BEAUTY and other dangerous words

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spouses kill one another; lovers do; children murder their parents; siblings kill each other, and so do close friends. In Genesis, the first murder is Cain killing Abel, his brother.  Family love, like erotic love, can be deadly.  

Deadly erotic love is often infused with deadly beauty. In Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot the character Prince Myshkin – who proclaims “Beauty will save the world!”  – is destroyed by his love for a femme fatale – who is murdered by the man who loves her.  Some early Church Fathers, like John Chrysostom, thought feminine beauty was essentially dangerous, and Chrysostom warns women: wearing makeup adds “nothing to your beauty of face; it destroys the beauty of your soul. . .”  Chrysostom believed adorning yourself means courting damnation but he believed in spiritual beauty, of course – just the sensuous beauty of a woman was not to be trusted.  Both the Hebrew Bible and classical mythology are less anti-sensual. In the Book of Proverbs, 

compiled c. 400 B.C, men are told to beware of the dangerous beauty (and perfumed bed) of the harlot but to rejoice in the beauty of Wisdom and delight in the breasts of a loving wife. In Greek mythology the hero Hercules must choose between two women: a flashy one, embodying vice, and one of modest loveliness  – embodying virtue.  Wisdom and virtue are not incompatible with sensuous beauty, a beauty that may arouse desire, but not lust. 

Simone Weil, a French philosopher, Christian mystic, and social activist, recoils against such consumption and objectification when she discusses the moral ambiguity of beauty in terms of looking and eating.  In her fine book, Waiting for God, she says:“It may be that vice, depravity, and crime are nearly always, or even perhaps always, in their essence, attempts to eat Beauty, to eat what we should only look at. Eve began it.  If she caused humanity to be lost by eating the 

fruit, the opposite attitude, looking at the fruit without eating it, should be what is required to save it.”

If looking without eating could save humanity – if looking could lead us to feast on the fruit of the Tree of Life – then the beauty that is in art is very important, for it can teach us to look without devouring.  In art sensuous and spiritual beauty can coin here. The beauty in art may be what teaches us to let things be as they are, not to devour them, to move from lust into the territory of wise love.  

Unfortunately, the idea of beauty has not been at the heart of the world of art in the past century; beauty has almost been divorced from art. I think the first writer to suggest that great divorce was Leo Tolstoy in What is Art?Here in this book he wrote after embracing his own form of Christianity, based actually on his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount – and separating himself from 


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