BY ANYONE’S RECKONING, World War I was an unprecedented, unmitigated disaster. Of course, it matters greatly who won or lost; who wrote the peace treaties, and who was forced to sign them. For some, conquest was something to celebrate. For most, peace was welcome. But it was a disaster nonetheless – perhaps the first modern disaster, characterised by global, mechanical slaughter. Of the total mobilised forces involved, more than half were dead or wounded by 1918: over thirty-five million souls. English philosopher Bertrand Russell, an outspoken pacifist, called the Great War ‘this madness…this rage…this flaming death of our civilization and our hopes.’ Stripped of patriotism or the victor’s pride, the War was pure ugliness: horrifying, frighting, absurd.
Ten years after Russell wrote his bitter words, the German author Thomas Mann published his novel The Magic Mountain. But in this masterpiece, something absurd happened to the Great War; it became beautiful. Free of the Davos sanatorium and its hermetic riddles, Mann’s hero Hans Castorp is on the battlefield. We read of the mud, the screams, the ‘fiery filth’ of war. But Mann’s passages are gentle, delicate. Even as Castorp’s boots tread a dead comrade’s hand into the mud, Mann’s vision is lyrical. The rhythms of his prose are poetic. And Hans is singing: Schubert’s Der Lindenbaum, whispered as the artillery shells explode. Hans is hit, falls, gets up and staggers on, still singing. Mann ends his tale with words to Hans, vanished in war’s grubby mist:
Moments there were, when out of death, and the rebellion of the flesh, there came to thee, as thou tookest stock of thyself, a dream of love. Out of this universal feast of death, out of this extremity of fever, kindling the rain-washed evening sky to a fiery glow, may it be that Love shall one day mount?
Admittedly, the younger Mann was briefly a champion of warring Germany. But even in his enthusiasm, he was also worried: for his country, and for Europe as a whole. Writing to his brother Heinrich, who opposed the war immediately and absolutely, he described the war as a ‘catastrophe’. ‘What will Europe look like, inwardly and outwardly,’ he asked, ‘when it is over?’ Whatever energy or excitement this war might have held for Mann, he soon recognised its evils. Mann was, he wrote on 30 June 1914, ‘shaken and confounded by the terrible weight of reality.’ By the time he wrote The Magic Mountain, the author was disgusted by German nationalism and fervent militarism. He was not denying the horror of war, or giving it the gloss of patriotism. Yet he also saw some mysterious beauty in Russell’s ‘madness, rage and flaming death’ – and Mann’s words allowed readers to see the same. Disaster became oddly beautiful.
This is not just an eccentricity of literature. In visual art, the same contrast occurs between Goya, for example, and the French painter and officer Louis-François Lejeune. Goya’s Disasters of War (1810-20) series is a shocking testament to the brutality and waste of the Spanish War of Independence. Dismemberment, rape, starvation, all shown with gritty detail: jagged, severed limbs, splayed open legs, wide, unseeing eyes. It is deliberately repulsive – aesthetic repugnance gives voice to the artist’s moral disgust.
By contrast, Lejeune’s Assault on the San Engracia Monastery (1827), which portrays a decisive battle in the War of Independence, is bright, colourful and harmonious. As a veteran of the Napoleonic campaigns, Lejeune was not ignorant of battle. There is still savagery, pain and death. But the painting has a reverential beauty to it. And this is more than nationalistic blinkers or the gloss of a Napoleonic soldier. What makes the painting beautiful is not some dubious French virtue, but Lejeune’s painterly vision: stoic faces, contrasting colours and shades, the tension between jagged diagonals, and the still, pale memorial mood of the Pietàstatue and San Engracia monastery. The vicious conflict has become lovely in pigment. We might say the same of CS Lewis’ simple, poignant war poetry, or the Hellenistic sculpture Dying Gaul, with his gentle, solemn eyes. These artworks, in various media, give us tragedy in a handsome guise.
How can disaster be beautiful? It’s not enough to say that art is always beautiful, that the painter’s aesthetic talent is identical to his eye for charm or grace. Goya’s etchings certainly had high artistic value but they were ugly. And Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929) is certainly a great work of literature. His use of language is a model of crisp, rhythmic prose. But his depiction of the Great War’s horrors has more in common with Bertrand Russell’s vision than with Mann’s. Here, the Lieutenant has just been hit with a mortar:
I sat up straight and as I did so something inside my head moved like the weights on a doll’s eyes and it hit me inside in back of my eyeballs. My legs felt warm and wet and my shoes were wet and warm inside. I knew that I was hit and leaned over and put my hand on my knee. My knee wasn’t there. My hand went in and my knee was down on my shin. I wiped my hand on my shirt and another floating light came very slowly down and I looked at my leg and was very afraid. Oh, God, I said, get me out of here.
