Gregory Wolfe is editor and founder of Image, a quarterly journal that has featured prominent writers, sculptors, painters, and poets for over twenty years. The journal also hosts the Glen Workshop, fellowships for emerging writers, learning trips abroad, and numerous speaking engagements across the country. In Part I of this interview Wolfe discusses beauty, and in Part II he continues this discussion, riffing on the history of the journal and the importance of sleeping well.
The Other Journal (TOJ): Our current issue is about beauty, and so in the spirit of jazz, in which melodies are traded over time, performer to performer, I thought I would start with a quote from Dostoyevsky about beauty and let you play with that for a while. It is a fairly common one: “The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious, as well as terrible, God and the devil are fighting there, and the battlefield is the heart of man.”1
Gregory Wolfe (GW): That quote puts beauty in polarized terms, in terms of God and the devil, which is pretty traditional. Beauty has been a polarizing subject from the beginning. There are very few things that seem to be simultaneously really, really good and potentially really bad. Generally, things that seem really good and things that seem really bad are separate from one another. It’s rare that the same thing is seen, sometimes by the same person, with this ambiguity of being potentially one of the greatest things in the world and one of the worst things in the world. There is a long tradition of seeing beauty as dangerous because of its seductive power.
In that view, beauty is something that takes away your freedom and takes away your judgment; it is a kind of seduction. So from the beginning of human thought, the subject of beauty has evoked a kind of moralistic response because people feel that it is unpredictable, powerful, visceral. It could take you from where you are to some place where you may not want to be, or at least shouldn’t be, and so in some ways, it has evoked these moralistic responses that have sought to control it and confine it. I think that the notion that the devil plays around with beauty is deep-seated and of course, the very biblical/mythological understanding of Satan himself was that he was Lucifer, he was light, he was the light bearer, he was the most beautiful of all angels. And you might say that, almost like in a classical myth, there is this idea of the beauty of Satan being part of what led to his vanity, to his rebellion, and to his downfall. You can see it in Plato in the ideal republic; you can see it in various religious movements; you can see it in iconoclasm.
On the other hand, though it’s often playing catch up, there is also this other tradition that suggests that beauty is something very, very good, that it’s mysteriously allied to truth and goodness and the old philosophical formulation of what they call the transcendentals—the three great attributes that God had in total perfection and fullness—truth, goodness, and beauty. It is just the nature of our somewhat contorted Western tradition that truth and goodness have often seemed to be the workhorses, or as I sometimes say, they’re the big sisters, and beauty is Cinderella.
Beauty doesn’t seem to have the gravitas and moral rectitude of truth and goodness, but what the deepest thinkers have understood is that you can neither deify beauty and place it in isolation nor demonize it and place it in opposition. It is always mixed in with human experience, and to discern what beauty is doing, to discern the beauty of a situation, work of art, or a natural scene, is part of the way that we navigate through the world, and so I try to stress a happy medium between this deifying and demonzing of beauty. In one sense, though, I suppose I do work a little overtime for beauty because I think it has been the Cinderella over the centuries, stuck behind philosophy and theology.
Another way to look at it: if you look at the human faculties that engage those transcendentals, I think of another trinity: faith, reason, and then the third term that rarely makes it into any philosophical/theological formulations—imagination. Again, just as we hear about truth and goodness, we hear about faith and reason. No one’s quite willing to elevate imagination to a third power of the human soul. It really wasn’t until the Romantic era that poets and writers began to really think hard about beauty as part of the human capacity. The Romantics come with their own baggage, but at least they had that going for them; they really fought hard about that, particularly people like Coleridge and some German thinkers like Schiller.
TOJ: The church is very forward with evangelists of truth and evangelists of goodness, but I am hard-pressed to name an evangelist of beauty. Is this something that you would call yourself?
GW: You are raising another cluster of issues there. Obviously, on the one hand there is a kind of opposition between the terms evangelism and art, because as people have pointed out down through the centuries, one of the things that is most important about art is that it doesn’t preach. It’s not didactic. It gives you space that you inhabit imaginatively, space in which you’re reading between the lines to get truth rather than it being presented to you. Art is not proclamation. It’s not propositional truth. It’s this intuitive response that the imagination makes to a beautifully crafted object. So, in one sense art doesn’t evangelize.
But I think what you are asking me is a very straightforward question, which is “Are there people who need to evangelize for the importance of beauty?” and I’d say there are two types of people who do this. One is the people who simply make the beauty—the artists and the writers—and then there are the midgets like me who skitter around the feet of the artistic giants, saying “Don’t be scared of these artistic giants! They’re amazing! Welcome them into your life!” I am just a pygmy. I am just trying to explicate the liner notes so that you can read and not be scared of these incredible giants.
So, yeah, I’m a critic. I sometimes call myself an impresario. My personal vocation and my job is to try to advocate within the Christian community for beauty and for beauty’s spiritual and theological entanglements and associations—just as I go out into the secular sphere, which doesn’t officially have as much problem with beauty as we hypermoralistic religious people do, but which nonetheless has its own problems in seeing the relationship between beauty and the infinite, beauty and the transcendent. There are people who need to occasionally articulate these things because, as I said, beauty is the subject of debate, controversy, uncertainty, ambiguity. So, occasionally, there are people who try to make straight the way for deeper appreciation of the original creative voice, and in that sense I am a servant, a midget servant trying to serve that larger experience of the creative voice itself.
Please read Part II of our interview with Gregory Wolfe here.
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1. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. by Constance Garrett (New York, NY: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1999).