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The surprise of beauty

(Masked Chicken, you asked for a non-depressing post. This one's for you.)

Novelist Elizabeth Goudge said, though I seem not to be able to find the quotation now, that the quality of surprise is present in an encounter with all true beauty, and that if that surprise is not there, the beauty is counterfeit.

She was speaking of female beauty, physical beauty, but the same can be said of literary beauty and literary greatness.

A truly great work of literature should surprise you. It should surprise you the first time and time after time. "How can this be?" The double-take. The sudden or slowly growing realization that you are not dealing with just an ordinary book. It may come early in the work or only as it unfolds, perhaps at the very end. If there is not that element of amazement, in some cases an unanalyzable response, then I will go out on a limb and assert that either you are unusually dense or else you are not confronting a truly great work of art.

I have recently thought of this in connection with what is to my mind one of the great novels of Western literature--Chaim Potok's The Chosen.* It starts with a high school baseball game and a sports injury, but along about the time that Reuven Malter sits on the back porch and thinks about his time in the hospital, one begins to suspect the novelist's power. When Reuven sees and frees a struggling fly in a spider web, the suspicion becomes stronger. And by the time, much later in the novel, that he hears the world crying in the silence imposed between himself and his best friend, your eyes should be opening wide with that surprise--the genuine, unfeigned human response to artistic greatness.

What works of art--music, literature, sculpture--have invoked that response of surprise in you, readers?

*I do not mean similarly to endorse all of Potok's novels, the quality of which varies a great deal.

Comments (37)

Lydia, I share your appreciation of great literature in general, and of Potok's The Chosen in particular. He was an honest and gifted writer.

However, I will go ahead and play the wild card, getting it out of the way: It is the very dynamic that you through Goudge have identified that distinguishes the Bible among all other books. For though I have been reading it for over 30 years it still has the power to produce those moments of surprise at the beauty of truth - the surprise being all the more ironic given how many times I had previously read the passage in question while missing the truth just revealed.

I'm confident you all agree, so let the game now continue to see whether The Chosen or some other book will win the silver medal.

There are many winners. God has given many great gifts to man, and there's no competition here.

The Utrecht Psalter for the audacity of the effort and how it seems to combine an ancient liturgical way with what could be thought of as modern documentary sensibilities.

I suppose the term "surprise" works for describing an encounter, but I think "wonder" is a bit better. I'd also include these as personal appreciations for their beauty:

The Unity of Philosophical Experience by Etienne Gilson for its sweeping and lucid account of the history of philosophy and theology.

The Book of Memory by Mary Carruthers for the way it integrates history, philosophy, and theology.

The Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant not only for the military/historical value, but because there is a beauty in its concision and clarity that signals the departure from a deliberately ornate Victorian style of writing.

I was in the National Gallery in DC last weekend, overwhelmed by beauty.

When two of the guards were earnestly engaged in football talk about the NFL playoffs, it struck me as pornographic.

I think I've kicked my football habit out the window.

I suspect, though I would hesitate to lay this down as definitive, that it is impossible for a person to decide that a work he has just read/seen/heard is a truly great work on just one experience. He must come back to it again another time, and try it out again - when he is in a different frame of mind, when he is older/wiser/slower, or even just changed by other experiences. If the work fails to move him now that "things are different" (whatever things they are that are different) then perchance it is not a great work after all. Because a great work has to be able to speak to men in many frames of mind, in many periods of life, in many stages of experience.

Beethoven's symphonies are right up there for me. Almost all of them are really excellent, but the 5th, 6th and especially the 9th are great beyond question. It is not _surprise_ as such that comes through, especially given that I have heard each of them so many times. It is something more enduring than surprise. Wonder might be the better term, but AWE is not out of place either. Perhaps we don't have a word for it: an experience wherein we are able to lose ourselves, and be immersed in the work so thoroughly that it holds us spell-bound.

In literature there are some poets who, for me, never cease to evoke that response of surprise: Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens at his best.

But I shall nominate one phrase as being especially beautiful. It appears in Norman MacCaig's poem "By Achmelvich Bridge." The poet speaks of water that "jumps from stones in smithereens of light." That image is beyond skillful, beyond deft; it is, to me, breathtaking.

