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Darwinism and the Impoverishment of Beauty

So far Terrence Malick's Tree of Life has divided reviewers in an interesting way. The film, which tells of a 1950s childhood in Waco, Texas, and cosmic beginnings and endings in the universe as a whole, won't open here in Seattle till Friday. However one gathers that Malick's epic has not only religious meaning but nods subtly, as several hostile critics have complained, to intelligent design.

"You have to ask if Malick is trying to make a case for intelligent design," muses Amy Taubin for Artforum magazine, concluding that as she left the theater "I blurted out a very old joke: 'Thank God I'm an atheist.'" See also here and here.

A.O. Scott in the New York Times, on the other hand, praised the Canne Palme d'Or winner in the most extravagant, and persuasive, terms, calling the film "permanent," "prophetic," "visionary," and comparing Malick to Herman Melville. Well, we'll see if it lives up to the stirring trailer.

If art can make a case for ID, it's equally true that art itself points to a design transcending our natural world and would be devastatingly blunted in a world where materialism and Darwinism had driven out the sense of life's enchantment.

This, at any rate, is the argument of some philosophers who you might not otherwise think of as ID advocates. The threatened impoverishment of beauty deserves consideration as being at stake in the cultural struggle over Darwinian theory, right up there alongside the impoverishment of meaning, enchantment, and faith.

I don't mean that if the Darwinists prevailed, the most you could expect of aesthetic expression is more pictures of cute cats like those featured on biologist Dr. Jerry Coyne's blog site, Why Evolution Is True, or snaps of weird squid as favored by his popular colleague P.Z. Myers. But conduct a brief thought experiment. Imagine if Darwinists really won the argument and we all finally accepted at a really deep level that appeals to the divine and the transcendent are illusory. That is if we embraced this idea not merely as a matter of verbal acceptance -- the way many people accept religious concepts -- but by the profound digestion where it truly becomes part of you.

If that were even possible, it would mean the crippling of great art. Do yourself a favor and spend just 6:38 minutes watching this charming and powerful presentation by literary critic George Steiner commending music education for young children, that they be exposed to good music on the grounds that music points to the hope of a transcendent reality beyond the flat material one:

This is something on which the future of civilization hinges. Steiner, by the way, while Jewish by background, is nobody's idea of a traditional religious believer.

In his little book Real Presences he makes the argument at greater length, but the point is simple. In artistic expression from Proust and D.H. Lawrence to American Abstract Expressionism and Schubert's C-major Quintet ("Listen to the slow movement"), he finds the persistent sounding not of theological declarations but rather a "shining through," Plato's "aspiration to invisible reality," an "epiphany" of longing and hope for transcendent, immaterial being and meaning:

Where a rationality modeled, naïvely, on that of the sciences and of technology prevails, where agnosticism, if not a consequent atheism, is the norm of approved discourse, it is immensely difficult for an artist to find words for his making, for the 'vibrations of the primal' which quicken his work. Pervasively, however, major art in our vexed modernity has been, like all great shaping before it, touched by the fire and the ice of God.
Yeats wrote that "No man can create as did Shakespeare, Homer, Sophocles, who does not believe with all his blood and nerve, that man's soul is immortal." Steiner concludes that "indifference to the theological and the metaphysical" would mean "a radical break with aesthetic creation and reception." He predicts that men and women of the future, finding "agnostic secularism more or less unendurable," may make "re-mythologization," re-enchantment, the defining "spirit of the age" that is to come.

For now, of course, we all live under a suffocating blanket of materialism. Many fight to breathe fresh air. Others seem strangely content and smug about being able to endure it and even urge us to give up the struggle and join those brave New Atheists as they revel in the foul, close atmosphere, boasting of its superiority to any alternative.

This condition of our culture probably explains the pervasive ugliness of modern media life, where the circulating images of Congressman Weiner's crotch are among the emblems of the age. The Internet and other tools of "social networking," God help us, are history's most prodigious fountain of such grunge.

Recently our colleague Anika Smith pointed out to me an essay from a couple of years ago by philosopher Roger Scruton. Writing in City Journal, Scruton traced the ascendance of the modern "intoxication with ugliness." Once, an artist saw himself as having a "sacred task," to illuminate the beauty of creation that gets obscured in daily life. Now, an artist wanting to make his mark would be more likely to do just the opposite, by aggressive desecration.

Remember the dust-up in December about the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery displaying some hideous and moronic video by the artist David Wojnarowicz, showing ants crawling over a crucifix (among other repulsive images)? P.Z. Myers accurately captured the clumsiest and most block-headed way of expressing the argument for such things: "If the museum did not intend to offend anyone, then it wasn't doing its job. Great art is supposed to challenge the mind, and sometimes that means by necessity that it will offend."

Scruton tracks this development back to the 18th century -- the age that gave us evolution as preliminarily sketched by Erasmus Darwin. When nature was no longer seen as the product of design, there was no longer any reason to try to reveal the artistry that lies behind life: "The idea that the divine reveals itself in our world, and seeks our worship, seemed both implausible in itself and incompatible with science."

Traditionally, art pointed to "the eternal implied in the transient." This aspiration survived into modernity. Scruton gives as example Wallace Stevens's poem "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven" or Samuel Barber's rhapsody Knoxville: Summer of 1915.

However, the sacred was gradually losing ground to a "dark shadow of mockery and alienation," where desecration serves a familiar, psychologically understandable purpose. The sacred was long assumed to have a right to judge us. Promoting the grotesque disarms this right: "to escape that judgment, we destroy the thing that seems to accuse us."

Scruton makes the fascinating point that in the media, expressions of desecration overwhelmingly depict scenes of gross violence and sexuality, two areas of human experience -- sex and death -- where people are "overcome by external forces" of material reality.

I would add that the Bible long ago noted the power of such experiences to taint us with a dangerous illusion that we aren't free moral agents after all but rather helpless puppets of what Dawkins would much later call our selfish genes. The recognition and cleansing of ritual impurity, detailed in the Pentateuch, was a way that the ancient Israelites had of defusing the power of desecration.

Oh, for the Bronze Age! Compared to us, between Darwin and the Internet, between Anthony Weiner and David Wojnarowicz and all the rest, they had it easy.