Its Own Confirmation

I started reading Beauty Will Save the World by Gregory Wolfe right after I bought it about five years ago. From the placement of my bookmark, it looks like I abandoned it after chapter seven. Also, the copious underlining ends shortly before chapter eight begins. I pulled it off the shelf this morning after contemplating Dostoevsky’s phrase and doing an online search for it yesterday. The search netted a rather interesting piece from Crisis magazine that mentioned Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s relationship with the sentiment, as he described it in his Nobel lecture. I’ve not read enough of Solzhenitsyn’s work, but everything I’ve seen thus far impresses me, and I was especially pleased to open Wolfe’s book and find on the first page an excerpt from Solzhenitsyn’s lecture. It differs somewhat from the lecture I found online and linked to above, so I’ll type up the version in Wolfe’s book here:

Dostoevsky once let drop the enigmatic phrase: “Beauty will save the world.” What does this mean? For a long time it used to seem to me that this was a mere phrase. Just how could such a thing be possible? When had it ever happened in the bloodthirsty course of history that beauty had saved anyone from anything? Beauty had provided embellishment, certainly, given uplift—but whom had it ever saved?

However, there is a special quality in the essence of beauty, a special quality in the status of art: the conviction carried by a genuine work of art is absolutely indisputable and tames even the strongly opposed heart. One can construct a political speech, an assertive journalistic polemic, a program for organizing society, a philosophical system, so that in appearance it is smooth, well structured, and yet it is built upon a mistake, a lie; and the hidden element, the distortion, will not immediately become visible. And a speech, or a journalistic essay, or a program in rebuttal, or a different philosophical structure can be counterposed to the first—and it will seem just as well constructed and smooth, and everything will seem to fit. And therefore one has faith in them—yet one has no faith.

It is vain to affirm that which the heart does not confirm. In contrast, a work of art bears within itself its own confirmation: concepts which are manufactured out of whole cloth or overstrained will not stand up to being tested in images, will somehow fall apart and turn out to be sickly and pallid and convincing to no one. Works steeped in truth and presenting it to us vividly alive will take hold of us, will attract us to themselves with great power—and no one, ever, even in a later age, will presume to negate them. And so perhaps that old trinity of Truth and Good and Beauty is not just the formal outworn formula it used to seem to us during our heady, materialistic youth. If the crests of these three trees join together, as the investigators and explorers used to affirm, and if the too obvious, too straight branches of Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light—yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three.

And in that case it was not a slip of the tongue for Dostoevsky to say that “Beauty will save the world,” but a prophecy.

In his prologue, Wolfe mentions Solzhenitsyn’s speech and adds this:

So, too, another writer who experienced the ravages of totalitarianism in the twentieth century came to testify on behalf of beauty. Czeslaw Milosz, in his poem “One More Day,” writes,

And though the good is weak, beauty is very strong.

Nonbeing sprawls, everywhere it turns into ash whole expanses of being,
It masquerades in shapes and colors that imitate existence
And no one would know it, if they did not know that it was ugly.
And when people cease to believe that there is good and evil
Only beauty will call to them and save them
So that they still know how to say: this is true and that is false.

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