Monday, March 2, 2009

My Mistake at Moissac

In her most interesting and challenging book, On Beauty and Being Just, author Elaine Scarry asks her readers to contemplate a mistake they have made about beauty. This is mine.

What sort of mistake is this? Whether it be seeing something one thought was beautiful and now no longer finds so, or realizing that something was beautiful when one didn't think it was beautiful before, this mistake is not something most of us would ever think about, since it would seem to pass so fleetingly as not to be noticed. Nor would it be something to be noticed by thinkers other than those who have already taken up the difficult question of the nature of beauty. But for those of us who have long pondered this subject--and I count myself among them--Scarry argues that this mistake is both inevitable and key to our perceptions of what it beautiful and why.

To be sure, Scarry's question to her readers is not so specific as I've just cast it. She asks the much more general--and therefore, engaging--question: "What is an instance of an intellectual error you have made in you life?" She makes no mention of beauty here, but perhaps conditioned by the subject of the book in hand, as I naturally and immediately thought of an example of such an error, it had to do with my perceptions of beauty.

In keeping with her suggestion: "It may be helpful if, before proceeding, the reader stops and recalls--an as much detail as possible--an error he or she has made so that another instance can be placed on the page..." this short essay is an effort to record that moment and thus use it as she suggests as I seek elucidation of beauty in her dense and engaging prose.

It is in part because she was so prescient as to know that "Those who remember making such an error about beauty usually also recall the exact second when they first realized that they had made the error." The resonance I feel in reading these words is no coincidence. Scarry has hiot upon something important here.

In fact, I do recall that exact second, and it was the very second in which I began contemplating beauty; it was the beginning of a lifelong quest to understand. The real revelation was profound to me indeed: If, I reasoned, I had made this mistake, what others have I made? Will--can--learning illuminate this dark world?

My moment--my mistake--was at the Abbey Church of Moissac, located in south-central France on a cold and windy November day in 1976. We stepped out of the bus on which we'd been riding all day just as the sun was beginning to set and crowded around the elaborate carved stone portal that filled the arch over the broad double-doors to the church.

Sadly, my first thought as we arranged ourselves about the portal so as to both have a view of it and hear the words of the Professor as she lectured on the history, style and meaning of the sculpted relief we were finally gazing upon was this: "That's it?"

I didn't say this, of course, not just because I would have been embarrassed to admit my ignorance in front of my peers or worse, the Professor whom I so admired that I had changed my schedule mid-semester just to be in her--this-class, but because I really wasn't sure if I "got it." For that matter, I wasn't so sure I'd ever "get it." In my mind's eye, the scene is recalled in perfect clarity. I even have a sort of 'telescopic' vision of the very figure that I was staring at when I had the revelation, but I must first put it in some sort of context.

For one thing, I recall standing practically in the street. It didn't help that the church was undergoing renovations which left all but the very portal we had come so far to see covered with complicated scaffolding, but that wasn't why were were forced to stand on the curb and even in the street to get a good view of the 12th century carved stone portal. It seemed like the portal simply opened out onto the street. Actually, the doors opened onto a very narrow sidewalk which of course allowed access to the church, but did not offer entrants much opportunity to see the magnificent art array above their heads as they came in.

However, as students taking Art History Professor Francesca Weinmann's Introduction to Romanesque Art course, the thirty or so Americans from the American College in Paris arranged in a semi-circle about the portal that November day were likely the only ones to be interested in the portal enough to seek a good vantage point from which to see it.

This being my very first time to see a Romanesque church and even to really gaze upon the art from that period and place, I was just becoming accustomed to the way in which the very old is incorporated with the new and very new in European towns and cities. So, the sight of the important portal simply being ignored by the populace took some getting used to. Later, I realized that the art wasn't actually being ignored, it was simply being accepted as part of the ever-changing tapestry of urban life. The people who passed it by or used the Church knew it was there; they had often seen it and now simply didn't need to look at it the same way we did that day, as tourists and students of an art and a history not our own.

So, part of what I felt was surprise that, after all the buildup from class and from my fellow students and even the Professor herself during the eight hour bus ride down from Paris, the 'great' portal was neither as large nor as glorious as I'd expected it to be.

Of course, my expectations had to be tempered somewhat by the fact that I'd only just transferred into the class like a week earlier, and hadn't done any of the background reading and knew absolutely none of the terminology. Words like "lintel", "trumeau", "tympanum" and even "arch" were as foreign to me as the French I was struggling to speak outside of the safe haven of class and the American ghetto in which I lived. Naturally, this ignorance didn't keep me--much to the chagrin of my fellow classmates, who had done their reading and had studied prior to this trip--from asking plenty of predictably dumb questions.

It is to her credit--and a principal reason that I so admired her--that Professor Weinmann did not dismiss my ignorance but actually embraced it, using it as means to educate and inspire her class. At least that's what it did for me.

So, that moment came as professor Weinmann lectured almost to me directly it seemed and my eyes were locked on one of the cramped figures carved in the trumeau between the doors directly under the tympanum. It was the image of a man, carrying a book in one hand and bent over, his entire figure hunched and forced into the too-small space he'd been given inside the narrow pillar separating the two massive wooden doors.

At first, I was appalled by the 'primitive' nature of the carving. It seemed so crude, so forced at the hand of an amateur carver, that I couldn't imagine that this 'thing' was considered to by anyone to be beautiful. My first view held that the artist couldn't have 'known what he was doing' or that this figure was carved before artists 'knew' how to render the human figure with 'accuracy'. My quotes in the preceding sentence are meant to highlight the false notions that I held then and there quickly; to show them here and now for the naive mistakes about beauty that I made.

For, somehow, in a moment--that moment--that carved figure of a man in the trumeau at Moissac passed from the realm of the not-beautiful into the realm of the beautiful.

Suddenly, I could see that it was not for lack of artistic skill that the figure was so compact, so forcefully hunched into a supplicatory position. However, the feeling I was having; the resonance that I felt with that tiny, even distant figure was precisely because of the skill of the artist. He hadn't misunderstood the 'rules' for drawing and carving; I had misunderstood the means by which his art, such art--all art, really--must be apprehended. In an imaginary magnified view, in a never-to-be-forgotten moment, in that sculpture, I could truly feel and understand the artist's expression of the literal and spiritual subjugation of man to the higher force of his God.

Bam. Somehow, some way, just like that, seven hundred years later, an eighteen year-old kid from Texas gets "it". He hears the message from an anonymous stone carver in medieval France, and just like that, an intellectual mistake about beauty, one that might well have plagued me all my life was, in an instant, corrected.

The impact of that moment on my life and thoughts is not to be underestimated, since it was from there that I began my quest to know (here paraphrased from the Phaedrus thanks to Robert Pirsig):

"And what is good, Phædrus,
And what is not good...
Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?"

That quest is ongoing, as is my effort to read the rest of Scarry's illuminating little book.

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