Sunday Night Journal — March 13, 2011
This book has been highly recommended to me by more than one person whose opinion I respect. The title and subtitle certainly make it sound like my sort of thing. And I’ve been convinced from an early age (when I first read Keats’s “Ode On a Grecian Urn”) that beauty and truth can be separated from each other conceptually but not actually—that is, that the one cannot be present without the other, when fully beheld, so the book seemed to hold great promise.
And so it had been on my intended reading list for some time before I asked for and received it as a present this past Christmas. Upon glancing through it that day, I was a bit dismayed, and began to worry that it might be too difficult for me—too dependent on theological and philosophical knowledge that I don’t possess. It is a big, dense book, and I was not comforted by several things that were apparent at a glance: fragments of untranslated Greek, for instance, and the names of philosophers and theologians of whose work I’ve read nothing: Heidegger, Wittgenstein, others whose names I don’t even recognize.
I decided not to attempt it right away, but to wait until Lent, when I generally try to eliminate some distractions and make an effort to focus on a book or author of direct spiritual significance. So, on Ash Wednesday, having taken a day off from my job in order to get the season off to a more recollected start than usual, and having dried myself off from the soaking I received while returning to my car during a violent thunderstorm which began while I was at Mass, I settled down with the book and a cup of herbal tea, coffee being another thing I’m doing without for Lent, ready to begin contemplating the beauty of the infinite.
Well. I’m not at all sure that this new relationship is going to work out. I quickly found myself bogged down, reading sentences over several times and still not really understanding them. Eventually I managed twenty pages, which puts me only two-thirds of the way through the introduction, and leaves me with over 400 pages of very dense prose ahead of me. I don’t think I understood more than half of what I read, and I’m not sure that I learned very much from what I did understand. I’ve found myself in postmodern territory, and I am not at ease there.
Here’s an anecdote comes to me from the distant past, the late 1960s. I’ve long forgotten the source. The topic was popular music. An old-time songwriter of the pre-rock-and-roll school said that he had begun writing songs “in a more contemporary idiom.” Asked to explain what that entailed, he replied, “Oh, you know—use the word ‘mind’ a lot...”
My understanding of postmodernism is on a similar level. If asked to define postmodernism, my immediate response would be “Even worse than modernism.” If asked what it means to speak or write in a postmodern way, I would say, “Oh, you know—use the words ‘text’ and ‘discourse’ a lot...” And I would add “and be very obscure.”
I don’t know whether The Beauty of the Infinite is itself a postmodern work or not. But it certainly speaks often of the postmodern, and seems to be at least in part a response to the postmodern. And it often speaks in a manner which I associate with the contemporary academy and therefore—at least I suppose that is the link—with postmodernism. It’s not only the use of a technical philosophical vocabulary, some elements of which are familiar to me; there’s also a use of simple words, such as “distance,” which seem intended to convey something more than their everyday sense. At any rate, it’s often baffling to me. I have read the following sentence at least half a dozen times and still don’t think I understand more than about half of it:
And while I gladly praise any postmodern desire to give utterance to a genuine discourse of difference and distance, I shall also argue that the forms of postmodern theory addressed in this book, under the constraints of a dogmatically inflexible metaphysics concealed deep within them, can conceive of ontic difference only under the form of an ontological tautology, which reduces difference to mere differentiation (the indifferent distribution of singularities) and which suppresses the only real difference (the analogical) whose affirmation can liberate thought from “totality.”
I know what “ontological” means and I know what a tautology is, but I haven’t been able to get my head around the idea of an “ontological tautology.”
One of several subsections exploring aspects of a definition of the word “beauty” begins with “Beauty is objective.” Excellent; I understand that, and believe it to be true, and the next few paragraphs contain some obscure but useful elaborations of this idea. The next subsection begins with “Beauty is the true form of distance.” Well, that isn’t quite so clear to me. In fact it isn’t clear at all, and as I read on in search of clarification I find that “Within the world, beauty does not merely adorn an alien space, or cross the distance as a wayfarer, but is the true form of that distance, constituting it, as the grammar of difference.” And I am not enlightened. I have no idea what “grammar of difference” means.
Understand, it’s not that I think there is nothing here; I’ve read other things, of a more casual or popular nature, by Hart, and been impressed by them, and so I’m quite sure there is a great deal here. I just don’t know whether it’s accessible to me. And, all right, I admit to harboring the suspicion that it really doesn’t have to be so obscure—and the further suspicion that a phrase like “grammar of difference” is more poetry than theology. But poetry is not easily made from the abstract.
I must either give up on the book, or press ahead with the expectation that I will fail to understand a fair amount of it, and the hope that what I do understand will prove useful to me in some way. I’ll press ahead for now. While writing this I’ve re-read several pages of the introduction and found that some passages make more sense on a second reading. But I don’t think I have what it takes to read the whole thing twice. A back-cover blurb from an unnamed reviewer at National Review says that “This is theology as high adventure, and the excitement continues after the last page has turned...” Maybe I just need to allow more time for the excitement to kick in.