Aesthetic Truths

The category of the aesthetic runs through several of the articles in this issue. I want to trace it, and not just because it offers one way of approaching their authors. It also enables me to say something about my friend and former colleague, Nancy Malone.

Václav Havel is now a politician, but before that he was already an intellectual and man of the theater. To his role as president of the Czech Republic he brings, as his article makes clear, an existentialist's aversion to ideology and a dramatist's sensitivity to the inner logic of events. Walter Capps (whose "Interpreting Havel," incidentally, provides an excellent introduction to modern Czech intellectual history) delineates the formative influence on Havel's intellectual life of Czechoslovakia's philosopher-president Thomas Masaryk, phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, and Havel's teacher, Jon Potocka. The discussion of Potocka, whose vision is closer to that of an epic poet than an armchair philosopher, should prove especially useful to those who, like me, have known him up to now chiefly as central to the publication of Charter 77, that great summons to resist oppression. Havel is one of our planet's most engaging political leaders; it may well be his aesthetic worldview that sets him apart.

John McClure's "Post-Secular Culture" -- is it an omen that it, too, makes use of Potocka's thought? -- surveys the breakdown of secularization narratives and the granting of at least possible viability to religion in postmodern critical theory and novelistic practice. Such novelists as Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko, Michael Ondaatje, and Don DeLillo -- whose The Names receives detailed analysis -- are among those who have been empowered "by the success of postmodern theory in undermining the foundations of secular certainty, to cast off literary realism's disenchanted construction of reality and the self." Though I suspect that the practitioners of art led the developers of literary theory and not, as McClure states it, the other way around, one thing becomes clear: in contemporary culture the aesthetic increasingly centers on the possibilities of spiritual rebirth. Those who want further evidence can find it in "Hope for the Millennium," as Umberto Eco and Cardinal Carlo Maria Montini search for a definition of hope that believers and unbelievers might share.

A key to hope, of course, is that great aesthetic faculty, the imagination. Arthur Waskow calls on his fellow Jews -- and everyone else -- to reimagine tradition in order to revitalize its content, to disclose new meanings in what has long been there. Hear, really hear, he suggests to Jews, the second paragraph of the Sh'ma, which at many synagogues is read in an undertone: "And if you don't act on Torah. . . . if you cut yourself off from this great harmony of earth, then the great harmony will cease to be harmony and will cut itself off from you, and the rains won't fall. . . . and the rivers won't run. . . . and the sky itself will become your enemy. . . . and you will perish. . . ." The ecological meanings that Waskow's imagination uncovers need no elaboration here.

Scott Holland ("Theology Is a Kind of Writing") celebrates the emergence of theopoetics in which religious thinking becomes "a kind of transgression, a kind of excess, a kind of gift." He rejects "a smooth systematics, a dogmatics, or a metaphysics," and asserts the primacy of "invention, imaginative construction." Desire, he tells us, has returned from its exile by objectivity, accompanied by "play, poetry, story, irony, mystery, grace, carnal vitality and creative power in the blessed work of theological composition." Some may find Holland's particular theopoetics too narrowly romantic -- I, for one, do not see how without substantial modification it would comprehend, say, Aquinas's Pange Lingua -- but what I take as his central point remains valid: texts of the spirit must be embodied and texts of the body must have soul.

Several months ago, Nancy Malone decided that she would give up her co-editorship of Cross Currents and her work for the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life. I won't dwell on her contributions to each, except to say that they were huge. I want instead to consider that virtue of hers which has struck me most: her realistic, steadfast loyalty.

Loyalty is among the most aesthetic of virtues, something clear to anyone who has, with Dante, encountered its reverse in hell's frozen depths. Nancy has loyalty in abundance. She is absolutely loyal to her Roman Catholic faith and the Ursuline order to which she belongs, yet she makes neither into a radiant absolute beyond all imperfection. She is equally loyal to her friends, aware of their limitations but generous to their needs, fierce in their defense, and joyful at their differences from her. Nancy's loyalty is beautiful.