Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Chapter Five – Poetry and Beauty

by Jacques Maritain


The philosophical concept of Beauty—Beauty is not the object, but the "end beyond the end" of Poetry—The spiritual experience of modern poetry—The craving for Magical Knowledge and the dismissal of Beauty

Larger Work

Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry

Publisher & Date

Bollingen Foundation Inc., 1953

The Philosophical Concept of Beauty

1. I am aware that it is old-fashioned to hold forth on beauty apropos of art, almost as much so as to speak of truth apropos of philosophy. The discussion attempted in this chapter has perhaps a chance to elucidate this fact a little.

"Without beauty," Plotinus said, "what would become of being? Without being what would become of beauty?"1 And Plato: "Love of beauty set in order the empire of the gods–as is evident, for of deformity there is no love."2 Before Plato Greek thinkers seemed hardly concerned with beauty. It is through Plato that beauty irrupted into metaphysics. Our Western tradition has long been nourished by a theory of beauty which originates in him, and has been elaborated by the architects of perennial philosophy. In order to clarify the concepts we are using, I shall refer to that theory as summed up and formulated in Thomas Aquinas' teachings.

The beautiful, he said, is "id quod visum placet,"that which, being seen, pleases: a statement which encompasses the essentials of Beauty–as well as the misfortunes it entails, since as far back as the Trojan War, and before.3 Beauty consists of intuitive knowledge, and delight. Beauty makes us delighted in the very act of knowing–a delight which overflows from the thing this act attains.

Now, that which knows, in the full sense of this word, is intelligence. Intelligence, then, is the proper perceiving power, the sense, as it were, of the beautiful. If beauty delights the intellect, it is because it essentially means a certain excellence in the proportion of things to the intellect. Hence the three essential characteristics or integral elements traditionally recognized in beauty: integrity, because the intellect is pleased in fullness of Being; proportion or consonance, because the intellect is pleased in order and unity; and radiance or clarity, because the intellect is pleased in light, or in that which, emanating from things, causes intelligence to see.4

This element of radiance or clarity, which relates to the most essential yearning of the intellect, and is, therefore, the most important, is also the most difficult to explain. If we were able fully to realize the implications of the Aristotelian notion of form–which does not mean external form but, on the contrary, the inner ontological principle which determines things in their essences and qualities, and through which they are, and exist, and act–we would also understand the full meaning intended by the great Schoolmen when they described the radiance or clarity inherent in beauty as splendor formae,5 the splendor of the form, say the splendor of the secrets of being radiating into intelligence. Thus the very words we are obliged to use–clarity, radiance, light, splendor–could be terribly misleading, if we came to forget that being is intelligible in itself, but not necessarily for us, and remains most often obscure to us, either because its intelligibility in itself is obscured in matter or because it is too high and too pure for our intellect. Descartes, with his clear ideas, divorced intelligence from mystery. Modern science is making us aware of his mistake. The Schoolmen, when they defined beauty by the radiance of the form, in reality defined it by the radiance of a mystery.

2. Obviously, the three characteristics in question must be understood in their largest significance, and not in any narrowly delimited specification. Each one of them is realized in an infinity of various manners, as well as beauty itself. In other words, these notions are not univocal, but analogous notions. The beauty of a bunch of flowers or of a landscape is not the same as the beauty of a mathematical demonstration or the beauty of an act of generosity, or the beauty of a human being. They all are beauty, but kinds of beauty typically or basically different from one another, which imply no univocal community in species, genus, or category. (And yet, because of the analogical community involved in beauty, they may happen surreptitiously to evoke one another in our mind: hence an ambiguity by which the poet will profit.)

The reason for this analogous character of beauty lies in the fact that beauty belongs in the realm of transcendentals,6 of those "passions or properties of being," as the Schoolmen said–Unity, Truth, Goodness–which are but various aspects of Being–Being as undivided, Being as confronting the power of knowledge, Being as confronting the power of desire–and which are, in actual fact, one with Being, and as infinite as Being itself, in so far as they are considered in their metaphysical reality. It may be said that Beauty is the radiance of all transcendentals united.

Now the essential characteristic of transcendentals is the fact that they cannot be enclosed in any class; they transcend or go beyond any genus or category, because they permeate or imbue everything, and are present in any thing whatsoever.7 Thus, just as everything is in its own way, and is good in its own way, so everything is beautiful in it own way. And just as being is present everywhere, and everywhere diversified, so beauty spills over or spreads everywhere, and is everywhere diversified.

From this transcendental nature of beauty the ancients concluded that the attribute of beauty can and must belong to the Prime Cause, the Pure Act, who is the supreme analogate of all transcendental perfections; and that beauty is one of the Divine Names. It is in his treatise on the Trinity, and in order to show that beauty is not only a perfection of the Divine Nature, but is also to be ascribed, in a more appropriate manner, to the Person of the Son,8 that Thomas Aquinas has enumerated the three essential components of beauty. It was obvious to him, as to Dante, that, as he put it, the "beauty of anything created is nothing else than a similarity of divine beauty participated in by things," so that, in the last analysis, "the existence of all things derives from divine beauty."9

3. At this point it may be added that in the eyes of God all that exists is beautiful, to the very extent to which it participates in being. For the beauty that God beholds is transcendental beauty,10 which permeates every existent, to one degree or another.

This is not the beauty that our senses perceive, and here we are obliged to introduce a new idea, the idea of aesthetic beauty, as contradistinguished to transcendental beauty. For when it comes to aesthetic beauty, we have to do with a province of beauty in which senses and sense perception play an essential part, and in which, as a result, not all things are beautiful. The presence of the senses, which depends on our fleshly constitution, is inherently involved in the notion of aesthetic beauty. I would say that aesthetic beauty, which is not all beauty for man but which is the beauty most naturally proportioned to the human mind, is a particular determination of transcendental beauty: it is transcendental beauty as confronting not simply the intellect, but the intellect and the sense acting together in one single act; say, it is transcendental beauty confronting the sense as imbued with intelligence, or intellection as engaged in sense perception. As a result, in the realm of aesthetic beauty, that is, with respect to the requirements of the intelligence-permeated sense, or with respect to what does or does not fit human senses, things divide into beautiful and ugly. It is with respect to man, or to the intelligence-permeated sense, that things divide into these two categories.

Here we meet with the category of the Ugly, the Foul, the Disgusting, the Nasty, the Filthy, the Gluey, the Viscous, and the Nauseous. Jean-Paul Sartre is quite right in recognizing it as a category in existence. But the fact is that this category of the Ugly has no sense for a pure spirit, and no sense for God. Because a pure spirit sees everything in a merely intellectual, not sensitive manner. Ugly is what, being seen, displeases: where there are no senses, there is no category of ugliness. There are things deprived in some respect of due proportion, radiance, or integrity, but in which Being still abounds, and which keep on pleasing the sight to that very extent. For a pure intellect, everything is a kind of spatial-temporal number, as Pythagoras saw it. Number, measure, position in space-time, physical energies and qualities, it is in these terms that a pure intellect knows material things. Being this, all are beautiful, and there is nothing ugly in nature. In the eyes of God all things are more or less beautiful, none is ugly.11

But we know through our senses. And no doubt many ugly or disgusting things are noxious to man. But not all of them are, and if they are ugly, disgusting, or nauseous, it is not because they are noxious, it is essentially because they are repugnant to the inner proportion or harmony of the sense itself; for the sense, as St. Thomas puts it, is (sort of logos or ratio. We may observe at this point that art endeavors to imitate in its own way the condition peculiar to the pure spirits: it draws beauty from ugly things and monsters, it tries to overcome the division between beautiful and ugly by absorbing ugliness in a superior species of beauty, and by transferring us beyond the (aesthetic) beautiful and ugly. In other words, art struggles to surmount the distinction between aesthetic beauty and transcendental beauty and to absorb aesthetic beauty in transcendental beauty.

This is a token both of its own spirituality, and of the indestructible relationship of beauty, even aesthetic beauty, to the kingdom of intelligence, to which it belongs and in which it is rooted. For the beauty of sensible things is not perceived by senses only but, as I noted a moment ago, by the sense as a sharp point of the intellect intent on the world of experience–by the sense as permeated by intelligence and intellection. Hence it is that beauty keeps its transcendental essence, as well as its essentially analogous character, even when encompassed within the limits of aesthetic beauty. This transcendental and analogous character even appears to man in the most striking manner in artistic beauty because, there, beauty, in order to exist in a thing, was previously conceived and nurtured in a human intellect. Then, the intellect, confronting a work born out of man, finds itself in the most appropriate condition to experience, through the intuition of the sense, a delectation both of the sense and intelligence–that delectation which, according to Poussin, is the aim of art; and the more it becomes acquainted with the works of human art, the more it becomes aware of the transcendental and analogous nature of beauty.

