These were my opening remarks at our Arts Forum, Dazzle Gradually: The allure of Poetic Truth-Bearing, on January 31st through February 1st, 2014. The video at the end is a short summary of what happened.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;
As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.
—Tell all the Truth by Emily Dickinson
As director of Friday Arts Project I’d like to welcome you to our third annual Arts forum called Dazzle Gradually: the Allure of Poetic Truth-Bearing. This third Forum represents the last of a trilogy we started two years ago. The trio of transcendentals of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are values we desire to pursue and purvey. In 2012 we started with Beauty: Beneath the Surface. Our desire was to re-introduce Beauty to everyday conversation; that it isn’t completely indefinable but worth exploration and serious engagement. Out of that Forum Friday Arts Project’s vision statement came from a statement I made about Beauty that weekend:
“Beauty exists where Truth and Goodness meet Mystery.”
In 2013 we decided to tackle the topic of Goodness – Beauty and Truth’s sister. But we decided to introduce the discussion through a more visceral or incarnational aspect, that of food and neighborliness. We called it “A Place at the Table: Creativity in Food and togetherness”. Some of you are here because of that wonderfully unique experience. I believe that it is out of that Forum the second sentence of Friday Arts Project vision emerged:
“Beauty exists where Truth and Goodness meet Mystery. (and the second part) Art advances the celebration of this intersection.”
Beauty catches our eye and holds our attention to tell us “There is something worthwhile here!” Or it tells us, “There’s something you need to think about!” Goodness invites us to stay a while by stimulating an atmosphere to go deeper and be a better human being to your fellow human beings on pilgrimage.
But what of Truth? We had to address this subject for several reasons. One, because it is the third sister in the trilogy of transcendentals and since we’ve done Beauty and Goodness we must address Truth. Second, this seems timely considering the cultural atmosphere of huge issues surrounding letting your “Yes be yes, and your No, no.” I am not only talking about politicians, friends. Some friends of mine who have worked in the halls of power in DC have said that by the time legislation reaches DC it already exists in the culture. It’s not hard to imagine that the way our political leaders conduct themselves may also reflect us in some way. So what happens there to some degree reflects what happens here – that is a convicting thought, is it not?
So it’s appropriate that we tackle Truth, but we must do it without forgetting Truth sisters of Beauty and Goodness. If we did we risk what Catholic theologian Hans Balthasar stated as an “act of mysterious vengeance”. Balthasar, in his thick theological tome The Glory of the Lord, talked of the dismissal of Beauty, in our culture, as risking dangerous consequences, he wrote:
“We no longer dare believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order to more easily dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”
I wouldn’t doubt to some degree this would also apply to both Truth and Goodness.
Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image Journal has written:
“Goodness without Beauty is moralism, Beauty without Goodness is frigid and lifeless…”
but then he goes on to mention what happens without Truth:
“Truth without Beauty is fleshless abstraction, and Beauty without Truth is a lie.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want any of these consequences in my life…I don’t want to be “moralistic” – pronouncing poor judgment on a whim rather than thinking wisely about this world. I don’t want to make anything that would be “frigid and lifeless” – unable to warm a heart or enlighten a mind. I don’t want to make “fleshless abstractions” – something so “other” that “WTF” would be the nicest critique. And I don’t want to lie – imagine your relationships if lying were the norm?
I don’t want these consequences in my life, and I don’t want them in yours, either. Which is why we assemble these groups and tackle these topics. This weekend we are discussing Truth, which seems a very direct “in your face” concept; but we’re discussing it in indirect “beating around the bush” ways. We are tackling Truth in the form of poetry, story, and music. How could this possibly help?
Remember earlier I said Friday Arts Project’s vision is “Beauty exists where Truth and Goodness meet Mystery.” What we are trying to do is gather you all at exactly that border…where Truth meets Mystery; even Beauty and Goodness are present. At this border we want to set up a table, provide good food, present friends to come and speak, show art that visually pleases and cognitively challenges, and consider what we know looking into Truth, and what we do not know, looking into the Mystery.
For Truth shouldn’t be divided between “fact and value”, “reason and faith”, “body and spirit”, “the seen and unseen”. Who authorized that seeming split for humanity? By this gathering, and addressing this subject we are not saying we don’t like science – which in my mind is the proving ground for Empiricism. Nor do we think poetry – which in my mind represents the proving ground of Romanticism – is better than science. But we also see sciences limits, and where things like poetry can address those limits.
I believe that split not only divides humanity, but it divides the very nature of what it means to be human.
Life seems to be a delicate balance between what we do and do not know—dialogues occur, rebounding between those two territories. In this discussion pride of knowledge is carried like a hidden king, sometimes wielded like a two-edged sword or a self-deprecating whisper.
We must ask the question that Pontius Pilate asked, “What is Truth?” If it is universal and impersonal, then Truth is an avalanche, treating everything in its path the same. If it is merely personal—subject to the whims of each human on this planet—then Truth is still an avalanche; only it is a series of miniature ones constantly crashing into one another in a chaotic cacophony. If Truth is the former, nothing is personal and mercy is only a word and not a reality. If Truth is the latter everything is personal and justice is merely a word and not a reality. If Truth remains one or the other in our cultural heart, then pharmaceutical companies will continue to make money from psychotropic drugs as people look for ways to blunt the harshness of Truth’s split.
But True Truth is neither one, nor the other—and medicating yourself only delays the reckoning.
It seems contradictory for True Truth to be both transcendental and personal, but it is not. The only way for such magnificent values like Goodness, Beauty and Truth to carry their weight at such lofty and base levels is for both to be true. Let us know the Truth, so that we may be, together with Flannery O’Connor – odd. Oddness is so much more fun in like-minded company. But I also want to know the Truth, because I want to be free – don’t you?
You can see, now, why Emily Dickinson’s poem is so appropriate a muse for us this weekend? Tell all. Tell slant. Take the circuitous route. Let’s be surprised by Truth. Let us expect Truth as lightening. Let us not be blind but be dazzled gradually.
For the newsletter and photos of this event click here