Interview with Gregory Wolfe author of
Beauty Will Save the World
Your prologue speaks of the way you relate to “the four cultures.” What does that phrase mean to you?
It comes from a marvelous book by John W. O’Malley and it refers to four of the most central “languages” we speak as Westerners. These four tongues might be called the prophetic/theological, the rational/critical, the literary/rhetorical, and the visual/performing. The first two—the religious and academic cultures—are extremely powerful but they tend toward abstraction and ideology unless they are balanced by the second two—the literary and visual arts—which clothe ideas with concrete metaphors and lived experience. I love all four cultures but my career has been defined by the way I’ve pursued the second two as counter-weights to the first two.
In the first section, “From Ideology to Humanism,” you recount a journey that began in the conservative intellectual movement but then veered into the world of the arts. Do you see any continuity in that journey?
Ironically, I came of age in 1980 just when conservatives became triumphant on the national stage. But at that moment I saw a troubling trend toward politicization and ideology among conservatives. It struck me then that culture is prior to politics—that the stories and metaphors emerging from the culture shape the political debates far more powerfully than the other way around. So by devoting my life to nurturing contemporary art that makes new the Judeo-Christian tradition, I see perfect continuity with my youthful immersion in the conservative movement.
You’ve been a critic of the “culture wars.” Why?
Because in the end they have become more about each side preaching to its own choir than a real political struggle over real issues. Cultural change occurs not because of the arguments we win but because the stories we tell are more compelling, more human than those told by others.
What do you mean by “politicization”?
The reduction of all civil discourse to slogans shouted by utopian factions. In a sense, “politicization” is the true enemy of politics itself: by reducing everything to ideology and power the whole conception of politics as a process of debate and compromise is thrown out the window. We are reaping that whirlwind today.
The phrase “Beauty will save the world” is provocative, if not downright absurd. Where did you come across it and why does it serve as the title of this essay collection?
It comes from Dostoevsky’s great novel, The Idiot. I use it in several senses. First, it’s a way of shocking the reader into questioning the role of beauty and imagination in our lives. The thing about beauty is that it resists being reduced to subservience to power and interests—beauty in some ways is an end in itself. (Of course, art and beauty can be turned into propaganda but then they cease to be beautiful and artful.) “Beauty will save the world” means that seeing the world truly and gaining knowledge through contemplation is more meaningful and constructive than dominance over the world through power.
At a time when many culture critics bemoan our time as a decadent wasteland, you’ve consistently championed a wide range of contemporary artists and writers. Isn’t that just sentimental optimism?
I’ve termed the penchant for declaring the present the worst of times “declinism.” It’s very tempting because it immediately enables the critic to score easy points: things were better way back when. But the truth is that there is rise and fall, loss and gain, in every generation. We usually forget that art we celebrate from the past was controversial in its own time. Declinists don’t bother to truly look at what’s going on around them and so they see the good that is taking place. It may be less sexy, but championing what is excellent—and perhaps difficult to grasp—is ultimately a more important task for the critic than panning what is awful.
The word “humanism” has come with negative connotations for quite some time, as in “secular humanism.” You speak of “Christian Humanism.” Isn’t that an oxymoron?
Recent connotations of the word “humanism” are 180 degrees from the word’s origin. Humanism grew out of the religious vision that saw each human life as endowed with dignity. And so a “humanist” was someone who cared about the “humanities”—things like literature, rhetoric, history, and philosophy—that explored our identity as individuals. Humanists typically are peacemakers and bridge-builders because they make connections—they see underlying relationships where others insist on differences.
What interests you in the legacy of the Renaissance thinkers like Erasmus and Thomas More? How are they relevant to our time?
They lived in a time remarkably like our own—they lived through a period of intense “culture wars,” technological change, and ideological extremism. Erasmus and More sought to counter both secular power-mongers and religious fanatics by stressing the importance of literature, rhetoric, and imagination. In many ways the Renaissance humanists, steeped in Christianity, brought us much of what has been claimed for the secular Enlightenment. But it was thinkers like Erasmus and More who gave us modern textual criticism, a historical sensibility, and the shape of the modern university’s emphasis on liberal arts and humanities.
Many of the writers and artists you cover in these essays work in modern forms like irony and ambiguity. Aren’t such styles antithetical to tradition? How can you say they are renewing the Judeo-Christian tradition if such styles are tainted by modernity?
Ambiguity and irony cannot be demonized because they are not ends in themselves but fundamental building blocks of art. The Western tradition from Plato onward emphasized how limited our human understanding is, so ambiguity is the way that art renders our incapacity to always perceive the truth. In the hands of many great writers and artists who embrace the religious truths of the West, irony can become a way of contrasting what we have lost with what we once had. Or of what we have but don’t appreciate.