This is artistry, but it is not beautiful. Art can offend, puzzle, exhaust and depress – it need not seduce.
ANOTHER FALSE SOLUTION is a technical one. That is, we might explain away disaster as a simple narrative device: an artistic trope, like titillating flesh. Certainly, drama is vital for narrative, and disasters do provide drama. Even in sculptures, like Dying Gaul, there is an unspoken story – suffering provides the emotional lure, which pulls us into it. And, as David Hume once noted, simply being in the middle of something – story, craft, scientific investigation – can pique our curiosity. But why disaster in particular, rather than romantic passion, existential bafflement, or some other human drama? The technical solution sidesteps the real question: What, in disaster, asks for beauty’s visceral magic?
One answer comes from French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. In his magnum opus Being and Nothingness (1956), he argued that human existence is basically unfinished. Whereas things in the world just are, we are not; our consciousness stands outside itself as time and space, and is always able to be otherwise. With each new moment, we can say ‘no’ to the last moment and all that we are. This is Sartre’s doctrine of freedom: mankind is continual becoming, liberated from the simple ‘being’ of fountain pens, teaspoons and café tables. And this is at the root of what he called our ‘unhappy consciousness’: we’re haunted by this pure being. It’s what we are, but we can never recover it, because our consciousness grows against it. In other words, we long to shrug off our freedom and simply be. But this is impossible: this longing is itself part of our free consciousness. There is no way out of liberty. We are always incomplete, unfinished.
For Sartre, art can provide a brief remedy for this. He wrote of the ‘noble suffering’ of the statue or tragic mask, which is like a dream of our own pure being. We see in it ourselves – our own restless world. But it is suddenly solid, stable. ‘It is presented to us as a compact, objective whole,’ wrote Sartre, ‘it is there in the midst of the world, like this tree or this stone.’ This is only a brief reprieve from bittersweet freedom, but it has an extraordinary hold on us. It’s a glimpse of perfection, a promise of eternal rest.
In this light, disasters become beautiful in art, not because they deny suffering, but because they make our own suffering palpable, tactile. We can point to Picasso’s Guernica (1937) and say: ‘There, that is what I am.’ They give us pain, without life’s unsettling squirm and sprint.
However, Sartre’s idea is one-sided, and unsurprisingly so. For the French philosopher, we are ultimately locked in ourselves. However much we are ‘stretched’ in time and space, we are trapped in our own ontological solitude – another’s freedom is not something we can see, feel or know. So in the arts of disaster, we find only our own suffering, never that of others. Sartre’s is a vision of lonely pathos.
SOMEWHAT BROADER IS Arthur Schopenhauer’s theory of art and beauty, in World as Will and Idea (1819). The Danish philosopher argued that the world is will: pure, restless striving. It has no reason, and no blueprint. Like Sartre’s consciousness, it is becoming, but it is brute and stupid. Think of it as a river without end, which digs its banks as it goes. We cannot know it, but we are it. Our restless minds are servants of the sovereign will, cannily chasing food, shelter, sex. For Schopenhauer, art allowed us to quieten this will, by contemplating it calmly. This is will, not as endless flow, but as Ideas: the fixed forms the raging river finds for itself. The laws of nature, the evolutionary species, ‘human nature’ – all these are Ideas. Schopenhauer believed that art allowed us to see these stable patterns. Beauty is the joy of putting aside our greedy, ruthless mind and peacefully perceiving these eternal forms.
For Schopenhauer everything is beautiful when looked at this way. Yet some artworks evoke what he called the ‘sublime’. Anything normally frightening, alienating and intimidating is sublime when enjoyed as beautiful art. Not simply because we are seeing pure will, but because we are also overcoming our own native selfishness. ‘With the sublime,’ wrote Schopenhauer, ‘that state of pure knowledge is attained by the…conscious and forcible break with…disadvantageous relations to the will.’ No longer calculating and cogitating, we conquer our fear of mountain peaks that dwarf us, or tigers that threaten to tear us apart. We just see, without trying to survive.
If the metaphysics are dubious, Schopenhauer’s point is a good one. Art gestures at nasty reality, but allows us to put aside our physical and mental urges. In the art of disasters, we perceive something more than our own suffering. And it also lets us unlock Sartre’s existential cage. Hosukai’s famous The Great Wave off Kanagawa (c.1830-33), for example, is not quite a disaster, but it’s close. It evokes the earth’s power and the natural forces at the heart of so many catastrophes. Dwarfing the fishing boats, dominating Hosukai’s page, the wave is pure sublime. It is menacing but beautiful, because it conjures up the quintessential forces of wind, water and gravity. Like Thomas Mann’s vision of the Great War, it does not try to deny danger and destruction. We recognise these, but we conquer our fear. In this way, beautiful disasters are a primer in truthfulness; a clearer look at the world’s threats, without the fog of egocentrism.