It is by virtue of this essential analogousness that art is striving ceaselessly to discover new analogates of beauty, and that a canvas of Goya has integrity, consonance, and radiance as well as–though quite differently from–a Chinese drawing or a Rembrandt painting. And it is by virtue of this transcendental nature of beauty, even aesthetic beauty, that all great poetry awakes in us, one way or another, the sense of our mysterious identity, and draws us toward the sources of being. One remembers the page where Baudelaire, to whom modern art owes its having become aware of the theological quality and tyrannical spirituality of beauty, translated into his own language a passage from Poe's "The Poetic Principle." It is the instinct for beauty, he said, "which makes us consider the world and its pageants as a glimpse of, a correspondence with, Heaven. . . . It is at once by poetry and through poetry; by music and through music, that the soul divines what splendors shine behind the tomb; and when an exquisite poem brings tears to the eyes, such tears are not the sign of an excess of joy, they are rather a witness to an irritated melancholy, an exigency of nerves, a nature exiled in the imperfect which would possess immediately, on this very earth, a paradise revealed."12

Here perhaps we can best realize why beauty does not mean simply perfection. For anything perfect in every respect in its own genus–anything "totally perfect" on earth–is both totally terminated and without any lack, therefore leaves nothing to be desired–and therefore lacks that longing and "irritated melancholy" of which Baudelaire spoke, and which is essential to beauty here below. It is lacking a lack. A lack is lacking in any totally perfect performance (with all due respect to Toscanini). A totally perfect finite thing is untrue to the transcendental nature of beauty. And nothing is more precious than a certain sacred weakness, and that kind of imperfection through which infinity wounds the finite.

Thus it is that if grace is beauty in motion,13 grace, as Plotinus put it, is better than beauty, that is, Greek totally perfect or immobile beauty. Beauty moves, and "Beauty limps."14 And does not, in quite another order, contemplation also limp? Just as Jacob limped after his struggle with the Angel, St. Thomas says,15 the contemplative limps in one foot, for having known God's sweetness he remains, weak on the side that leans on the world.

Beauty Is Not the Object, but the "End Beyond the End" of Poetry

4. We are now in a position, I hope, to tackle a particularly delicate issue, namely the relation between poetry and beauty. I have a notion that something can be said on the matter, but the region is perilous and the vocabulary inadequate.

In a previous chapter we related poetry to the free (nonconceptual) life of the intellect and the free creativity of the spirit. I think that, therefore, the starting point for our considerations must be the notion of the creativity of the spirit, or of the urge and tendency to express, manifest, and create which is one with the nature of the intellect.

I do not forget that another urge and tendency is one, also, with the nature of the intellect: the urge and tendency to know. Cognitivity and creativity are the two essential aspects of the intellectual nature.

Now let us consider these two aspects of the intellect in three significant instances: Science, Art, and Poetry (poetry as distinct from art, and quickening all the arts).

In the case of science, the creative function deals with the production, within the mind, of concepts, judgments, and reasonings by means of which things are known, or intellectually seen. The intellect knows by producing the "mental word" or concept, and it produces the "mental word" or concept by knowing–that is a single and indivisible operation:16 the creative function of the intellect is entirely subordinate to its cognitive function. It is for the sake of knowledge to be engendered and expressed within the mind that the concepts are produced. And these fruits of the creativity of the spirit, as well as the immanent activity of knowing, in which they are involved, are formed and perfected inside the soul.

In the case of art, on the contrary, the cognitive function of the intellect is entirely subordinate to its creative function. The intellect knows in order to create. It is for the sake of the work to be made that both previously acquired knowledge and artistic knowledge come into play, and that the rules of making are discovered and applied. And the fruit of the creativity of the spirit is the work, which is caused to exist outside the soul.

In the case of poetry, the cognitive function of the intellect comes into play in poetic intuition; and the creativity of the spirit is free creativity.

5. It is with this free creativity of the spirit, essential to poetry, that I am concerned. What is its significance, what are its implications, in so far as it is contradistinguished, or opposed, to the creativity of the spirit in science and in art?

My contention is that in science and in art the creativity of the spirit is not free–I don't mean, of course, in the sense that it does not enjoy the spontaneity of the most autonomous life of which man is capable–I mean in the quite precise sense that in science and in art the creativity of the spirit is subordinate to an object, which holds command and mastery.

Science has an object, which is infinite: Being to conquer. And the creativity of the intellect is, there, entirely subordinate to its cognitivity, and both creativity and cognitivity are entirely subordinate to this object, which is independent of them, and with which they must make themselves consonant and commensurate.

Art, also, has an object, which is finite and enclosed in a genus: the work to be made. Then, the creativity of the intellect, to which its cognitivity is subordinate, is itself subordinate to this object, which must be good, and on the good of which this creativity is all intent. All the activity of art is specified and formed by the rules intended for the object to be made to exist. Here again the object is master.

But poetry has no object. And that's why, in poetry, the creativity of the spirit is free creativity.

Poetry, as distinct from art, has no object. I mean to say that in the case of poetry, there is nothing to which the creativity of the spirit tends so as to be specified and formed, nothing which originally plays with regard to this creativity a specifying or formally determining part; nothing, then, which may exercise command or mastery over it. In poetry, there is only the urge to give expression to that knowledge which is poetic intuition, and in which both the subjectivity of the poet and the realities of the world awake obscurely in a single awakening.

Well, poetry has no object. But the free creativity of the intellect, as soon as it comes into play, cannot help tending, by virtue of an implied necessity, toward that in which the intellect has its ultimate exultation, in other words, that which causes the pleasure or delight of the intellect. Thus beauty is not the object of poetry, it is–here I am groping for an appropriate word; I shall say that beauty is–the transcendental correlative of poetry. Beauty is not an object, even infinite (as Being is for science), which specifies poetry, and to which poetry is subordinate. But beauty is a necessary correlative for poetry. It is like its native climate and the air it naturally breathes in, nay more, it is as life and existence are for a runner running toward the goal–an end beyond the end. For poetry there is no goal, no specifying end.17 But there is an end beyond. Beauty is the necessary correlative and end beyond any end of poetry.

On the other hand, if in poetry the creativity of the spirit has no object, this means that by that very fact poetry has to make or create an object for itself.18 For no power can proceed to act without an object. Poetry must, by reason of abundance, make or create an object for itself. Thus poetry is engaged, by necessity of nature, in a dynamic trend which is the trend of art: the expression it yearns to give to poetic intuition will necessarily be something made, and passing outside. Poetry is committed to the productive activity of art; it cannot escape its role as motive spirit which is destined to quicken art and, therefore, which knows in order to terminate in utterance and production.19

My first conclusion, then, is that poetry, in the tendential movement which is inherent in every thing created, tends to beauty as to its natural correlative, and to an end beyond any end; and that poetry is engaged by nature in the movement of art striving toward production.

6. Yet there is an opposite side. On the one hand poetry, though engaged in the movement of art, transcends art, and so is attached to it not as a soul animating a body but rather as those separate spirits which in old astronomy moved the celestial bodies. For the activity of art is specified by an object, which is a work enclosed in a genus and which dominates as a master; and the activity of art is engrossed in the making of this object, and needs to use in the process the rules of making. But, as we have seen, poetry in its pure essence, or as the prime actuation of the free creativity of the spirit, has neither object nor master, is not at the service of any work to be made, and knows no rule, except poetic intuition,20 which is poetry itself. Thus, though it is committed to the productive activity of art, poetry remains essentially superior to this productive activity, and remains always free with respect to it, in the sense that it moves and directs and masters it at its own sweet will.

On the other hand, if it is true that poetry in its pure essence, or as the prime actuation of the free creativity of the spirit, has no object; if it is true that poetry does not tend toward beauty as toward an object which specifies it and which exercises command and mastery over it–how, then, can we characterize the relationship between beauty and poetry? Here again, I don't feel at ease with the vocabulary. Poetry is not subordinate to beauty: I would say, therefore, that poetry is on terms of coequality or connaturality with beauty; they love one another without any subordination, and without any definite purpose. Poetry tends toward beauty, not as toward an object to be known or to be made, or a definite end to be attained in knowledge or realized in existence, but as toward that very life of yours which is in the one whom love has transformed into another yourself. That is the end beyond any end of which I spoke.21 To transform it into a definite end possible of direct attainment would be spoiling the relationship I have tried to bring out, and would be deficient in respect both to Poetry and to Beauty. For Beauty cannot be attained except as in a mirror, and is still escaping our grasp, and Poetry is not directed to any definite end. Poetic intuition is not ordained to beauty as to a specifying end or object, it only wants to manifest the-inwardness of the poet together with the things which resound in it–and if poetic intuition is really expressed it will inevitably be expressed in beauty, even without meaning it, for any real expression of poetic intuition derives from it integrity, consonance, and radiance.

