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Will "Beauty save the world"?

I have often heard or seen Dostoevsky quoted, “Beauty will save the world.” It is attributed to him as if it were his personal conviction, but it is important to remember that these are the words of Prince Myshkin - the idiot - in his novel The Idiot. In this novel, Dostoevsky was exploring the idea of Beauty, and he asks us to confront the problem of abstracting beauty and virtue to the point of making it a formula detached from reality. In Russia at that time, serfdom was coming to an end; this was a catalyst for a break with the connection to the soil, with Holy Mother Russia, and with Christianity. People began to turn to secular meliorism rather than Christian charity. But how far can secular virtue go to save humanity? What are the limits of the higher intellect?

Prince Myshkin stands as the exemplar of the worldly, modern man. He replaces genuine love with pity, simplicity with naivety, contemplation of the Divine with introspection, and authority with permissiveness. He fails to connect to reality, to acknowledge & embrace our humanness. When Rogozhin shows him Holbein's painting of Christ after his crucifixion, Myshkin is repulsed by the humanity of it. When he falls in love with Nastasia Filipovna, it is with her picture, not her actual, sinful, human person. He is “the idiot” because he fails to realize the value of the concrete and specific, of “falling to the earth,” and he exalts innocence, childlikeness & compassion above healing and forgiveness.

Some claim that Myshkin is a Christ-like character, but I disagree. True, he is a peacemaker and comforter, but he is not someone we want to emulate. He is disconnected from Truth and true Beauty; he would rather say, “There, there, you are not to blame” than acknowledge human depravity and our need for redemption. What similarity he bears to Christ seems saccharin and superficial. Dostoevsky gives us a character who presents as admirable on first glance, but he is asking us to consider that goodness is not enough, and sometimes beside the point. We must have Christ to be healed.

It is not enough to say “Beauty will save the world.” It leaves us with a lovely ambiguous notion of sunsets and roses triumphing over a black cloud of evil. This dangerously vague idea, this abstraction of beauty, can lead us to project our own image on others and everything else, taking that projection for reality. But we live in the concrete, and evil is specific - specific souls being dragged into hell by murder, sex-trafficking, pornography, greed, lies, etc. True Beauty is also concrete & specific, and it manifests in suffering, hard work, and the harsh reality of active love - things Myshkin and many of us would like to avoid.

Dostoevsky’s views are better expressed in the words of Dimitri in The Brothers Karamazov: “The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. Beauty is the battlefield upon which God and the devil war for the heart of man.” Beauty alone can just as well lead us to evil. We need the beauty of nature and well-made things because they turn our gaze to the One whose Beauty is made concrete and specific in His crucifixion, His suffering, and His presence in the Eucharist.

This coming Monday is Clean Monday, the beginning of the Great Fast in the Eastern Church.

Clean Monday, despite the strict fast, is also celebrated with kite-building & flying, emphasizing that “bright sorrow” of the Eastern Church - we are both walking with Our Lord to His Passion & anticipating the sure victory of His Resurrection. As we enter this intense fasting season, we remember that more important than what we abstain from is what we give to others. This Lent, may we all have the grace to joyfully persevere in specific, active love, making Beauty concrete in our hurting world.

"The springtime of the Fast has dawned, the flower of repentance has begun to open."

- vespers from Wednesday of Cheesefare week

Hans Holbein the Younger - The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, 1521

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