CERTAINLY, ARTWORKS LIKE Hosukai’s have a sublime truth to them. But this contemplative ideal smacks of otherworldiness – not for naught did Schopenhauer laud Hinduism with its spiritual renunciation. In Sartre’s universe, we can only find ourselves. In Schopenhauer’s, we disappear altogether, along with everyone else. Yes, art can make one’s psyche palpable, or cultivate ascetic abandonment. But it can also be a communion.
British philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch suggested this. Like Schopenhauer, Murdoch believed that human beings are egocentric: our vision is befogged, blinkered. But unlike Schopenhauer, Murdoch counselled detachment rather than renunciation. She did not want to leave this world, she just wanted to see it truthfully. And for Murdoch, art was a powerful way to achieve an unclouded, unselfish gaze.
In The Sovereignty of Good (1970), she argued that a virtuous life requires some intimacy with what she called ‘the Good’. For Murdoch, the Good is what we’re groping at when we try to see the world generously. It cannot be reduced to one idea or thing – in fact, it cannot be seen at all. Instead it’s what we see ideas and things in light of. As Murdoch put it, this vision is a kind of love: we are drawn to really look at things, without our usual need for self-protection and self-interest. And ‘beauty’ is the name we give to things that encourage this compassionate, generous vision; that promote honesty.
This might read like sandstone mysticism, but for Murdoch it was a kind of serious, hard-nosed realism. As she saw it, art was training, not in fantasy or consolation, but in right attention. Beauty educates us in patient, unsentimental contemplation. Not because it belies the world, but because it makes this world real to us; it reveals detail, nuance, variety, within the alluring unity of the artwork. We see, not our own illusions, but actual human beings, in all their fragility, vulnerability, variety. ‘The more the separateness and differentness of other people is realised, and the fact that another man has needs and wishes as demanding as one’s own,’ wrote Murdoch in her essay ‘On God and Good’, ‘the harder it becomes to treat a person as a thing.’ Beauty inspires love, and love honesty – all within this dangerous world, amidst its fleeting ambiguities.
This is precisely the power of Mann’s Magic Mountain. Not that it just portrays blood, filth and carnage, but that it does so alongside Castorp’s slightly dim sweetness; his naivety, charm, curiosity and desire. It evokes a world of human cadence, of intellectual and emotional nuance, all perceived through Hans’ good-natured eyes. As with so many heroes, we fall a little in love with Hans, and the world he sees. We look at both more carefully, generously and patiently. And then Mann throws our beloved into the grinder of the Great War, his boots crushing a corpse’s fingers into the filth. This is a nasty reality, and all the more so because it is contrasted with idle, neurotic civilisation. But Hans Castorp’s tender, youthful lyricism remains – he still has a world, his world, which, along with Europe, is crumbling. This is exactly the beauty of disaster in art: it wrenches us out of our myopic egocentrism, and shows us the world’s precarious, splendid plenitude. For the virtuous reader, this is a kind of emancipation. Not the false liberation of the otherworldly prophet, but the freedom of the artist: an honest, courageous consciousness, which sees each psyche as a miniature universe, rather than as a mirror of oneself, or an illusion.
IN THIS WAY, disasters are not trivialised by beauty. Good art, as opposed to consolation or titillation, does not try to usurp reality. It is obviously a show, a spectacle, but it points beyond itself to mankind and nature. As Schiller argued in On the Aesthetic Education of Man, healthy civilisations can distinguish between semblance and reality – they fear neither. For example, in painting his sublime The Sea of Ice (1823-4), Caspar David Friedrich was not offering a journalistic account of a shipwreck. No one mistook this for a factual sketch. The artist was giving a solemn portrayal of grievous loss and the undeniable power of the earth’s dumb forces. Not realism, but familiarity with reality: what might be called tragic intimacy.
Importantly, art is no excuse for disasters, man-made or natural. This is why propaganda or didactic art fails: it is not art’s job to make excuses. Art is not a demagogue apologising for slaughter, or a prophet justifying ‘divine’ floods. Art is more like a guide: part cicerone, part psychotherapist, part relationships counsellor. It takes us by the hand and points out the physical, social and psychological landscape. We might not like what we discover, but without it we’re easily lost.
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