Thus my second conclusion is that poetry transcends art while being committed to it, like an imaginary separate intellect committed to create a world; and that poetry is with beauty on terms of coequality and connaturality, and therefore cannot live except in beauty. Poetry cannot do without beauty, not because it is submitted to beauty as an object, but because poetry is in love with beauty, and beauty in love with poetry.22

7. The previous considerations help us, probably, to realize how philosophy succeeds in making difficult issues a little more obscure. Yet it seems to me that they help me to understand more clearly the following facts.

First. If the fine arts are able to behave in accordance with their name, and to engender in beauty, this is, in the last analysis, because the virtue of art, at its very origin, in the soul, is moved by the grace of poetry.

Second. But the fine arts, like every kind of art, intend more immediately (though less profoundly) to produce a good work than to produce a beautiful work:23 not, I mean, by reason of any disregard for beauty, rather by reason of fear and trembling.

Third. As a matter of fact, to the very extent to which the fine arts make beauty an object, their object, and in tending toward beauty forget that beauty is more than their operational end–being the end beyond the end–they recede from beauty, and deviate toward academicism; that is to say, they tend to "produce beauty," which is a transcendental, in the manner in which a workman produces a bicycle or a watch, which is a work enclosed in a genus. Academicism is thus the proper perversion of the fine arts. Art engenders in beauty, it does not produce beauty as an object of making or as a thing contained in a genus.24 A village ironsmith, if he has sensitivity in his soul and his hands, creates, because he obeys an instinct of poetry, something more beautiful than most of the products of which, as a rule, the studious students of our modern schools of fine arts are capable.

Fourth. Furthermore, just as the grace of poetry can and demands to quicken any kind of art, so any kind of art can, and aspires to, engender in beauty. As a result, to engender in beauty is not a special property of the fine arts, and it seems that the fine arts have no domain of their own. Conversely, the part played by utility–as is obvious in architecture–or by any sort of human concerns and interests is or can be as great in the fine arts as in the useful arts, so that it seems that the useful arts have no domain of their own either.

Fifth. The trouble started from an insufficiently precise vocabulary. The fine arts, to be sure, have essentially to do with beauty. But no transcendental, even aesthetic beauty,25 can be used to define a genus, since transcendentals permeate all genera. Thus in a rigorous use of terms it would be better to define the fine arts with respect to some particular difference in that generic quality, the good of the work, which pertains to the artifact as artifact, or as object of making, and direct terminus of the process of production. I would say that the good of the work, which is the aim of every art, depends more, in certain arts, on its relations to the needs of human life, and on the fact of the work being good for something else; and that, in certain other arts, the good of the work succeeds more in being a good in itself and for itself, a world of its own–whatever the relations it can and must continue to have with the concerns of human life may be. When the good of the work reaches such self-interiority, the art involved is not subservient, but free, as is the case' with architecture and still more with painting and sculpture (which are happier, moreover, in serving the purposes of architecture than in enjoying the false freedom of museums), and still more in music and poetry.

As regards the names to be used, I would prefer to call the first category subservient arts, and the second free or self-sufficient arts. (This second category is part of the "liberal arts"; it is this group of liberal arts which are concerned with producing an external work.) Poetry and beauty walk everywhere in the realm of art. But in those self-sufficient arts poetry is freer, and more prepared to master everything. And beauty demands more despotically, not to be "produced" as an object of making, but to be loved, and mirrored in the work.

Sixth–and last. During long periods in human history, it was by men who did not claim to be artists creating in beauty and who had no awareness that they were at the service of the beautiful, that masterworks in beauty were produced. As I noted in the first chapter, in an attempt at general characterization, one might say, no doubt a little too systematically, that in India the virtue of art itself did not strive toward beauty except by stealth, or in so far as a root tendency broke its way through its inner self-imposed discipline. In this sense neither Indian art nor the Indian artist were seeking after beauty. And if both Chinese art and Medieval art were seeking after beauty in an unconscious manner–in other words, if the virtue of art, more freed than in India from total subservience to a spiritual practical result to be achieved in the beholders' souls, tended then more freely, in its own inner dynamism, to the end beyond the end–nevertheless neither the Chinese artist nor the Medieval artist were consciously seeking after beauty; they considered themselves craftsmen, and they consciously sought only to do a good work.

It is only in Greece, and in modern times since the Renaissance, that the process of prise de conscience developed in this regard, and that both art and the artist set about consciously seeking after beauty. In perverted (academicist) periods, they sought after beauty as a thing to be produced. In genuine epochs, they with full purpose and awareness sought after beauty as an infinite to be mirrored in the work, or participated in by it. And this was of itself progress of invaluable significance, a kind of epiphany of the natural spirituality of art. Yet it was paid for by no fewer risks. Once the artist became a priest performing the rites of beauty, it was difficult for him not to adore beauty. And once beauty was made into a goddess, it was difficult for the artist, when later on he continued advancing in self-awareness and in the discovery of his own spiritual powers, not to quarrel with the goddess, and sometimes to be fed up with her, and sometimes to break with beauty, or keep house with beauty only grudgingly and spitefully, because he had fallen in love with some foreign seducer, closer to man than to art.

The Spiritual Experience of Modern Poetry

8. Baudelaire was aware, too aware, of the kind of transcendental indifference which beauty, as the end beyond the end of poetry, enjoys with regard to human things:

Tu marches sur des morts, Beauté, dont tu te moques;
De tes bijoux l'Horreur n'est pas le moins charmant,
Et le Meurtre, parmi tes plus chères breloques,
Sur ton ventre orgueilleux danse amoureusement.

He knew that beauty is one of the Divine Names. But the fact with which his own experience was obsessed and which his extraordinary power of perception made clear–and this event has a crucial significance for poetry in modern times–is that now this Divine Name is detached from God, and reigns separate in our human heaven. Where Thomas Aquinas had said: "the existence of all things derives from God's beauty," Baudelaire says: "Que tu viennes du ciel ou de l'enfer, qu'importe"–whether beauty comes from heaven or hell, what do we care?–it is always beauty; and the devil is still beautiful. Beauty thus became the all-exacting idol of art. Yet when a Divine Name detached from God falls on earth, it shows a strange, ambiguous face to men, and faces itself a strange, ambiguous destiny.

I need not insist on the historic importance of the process of self-awareness which poetry has experienced in modern times. This process had begun before Baudelaire, with the German Romantics, Novalis, Tieck, Hölderlin, on whom Albert Béguin's book26 brings us significant data. Edgar Allan Poe and Nerval played their part in it. But it is after Baudelaire that it took on its full dimensions. As a result, poetry entered a state of spiritual ambivalence which is extraordinarily significant. Because its own spirituality was revealed to it, poetry was engaged more and more deeply, more and more irremediably. in a spiritual experience of its own. But while descending into spiritual experience, one inevitably meets with the enigma of destiny, and with the prime questions and choices which hold sway over existence. By virtue of the option made in these depths, the spiritual experience of modern poetry has been ambivalent, and this basic ambivalence has been inevitably revealed by the two directions, more and more definite, in which poetry has simultaneously moved forward, in proportion as the poets were more and more aware of their fundamental options and committed themselves more profoundly to them. Hence it is that finally the spiritual experience of modern poetry is double-faced and self-divided; while determining itself, and this is its grandeur, with respect to the Prime Being, it has here the countenance of the ardor in refusal, there the countenance of the ardor in acceptance.

Modern poetry cannot be judged and understood in the perspective of classical aesthetics and mere literature.27 We might as well ask a butterfly hunter to catch an octopus or a whale. In the seemingly purely verbal researches of a Mallarmé or a Valéry, a crucial spiritual experience and the consciousness of a tragic struggle were involved. Nothing is more significant in this regard than the letter in which Mallarmé tells his friend Cazalis of his struggle with God: "ma lutte terrible avec ce vieux et méchant plumage, terrassé heureusement, Dieu!"28 "I fell, victorious," he goes on to say. "I am now impersonal, and no longer Stephan, whom you knew–but an aptitude which the spiritual universe possesses to see itself and to develop, through that which was me"–"a travers ce qui fut moi."29

As a result he is perfectly dead, "je suis parfaitement mort."30 And he will give expression to the Universe in three poems in verse "of a purity that man has not reached," and in "four poems in prose, on the spiritual conception of Nothingness." His Hérodiade was to say:

Mais avant, si to veux, dos les volets, l'azur
Séraphique sourit dans les vitres profondes,
Et je déteste, moi, le bel azur!

