Until a poet friend informed me, I did not realize that I had inadvertently renamed Nathanial Hawthorne’s short story. She said “Hey, Mako, it’s ‘of.’ But I can see where you’re going with that slightly altered title…” I had been calling it “The Artist and the Beautiful,” (in a series of refractive emails) instead of Hawthorne’s “The Artist of the Beautiful”: An innocuous replacement of prepositional phrases? Perhaps, but between my “and” and Hawthorne’s “of” is a significant shift. “And” assumes an interdependent, and relative relationship to beauty, whereas “of” assumes more of beauty as absolute reality. Where, I wondered, was I going with the slightly altered title?
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.
The Watchmaker and HMS Beagle
By the time “The Artist of the Beautiful” was published in 1844, Darwin’s “The Voyage of the Beagle” had been circulating for several years (published in 1838). Although it is not clear whether Hawthorne actually read Darwin’s manifesto, and understood its significance, it is highly likely that the scientific quest for the origin of the world (or “Cosmogony” as it was called) was a subject of debate in the utopian Brook Farm community that Hawthorne belonged to.
For both Hawthorne and Darwin, discussions pertaining to the origin, and cause, of the universe bore a gigantic footprint left by a theologian named William Paley of the18th century. Both (Hawthorne at Bowdoin, Darwin at Cambridge) would have had the opportunity to study him in college. Today, if you are fortunate enough to take an apologetics class at a seminary (sadly, is rarely available on most seminaries), the name William Paley is mentioned as a key apologist of 18th century.
William Paley’s “watchmaker” argument (sometimes called Natural Theology) goes something like this: If one is taking a walk on the beach and finds a watch, and examines its intricacy and the beauty of its mechanism for the first time, then one would conclude, quite naturally, that there is such a person as the watchmaker who made the instrument. Paley extends this argument to the complex and beautiful design of nature (as a “watch”) and argued for the existence of God (the watchmaker).
“For my part,” Paley stated in 1802, “I take my stand in human anatomy”…”the necessity, in each particular case, of an intelligent designing mind for the contriving and determining of the forms which organized bodies bear.”4 Paley was extending the Aristoterian thesis of the “unmoved mover” further into the area of scientific knowledge. In Aristotle’s Metaphysics, the “unmoved mover” argues for “the cause of the first movement.” If you see a billiard ball moving about as you enter your basement recreation room, you would assume that someone, or something, has caused it to move. Since there cannot be an infinite chain of causes, there must be an ’unmoved mover.” St. Augustine takes up this argument in The City of God in the early fifth century, linking theological elements into Aristotelian philosophy. St. Thomas Aquinas, in the thirteenth century, clarified this position as his “teleological argument” for the existence of God.
Darwin admired and embraced Paley’s “watchmaker” theological stance, at least at first. Darwin stated:
In order to pass the B.A. examination, it was, also, necessary to get up Paley’s Evidences of Christianity, and his Moral Philosophy… The logic of this book and as I may add of his Natural Theology gave me as much delight as did Euclid.5
This initial enthusiasm, comparing Paley to Euclid, the Greek father of geometry, began to wane slowly, and by the time he boarded the HMS Beagle in 1820, he had begun to question the validity of Paley’s argument. Darwin’s reasoning was a bit forced and abrupt, but as the Beagle sailed toward far off lands, as he observed the species adapting to their natural habitats, he began to see a contradiction between what he assumed to be true and what he was seeing. He concluded that we could not explain our evolutionary reality with Paley’s theology, and eventually, Darwin rejected the Biblical thesis as untenable.
It’s important to note that Darwin’s rejection of Paley, at least initially, was not the rejection of the teleological argument itself.6 In fact, he needed the argument of complexity of organisms to have some cause, whether that be God or an evolutionary “blind” mechanism. Even for the “blind” mechanism that evolution depends upon, the premise of that causality (teleology) is essential for Darwin. Without holding the world at large as a world of causes that have inherently logical connections, without a belief in the rational steps that moves us into the domain of causality, no observed data can mean anything.
