A Different Kind of Knowing

By Garvey, John | Commonweal, October 7, 1994 | Go to article overview
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A Different Kind of Knowing


Garvey, John, Commonweal


One of the most frightening images in the modern world is that of the not uncommon sort of concentration camp guard who could move from the murderous world of the camp--who could witness, even take active part in, the humiliation and murder of other human beings--to his home, where he could put his children to bed with great tenderness, and listen to Mozart, weeping at the beauty of the experience.

The connection between perception, sensing, sensibility--the realm of the aesthetic--and the kind of knowledge we can articulate and act upon is not at all clear. But it is essential that we try to understand the connection as deeply as we can. One of the great myths of the Enlightenment is that education, an acquaintance with art and literature and the great thought of the past, can make us better people and more competent, even more moral, members of society. World War II should have ended the power of that myth, but it lives on despite all the evidence.

It is easy to see why it is so seductive, and especially seductive to people who have experienced the great power of art to bring us into the presence of beauty, sometimes so forcefully that it literally takes your breath away. The first time I read Rilke's first Duino Elegy or came to the last paragraph in Joyce's The Dead, and felt deep stillness and astonishment, I knew that in some way I was changed, that if I didn't betray that moment things would not be the same from now on.

This experience is, to be sure, as fuzzy at one end as it is intense at the other. How would things not be the same? What would it mean, not to betray that stillness--only that I should remember it? That might be enough; but simply to have been brought to the edge of mystery seems to be enough, at the aesthetic level, and not nearly enough, at the level of action.

The purpose of art is not to make us better people, nor is art a form of moral exhortation. It is in fact possible for great art to participate in great evil, for art to be aesthetically impressive and degrade at the same time. (There is a genuine sadism that informs Picasso's Weeping Women, shown recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.) I am not referring here to the terrible influence a brilliantly written but perverse novel might have on someone's behavior. What I am interested in is the ability of the Nazi to listen to Bach or to read Rilke, and continue to be a Nazi, with no apparent internal contradiction. I cannot say he is not moved to the same stillness I am. But what do we think we have found there, either of us?

This is related to another problem: the behavior of the artists and writers who can move us this way. dostoevsky was at once capable of writing The Brothers Karamazov and of behaving quite boorishly; Tolstoy was often as full of delusion and self-pity as he was capable of brilliant insight. Walker Percy once said that the only two writers he could think of who were also decent people were Chekhov and Eudora Welty.

We could say that this is simply a matter of our living in a fallen world, that in all cases Paul's statement remains true: "The good I would do, I do not do." But it is one thing to say that we can fail in our attempts to live decently, to be good; it is another to live with what seems to be a radical disconnection between the realm of the beautiful and any truth worth living for. Is there no insight in Bach, or Rilke; or, if there is, does it have anything to do with the truths we must live by?

We need a larger frame, I think. We are still working with some notions that come down to us from the Enlightenment and from the Romantic movement. From the Enlightenment we get the idea that to understand something rationally is to understand it sufficiently. (This is the mentality that says that theology could be taught as well by an atheist as a believer, to the extent that theology is a consistent intellectual endeavor.) The Romantics, who reacted to the smug certainties of the Enlightenment, have given us the idea that to understand something completely we must understand it emotionally, from within.

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