He also took his stand against "the beautiful azure." And as for Paul Valéry, it is enough to read his last book, Mon Faust, to realize the seriousness of the spiritual struggle of a man who all his life endeavored to be more intelligent than both Faust and Mephistopheles.

With Mallarmé and Valéry, the option for the rejection of transcendence taught modern poetry the experience of the void (and also, as concerns Mallarmé, a faint hope in magic). I wonder whether the Olympus of words to whose mysterious rites the great mind of Joyce dedicated itself did not emerge from some similar experience of the void–and a haunting memory of a lost paradise guarded by the sword of a fiery Irish angel.

With D. H. Lawrence the option of which I am speaking taught poetry the experience of an intolerable solitude craving for mystical fusion with the demonism of Nature. With Lautréamont it had taught poetry the experience of revolt, and of a letting loose of hate and blasphemy which proves that the reality of God has always haunted this horrified poet, who could not accept being the son of Man and Woman: "Je suis le fils de l'homme et de la femme, d'après ce qu'on m'a dit; ca m'étonne. Je croyais titre davantage,"31 and who told us, as Léon Bloy put it, "the good tidings of damnation." The appeal of the spiritual experience of atheism had been felt by modern poetry long before these poets–did not Jean Paul Richter, in his famous dream, hear Jesus bathed in tears answering mankind, from the summit of the world: "We are all orphans, you and I, we are without a father"?31a And this appeal continued after them, and is still continuing. I am not sure that in this very appeal an obscure, or reversed, longing for faith is not sometimes commingled.32 But if it ever exists, such longing is repressed as a temptation of weakness–with the eagerness of a soul pledged to some unbending inner exigency.33

In the other direction, it was another appeal, no less definite, no less imperious, to another spiritual experience, that modern poetry felt. The option for the reality of the Absolute taught it either its own evangelic affinities, or the experience of the presence of God and the wounds of the Redeemer, or that of a contemplative knowledge of tire soul and the world. The inner struggles and ventures of Francis Thompson and Hopkins, Verlaine and Max Jacob, Milosz and Léon Bloy, Eliot, Claudel, and Péguy, are also an essential part of the spiritual experience of modern poetry.

And even if there were no definite or no lasting option, we know that many poets in our times, by seeking poetic purity, were prepared unawares to be seduced one day by the promise of another purity, which is no less exacting. "Because Poetry, my God, it is you," as Cocteau put it at the end of Orpheus. And he also wrote, many years ago: "Literature is impossible. We must get out of it. No use trying to get out through more literature; only love and faith allow us to get out of ourselves." If among the promises of a recent past many failed to materialize, at least suffering and nostalgia never fail poets. The nostalgia that appears in a Unamuno, still more in an Alexander Blok or a Michaux, or a Reverdy, witnesses to the abiding élan of their spiritual experience. The sad world itself of our day may stir in poets an instinct from the beyond.

A King of speechless clods and infants. Still
The world out-Herods Herod; and the year
The nineteen-hundred-forty-fifth of grace,
Lumbers with losses up the clinkered hill
Of our purgation; and the oxen near
The worn foundations of their dwelling-place,
The holy manger where their bed is corn
And holly torn for Christmas. If they die,
As Jesus, in the harness, who will mourn?
Lamb of the shepherds, Child, how still you lie.34

"Tu es en nous, Seigneur," a French poet writes "et dans ce moment au l'absurdité nous parait si totale que nous n'attendons plus rien de rien fut-ce de la mart, au nous sommes au-delà du dernier gémissement de la bête, vivant d'une inexistence vitreuse infiniment docile à n'importe quoi, voici qu'à la surface de cette vase que nous formons crèvent déjà des bulles de parole tout irisées des couleurs du cid. . . ."35 And the ancient longing of the soul in terra aliena is still alive:

May my bones burn and ravens eat my flesh
If I forget thee, contemplation!
May language perish from my tongue
If I do not remember thee, O Sion, city of vision,
Whose heights have windows finer than the firmament
When night pours down her canticles
And peace sings on thy watchtowers like the stars of Job.36

Thus appears, through the two lineages I just mentioned, the ambivalence of modern poetry's spiritual experience. The most striking sign of it is the fact that Rimbaud, the same Rimbaud, was a revealing light both for Claudel and André Breton.

Now my point is that modern poetry has shown a similar ambivalence with regard to Beauty. Feeling more and more deeply the fact, which I have tried to stress, of beauty's being an end beyond any end, modern poetry has either adored beauty, and striven after it with desperate effort –through spiritual experience–(think .of Baudelaire or Mallarmé)–or modern poetry has concentrated exclusively on spiritual experience, and left everything for it, and so was diverted from the end beyond any end, disregarding as far as possible and ignoring beauty, or pretending to despise it–think for instance of Dadaist poetry, or of one of the most remarkable contemporary poets, Henri Michaux, intent only on digging for the roots of the poetic state, tearing the veil of Hermes, rummaging in his own heart and exorcizing its monsters. "L'exorcisme, réaction en force, en attaque de Mier, est le veritable poème du prisonnier. Dans le lieu meme de la soufirance et de l'idée fixe, on introduit une exaltation telle, une si magnifique violence, unies au martèlement des mots, que le mal progressivement dissous est remplacé par une boule aerienne et démoniaque–état merveilleux!"37

I do not disregard the fact that by virtue of the tendency of our human language spontaneously to depreciate, the word beauty has not uncommonly lost its genuine transcendental sense,38 coming to designate only a particular sort of beauty, the most obvious one, that special kind of regularity, soundness and freshness which distinguishes in Nature a beautiful thing from an ugly one, and which pleases even the most uneducated eye; hence we have the "shapely," the "handsome," or the "pretty," or still worse the "charming," which are hardly artistic categories.

But the phenomenon I am speaking of is much deeper and incomparably more important. It is with beauty in its genuine transcendental sense that certain of the most significant elements of modern art have fallen out, because other constellations, especially knowledge and self-knowledge, and other supreme ends have arisen in the heaven of the poet. The Craving for Magical Knowledge and the Dismissal of Beauty

9. It was inevitable that somewhere a tragedy should occur. The origin of this tragedy can be traced back to Rimbaud. It was not the tragedy of modern art and poetry. But it was, in a small group of poets and poetry lovers, a tragedy of the 'human spirit.

Let us think of the nature of poetic knowledge, as we discussed it in the last chapter. An obscure knowledge through inclination–born in the preconscious of the spirit–in which the world is known in and through the subjectivity, grasped both together and inseparably by means of an emotion become intentional and intuitive. Such a knowledge is utterly different from what we ordinarily call knowledge, it is more experience than knowledge. It is neither conceptual nor conceptualizable; it is ineffable in itself, expressible only in signs and images and, finally, only in a work made. But precisely because it is not abstractive nor rational, it has no intelligible boundaries, and expands, as it were, to the infinite.

And now, suppose that this poetic knowledge not only becomes conscious of itself but takes itself as its own aim. What will the result be? Rimbaud gives the answer. The famous "Lettre du Voyant" says all that can be wanted on the subject. "The first study of the man who wants to be a poet is his own self-knowledge, total. He seeks his soul, he scrutinizes it, tempts it, learns it. As soon as he knows it, he must cultivate it. This seems simple. . . . But what is required is to make the soul monstrous. . . . I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer through a long, immense, and reasoned out dislocation of all the senses. . . . He becomes beyond all others the great Invalid, the great Criminal, the great Accursed One–and the supreme Knower! For he reaches the unknown. And even if, demented, he loses at last the understanding of his visions, well, he has seen them! Let him be blasted while leaping among things unheard of and nameless: there will come other horrible laborers; they will begin at the horizons where the other collapsed."

I insisted, in the second part of this chapter, that poetry, though transcending art, is committed by nature to the productive activity of art, engaged by nature in a dynamic trend which is the dynamic trend of art tending to engender a work. No doubt one can be a poet without producing any work; but if one is a poet, one is virtually turned toward operation: it is essential to poetry, in the tendential movement through which everything created goes toward completion, to move in the direction of operation, as the sap of a tree moves toward the fruit. But when it becomes conscious of itself, and of its power to know, poetry is released, in some measure, and for a time, from this dynamic tendency, to the extent that knowing oneself means turning back upon oneself. And then, at that moment, poetry enters into a kind of conflict with art, with art to which it is committed: whereas art demands to shape an object, poetry demands to be passive, to listen, to descend to the roots of being, to the unknown which no idea can circumscribe. All that is simply natural–one of the natural tensions and crises in the life of the spirit.

