Archive for January, 2008

The Beautiful Life

Scene one:

For three and a half hours now Jeffrey has been crouched against one of the more historic looking buildings downtown. The cold in the bricks on his back has melted warm against his body. That’s the secret to staying warm when you beg. It’s best if you can find a corner, but most of the traffic moves against the long stretches of sidewalk that run toward the business district, and that’s just where Jeffrey squats today. Christmas is over now, and, with that, the hand-outs will pick up. One would think that the holiday would spark generosity in the hearts of men, but most of the people here stretch every dime to hide the tree behind a wall of presents, and such stretching finds its way far past the cup on the sidewalk. Three and a half hours now, and less than three dollars to show.

It is not that Jeffrey appears capable of self sufficiency. Missing the lower half of his left leg, and obviously emaciated, the sign by his cup reads “HIV + and no family”, and he looks the part. It’s not that the flow of potential philanthropists has somehow dried to a trickle that leaves the cup empty. Rather it’s that that word, which means lover of men, applies to few who pass our crouching friend. Many pass, but few love. And here comes one now. His hand does not even so much as glance at his wallet; his toungue would quickly lash out to crush our friend, but the cold quiets his wretched criticisms. The nine-hundred dollar business suit has become a Rapunzel’s tower to his heart, secluding it from compassion for men. Now, there is a couple trailing a few steps behind him. They pass our friend oblivious, lost, and in love. And now, a third hope. He passes out of fear. If he gives, won’t he have to talk to the man? And what consolation could he offer to someone in such a place as Jeffrey? It would be better to pass like the rest if all he can give is a meager two dollars. The temperature drops.

Scene two:

Andreas Quin walks briskly down Harnack avenue clutching the green mermaid on his Starbucks cup to squeeze the warmth from her, and pulling his scarf up to his chin. He has been through this district several times to drop by the university where his wife works, but he has never been down Harnack on foot. Today though, his trip is of a different nature. In two more blocks he will reach the Sorbienne Warehouse, and there will be much to find there. Finishing off the latte, he drops it clumsily into a streetside trash compactor. One block to go.

He finally reaches the Warehohuse which is, in reality, far more impressive than any mere industrial warehouse as much for the handsome, historic look of the building as for the cargo it houses. He fishes the entrance key out of his wallet, along with a five for the kid crouching against the wall, and slides it against the panel by the door. A light blinks, and the door clinks open. After going through the polite greetings, he is led down a hallway into the annals of the Warehouse where, finally, Andreas opens the door into a warmly lit, dry room.

He paces quitely, inspecting the first piece he sees – a replica of Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat. It couldn’t be better. Whoever had painted this had poured himself into the work, finding the hues and strokes that blend, and call the viewer to share in misery. Out of the two dozen pieces – sculptures, paintings, and mosaics – few would be this good, he thought. Only thorough inspection could tell.

After three and a half hours, Andreas had proven himself right. Nine of the pieces would find a home in the museum. The others would be crushed if reusable material could be harvested from them and, for the unrecycleable ones, the mediocre pieces would be peddled into inglorious positions in the unprestigious galleries in town, and the truly bad ones would be discarded, as befits bad art.

Poem:

I am a being –
bright and indivisible,
self-sculpted and free.

I stand,
for this is mine to do.
I arch and flex,
for I have guided the chisel.

I am one –
art and artist,
Michelangelo and David,
earning my pedestal,
or facing the hammer,
crafting my soul.

——————————–

Where is unity in all this scattered division? We will find it in thinking through evil. Who is evil? What is it? How do we identify it? fight it? eradicate it from our souls? We will find help in another concept – art. For that is, somehow, what we are.

Just as there is true beauty and true ugliness, there are truly good and truly wicked people. Just as art must be beautiful, man must be good. Just as good art ought to be displayed and praised, so good men ought to be esteemed and admired. Just as bad art ought to be discarded, destroyed, or at lest hidden, so should evil people be destroyed or exiled.

What is a good person? When I wrote about male-female relationships, I brought up the concept of telos, the ideal form of a thing. For man, it is that he should be virtuous – kind, compassionate, wise, loving, sincere, honest, brave, humble, charitable, etc. If a person lacks any of these things, they are as deficient as a person as a replica of the Mona Lisa would be if it had her missing an eye, or was painted with sloppy strokes. Insofar as we lack any virtue – any quality that it is befitting of humanity – we are that much unfit for glory, and fit for exile from the land of the good. Lacking virtue is the essence of evil, for if you lack one virtue, you are sure to possess its opposite. If you lack kindness, you are unkind. If you lack courage, you are cowardly. If you lack honesty, you are dishonest. And it seems to me that, in at least one way, lacking one virtue is as bad as lacking any other.

That last claim might not seem so obvious. Certainly it’s worse to lack kindness than courage or thoughtfulness, isn’t it? If you think so, I offer you this – it is in the real world of people, suffering, emotions, and need that we spend our lives. It is in that real world that our choices, our characters matter. Read again through scene one. The unkind, thoughtless, and cowardly all act the same in many situations – they neglect a man. Cowardice kills just as much as unkindness. The very fact that it took me almost no thought to come up with an every day scenario to illustrate this proves the point – whether we are absent-minded in regards to others, or deeply unkind, we will likely live our lives out in an equally wretched way – contributing equally to the downfall and death of another – and, if there is a judgment for all people, cowards will face the hammer along with all the wicked.

How could such a judgment be fair though? We may admit that our lack of a virtue often causes harm equal to that of the intentionally wicked, but certainly aren’t we to be judged by others (and God?) by our hearts too? And certainly, won’t such evaluation see that we are not intentionally wicked, but wicked by fault of fear or absent-mindedness, or something petty?

Such evaluation should certainly see that. But I think such considerations should make little difference, for we are like sculptures in that there is a certain way we ought to be, and there are certain qualities we ought to have. Further, we are not just sculptures of anything, but we are like Michaelangelo’s David, and whether he lacks legs and we lack courage, or he lacks a head and we lack kindness, both are equally less valuable, beautiful, and honorable, and more worthy of exile and destruction. It makes no difference if it is for lack of thoughfulness or kindness that we kill another, or ruin their heart. The arrogant and tyrannical alike are murderers, and, in my experience, those who lack these “lesser” virtues do more harm in the world than the sadists.

To see ouselves rightly is to see humanity as naked stones sculpting themselves. May we be true artists.

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