The Chosen does this for me, too, Lydia, as does My Name is Asher Lev (and the sequels to both of these). Many others, certainly, as it's my job to read great literature. :) The Lord of the Rings -- I've read it at least a couple of dozen times, probably more, and every single time I am struck again in the way you describe and more fully convinced than ever of Tolkien's genius. But I'd say that in recent years no book has held so much of wonder and beauty for me as Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. I've read it four or five times in the last three years and it is changing my life.

(Tony, I think I disagree with you; though I see your point, I can't think of even a single book that struck me as great literature the first time -- in this way that Lydia has described -- and hasn't done so again on every revisit. Now, the other way 'round has happened -- the first time a book may leave me cold, and then I find I've grown into it if I give it a second chance. This could just be my idiosyncratic experience, I suppose.)

Son of Laertes and seed of Zeus, resourceful Odysseus:
without consideration for you I must make my answer,
the way I think, and the way it will be accomplished, that you may not
come one after another, and sit by me, and speak softly.
For as I detest the doorways of Death, I detest that man, who
hides one thing in the depths of his heart, and speaks forth another.
But I will speak to you the way it seems best to me: neither
do I think the son of Atreus, Agamemnon, will persuade me,
nor the rest of the Danaans, since there was no gratitude given
for fighting incessantly forever against your enemies.
Fate is the same for the man who holds back, the same if he fights hard.
We are all held in a single honour, the brave with the weaklings.
A man dies still if he has done nothing, as one who has done much.
Nothing is won for me, now that my heart has gone through its afflictions
in forever setting my life on the hazard of battle.

For as to her unwinged young ones the mother bird brings back
morsels, wherever she can find them, but as for herself it is suffering,
such was I, as I lay through all the many nights unsleeping,
such as I wore through the bloody days of the fighting,
striving with warriors for the sake of these men's women...

(emphasis added)

Surely the single most amazing passage in all literature - a monologue of Shakespeherian depth & complexity, coming as if from nowhere, about 2300 years before Hamlet.

I think you’re in the vicinity, Steve, but it's been a while since Hamlet too! Ever read Dostoevsky, or Cavafy?

Overseas: well, I taught *The Brothers Karamazov* a couple of times, at U. of C. - does that count?

I'm inclined to agree with Beth that one gets more of what one might call "false negatives" than "false positives" on that sense of awe and amazement for great literature. Part of this may happen when bright children are given great works when they are too young. Parents of bright kids have a lot of trouble avoiding this, because the children are voracious readers. I have always agonized to some extent about how long to hold my children back from reading Tolkien's LOTR, because I really want them to get the most out of it and not to read it too young and then feel later that they "have read it."

I cannot now remember any occasion on which I was blown away by a literary work and thought it really great and then changed my mind later. Interestingly, this is even true of my immature reading as a teenager. I "got into" many books that I would have admitted were not great. There was a sort of secondary sense in the back of my mind that I was overvaluing them at the surface and that my excitement in reading them was perhaps an immature response. (I'm thinking here especially of fantasy novels. When I was fifteen I was deeply into a series some of you may also have read when young called "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever." I spent too much time, and money, on them, but I don't think I ever believed them on a par with, say, Tolkien.)

Beth, you may be right about few false positives. But I remember feeling somewhat the same about LOTR and about the Narnian Chronicles when I first read them - around 12 or so. But upon the second reading, it was obvious to me that LOTR was on a higher plane of greatness even though Narnia is an excellent work. Maybe the needed qualifier is this: once the reader has reached maturity?

I did not get the same result from Brideshead. For some reason it is not my cup of tea. I am notoriously a superficial reader when reading novels, so that might be it, but it just doesn't strike me with any surprise, wonder, or awe.

Lydia, I have no reservation at all that Tolkien was the greatest author in English in the 20th century. I was able to let my older children fold into LOTR at their own pace, but when the movies came out it became a huge effort to demand that the next kids read the books before seeing the movie. But I was insistent: I wasn't going to let their ability to fully enjoy the best written work of a 100 years be ruined by simply watching the movie first. We ended up with me reading LOTR to them aloud, over the course of a year or so (we bogged down in the 2 Towers - does anyone else have that experience, where it is an effort to pick up the book because of the darkness of the plot?). Only after that did I let them watch the movies. That worked fairly well, at least one of them has since picked up the book and read it through again, and they both reject the screwed up movie twist with Faramir.