But if poetry yields to an invasion of vertigo? If it loses its footing? Then it is cut off from any operative end. Breaking its natural ties, and driven back on itself in an unnatural movement of inversion, it only yearns to know. This is, I think, what came about in the experience of Rimbaud, and gives it such crucial significance. If we do not take his statements as a romantic and juvenile exaggeration ( a too easy way of escape, indeed), if we take them seriously, as we must do, we must say that what Rimbaud experienced–and taught–was a definite, perfectly conscious and reasoned out decision to turn poetic knowledge into absolute knowledge, and to make of poetry, contrary to its nature, a means of science. And then, since the process is unnatural, and since poetic knowledge, which does not proceed by objectivization, is ignorant of any objective limitation, poetry thus out of joint will develop a monstrous appetite for knowledge, a vampire's appetite which will drain man body and soul. It will claim for itself all the living springs and the gift of heroic life, it will wish to be all things and to provide all things–act, holiness, transsubstantiation, and miracle; it will assume the burden of humanity.

10. Rimbaud had too great lucidity. He ceased to write. Other laborers came, who began at the horizons where he had collapsed. His technique of dislocation of all the senses was succeeded by Breton's various techniques of disintegration or Dali's theory of "critical-paranoiac activity." If I am speaking, once again, of the Surrealists, it is because they offer to us a particularly typical experiment, showing what poetic knowledge can become when, cut off from its natural ends, it turns into a means of science, and is transformed into absolute knowledge.

The first implication of the event is that poetry and poetic knowledge reject henceforth the natural necessity which causes them, because they have no object, to make an object for themselves, and thus to enter the operative dynamism of art and the working reason. Poetry, henceforth, yearns to know, not to make. It breaks with art as a practical virtue of the intellect. Art itself is no longer interested in the work as an end, the work becomes only a means of communicating knowledge, a kind of miraculous preaching.

The second implication is that poetry and poetic knowledge, which naturally demand to engender in beauty, refusing now to engender, have no longer any interest in beauty.39 They repudiate their tendency to and their relation of coequality and connaturality with the transcendental which is their correlative and their end beyond any end. The end, henceforth, is absolute knowledge, not beauty. Poetry proceeds decidedly to the dismissal of beauty. The divinity which Baudelaire adored is cast down. It would be a shame for the poet even to think of beauty. He is the revealer of absolute knowledge.

Thus, poetic knowledge tends no longer to an object to be produced. And it does not tend to an object made intelligible in a concept and grasped by the logical instruments of reason, since it is by itself knowledge through inclination, not through concepts and reason. As a result, science, the kind of science unnaturally required of poetic knowledge, is identified with power. Furthermore, in poetic knowledge things are known as resounding in the subjectivity, and as one with it, and this knowledge–essentially obscure–is expressed, not through abstract ideas, but through the images awakened by intuitive emotion. As a result, science, the kind of science

unnaturally required of poetic knowledge, is to be ruled by the law of images for which there is no principle of noncontradiction, and for which the sign contains and conveys the very reality of the thing signified. In other words, poetic knowledge transformed into absolute knowledge is magical knowledge.40 Hence it is that Surrealism is so basically intent on magic, sorcery, fortune-telling, crystal-gazing, trance-speaking, as well as on occultism and any kind of hermetic gnosis; this passion for magical knowledge is in no way accidental; and it is with as much seriousness as credulity that Andre Breton states that the only incentive of surrealist activity is a hope to determine, and reach the point suprême in which yes and no are fused together,41 and from which, for the Cabbala, the entire world is engendered.

Surrealism has separated poetic knowledge from beauty, and from any transcendental end. The final end and center, then, can only be man, and the revelation of man, to be brought about by the disorganization of all his psychic and moral organism, releasing the magical powers of the unconscious. And the genuine revelation aimed at by poetry–that revelation, in a work of art, of the spiritual depths of the human subjectivity awakened to the world by intuitive emotion–becomes the message of the hasard objectif–of the mysterious intentions ascribed to chance, and the torrent of dark forces in which man and the world communicate–transmitted by automatic writing.42

And through the way of destruction man, like the mythical phoenix, will finally be transfigured into light, be given back all the power he was capable of ascribing to God.43 Thus the achievement of a work, which is the genuine glory of the artist, is replaced by the quest for the human subject's omnipotence.

And the delectation that beauty gives is replaced by the delight of experience of supreme freedom in the night of subjectivity. Are not the first fruits of the future transfiguration to be attained in that state which Breton describes as "an annihilation of being into an internal and blind glittering which is no more the soul of ice than that of fire"?44 A strange sentence, which in its cryptic way points to the great secret of magical gnosis–that spiritual experience of the blind glitter of nothingness, in which all differences are abolished and all contradictions made one, by virtue of the void, and in which the soul believes it is transferred above everything and enjoys infinite liberty. This is the black mysticism in which poetic knowledge transformed into absolute knowledge finally winds up.

The dismissal of beauty is dearly paid. Poetry is used for ends contrary to its nature, and subdued to a craving for a false knowledge of which it is supposedly the source. For all that, poetry is not destroyed, poetry still exists, in a state of feverish exaltation of the dreaming faculty, I don't mean only in the artists more or less engaged in Surrealism, who in actual fact, when they produce, don't care very much for the doctrine, I mean in Surrealist experience itself. But, as I observed in a previous chapter, the poetic workings have been displaced to the outside, they are expected from the hasard objectif and the marvelous of the world. Within the soul, poetry has become but an empty perceptivity; and the power of the void, which it enjoys, is able to develop in the senses a wonderfully acute taste, and to foster perfect despair, and to kill a number of young men with remarkable accuracy.

11. The case of Surrealism is interesting because it provides an outstanding opportunity to test any philosophy of poetic knowledge. It is, moreover, a quite exceptional case. The world today does not risk perishing through an excess of poetry, even poetry gone mad. And the big forces which tend both to the deification and the destruction of man, and of which Surrealism is a particular symptom, are in possession, of singularly larger and more powerful means of realization.

In one respect especially the Surrealists were prophets of the modern world–namely with regard to the repudiation of beauty. But they dismissed beauty for the sake of magical knowledge, whereas the modern world, with infinitely greater success, dismisses beauty for the sake of nothing except hard labor. Let us consider this fact. The dismissal of beauty is quite a dangerous thing–if not for art, which cannot in reality divorce beauty, at least for humanity. For, as Thomas Aquinas puts it, man cannot live without delectation, and when the spiritual delectations are lacking, he passes to the carnal ones.45

One of the vicious trends which outrage our modern industrial civilization is a kind of asceticism at the service of the useful, a kind of unholy mortification for the sake of no superior life. Men are still capable of excitation and relaxation, but almost deprived of any pleasure and rest of the soul–a life which would seem insane even to the great materialists of antiquity. They flog themselves, they renounce the sweetness of the world and all the ornaments of the terrestrial abode, omnem ornatum saeculi, with the single incentive of working, working, working, and acquiring technological empire over matter. Their daily life lacks nothing so much as the delectations of the intelligence-permeated sense; and even the churches in which they pray are not uncommonly masterworks in ugliness. Then, since we cannot live without delectation, they have no other resource left but those arts and pleasures which satisfy "the brute curiosity of an animal's stare"–all the better as they produce stupefaction and obliviousness, as a substitute for Epicurean ataraxy. No wonder that other kinds of drugs, from alcohol or marijuana to the cult of carnal Venus, occupy a growing place in the process of compensation.

The dehumanizing process I just mentioned can be overcome. Art in this connection has an outstanding mission. It is the most natural power of healing and agent of spiritualization needed by the human community.

Yet not only are the opposite forces now quite strong; but there are some serious impediments in relation to art itself, especially to the free or self-sufficient arts, the arts of mousikè, which matter above all. On the one hand the creative research of modern art seems to carry it along further and further from the capacity of appreciation of what we call today the masses (though if a work, especially a picture, is blessed with poetic intuition, it has a chance to face less prejudice in the simply uneducated man than in an educated man who is an ignoramus in art). On the other hand art, as our previous analyses have shown, has its own difficulties with beauty, which are in no way slight. The subject of the present chapter obliges us to insist on this latter point.

As regards, not our culture as a whole, but art in its actual operation, the dismissal of beauty is an accident, and, to a large extent, wishful thinking and self-delusion. Art, as long as it remains art, cannot help being intent on beauty. The great modern artists are, to be sure, as intent on beauty as their predecessors, though in another manner. But many of them, especially in the field of poetry and literary creation, are divided unto themselves. They have not dismissed beauty, but they are at the same time under the sway of another passion and craving. What I said a moment ago about Surrealism related to an out-and-out effort to get rid of the division by rejecting one of the two terms in mutual conflict. Modern literature as a whole has simply accepted its state of inner division, as a result of a general trend which remained confused and multiform and which the Surrealists alone carried to an extremity by throwing both art and poetry out of gear, and simply proceeding, at least in their dogma, to the dismissal of beauty.

