Friday, June 20, 2014

The Subcreation of Ephemeral Good

Two recent posts (here at Feser's and here at Chastek's) have me thinking about the importance of novelty within art.

Aquinas looks at the question of why there are natural evils, or in other words, why good gets destroyed, in Summa Theologiae 1.47 and following when discussing God as the cause of distinction in the world. His argument is that these must exist, not because they are absolutely necessary but because the world would be incomplete without them. That is to say, if destructible goods did not exist, the world would be missing a major kind of goodness. Aquinas, of course, is thinking of Genesis 1, with its listing of categories of creation, each of them good in its kind, and then the overall summary that the whole thing, i.e., having this diversity of goods of unchanging and changeable goods, is very good.

It's harder for us, but in the cosmology Aquinas knew it's easy to identify what a universe without destructible goods would be: it would be a world consisting entirely of angels in grace and heavenly bodies (which in Aristotelian cosmology were thought to be indestructible). On the medieval conception, that's almost the entire universe. Only an extremely minute, tiny, portion of the world would have been left out, on the typical medieval view, if God had made only heavenly angels and celestial lights. But it would have been missing the good of the endless variety of babies, the good of flowers achingly beautiful and gone tomorrow. It would have been missing an important kind of good; and God created the universe to be a complete good. Why are good things able to die, fade, pass away? Because a universe in which there were no goods capable of doing so would be an incompletely good universe.

As St. Robert Southwell and J. R. R. Tolkien have argued, we are subcreators, and, like our Creator, when we make something out of skill we like it to have a completeness of good. We want our works to have both timeless and novel good, and we evaluate them on the basis of whether we do. Notes in a harmony must make a timeless structure; but they fade away to other notes.

You could in theory have a conception of art in which the aim was only unchanging good within the composition. Music would consist entirely of compositions of single notes, or single chords, or, more daringly, works of structured silence like John Cage's notorious 4′33″ (but Cage wanted an impure silence of ambient noise; the musicians in our hypothetical world would strive for pure, precisely measured, perfectly complete silences). That is, the goals would be to capture analogues either of the silence of the void or the music of the spheres. The harmony of the spheres, of course, in the medieval view was a harmony consisting of unchanging notes throughout the entire 'composition' that is the history of the world -- a creation without destructible good would be a composition of a single -- very beautiful, but completely unchanging -- chord of goodness. But a music consisting only of the pursuit of timeless harmony, harmony unchanging within the composition, is a music that does not aim at musical good, per se, but only at a particular genus of musical good.

Likewise, literature would consist entirely of things like literary sketches and imagist poetry of rigorously classical ideals. It would aim to capture 'luminous details', as Pound put it, vivid snapshots, and poets would rigorously work to divest their words of anything discursive. (The proper way of reading would always be to take in the whole text, as much as possible, all at once.) We would all admire, I think, this 40,000 word palindromic poem as a pure, if simple, expression of what literary skill required: the ingenuity of expressing changing subjects as unchanging-within-the-composition. We can imagine such a literature because we can actually make the kind of thing, even if we are not all that good at it, of which it would consist. But it would be a literature aiming not at literary good, itself, but at one particular kind of literary good; it is the sort of thing we would do only when we were interested in that one kind of good in particular. And we do not treat it as the height of art, because though it is good, on its own it is not 'very good'. A literary work consisting only of this kind of good is a literary work we recognize as being in some way incomplete in its goodness. And our highest lauds go to literary works that manage in a unified way to capture the full range of literary good, both eternal and ephemeral.


  1. MrsDarwin1:39 PM

    The 40,000 word palindromic poem: true, yes, but neither beautiful nor good. (It doesn't stand up to twelve years of repetition, I can tell you that.)

    Otherwise, this is a great reflection on what it is that makes art not only great, but immediate.

  2. branemrys7:32 PM

    Yes, I imagine you have a little experience with various performances of that poem.

  3. For what it's worth, this post is also encouraging for those of us who question the meaning of our every little action...


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