's hand.1

But, as with Hawthorne's other works, like the The Scarlet Letter, the lovers enter a dark labyrinth, as Annie ends up thwarting Owen's affection, and marrying a blacksmith instead. Annie gives birth to a child, and they name him Peter, after Owen's boss, a watchmaker who does not share Owen's passion for the exquisite. "The story turns," Dr. Donoghue notes, "some of Hawthorne's favorite polarities: light and dark, gold and iron, spirit and body, the beautiful and the useful." (pg. 12) One evening Owen finally decides to reveal this butterfly that took years to create. Hawthorne's precise language here is exquisite:

The firelight glimmered around this wonder-the candles gleamed upon it; but it glistened apparently by its own radiance, and illuminated the finger and outstretched hand on which it rested with a white gleam like that of precious stones. In its perfect beauty, the consideration of size was perfectly lost. Had its wings overreached the firmament, the mind could not have been more fulfilled or satisfied.2

Annie is delighted, but the transfixed vision is only given for a moment as the young Peter, a child with a blacksmith's hand, wipes at the butterfly, crushing it.

The blacksmith, by main force, unclosed the infant's hand, and found within the palm a small heap of glittering fragments, whence the mystery of beauty had fled forever. And for Owen Warland, he looked placidly at what seemed the ruin of his life's labor, and which was yet no ruin. He had caught a far other butterfly than this. When the artist rose high enough to achieve the beautiful, the symbol by which he made it perceptive to mortal senses became of little value in his eyes while his spirit possessed itself in the enjoyment of the Reality.

The intrigue here, in the last paragraph of the story, is Owen's reaction to the incidental but brutal grasp by the blacksmith's infant. Owen's "placid" response is markedly counter to our expectation. This apparent "ruin of his life's labor" is dismissed by the words "which was yet no ruin," Hawthorne redirects our attention not to the immediate happenstance of devastation, but on the nature of memory and perception. "He had caught a far other butterfly than this." And an artist's triumph, according to Hawthorne, is in the ability to transcend the cruel reality, but to see the greater Reality behind it all. Owen understood that true beauty resided in the memories of butterflies, and the achievement of beauty--a symbol of perfection.

Dr. Donoghue acknowledges here the irreconcilable dualism between spirit and matter, the Idea and its embodiment ("Platonic discrepancy"). "According to the rhetoric of the story, " he analyzes, "the only thing that matters is that Owen has had his vision of beauty."3 The story must be titled "The Artist Of the Beautiful" because Beauty can, and should, transcend, and even consume the artist's efforts.

Call it wishful thinking on my part: but here is my initial mis-interpretation of the story, which I thought was called "The Artist AND the Beautiful." The artist's relationship to the beautiful is a dance, rather than sublimation. I thought initially, wrongly, that there might be a vision of reconciliation here, in which the appearing Reality compensates, and justifies.

But I am afraid Dr. Donoghue's interpretation is the correct one. Here, Hawthorne captures beauty in the similar way that the Japanese of old have called "mono-no-aware" ("pathos of things") and that what is truly beautiful must disappear, or be destroyed, in order to be truly beautiful. The duality of spirit and matter stands, and artists must embrace the impossibility of possessing, and creating, what is enduringly, solidly beautiful. In fact, in many of the copies of this gem of a short story, the last word of the story is not capitalized, but stated as flatly as "his spirit possessed itself in the enjoyment of the reality."

As I spoke on this experience to various audiences, though, it began to dawn on me that my misreading, or overly enthusiastic reading, could also be useful. My bias toward a reconciled vision forces us to look at the context of when the story was written, and to dive into the swirls of intuitive links that can simultaneously reach the shores of theology and sciences. These speculations are useful, not just because of the various themes exposed, but also because they reveal the intuitive knowledge at the core of creativity: in every good story, there's a greater narrative behind it to tap into, and in every poem, we stand a good chance to journey beyond the author's intent. While this journey does not justify "reading into" the story beyond the boundaries set up by the author, what Hawthorne is pointing to is the possibility that our exploration of the beautiful can bring us closer to the Reality, which Owen Warfield embraced at the end. Art has the capacity to inhabit a world beyond itself, and a story can regenerate truthfully into another time.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 24, 2010 6:28 AM
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