To have the artist himself become, as Blackmur puts it, the hero manifested through the work, was the final result toward which this general trend tended. A phenomenon which can be described as a shift toward the human ego, and an overturn or "catastrophe" of that advent of the creative Self in art which I tried to outline in the first chapter. In its pure line and genuine direction, this advent of the Self had to do with the act of poetic knowledge and the creativity of the spirit grasping obscurely, through the Self, both Things and the Self, and revealing both in the work, for the sake of the work. To prevent such a considerable spiritual adventure from deviating toward amor sui, and a confession or rather an epiphany of the ego offered to the world, for the sake of the human subject, not of the work, required, to tell the truth, a great deal of fortitude in the artist. Even those to whom we are most indebted risked being more or less wounded. Rousseau's Confessions have in this respect the value of a tremendous signpost. We remember his celebrated hymn to himself:

"I want to show my fellows a man in all truth to nature. And that man will be myself. Myself alone. I feel my heart and I know men. I am made like none of those whom I have seen; I dare to think that I am made like none that are. If I am not of more account, at least I am different. Whether Nature did well or ill to break the mould in which she cast me, can only be judged when I have been read.

"Let the trumpet of the last judgment sound when it will, I shall come to appear before the sovereign judge with this book in my hand. . . ." The poor man! A book in his hands. Yet this astonishing sentence is perhaps the deepest disclosure of the heart, and the desolate grandeur, of the modern artist. Proust died correcting the proofs of his last book.

"I shall say boldly," Jean-Jacques went on to state, "this is what I have done, what I thought, what I was. I have told with equal candor good and ill . . . have shown myself just as I was. . . . Gather round me the countless multitudes of my fellow creatures; let them hear my confessions, let them lament my infamies, let them blush for my meannesses. Let each of them in his turn disclose his heart at 'the foot of Your throne with the same sincerity, and then let but one of them say, if he dare, was better than that man.'"46

Thus was to make its appearance the shibboleth of sincerity, Gidian sincerity, in modern art. And at the same time the true kind of heroism–in relation to the work–which is required from the poet and to which the greatest modern artists have been incomparable witnesses, was to be usurped and superseded in many cases by the fraudulent heroism of the self-centered ego, and the poet's delusive endeavor to perform an heroic function in relation to his own Self as image of man and mankind's liberator. "With the Romantic period, when the historical sense came in, a new decision was taken: that the artist himself might be a hero, as Byron, Goethe, Hugo were themselves heroes greater than any of the heroes in their works. Motive and conscience had got outside the works. . . . Arnold was making his claims that poetry might save the world by taking on the jobs of all the other functions of the mind at the expressive level."47 After a while "the artist became the hero-manqué, the poète-maudit, and celebrated himself, or prototypes of himself, in his works. Then with the rise of Symbolism and of Art-for-Art's-Sake the heroes of a considerable body of works began to be portrayed as artists. The subject of the artist and of the special sensibility of the artist began to be the heroic subject and the heroic sensibility which best expressed society itself. The hero was expression, without need either of motive or of conscience. . . . Hence it is that the problem of the artist became a version of the problem of man and that the proper human heroism should seem to find itself in the heroism of the artist. . . . Not only is the artist isolated and the hero of all his knowledge, but he finds that he has upon his hands the task of the deliberate creation of conscience in a conscienceless society."48

In his essay on "La Crise du concept de littérature,"49 Jacques Rivière had similarly pointed out: "It is only with Romanticism that the literary act began to be conceived as a kind of assault on the absolute, and its result as a revelation"–not the genuine "revelation" involved in poetic knowledge, but rather a pseudoprophetic revelation, bound up with magic and the search for transmuting reality through the power of words,50 which was to be made in the Surrealist theory into the magical revelation of absolute knowledge. "The writer," Rivière went on to say, "has become a priest. . . . All of nineteenth-century literature is a vast incantation toward the miracle."

I have previously noticed the basic ambivalence of the spiritual experience of modern poetry. At this point we are confronted with a new sort of ambivalence. On the one hand the work is so magnified that it must call forth the miracle. On the other hand the search for the miracle makes the work of no interest. On the one hand beauty becomes the great provider of the miracle. On the other hand the search for the miracle supplants the search for beauty. The consequence, observable in a number of modern writers, has been not a dismissal of beauty nor of the work, but a weakening in the movement toward beauty, together with a weakening in the movement toward the work, or a kind of desertion of the work as master object to which the operative intellect is vowed. The hero writer is more interested in constructing his own image as an example, for the generations to come, of a martyr in printed paper–at least this was so some decades ago. Now he seems concerned with less arduous forms of devotion, and prefers either using printed matter for the psychotherapeutic release of the repressed dreams and sex obsessions of his tormented reader or fostering, in the service of mankind and his ego together, that confusion of art and partisanship to which the littérature engagée seems committed.

On the other hand, the initial cause of the trouble heralded by Rousseau–the accidental shift from the creative Self to the self-centered ego–has naturally entailed another shift from creative emotion as intentional means or vehicle of poetic knowledge, to brute or merely subjective emotion as sheer psychological phenomenon become the matter of the work and a thing to be expressed by it. As a result modern literature, in its lower moments, has been invaded by a double disease: emotionalism ( that is, search after and communication of brute emotion blurring or replacing the creativity of the intellect and the purity of, poetic intuition) and, at the same time, shallow intellectualism (that is, falling back on the empty contrivances of a merely constructive or critical reason estranged from the heart, to make up for the weakening of intuitive reason and of the intellect's genuine creativity stirred by creative emotion and poetic experience).

Let us not forget, nevertheless, that all above-mentioned shifts and swervings are accidental disorders which thwart, conceal, and obscure in modern culture the great essential fact: the spiritual advent, not of the self-centered ego, but of creative subjectivity. Given the misery of the human condition, these disorders appear as a ransom paid to our weaknesses for the invaluable advance achieved in the self-awareness of art and poetry. The basic significance of modern art lies in this advance, and in the effort to discover and penetrate and set free the active mystery of poetic knowledge and poetic intuition. There would be no more unfortunate error than to mistake the wounds from which modern art is suffering for the substance of the élan that they threaten and mask.


1. Enneads, V, 8, g.

2. Symposium, 197.

3. Beauty, Dostoevski said, is the battlefield where God and the Devil contend with one another for the heart of man (The Brothers Karamazov).

4. The definition offered by Coleridge seems to me to be less comprehensive; it fails to point out the element of radiance or clarity (splendor formae)."The sense of beauty subsists in simultaneous intuition of the relation of parts, each to each, and of all to a whole: exciting an immediate and absolute complacency, without intervenence, therefore, of any interest, sensual or intellectual." Coleridge, Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. Stephen Potter (New York: Random House, 1933), p. 313.

5. Opusc. de pulchro et Mono, ascribed either to Albertus Magnus or to Thomas Aquinas.

6. Contrary to Plato (as may be inferred from Theaetetus, 185-186,–cf. John Wild, Plato's Theory of Man (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1946), p. 260,–and from the Symposium, 211 ) Aristotle omits the beautiful in his enumeration of transcendentals. So did, following him, the traditional lists used in medieval schools. But there is no doubt either of the fact that beauty is in reality part of the transcendentals, or of the thought of Thomas Aquinas in this regard. Cf. Art and Scholasticism (New York: Scribner, 1930), note 63 b (French ed., Paris: Rouart, 1935, note 66).

7. "Dans nos ténèbres it n'y a pas une place pour la Beauté. Toute la place est pour la Beauté." René Char, Feuillets d'Hypnos (Paris: Gallimard, 1946), p. 97.

8. Sum. theol., I, 39, 8.

9. St. Thomas, Commentary on the Pseudo-Dionysius' De divinis Nominibus, cap. 4, lect. 5.

10. "And God saw all the things that He had made, and they were very good." Genesis 1:31.

11. Evil, it is true,–the wound of nothingness by which the freedom of a creature deforms a voluntary act–is ugly in the eyes of God. But no being is ugly, as Angelus Silesius (Johann Scheffier) repeatedly points out in his distichs:

Mensch nichts ist unvollkommn: der Kiess gleicht dem Rubin:
Der Frosch ist ja so schön alss Engel Seraphin.

Gott giebet so genau auf dass koaxen acht,
Als auf dass direlirn, dass thin die Lerche macht.

Angelus Silesius, Cherubinischer Wandersmann, Book V, no. 61, and Book I, no. 269 ( Leipzig: Dieterich'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung ).