Where does such an assumption of causality originate? What makes us inquire into the world, to endure seasickness, as Darwin was prone to, travel thousands of ocean miles on the H.M.S. Beagle, to inquire in the Galapagos of observable data of finch’s beaks and iguana’s tails? It was partly Darwin’s earlier delight in finding the elegance of Paley’s arguments, and the teleological argument in general (encouraged by his grandfather Erasmus), that allowed him the rational belief in the progressive nature of the world7, and the certainty of nature’s process. It was Darwin’s belief in the rational search for the causality of things that first convinced him to look for signs in the Galapagos.
Most of today’s prophets of evolutionalism also share in this belief in the rational search for causality: just like the character Peter Hovenden, a watchmaker who cannot appreciate Owen Warfield’s ephemeral vision, they are materialists. “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” Carl Sagan states definitively. These scientists are quick to dismiss any supernatural causes as “unscientific.” Stephen Jay Gould8, Sagan’s friend and evolutionalist, in a provocative and cynical essay called “Darwin and Paley meet the Invisible Hand,” labels Paley’s, and by intimation today’s “intelligent design” scholars, as having a “fossil world view.”9 Further, Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan, both readily promise to take on this question of causality, and persuade us very eloquently. Scientists have been so effective in promoting this assumption that today we assume that the sciences must be able to answer this question of causality in order to be true.
Atheist scientist Richard Dawkins writes in The Blind Watchmaker: “a deity capable of engineering all the organized complexity in the world, either instantaneously or by guiding evolution, … must already have been vastly complex in the first place …” He calls this “postulating organized complexity without offering an explanation.” In its preface, Dawkins states that he wrote the book “to persuade the reader, not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence.” Dawkins is clearly making a teleological statement here, and without much explanation to justify it.
Darwin, even to the end of his life, wavered between belief and atheism, but chose to honestly state his conviction on the materialist, closed system of nature to its logical conclusions. At the end of his life, Darwin’s heir Stephen Jay Gould, being told of his good friend Carl Sagan’s death, stated: “the light had gone out…The days I spend with Carl in Rome were the best of our friendship…Carl also shared my personal suspicion about the nonexistence of souls - but I cannot think of a better reason for hoping we are wrong than the prospect of spending eternity roaming the cosmos in friendship and conversation with this wonderful soul.”10 As an agnostic Jew, Gould could not experientially dismiss the possibility of eternity and existence of souls altogether.
Such a pang for the existence of the soul may be a prerequisite of modernity: perhaps a badge of honor for those who insist on “pursuit of truth.” “There was a time,” H.G. Wells wrote, “when my little soul shone and was uplifted by the starry enigma of the sky. That has now disappeared. I go out and look at the stars in the same way I look at wallpaper.”11 We see beauty as flat, perceptible gain, when our eyes long to be opened to the fullness of what they were created for; extravagance, and use-less beauty. A materialist no longer can see beauty.
But we need to ask, today, is H.G. Wells honest assessment of a “wallpaper” modern life any real progress from the past? What modernist would call naiveté in pre-moderns admiring the beauty in the skies, being in awe of creation; is that “naivete” or true humanity? Is the modernists’ triumph, simply foolish denial of our souls? Can humanity live without wonderment in the “starry enigma of the sky” or leave the soul out of our scientific, technological pursuit?
