Small Books about God: The American Artistry of Jonathan Edwards and Robert Beavers

Article excerpt

The rectangle of the book has become a circle by shooting.1

-Robert Beavers

How large is that thing in the Mind which they call Thought? Is Love square, or round?2

-Jonathan Edwards

The common cartoon of the American preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)-summed up simply by the words "fire and brimstone"-rapidly loses its bold outline under Perry Miller's biographical lens. Miller, renowned intellectual historian of the "New England mind" and founder of the Yale edition of the Works of Jonathan Edwards, narrates Edwards' lifelong labor to tolerate and resolve the collision between divine sovereignty and modern science, to crafta colonial theology porous enough to absorb Enlightenment insight. In exchange for a picture of the supreme spokesman of Puritan authoritarianism, biblical literalism, and a punishing God, Miller paints an Edwards who is "one of America's five or six major artists, who happened to work with ideas instead of with poems or novels," "one of those pure artists through whom the deepest urgencies . . . of their country become articulate," and, emboldening his claims even further, "the prefigurement of the artist in America."3 Edwards' creative and philosophical powers are under-recognized but no less potent because "theology was his medium"; Miller calls him a "speculative psychologist posing as theologian." "Primitive," "aboriginal," and ahead of his time, he "met the forces [of this country] in their infancy, [foresaw] their tendencies."4 For Miller, then, Edwards represents a great arc of continuity, cultivated in original soil and prescient of persistent speculative strains in the culture.

For more than four decades, the American avant-garde filmmaker Robert Beavers (b. 1949) has made lucid and delicate films, condensed odes to the pulsing vitality of both spectator and medium. They exist at what Susan Oxtoby has called the "intersection of structural and lyrical filmmaking traditions" and were shot mostly in locations across Europe and Greece, in dialogue with the natural world and the work of artists both known (including Ruskin, Leonardo, and Borromini) and unknown. Much of his work involves the study of and identification with hand- and craftwork (his films feature intricate labors of sewing, bookbinding, cooking, stone-chiseling) and incorporates his reliance, in front of the camera, on the intuitive knowledge and gestures of his own hands-antidotes to the forces of intention. Beavers has articulated an original film language through his enduring investigations of colored light and the construction of space within the frame; he invented variously shaped mattes to obscure and contain aspects of the image, and produced his own gelatin filters to generate subtle varieties of colored light. And starting in the 1990s, Beavers spent a decade reediting many of his films in the creation of My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure, an 18-film cycle of completed works made since 1967.

There is little superficial encouragement for bringing Beavers and Edwards into common view. Born in Massachusetts, Beavers leftthe US in 1967 with his longtime partner, the filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos (1928-1992), and has lived in Europe ever since. Indeed, Beavers' Ruskin (1975/1997), the film that catalyzed my desire to look at the two artists together, is thoroughly steeped in Europe. The last of a series of four films made in Italy and Switzerland (after From the Notebook Of . . . , The Painting, and Work Done), Ruskin was inspired by its namesake's The Stones of Venice and was shot in the sites of the English critic's writings in Venice, the Alps, and London. Ruskin opens amid the swamps and cathedral of Torcello, the island just north of Venice that was a trading and economic center until the twelfth century, and comes to dwell in the city itself among the architectural details (windows, arches, gargoyles, carvings) and building exteriors that Ruskin drew and wrote about in Stones. …