I don't recall at what ages my children read the LotR books, but what's fascinated me is how much all 5 love them, either "stole" my sets or bought their own, and have read them multiple times -- 3 boys, 2 girls, 5 very different personalities and interests and even, to some extent, values. Back when I first read them, in the late 60s/early 70s, they were something of a cult attraction; we went about with "Frodo lives" buttons and everyone quoted them. I think for that reason it became the academy's response to see them as "mere" pop fiction. I don't know how the secular academy sees them now, but it's sad if they haven't figured out the brilliance.

My parents' library was always open to me, and they had lots of classic novels as well as histories and biographies. One thing I've realized: I read many of them only partially, or only partially absorbed them -- but many of them stayed with me so strongly that I was compelled to revisit them later, and they have invariably awed me in my adulthood. So while discretion is of course extremely important with what we let children read, I have tended toward quite a bit of laxness as long as it's truly excellent literature. Kids tend to self-select pretty well if they have been read to a lot, and mine are all avid readers -- also unusual for a group of 5 very different personalities. Of course what we want for them is that very experience Lydia's talking about -- because that is what will keep them reading.

(I was writing while Tony was posting, so my last is a response to Lydia, not Tony; too busy to do more right now!)

Wow, everyone really loves LOTR.

Add me to the list: I just finished reading it yesterday, for maybe the 20th time. The enduring sensation left behind by it, as people have been saying, is wonder: I almost *can't believe* how good it is. And the better one knows it the more one is struck by its limitless beauty and clarity. One really must reach for Homer or Virgil or Dante to find adequate points of comparison; at the same time these are deceptive because such comparisons lead to misunderstanding its genre, just as comparisons with great novels. Its closest analogue is really Icelandic saga literature, but the great Icelanders produced nothing really comparable either, not even Njal's Saga or Heimskringla.

Tony, I'm facing the same problem you and Lydia mention: how soon to give it to my kinds so that it isn't *too* soon, but also not too late?

Anyway, off the top of my head, another work that constantly produces that kind of enduring wonder: Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.

Well, my novels are pretty darn good and surprising. You can read my latest which I entered in Amazon's Novel Writing Contest of 2011.

It's titled, A Man with Three Great German Shepherds . . . and 1000 troy ounces of gold.

Here's what it's about but the blurb doesn't begin to uncover it's depths and riches since I'm basically BSing the ordinary reader to think he's going to read a dog story and an adventure. It is that but much more. It's packed with wry and mordant observations and wit.

A Man with Three Great German Shepherds
(and 1000 troy ounces of gold) is a comic novel about retired, Navy Warrant Officer, Dan Martin, and three German Shepherds he’s adopted and trained.

After saving the life of his Catholic priest from a knife, wielding lunatic, Dan’s dogs become local celebrities, attracting national attention when they appear with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show.

It’s fame and fortune for Dan, pet commercials and a movie, until the IRS makes him a target of investigation since he’s a gold bug with his life savings in bullion; and for having worked in retirement under the table for a millionaire contractor who’s been cheating on his taxes for decades.

Dan heads for northern Idaho in the hope that his employer can use leverage, money, and contacts to get the government off their backs, bringing the story to a stirring climax.

A Man with Three Great German Shepherds is a paean to dogs with its affectionate and vivid descriptions of their personalities, habits, and problems; their beauty, and affect on others; along with Dan’s story, problems with retirement, attempts to win over his estranged children, desire to show off his pets and find greater distinction in the world.

There is brio in the narrative as Dan mordantly or quizzically observes the world around him. People start off reading a dog story and find themselves enriched by one man’s adventure toward greater humility catalyzed by his three beautiful, obedient, and faithful animals.

Anyone who loves the breed will enjoy the beautiful portrayal of the nobility of the German Shepherd Dog, its well known and beloved qualities; and because Dan Martin, Everyman, plays on common, human chords. A book in part like Rescuing Sprite, My Dog, Tulip, Marley and Me, and Old Yeller.

I'm not sure the submissions are available for review, yet, but I think the books can be downloaded.

Thanks, Lydia.

I was extremely dizzy on Saturday night when I asked for a less depressing post (I could only walk in clockwise circles) and, while lying down, I was reading the blog on my Kindle. It stuck me how forcefully painful it was to read about human depravity while the world was spinning around me.