Consider this: Judy and I went recently to the Winter Antiques Show at the Armory. There was early 19th century embroidery by an eleven-year-old girl done in lament for her dead five-year-old sister. The embroidery had sophistication, skill, emotive impact and creativity that communicated and communed, deeper than many contemporary works you will see at the Whitney Biennial. To think that we have progressed by the awakening of our rational, modernist assumptions, and to have evolved to a higher consciousness in our post-modern reality, is nothing but our rubbish pride. In fact, as Jacques Barzun has amply shown in From Dawn to Decadence, we are digressing in culture, rather than progressing. At the end of his thesis, he notes:
With science, techne was the sole institution untouched by any falling off; that is, in results. That qualifier is required, because science and techne were not exempt from severe social and philosophical criticism. Quite apart from instances of falsified data, science and techne had lost their sanctity. A body of thoughtful opinion made the joint enterprise responsible for the worst of contemporary ills. Too much of the rational and the mechanical was deemed destructive of the spiritual in man. Then too the ever presence of numbers, of technical terms and ideas, of dependence of system and formula-fallible or not-bred a prison-like atmosphere. The absence of variety, or empty time, of things unprocessed quenched the simple love of life. Again, the renewed religious longings remained unsatisfied. The churches, internally divided, vainly tried to unite with others; theology, intellectually strong earlier in the century, was enfeebled and could not move the culture from its secular-scientific base.12
How true: just like in Hawthorne’s story, “too much of the rational and the mechanical was deemed destructive of the spiritual in man.” As “science and techne had lost their sanctity” we have, in our “progress,” crushed the beautiful with our brute hands, and endeavored to built galleries and museums as post-beauty cultural prisons, with flat, colorless, cold “gallery white” walls. Barzun also notes correctly that theology (divisiveness and weakness) contributed to the lack of trust in incarnating our ideals into artworks. Our expression of art has become prison food for our post-modern, imprisoned souls. Further, we have lost the “sanctity” of sciences and what he calls “techne,” the exploratory arm of technology. Thus, rather than finding a generative view of reality, we have surrendered to the progressivism of Darwinian heirs, applying a “survival of the fittest” mechanism, and finding ourselves more and more fragmented and uncertain of who we are. Now we must deal with the pulverized, Ground Zero remains of our own creation.
Science and the arts were birthed as a result of the conviction that our material reality is connected to the sacred, and that it is possible, via inspiration, to consider “the world that ought to be.” Scientific knowledge began with observing the consistent rhythm of the universe, and the certainty of reality. And without this certainty, the arts as we know them would not have been nurtured. Without the blessings and conviction of material reality, we would not have the beatific vision of Giotto, who dared to create illusions of space into a wall, leading to the Renaissance invention of the “vanishing point.” Why create illusions toward the expansive, if the world itself is uncertain illusions, folding inward only to collapse within? The art of representation certainly existed before Christ, but a brash development of a system of idiosyncratic, un-dictatorial communication, the affirmation of individual identities as created in the image of God, and consistent endeavor to value such diverse forms of expression would not be, apart from Christ’s liberation of every man, woman and child to create. Even the ideals of progressivism13 which Darwin’s heirs so embraced, would be meaningless without the historicity of Christ’s appearance on the earth, the affirmation that we have come from certainty, and are bound for certainty.
So in the age in which the artist is orphaned from the reality of beauty, in which we must call ourselves the Artist and the Beautiful, we need more than a forced synthesis of the material and the spirit. We need a supra-natural, generative vision that asks the “question behind the question,” to journey beyond the Matrix virtual world of our day. Hawthorne was already writing a lament toward our Reality. The mechanical butterfly had already been crushed in Owen Warfield’s mind way before it was created. But as we face our day, almost two centuries later still, refracting in the pulverized remains in an infant’s hand are the questions of faith, ontology and knowledge that continue to challenge and inspire our creative journeys.
(Part 2 of this essay will deal with Darwin’s rejection of progressivism, what Marilynne Robinson, the author of Gilead, has to say about it, and why the “blind watchmaker” of Dawkins is only half of the problem.)
- Denis Donoghue, Speaking of Beauty, pg. 12, Yale University Press, 2003
- Nathanial Hawthorne, The Artist of the Beautiful
- Speaking of Beauty, Pg. 14
- William Paley - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- Rejection of theological teleology, progressivism and resulting Scientism, a belief that science is all there is to answer the question of origin, came only later
- Darwin rejects progressivism ultimately, and this will be pursued in part 2 of this essay
- To be fair to Dr. Gould, whose lecture I had the privilege of hearing at Bucknell University, he has modified his stance to allow for both religion and science to co-exist. See https://stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_noma.html
- https://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_darwin-paley.html This essay has an interesting link to the economic theories of Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus
- Virginia Stem Owens, Faith, Perception and the New Physics, The New Religious Humanist, a Reader, edited by Gregory Wolfe
- pg 796, From Dawn to Dacadence, Jacques Barzun, Harper Collins, 2000
- again, which Darwin rejected; more on this on part 2