The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 25, 2017

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The Treasonous Clerk: Saint Augustine and the Meaning of Art
James Matthew Wilson - 01/07/09

The phenomenon such critics descried was a real one that derived, in part, from the instrumentalization of the world, that is, from our efforts to dominate and subordinate all things to efficient use. It stemmed also from a subordination of ourselves and our deepest desires as political animals to ourselves as concupiscent individuals whose apparent aim is merely to dominate and use things. More precisely, in order to maximize our ability to consume things, our populations have become massively more mobile and so more likely to leave behind the communities in which we are born and the communal knowledge that helps us to interpret the world in terms beyond its “objective” use value. So much is obvious. Few persons would dare assert that most societies appear more coherent, stable, and rich with meaning than some few others that have escaped at least some of the “instrumentalization” of modernity. And nostalgia, when we experience it, is not usually for a simpler time so much as for a time past, where the things of the world seemed to speak with greater force, profundity, and variety.

All this has been said before—even, perhaps, too often before. But I would want to suggest that such a narrative of cultural decline describes neither the necessary course of history nor an irreversible course. What makes the world seem to coruscate with meanings is not primarily the conventions a given society builds up over time, as if culture were constructed upon the meaningless void of “thing-ness.” Meaning inheres in things. The signs that we call conventional or cultural are founded on natural signs, upon the real disposition of all things to signify more than their literal, factitious existence. The world is composed of signs—things that are intelligible because they have meaning to divulge, something intellectual to share with minds equipped to know it.

So long as the fashions of our thought tend to deny this inherent meaningfulness of the world, we shall live in a culture that takes doubt, “uncertainty,” and the evanescence of all things (especially intellectual things) for granted. Whether through the positivism and “factitiousness” proclaimed as mankind’s destiny in the nineteenth century, or through the more recent concupiscent relativism of which Deconstruction was a mere academic offspring, western societies will successfully conceal the intelligibility of the world from themselves so long as they can exploit and dominate that world for their use. So long as literal mobility remains a central attribute of modern life, we shall likely have little difficulty denying such meaning, because what little of it appears to us and accumulates will so quickly be swept from our consciousness once more.

The ennui of most critics of this destructive modern phenomenon, however, is overstated in at least one respect. The meaning of the world that we usually describe as constituting culture, or a culture,—as I have said—does not depend primarily upon our social conventions. Rather, the signs of a culture are founded on natural signs, and, indeed, are themselves natural signs in whose fashioning our intellects cooperate, and for whose knowledge and joy they exist. Given how destructive the wars and social changes of the last century have been—above all the change in thought that has tried to reduce even the human person to a fungible fact for exploitation—we should take great comfort in that fact. The meaning of things, which our cultures may embrace and develop, nonetheless does not depend on us for their existence.

And so, when we see a painting or some other work of art—the remnants, say, of some half-ruined memorial statue, in some empty square, at the edge of a red-light district in Brussels—we are seeing not the illegible signs of a lost culture. We are seeing a sign whose meaning has, for the moment, been lost to us, and whose intelligibility only awaits someone with reason, sense, and patience enough to uncover it. The imaginary theology student in the auditorium, whatever his ignorance of the career of Botticelli, was prepared to see Augustine, the Saint, in a painting of Augustine. Moreover, he was able to see the life of Augustine stretching out in back of and before the painting. He saw not an “indeterminate” splash of paint on canvas but a complete person who, in that canvas, awaits the opportunity to confront us with his meaning.

As the painter and poet, David Jones, argued a half-century ago, art reminds us in a gratuitous way—that is, by way of a kind of grace that signifies, or speaks, to us—of the rich, polysemantic layering of signs that constitutes the world itself. While we may limit or short-circuit our ability to read into things, by ignoring the words of this world that tell us something inconvenient, or by moving too quickly to allow ourselves time to listen, the intelligibility of all creation remains present in potency. Should we for a moment listen to those words, we will hear, as Augustine heard, all things proclaiming, “God made me.” Hence, the particular aptitude of art, which perhaps only the student prepared to ignore certain academic posturing can detect: it reminds us that all words are intelligible not because of our inventions and conventions, not because they stand in subordinated reference to our intellects. Rather, the world makes sense in itself and to us, because its words depend on the Word, on an intelligence that makes all things to be.

When the latest obscene performance artist in Chelsea, or scholar of Japanese animation at Duke, wonders why the conservatives despair at the apparent trivialization and “deconstruction” of art in our day, one may tell them, it is because such conservatives fear the loss of yet one more means of discerning the truth in things. But, again, we have grounds for a sense of exile, but not for despair. The meaning of things inheres to those things; the words of this world do not depend on us.

The Treasonous Clerk is the regular column of James Matthew Wilson.

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