among American Catholics and evangelicals today, then no one should
take more credit for it than Gregory Wolfe. The phrase comes from Fyodor
Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot, and it was famously quoted by another
great Russian novelist, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his Nobel Prize
acceptance speech in 1970. But for the last twenty years, Wolfe has
worked—as a biographer, essayist, and, most importantly, editor of the
literary quarterly, Image Journal—to make American political
commentators, culture critics, and religious leaders think deeply about
the meaning of this claim: Beauty will save the world.
Its meaning is not obvious. Given the daunting problems of our time—of
this month—it might seem that our salvation will come not from beauty
but from special persons who wield certain types of technical knowledge:
economists, climatologists, and Middle East policy analysts. While the
European Union stands on the brink of collapse under the burden of
sovereign debt, Iran and Israel openly ponder the prospect of war against
each other, and unemployment hovers at around 8%, what could sound
more saccharine, naïve, and irresponsible than to say, “Beauty will save
the world”? How is this not simply a phrase for sentimental suburbanites
and hipsters with too much time on their hands? What does
the phrase really mean?
In his collection published this year, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age, Wolfe (who—full
disclosure—is a friend) brings together essays on beauty, literature, Christianity, ideology, and faith, as well as a few autobiographical
sketches and some pieces on those writers (e.g., Evelyn Waugh, Wendell Berry), artists (Makoto Fujimura, Mary McCleary) and teachers
(Russell Kirk, Gerhart Niemeyer) who have influenced his thought. What this collection also does is help us to understand just what
that phrase really means.
The best place to start would be the first essay in the collection, titled—wouldn’t you know it?—“Beauty Will Save the World.” It was
published in 1991, when Wolfe was an editor for the conservative journal, Intercollegiate Review. In this essay, Wolfe narrates a
conversion experience—from ideology to culture, from political junky to literary editor. It all began with that phrase:
…the phrase stuck in my mind, and found corroboration in my studies of the role of the
imagination in the social order. Like Solzhenitsyn, I have been won over by Dostoyevsky’s
wisdom. Whereas I once believed that the decadence of the West could only be turned
around through politics and intellectual dialectics, I am now convinced that authentic
renewal can only emerge out of the imaginative visions of the artist and the mystic. This
does not mean that I have withdrawn into some anti-intellectual Palace of Art. Rather, it
involves the conviction that politics and rhetoric are not autonomous forces, but are
shaped by the pre-political roots of culture: myth, metaphor, and spiritual experience as
recorded by the artist and the saint.
What this also meant, in practical terms, is that Wolfe would dedicate his life to nurturing, championing, and sometimes critiquing those
artists and writers who grapple (his favorite word) with religious faith while trying to craft something that is beautiful and true. He has done
this through Image, as well as through all the programs that the journal has spawned—an MFA program in Creative Writing with Seattle
Pacific University, two yearly arts festivals-cum-workshops on both coasts (“The Glen” East and West) as well as numerous fellowships,
readings, and even a blog. These are his ways of helping to cultivate the “myth, metaphor, and spiritual experience” which give life to a
society, and which are always present (though sometimes hidden, or suppressed by powers-that-be).
This doesn’t mean, however, that Wolfe has chosen to be willfully oblivious to the problems of his time. There are moments in Beauty Will
Save where he gives pithy expression to what is wrong with the world: “We live in an era that is dominated by hollow economic rationalism
wrapped in the rhetoric of rights,” he writes in his essay onhis mentor, Russell Kirk. “We live in an age of fragmentation and discontinuity,”
he writes in “The Writer of Faith in a Fractured Culture.” But what do you do after you write such a sentence? You can either (a.) write
another one with a similar meaning or (b.) look for something which will inspire new ideals in our time, and which will bring wholeness and
unity to our lives.
Most culture critics—right and left, secular and religious—have opted for (a.), not because it’s easy, but for mysterious reasons which I do
not understand. Wolfe (along with all the writers and artists clustered around Image, including his novelist wife) has opted for (b.), not
because he is a saint, but because he has seen something. He has seen, actually many things—the work of poets like Christian Wiman, writers
like Annie Dillard, and painters like Makoto Fujimura, which stand out because they are beautiful, and are attractive because in their beauty
they give us a sense for the order and unity and wholesomeness that we desire and which the world seems to be always in short supply of.
Instead of continuing the jeremiad, we can cultivate those little moments of beauty. Those moments are also little moments of truth. Add
up a lot of them, and you can have the beginning of salvation. More than a few are needed for one’s happiness, so the search for them is
constant and dramatic. Luckily, we have at least a few people—like Wolfe—who make it their business to find them and celebrate them.
Santiago Ramos writes from Boston, MA.