Von Balthasar on Soloviev: The meaning of Dostoevsky’s “beauty will save the world”

From the very beginning, Soloviev wanted to complete his theosophy with a universal aesthetics. He prefaced his essay on natural aesthetics with Dostoyevsky’s dictum that “beauty will save the world.” The Critique of Abstract Principles had proclaimed that ‘the realization of pan-unity in its external actuality is absolute beauty’, so it is as little something ‘given’ as is ‘pan-unity’ itself; it is a task assigned to humanity, and human art is a vehicle of its realisation. Soloviev promises to develop, at the end of his work, ‘the common axioms and rules of this great and mysterious art that brings all beings in the form of beauty’. According to another declaration, the sphere of aesthetic realisation should be divided into three areas: the material (technology), the formal (the ‘fine arts’) and the absolute (mysticism). For Soloviev, however, mysticism is not only passive devotion to the divine or direct contact with it; it also is the active art of bringing the divine from Heaven to earth, and, in this sense, ‘theurgy’—it is concerned, that is, with the realisations of the ideal: this is why Soloviev becomes a bitter opponent of classical idealist aesthetics, according to which beauty is allowed to be ‘only’ appearance, not reality, only an illusory reflection, not even a true promise or foretaste. ‘An infinity that existed solely for an instant would be an unbearable contradiction for the spirit; a bliss existing only in the past would be a torture for the will.’ Thus too Goethe’s Faust cannot embody any authentic idea: ‘The heavenly powers and the “eternal feminine” appear from above, and so from outside; they do not reveal themselves from within, in the very content of reality itself. Even Dante’s Paradise is ‘not sufficiently living and concrete—an essential deficiency that not even the most euphonious verse can make good’. ‘According to Hegelian aesthetics, beauty is the embodiment of a universal and eternal idea in individual and transitory phenomena; in this embodiment, moreover, these phenomena remain transitory, disappearing like individual waves in the stream of the material process. Only for a moment do they reflect the light of an eternal idea. This is possible only if the relation between spiritual principle and material phenomenon is accidental. True and perfect beauty, on the other hand, since it expresses the full solidarity and mutual penetration of these two levels, must necessarily allow one of them (the material) to come really to share in the immortality of the other.’ If true embodiment is lacking, ‘the powerlessness of the Idea to give its inner content a direct external expression’ becomes manifest. Thus Soloviev welcomed the shift toward literary realism, even in the materialistic form that it assumed in Chernyshevsky: he was a declared enemy of all ‘ar for art’s sake’. In ancient culture, ‘poets were at once prophets and priests’, and it is only in the subsequent division of labour that poets elevated an isolated art to the status of an ideal: ‘For such priest of pure art, perfection of external form comes to be the main consideration.’ Realism quite rightly reacted against this ; but ‘in the ineffectual hunt for pseudo-real detail, the actual reality of the whole is once more lost’. Dostoyevsky had an eye for true inner reality, and his is the pledge of the poetics of the future. In this way he unmasks in prophetic fashion the anti-Christian side of modern utopian social progress—movements oriented to the future; his vision grows in the true ‘hoses of the dead’, of the ‘insulted and injured’, as he recognises the solidarity of saints and sinners. His ideal is the Church, the Kingdom of God, and not a particular nation. ‘The Church as positive ideal was intended to become the central idea … of The Brothers Karamazov.’ The more truth, the more beauty, always: ‘The full truth of the world consists in its living unity as one spiritualised and God-bearing body; I that lies the world’s truth and the world’s beauty.’ Following on from that, the task in hand is ‘to embody the content of salvation and truth in the sphere of things perceptible to the senses by giving it the form of beauty’—and that immediately means ascesis for the soul that lives through its senses, a submission of blind, inordinate impulse that has no interior goal to the chains of the spiritual idea that captures it and gives it form’ (Hans Urs Von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, Vol 3, p 342-344)

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