Don't know the cause of the dizziness. It passed in about twelve hours. Could have been sinuses, a mini-stroke, or slight carbon monoxide poisoning. My best guess is it was the result of a massive sinus infection I've been fighting.

In any case, I have to go. I have to arrest myself for practicing medicine without a license. I plan to sentence myself to eating penecillin-laced pizza for the rest of the week, but I've been known to let myself off for good behavior.

The Chicken

I seem not to be able to find the quotation now, that the quality of surprise is present in an encounter with all true beauty, and that if that surprise is not there, the beauty is counterfeit.

The surprise in encountering beauty is really the effects of Original Sin encountering something beyond itself.

The Chicken

I don't know if it's only the effects of original sin. I suppose it might be the effects of finiteness as well. I have no strong reason to believe that unfallen angels are incapable of surprise. If we change the term to "wonder," I'm pretty certain they do experience it.

Bruckner's symphonies -- their length and complexity, combined with Bruckner's craft, makes the listener anticipate the beauty, so to speak. When I listen to them, at certain parts I always think, "Where is he going with this?" Then when the destination is reached I say, "Ah -- that's where!" and the "where" is always seen to be at exactly the right place.

Mark Helprin's fiction -- he can pull hope or virtue or beauty out of the most banal or ridiculous or (seemingly) depressing situation. His novella "Perfection," for instance, is one of the funniest things I've ever read, but at the end, as if by magic, it becomes something very different, something powerful and moving and quite beautiful.

The Innocence Mission -- this musical group started off in the late 80s as an "alternative" pop/rock act, but over the years moved more in a folk direction. Even the early material is marked by the presence of beauty, both musically and lyrically, which is something rare in pop music. But the recent records, which are more stripped down and quiet, highlight this aspect even more. The group is fronted by the husband and wife team of Don and Karen Peris, the latter writing most of the songs. She has a delicate voice, and the songs embody a similar delicacy in their simplicity. But there's no denying the quiet power of that simplicity, with its lovely turns of phrase, both musical and lyrical. If you haven't heard them their new CD, My Room in the Trees, is a great place to become acquainted.

But I was insistent: I wasn't going to let their ability to fully enjoy the best written work of a 100 years be ruined by simply watching the movie first.


we bogged down in the 2 Towers - does anyone else have that experience, where it is an effort to pick up the book because of the darkness of the plot?


at least one of them has since picked up the book and read it through again, and they both reject the screwed up movie twist with Faramir.

Sympathetic, highly annoyed, growling.

Beth, I think we should earnestly hope that the secular academy doesn't think LOTR is worth noticing, because then they won't have a chance to mangle it and do disgusting and insulting "readings."

Somehow I went through my formal schooling without ever reading a single novel/short-story by Henry James. Thankfully I came across an essay extolling his virtues by the literary critic Joseph Epstein and decided to pick up Washington Square. I had exactly the experience Lydia describes: "The sudden or slowly growing realization that you are not dealing with just an ordinary book." James prose is exquisite and his novels argue for unfashionable moral truths.

I’m not quite in your league, Steve! - but we seemed to share a soft spot for Classics and I was concerned we’d look old-fashioned here. I can’t pretend to pinpoint ‘the single most amazing passage’, not even in the sense of hyperbole I’m sure you meant it. In the context of the epic you picked Achilles where I might go for, say, Odysseus, back in Ithaca and still in disguise, at the moment of mutual recognition ten years later with Argus, his hunting dog: Too old and sick to move, lying on excrement and covered in parasites, Argus wags his tail, raises his ears; Odysseus discreetly wipes a tear away, and Argus expires. Odysseus can weep, graciously approach a princess as a supplicant with no clothes on or decline an offer of immortality and even descend to Hades never losing sight of Ithaca. But you highlighted ‘fate’, which brought to mind the tragic and absurd, the ‘Underground’ and Cavafy’s poems in particular, often with that punch-line which turns the tables, say, in ‘Nero’s Deadline’, what Lydia means by ‘surprise’ perhaps; there’s even one entitled ‘The Horses of Achilles’:

Lydia, you have a good point!