As translated into French by Dom J. B. Porion:

Dans la clarté de Dieu, rien de laid, rien d'étrange,
La grenouille est aussi parfaite que l'archange.
Dieu comprend l'un et l'autre, et le trouve aussi beau,
Le chant de l'alouette et le cri du corbeau.

12. Preface to Nouvelles Histoires extraordinaires. Baudelaire reproduced this passage in "Théophile Gautier," L'Art romantique (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1885), p. 167. Cf. Poe's remarks about the indefinitiveness inherent in true poetry, apropos of Tennyson: "I am not sure that Tennyson is not the greatest of poets. . ." Marginalia, CCXV; in Complete Works (New York: The Lamb Publishing Co., 19°2), Vol. IX.

Cf. also these lines of C. E. M. Joad: "There is no sky in June so blue that it does not point forward to a bluer; no sunset so beautiful that it does not awaken the thought of a greater beauty. The soul is at once gladdened and disappointed. The veil is lifted so quickly that we have scarcely time to know that it has gone before it has fallen again. But during the moment of lifting we get a vision of a something behind and beyond which passes, before it is clearly seen, and which in passing leaves behind a feeling of indefinable longing and regret. Only the mystic achieves a vision which is in any degree lasting, and for that vision he pays the inevitable price." C. E. M. Joad, Matter, Life and Value (London: Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, 1929), p. 398.

13. Henry Fuseli; in Artists on Art (New York: Pantheon Books, 1945), p. 255.

14. Remark of Jean Cocteau.

15. Sum. theol., 180, 7, ad 4.

16. Our intellect produces its concepts by reason of both indigence and abundance. On the one hand it needs to create all this apparatus of abstract ideas and logical tools, parceling out the infinitely varied aspects of the intelligibility of things, because it draws its objects from the senses, and must therefore spiritualize them within itself in the concepts it forms. On the other hand it manifests in and through the same concepts the knowledge and vision which are its inner and vital actuation. But the motivation which comes from indigence is more basic and more primary than the motivation which comes from abundance.

17. The specifying end is that of art–of art quickened by poetry. (Strictly speaking, the specification comes from the object. It is because the end in question is at the same time object that I use the expression "specifying end.")

18. In this case the intellect, as in the Kantian system, creates its own object–but an object to be made, not an object to be known. Kant's system was wrong because it dealt with the knowing activity of the intellect, and thus fancied that the object known was a product of the creativity of the spirit, supposedly subsuming empirical appearances under the a priori forms of the sensibility and of the understanding, and thus knowing only "phenomena" it has manufactured. 19. See Chapter VII, pp. 236--37.

20. We may draw in this connection a particularly instructive lesson from the great and noble illusion–and failure–of those masters of the Renaissance, especially Albrecht Dϋrer, who believed that a superior knowledge of the mathematical laws of forms and of the world of geometrical proportions would enable the artist to attain beauty in its unique and definite type ( as if beauty were not a transcendental) and to encompass its essence in their work. As Erwin Panofsky put it, Dϋrer was "an artist-geometrician, and one who suffered from the very limitations of the discipline he loved. In his younger days, when he prepared the engraving 'Adam and Eve' [1504], he had hoped to capture absolute beauty by means of a ruler and a compass. Shortly before he composed the Melancolia I he was forced to admit: But what absolute beauty is, I know not. Nobody knows it except God.'" Quoted by Marston Morse in an article I have already mentioned, "Mathematics and the Arts," The Yale Review, summer, 1951, p. 6o6. Mr. Morse observes that "Dϋrer was a creative mathematician as well as an artist. He wanted his geometric theories to measure up to his art," and "his discontent on this account was unique among artists of all time."

21. "It is no mere appreciation of the beauty before us," Poe says in "The Poetic Principle," which inspires the poet, "but a wild effort to reach the beauty above." And he adds, using a wrong simile, which exaggerates the distance to the point of making any real participation impossible: "It is the desire of the moth for the star." He also writes, nevertheless, that the poetry of words is "the rhythmical creation of Beauty"–a quite incorrect formula, and a program that, to be sure, no "moth" can implement. Poetry can produce or create a participation in Beauty, it cannot produce or create Beauty, any more than any other transcendental.

22. Since the matter is particularly subtle (and important), I should like to make things precise even at the price of laying emphasis on points which, I think, have been clarified enough in my discussion.

I do not in any way make poetry independent of beauty. I insist, on the one hand, that, by reason of the inherent freedom of poetry, the need poetry has for beauty is a need born of love and connaturality, not of any submission to a specifying object; and, on the other hand, that, by reason of the transcendental nature of beauty, the ways in which we speak and think of the relationship of the work of art to beauty must never depart from that feeling of awe and always remaining distance which is due to transcendental things, however real the participation in them may be.

In the field of knowledge, when the mind conforms with a given reality, we may say that it knows truth (though never exhaustively), because in any true statement, in so far as it is true, the mind makes itself consonant with transcendental being (or ontological truth).

Yet in the field of art, the mind does not have to know, but to make. And it produces a work, a particular thing which is contained in a genus. That is why the proper and most primary requirement of this work as a work is to be good (in the particular, nontranscendental line of the artistic good), that is, to be done as it should be done, or in conformity with the rules of making and the inner necessities of the thing in question.

The work, no doubt, must also be beautiful. Yet it will be so through a kind of gift from above which permeates its generic properties as thing produced, and results from its participation in the transcendental order of beauty.

Once this point is understood, we may say, of course, that the fine arts (the self-sufficient arts) aim to produce beautiful things, but we should never say, in a rigorous terminology, that they aim to produce beauty; for the expression is equivocal, and risks leading the one who uses it to believe more or less obscurely that beauty in the work is produced as an object of making (a direct terminus of the process of production), that is, a thing contained in a genus–whereas, in reality, beauty in the work is produced as a participation in a transcendental quality, or in something which cannot be made. In other words the work is a product; but its beauty is not a product that impregnates it as with a perfume or invests it as with a garb or an armor; the beauty of the work, which inherently results from its very production, is in its very being a particular mirroring of a transcendental or an infinite, and a gift from the spiritual source –poetry–in which the production of the work originates. Let us say, then, that art engenders in beauty, or produces in beauty, not that it produces beauty.

23. "Someone has defined a work of art as a 'thing beautifully done.' I like it better if we cut away the adverb and preserve the word 'done,' and let it stand alone in its fullest meaning. Things are not done beautifully. The beauty is an integral part of their being done." Robert Henri; in Artists on Art, p. 399.

24. The object of making is a trap to catch a transcendental.

25. In distinguishing aesthetic beauty from transcendental beauty (see supra, § 3) we have observed that aesthetic beauty is a particular determination of transcendental beauty but remains transcendental in nature.

26. L'Ame romantique et le Reve (Marseille: Colliers du Sud, 1937).

27. Cf. Michel Carrouges, La Mystique du Surhomme (Paris: Gallimard, 1948). 28. "My terrible struggle with that old and malignant plumage, fortunately crushed, God!"

29. "Mail meme cette lutte s'était passée sur son aile osseuse, qui par une agonie plus vigoureuse que je ne l'eusse soupconné chez lui, m'avait emporté dans les Ténèbres, je tombai, victorieux, éperdument et infiniment–jusqu'a ce qu'enfin, je me sois revu un jour devant ma glace de Venise, tel que je m'étais oublié plusieurs mois auparavant.J'avoue du reste mais a toi seul, que j'ai encore besoin, tant ont éte grandes les avanies de mon triomphe, de me regarder dans cette glace pour penser, et que si elle n'était pas devant la table ou je t'ecris cette lettre, je redeviendrais le Néant. C'est t'apprendre que je suis maintenant impersonnel, et non plus Stéphan que to as connu,–mais une aptitude qu'a l'Univers Spirituel a se voir et a se développer, travers ce qui fut moi." To Henri Cazalis, May 14, 1867. (Henri Mondor, Propos [de Mallarmé] sur La Poésie, Paris: éd. du Ro cher, 1946, pp. 77-78. )

Mallarmé writes in the same letter: "J'ai fait une assez longue descente au Néant pour pouvoir parler avec certitude. Il n'y a que la Beauté et elle n'a qu'une expression parfaite: la Poésie." (Cf. letter of March, 1866, to Henri Cazalis: "Oui, je le sail, nous ne sommes que de vaines formes de la matière--mais Bien sublimes pour avoir in venté Dieu et notre ame." Mondor, p. 59.)

30. "Tout ce que, par contre-coup, mon être a souffert, pendant cette longue agonie, est inénarrable, mais, heureusement, je suis parfaitement mort . . ." To Henri Cazalis, May 14, 1867. (Ibid., p. 77.)

