The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

September 02, 2014

FEATURE ARTICLES
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The Treasonous Clerk: Saint Augustine and the Meaning of Art
James Matthew Wilson - 01/07/09
Botticelli's Augustine

Imagine: you are seated in one of the middle rows of a large auditorium on a university campus. Outside, the autumnal swell of falling leaves and idling students making their way to the dining hall for their evening meal; within, the formal and dubiously interested shifting of faculty and hungry undergraduates, as one old professor takes the podium. The lights dim, a projector hums, and soon the front wall is aglow with a slide of Botticelli’s St. Augustine.

“How to describe this painting?” the professor muses. “The huge figure of the saint, seated at his writing desk, his eyes absent, yet turned upward. His left hand on an angled lectern, evidently bracing a manuscript page, his right elevated. Too recessed to meet his gaze, yet in line with it: an armillary sphere depicting the motion of the planets, which mark but do not constitute time. Directly above him, in line with the end of his face, a small crucifix that in fact marks the outline of a radiant cross rather than bearing the crucified Christ upon it. Farther back, behind and above his head, a densely printed and illustrated text on geometry, while just below him, set aside for a moment, his Bishop’s miter. Another text is set before him, no doubt one on which he has been writing a commentary or sermon. But now, Augustine seems perfectly still, save for one imposing, thick-knuckled hand whose movement this image without extension in time leaves ambiguous. Is the hand moving toward Augustine’s breast, to rest upon his heart? It might then signify the descent of the radiant light from, and signified by, the cross above him: the movement of the Holy Spirit. Or is it moving outward, the familiar outward-sweeping arm of the orator in mid-expostulation? The painting leaves this ambiguous.”

Botticelli's Augustine

A literary theorist in the audience stirs, whispers to an already enervated colleague from History that, of course, it is ambiguous, because this is a painting, not history, narrative, or reality. It lacks the temporal dimension necessary even to claim the hand is in motion.

A theology undergraduate, plunked a row back, sinks down in his seat still more, ashamed to confess that he thought the hand must be moving both ways. Augustine is touching his hand to his heart, signifying the presence of the Holy Spirit within him, and so this movement signifies not the evident physical rest of the painting, but Augustine’s confession to his Lord that “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” But no less is his hand sweeping out, the gesture of one who professed rhetoric for years in Carthage, Rome, and Milan before abandoning it as a profession for a vocation in the Church—only, of course, to become the first great rhetorician of Christianity, who reinterpreted literally all of creation (that armillary sphere up above) in terms of the creative light of the Cross. The undergraduate knows when he is out of his depth; he just never got art.

This student, if we may imagine him beyond the present scene, will doubtless sink lower and lower in his figurative chair during the remaining years of his education until finally exiting the academy for good. He will go and find a job—unrelated to theology, most likely—aware, with a hint of relief, that he is not intelligent enough to join the tenured ranks of historians and literary theorists. And yet he is correct in his interpretation of the painting and the confident professor is wrong. Further, he is a fictional instance of that minority of living persons who would interpret Botticelli’s painting without, as it were, destroying it: one of those who know that the temptation an ambiguity sets before us to throw up our hands gleefully and exclaim, “It’s indeterminate! Who’s to judge?,” is a temptation to all manner of error—and even to sin.

Conservatives, or rather persons outside the academy in general, have long tended to view the rise of literary theory as a desecration of traditional values of art. Hence, the hucksters of Deconstruction and a Foucaultian genealogy (which reduces all things to their position in a matrix of power relations) back in the nineteen-eighties were thought to have effected some radical break with the more respectable appreciators of literature who had taught the poetry of Donne and the novels of Fielding in academe for two or three generations. What we tend less often to observe is that modern education in literature and the arts has, from the beginning, been in tension with how most reasonably educated persons would read a book, look at a painting, or listen to a piece of music.

Deconstruction, for those who do not remember it or were educated after its relative decline from academic fashion, insisted that writing existed, on the page, hermetically sealed off from ideas in the mind and things in the world themselves. We cannot assert, without a qualification that undermines the assertion, that “cow” printed on the page actually signifies the idea of a cow in the mind. Hence, a piece of writing, a text, is of its nature indeterminate, free-floating, at once potentially meaningless and potentially meaningful beyond our wildest imaginings (for “who is to judge what the text means?” opens the floodgates to every judgment being deemed, in some meaningless way, “just”).

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