A couple Innocence Mission vids: the first from their 1995 album "Glow" -- this was a favorite song of my daughter's when she was 3 or 4. She just turned 19 last week and probably doesn't remember it! The second is from their new record "My Room in the Trees."

BTW, the Peris's are Christians -- practicing Catholics.

Lyrics are in the 2nd group of links.



Overseas - Well, of course, there are many remarkable passages in both the Iliad and the Odyssey.

But Odysseus is a frightful blackguard. And Argus' devotion to him is very ill-placed.

Poor doggy.

For pure genius, artistic or otherwise, I have to go with the Pulitzer winning Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. It has a deep joy of discovery and metaphorical connections that provides a wonderful storytelling device for the academic subject matter.

For science fantasy novels, I would go with "Empire of the East" by Fred Saberhagen.

There is another science fantasy book I also enjoyed called "Lord of Light" by Roger Zelazny, but I will caution you ahead of time it is very subversive of religion. In one of those amazing twists of history, it was used as part of a CIA cover story to extract some American consulate workers out of Iran months after the embassy was taken over. Totally awesome.

You must have read an inept translation, Steve! - as you know, Achilles too suffered disability: Some Greeks thought he couldn’t catch up with a tortoise!

Hearing Bach's Ich habe genug for the first time - live and up close, at a concert that came to me unexpectedly. I was in seminary at St. Joseph of Arimathea in Berkeley. As I finished my prayers in the seminary chapel, in full black cassock, the musicians started arriving. A sweet, smiling, pretty young lady invited me to stay and listen. Once the oboe started warming up I was locked in a trance. It was all very intimate. One of those rare moments of overwhelming grace and beauty that I shall never forget.

As for literature and the element of surprise, for me nothing surpasses the penitential psalms.

Overseas - I very much doubt that a better translation than Chapman's or Pope's or Lattimore's or Fitzgerald's or Fagles' could greatly change my view of Odysseus - a view which, to judge by the *Philoctetes*, I share with Sophocles.

As for Zeno's paradoxes - they're great fun, aren't they? I always discuss Achilles & the tortoise, in the course of introducing Parmenides' views on movement/change, prior to moving on to Aristotle & Aquinas.

I get this sense that you're trying to "catch me out" on something, for some reason.

Rob G - I hope that you have seen and appreciated some of my YouTube Bruckner videos.

So far I have tackled some bits of the Fourth & the Ninth.

She tries to do that for some strange reason, Steve. I wouldn't bother.

Jeff, good call on the penitential Psalms. Seminary? God turned your vocation in another direction, I see. :-)

Steve, I agree. I am afraid that the blackguard nature of Odysseus always makes it difficult to appreciate the Odyssey as fully as might be. My philistinism comes out.

I think I should be using Zeno's argument to explain why I can never catch up with the paperwork on my desk. Say, did Zeno ever have a variant where the tortoise really was faster than Achilles, a version that would explain why my piles of paperwork grow faster than I can climb them? "Sing, oh Muse, of the futility of Tony..." Maybe Sisyphus should get worked in here. Or the Augean stables?

"I hope that you have seen and appreciated some of my YouTube Bruckner videos."

Actually, I don't think I have. Or if I have, I don't remember.

#4 is a 'sentimental' favorite of mine, as it's the first Bruckner symphony I ever heard, and I had the good fortune to hear it live by the Pittsburgh Symphony under Mariss Janssons. Before going to that concert I'd only ever heard his Motets. I went that night on a whim, having nothing to do that particular Friday night, and seeing that they had a "ticket rush" (I got a $65 seat for $17). I liked it so much that I went out and bought a CD of it the next day.

Besides that, I'd have to say that #2, #8, and #9 are my favorites.

Tony - you're a real card.

Rob G - just you wait.

Ooops - just seen Steve! Well, all you needed to know to appreciate my comment the way it was intended was about the guy’s heel; any further allusion to Zeno's paradox specifically was redundant. Don’t fault me if you know so much! So it was about heroes’ ‘flaws’, but since you now venture into tragic poetry I’ll go for Oedipus.

I was wondering where you were over at Paul’s ‘The Sexual Constitution’, where it’s become debatable whether there had been civilised people around BC; I’d told you I was concerned we’d look old-fashioned here! I’m sure you’re grateful to Lydia for her advice; she probably feels she’s had a bit of a hard time in the other place.

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