31. "Je suis le fils de l'homme et de la femme, d'après ce qu'on m'a dit. ca m'étonne . . . je croyais etre davantage! Au reste, que m'importe d'on je viens? Moi, si cela avait pu dépendre de ma volonté, j aurais voulu être Out& le fils de la femelle du requin, dont la f aim est amie des tempetes, et du tigre, a la cruauté reconnue: je ne serais pas si méchant." Chants de Maldoror, I. (In Oeuvres completes, Paris: G. L. M., 1938.)

31a. This Discourse of dead Christ ("Rede des todten Christus vom Weltgebaude herab, dass kein Gott sei") is found in Jean Pauls sammtliche Werke (3rd enlarged ed. by Siebenkas; Berlin: G. Reimer, 1861), Vol. XI, pp. 266-72.

32. See the interesting remarks made by Kimon Friar in relation to American and British younger poets, especially George Barker, in Section VIII ("The Separation of Man from God") of his essay "Myth and Metaphysics," Appendix to Modern Poetry, American and British, edited by Kimon Friar and John Malcolm Brinnin (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1951).

33. The need to create new myths, on which contemporary critics rightly lay stress, but to which they ascribe central importance, arises in reality from the above-mentioned experience of the void, which is the fundamental fact. The need for new myths is a secondary phenomenon, a sort of process of compensation. And it deals essentially, like the spiritual experience itself in which it originates, with the inner universe of the poet as a man, with the intellectual and moral foundations of his life, with his anguish and his crucial choices.

The fact of a poet laboring and straining to find new myths for the sake of his art, or considering the invention of new myths a direct requirement and a proper task of poetry itself, involves in my opinion a double and profound illusion.

For, in the first place, the myths in question–the myths which are to ensure both the fundamental perspectives of a poet and his definite sphere of communication with men (be it exclusively self-centered, as in Joyce)–are not simply that symbolic approach of imaginative thought which characterizes for instance Platonic myths and which can never fail poetry, since it is part of its nature. (This kind of myth, say the poetic myths, poets ceaselessly renew. ) The myths under discussion–let us accept the word, which emphasizes the imaginative impact proper to poetic thought, but which is wrong in its origin, for it was adopted as an anthropological substitute for something one deprived of any intrinsic truth while deeming it to be necessary–the metaphysical myths are the organic signs and symbols of some faith actually lived, be it by the primitive man; they are forms (either properly mythological or genuinely religious) through which a conviction of the entire soul nourishes and quickens from within the very power of creative imagination. Such myths have no force except through the faith man has in them. It is essential to them to be believed in. The effort of a poet to create new metaphysical myths of his own invention, for the sake of his work as a poet, is self-contradictory, since, having invented them, he cannot believe in them. A man lost in the night might as well invent an imaginary moon because he needs to have his way lighted. The only way for a poet to become inspired by a new metaphysical myth is his faith as a man; it is not to "invent a new myth," it is either to be the Mohammed of a new religious creed which has been revealed to him, or to adhere, soul and body, to some of the new religious creeds, however asinine, which the mysticism of sex so dear to D. H. Lawrence, or the occultist! disciplines so dear to Yeats, or the state-totalitarianism so dear to Ezra Pound, or the black magic so dear to Surrealists, offer to modern man–or to adhere, soul and body, to some one of the ancient religious creeds (including the true one, the revelation of God through His own uncreate and incarnate Word) which becomes new to him–an always new "myth," an always new truth–in proportion as he believes in it with renewed and deeper faith. In any case it is not from the poet that the man has received a new myth, it is from the man that the poet has received a new vital belief (and a new incitation to create new poetic myths). Metaphysical myths are needed by poetry, but they cannot be provided by poetry.

In the second place, it is only indirectly, and so to speak extrinsically, that poetry depends on, and needs, the metaphysical myths ( the symbols of vital beliefs quickening blood and imagination) which are present in the mind of the poet. These beliefs and metaphysical myths matter directly to him, not for his poetry, but for his human self, his own metaphysical situation in the mystery of being, and his way of working out his own destiny. Those poets who have rejected faith in Transcendence, and entered into the spiritual experience of the void, are bound–as men–to turn toward a substitute for what they have rejected: a new god of their own, or a system of revolt against and hatred for the celestial Intruder, as Lautréamont put it, or that "Profundum, physical thunder, dimensions in which We believe without belief, beyond belief" of which Wallace Stevens spoke–all this sought for in the place of God from Whom they had parted. Hence their nostalgia for "new myths." This nostalgia has directly to do, not with their poetic work, but with their humanity, with those substructures and preconditions on which poetry depends indirectly, in the order of “material” or "subjective" causality. Here it is a question of the soil on which poetry grows, not of poetry in its own essence. Yet because poetry is the only thing which remains to them, they shift this very nostalgia to poetry itself, and they labor desperately to make up for the soil which is lacking, and which poetry indeed needs, but which is not its own intrinsic life. And they expect from a new soil (if they were able to create it) the essential which can be given only by the spirit and grace of poetry. The notion that it would be enough to succeed in creating a new metaphysical myth for a poet to achieve the miracle of poetry for which he is striving can only sidetrack poetry. Give the most powerful new myth to a poet who lacks creative intuition, and he will remain a poor poet. In his very failure or despair to create the new myth he looks for, a real poet may produce his most genuine poems.

To sum up, the confusion between poetic myth and metaphysical myth, and the assumption that the invention of new metaphysical myths is the primary obligation imposed on a poet by poetry, cause what should be sought for as a material and indirect precondition for poetry, to be sought for as its very life and salvation; and cause what should be sought for–as a truth–for the sake of the poet's self, to be sought for–as a myth–for the sake of his poetry.

34. Robert Lowell, "The Holy Innocents," in Lord Weary's Castle (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1946).

35. Pierre Emmanuel, Babel (Paris: Desclée De Brouwer, 1951).

36. Thomas Merton, "The Captives–A Psalm," in The Tears of the Blind Lions, (New York: New Directions, 1949).

37. Henri Michaux, preface to Epreuves, Exorcismes (Paris: Gallimard, 1945). The question is to "tenir en échec les puissance& environnantes du monde hostile."

38. This happens often with painters. Thus Delacroix wrote for instance, apropos of the "mass of fixed opinions" which hamper men of talent: "That is the case, for example, with that famous idea of beauty, which is, as everybody says, the goal of the arts. If it is their only goal, what becomes of the men like Rubens, Rembrandt, and all the northern natures generally, who prefer other qualities? Demand purity, in a word, beauty, from Puget–good-bye to his verve!"Journal, 1847; in Artists on Art, p. 229.

Bingham had more insight than Delacroix when he wrote: "To the beautiful belongs an endless variety. It is seen not only in symmetry and elegance of form, in youth and health, but is often quite as fully apparent in decrepit old age ..." etc. (Ibid., p. 342). The "other qualities" preferred by Rubens or Rembrandt precisely made up the beauty of their works.

39. ". . l'absurde distinction du beau et du laid." Andre Breton. Second Manifeste (Paris: Kra, 1930). p. 11.

40. I have noted (p. 49, note 4) that there is a genuine poetic science, totally different from theoretical science, and conveyed by knowledge through connaturality and creative emotion. In the process I am now describing, this poetic science is completely perverted, because it is made into theoretical science confused itself with power, and into absolute (magical) science. –On the magical sign, see my essay Sign and Symbol," in Ransoming the Time (New York: Scribner, 1941). 41. See Text No. 20, in Texts without Comment for this chapter. And Michel Carrouges, Andre Breton at les Données fondamentales du Surréalisme (Paris: Gallimard, 195o), pp. 20-30.

42. See Text No. 19.

43. See Text No. 21.

44. See Text No. 23.

45. Sum. theol., 35, 4, ad 2.

46. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions, Prologue (italics mine).–Cf. my Three Reformers (New York: Scribner, 1936), Ch.

47. R. P. Blackmur, "The Artist as a Hero," Art News, September, 1951, pp. 18-19. Blackmur illustrates his views on the matter with penetrating remarks on Joyce, Henry James, Gide, and Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus.

48. Ibid., pp. 19, 20.

49. Nouvelle Revue Francaise, February 1, 1924.

50. ". . . That idolatrous dissolution of language from the grammar of a possible world, which results from the belief that language itself can be reality, or by incantation can create a reality: a superstition that comes down in French from Lautréamont, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé to the Surrealists, and in English to Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, and Dylan Thomas." Allen Tate, "Poe and the Power of Words," Kenyon Review, summer, 1952.

Texts without Comment for Chapter Five
Chapter IV. Creative Intuition and Poetic Knowledge /
Chapter VI. Beauty and Modern Painting

This item 9106 digitally provided courtesy of