On Beauty II

It was a bad week. My last living aunt had passed away. Her name was Liz, and she was a hoot. If you’re old enough to remember Phyllis Diller or Carol Channing you’ll have a general idea of how much fun she was. I’ll miss her so. Then the next day I had lunch with a friend whose wife had just filed for divorce. My friend has a drinking problem, and his wife decided she couldn’t take it anymore. After lunch I spent time with another hurting friend whose only child was down to one last hope—an experimental therapy—to beat his cancer.

Meanwhile, I had to write 1,000 good words that day, and do it again the next day, and every other day until September if I was going to meet the deadline on my next novel.

The word count wasn’t the real problem. I’ve been at this writing game a long time. I’ve written amidst the distractions of airports, coffee shops and shopping malls. Even with all of this emotional turmoil I could probably still deliver 5,000 or even 10,000 readable words a day. But good words . . . aye, to quote the Bard, there’s the rub.

It’s tempting to lose focus and begin to wonder why I bother. In a world like this, excellence in the arts can seem like such a trivial pursuit. Indeed, never mind excellence, the reason art matters at all is sometimes questioned. With grief, loneliness, addiction, pain and fear all around us, what’s the point of literature? Why paint? Why sculpt? Why dance, or act, or sing? Why not devote oneself to something practical instead?

Near the end of the book of Job, after that unfortunate man has lost his children, his fortune and his health, after he has suffered the interminable counsel of well-meaning friends who insist he somehow brought disaster on himself, after he has come perilously close to blasphemy while demanding an accounting from his creator, after all of that, Job finally encounters God. Strangely, when God appears it is not with explanations. Job learns nothing of the reason for his suffering. He gets no answer to Rabbi Kushner’s famous question, ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ Even so, in the end Job is satisfied. God appears, and Job says, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” God appears, and his appearing is enough for Job.
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My friend Brad, a professor at a well-known college of fine art, tells me it’s been fashionable for many years in the art community to question the existence of beauty. Not to question beauty’s definition or value, understand, but to question its very existence. One person finds Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon lovely, while another person thinks it’s ugly. In the world of art theory this divergence of opinion has sometimes been taken to mean beauty is nothing but a social construct.

It is an old idea. It is the lament of Ecclesiastes. Everything is meaningless under the sun. Yet not everything, for Job saw God and that was enough.

Once I suffered from severe depression. Like Job I cursed the day of my birth. I was saved from the temptation of suicide by snowcapped mountains, golden birches, and the sparkling Milky Way. I was saved by reflections of God’s beauty.

I don’t mean to say God is beautiful. No mere adjective applies to him. St. John tells us “God is love.” God is beautiful in exactly the same way. Like love, beauty is God’s essence. Beauty does not describe God; it is the fact of God. It is his glory, his weight, the very thing the prophet Moses begged to see on Sinai.

The gospels tell a story of a woman who poured very expensive perfume on Jesus. His disciples were indignant. "Why this waste?" they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor."

And what was Jesus’ reply?

"Why are you bothering this woman?” he asked. “She has done a beautiful thing . . .”

Beauty exists because God exists. To reveal beauty is to reveal God. Therefore, if our art is beautiful, if we struggle to write good words instead of merely readable ones, then sometimes, just for an instant, God appears and God’s appearing is enough. In a world of grief, loneliness, addiction, pain and fear, no act of man could be more practical than that.

The original version of this essay was first published May 20, 2010 at Novel Journey

Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:54 AM 8 comments  

On Beauty I

It was an obvious mistake. Long ago during my life as an architect I designed a restaurant’s floor plan with the front doors swinging inward. If there had been a fire and a crowd rushed out, those who got to the doors first would have been unable to open them because of the press of people coming from behind. In the years since then as a full time novelist, I have spent a lot of time with other authors exploring the best practices of plotting, characterization, theme, setting, and craftsmanship. Strangely, I cannot recall a single conversation about beauty. This is remarkable omission for professional writers, easily as inexplicable as an experienced architect who draws a pair of entry doors that swing against the flow.

When I first realized what we were missing, I thought perhaps it was because the goal of beauty in a novel is so obvious we think conversation is unnecessary, much as people rarely talk about the importance of air.
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Yet that can’t explain it, since we spend so much time discussing other aspects of good fiction which are also obvious. If we feel characterization is worth our consideration, or plotting, or theme, why not beauty, too?

Next I wondered if we might ignore the topic due to the mistaken belief that beauty is the end result of every other aspect of a novel. If we do those other things well, beauty will—so the theory goes—follow naturally. But it seems to me this makes no more sense than a pair of tourists who plan a journey to the last detail without ever mentioning their destination. To arrive at a place, one must set out for it. To set out for it, one must have it in mind.

Maybe we’re embarrassed by the idea of discussing beauty in our work. Maybe we feel it is immodest to admit pursuit of such a goal. Or maybe we’re intimidated by the subject. Maybe we fear open talk of beauty makes us more accountable for its absence from our words.

Whatever the reasons, I think it strangest that I didn’t notice this omission earlier. When novelists get together to talk about their work, beauty (or the lack of it) is the elephant in the room, the emperor’s new clothes, the front doors swinging inwards. This is particularly odd for Christian authors, who write in service of the One who “shines forth in beauty” as the Psalmist said, and who are commanded to pursue an unfading beauty which “is of great worth in God’s eyes.” We create because we were created in the Creator’s image. God called all creation “good,” which is to say, beautiful. Since beauty was God’s end result, it must have been His intention in the beginning. Should it not be so with us?

The modernist movement in architecture, guided by Louis Sullivan’s famous statement “Form ever follows function,” brought us those boring glass boxes that now pass for good design among the skylines of our cities. But consider something like a rose. Certainly its scent and color serve a purpose, but does the rose exist in all its glory simply because form follows function? I think not. Surely nature could have achieved the same effect without going to so much trouble.

We are taught to focus on grace and good works will follow. So it should be in a novel. Beauty ought to be an intentional focus, and from that focus will come excellence in craftsmanship and characters, plots and settings. If our work is an offering to God, let us not rely on accidents to make it worthy. Let us search out the finest words deliberately with beauty as our goal, as shepherds once searched through their flocks for lambs without a blemish.

Perhaps some will object that they find glass box buildings beautiful.

If so, far be it from me to disagree. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, if I may fall back on cliché to make the point. What I am concerned with here is not some universal standard that makes a novel beautiful. I am simply saying a novelist should strive for beauty with all his heart and soul and mind and strength. If lust equals adultery, and anger equals murder, surely the principle works in the positive. What matters most as people and as writers is what we hope for, what we dream, what we strive to do. Even the most discriminating art collector would find a misshapen lump of clay beautiful beyond compare if it was formed as a gift by the small hands of a loving son or daughter. If a Christian author’s novel is her offering to God, let her strive to make it beautiful however she defines the term, and it will be so to God.

Commercialism, fads and apathy toward the subject are perhaps the worst enemies of beauty in fiction. Commercialism begins with the wrong motive, when motive is a fundamental quality of beauty as I have just said. The pursuit of fads, while popular with some marketing professionals, yields nothing more than slavish imitation, when nature’s infinite variety reveals beauty and originality as inseparable. And apathy is the opposite of love, when love is the underlying purpose of all things beautiful. An author who cares about beauty in her work will rigorously avoid these things.

The best friends of beauty in a novel are deep contemplation, honesty, intentionality, originality and love.

Deep contemplation, because lasting beauty is never superficial. Honesty, because duplicity is ugly. Intentionality because true beauty comes only from beautiful motives. Originality because again, nature’s variety proves it inseparable from beauty. And love, because it is both the purpose and the Source of all things beautiful.

Sadly, our culture values instant gratification above everything, even at the cost of ugliness and mediocrity. Television, fast food restaurants and tract houses testify to this. Even more sadly, Christian readers are as guilty of it as anyone. The popularity of simplistic answers to the many paradoxes in the scriptures is one proof of this.

Only pride or money could explain why a novelist would pursue readers who demand easy answers to the vast enigma of the Godhead, who have no time for sunsets, who find an ocean view too empty, who barely see the roses, much less stop to smell them.

We are told no one can serve two masters. Write for pride or money, and you do not write for love or beauty. Yet we are also told our novels must burst upon the reader’s mind with all the urgency of a fire drill. We must hook them. We must do it right away or they will rush off to the next shiny lure, and we must keep them on the hook, wiggling like a dying fish until the bitter end. But beauty does not operate that way. Beauty demands nothing. It does not insist. Beauty whispers. It entices.

For those who love in spite of the unknown and unknowable, for those who gaze in awe at sunsets, ocean views and roses all ablaze with color, there is another sort of hook.

Just to pick one fine example, consider One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Marquéz. I found little in the plot to justify so many pages, and today I do not recall a single character’s name, but the words . . . the words! Contrary to the usual advice, for me it was no page-turner. Instead my mind lingered, dreading the coming end because each page turned meant one page closer to the ceasing of those beautiful, beautiful words. The joy they sparked within me will not die until I do.

How I wish the world was filled with novels of such beauty! How I strive and strive to write such words, every single one an offering without blemish to the Source of beauty. And how I search for those who also strive to write that way, that I might have a chance to read them when the Lord is done.
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This essay was first published March 4, 2010 at Novel Journey

Posted byAthol Dickson at 2:10 PM 4 comments