Friday, May 29, 2009

"Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty"

(This started out as a comment on this blog post by Tim's Mom, but it got it quickly got too long.)

"Nonsense!" exploded Miss Garnder.

Thus, Francie's teacher responds to her statement that her stories are the truth, and are therefore beautiful. What is beauty? What is truth?

At this point in Betty Smith's classic novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie's stories have taken a turn for the sordid. Francie's father has passed away, and she is writing little stories about his life in an effort to show the love and kindness and zest for living that he demonstrated. He was a drunk and an irresponsible husband, and they are an impoverished family. But Johnny Nolan was also a handsome dancer and a singer with a fine voice, and a man who loved his family. He was a storyteller and keenly observant (when he wasn't drunk). All the teacher 'hears' in Francie's stories is the poverty and the drunkenness. She doesn't get Francie's ideas about the kindness and love that came through her father. (To be fair to the teacher, from the little we get to read of these stories, it is evident that they contain a strong element of bitterness, bordering on despair, that someone so fine and with such a love of life and people could come to such a sad end.)

Miss Garnder, tells Francie to return to writing about things that are beautiful. Francie asks her, "What is beauty?" Miss Garnder replies that she cannot do better than to quote Keats: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."

Francie replies, "These stories are the truth."

This apparently offends the teacher, because she unwittingly erupts into strong disagreement, interjecting "Nonsense!" Miss Garnder then goes into a speech about the kind of truth she is talking about:

"By truth, we mean things like the stars always being there, and the sun always rising, and the true nobility of man, and mother-love, and love for one's country."

She continues by explaining her take on why poverty and drunkenness and hunger are not beautiful. Francie answers bitterly in her mind. And all through Francie's internal responses, the reader can see her struggle to communicate the beauty that is her family, underneath the vice and dirt and meanness. She has moved on from the innocent telling of "birds and trees and My Impressions" and is now faced with the enormous task of shining light on hidden virtues in a dark world.

Betty Smith includes a character near the beginning of the book who succeeds at doing just that:

She spoke softly in a clear singing voice. Her hands were beautiful and quick with a bit of chalk or a stick of charcoal. There was magic in the way her wrist turned when she held a crayon. One wrist twist and there was an apple. Two more twists and there was a child's sweet hand holding the apple. On a rainy day, she wouldn't give a lesson. She'd take a block of paper and a stick of charcoal and sketch the poorest, meanest kid in the room. And when the picture was finished, you didn't see the dirt or the meanness; you saw the glory of innocence and the poignancy of a baby growing up too soon. Oh, Miss Bernstone was grand.

I think Miss Garnder received the talking points on beauty, while Miss Bernstone really understood.

_A Tree Grows in Brooklyn_ seems to be Betty Smith's way of illustrating the beauty found even in wretched conditions. I remember the first time I read it. I was surprised to find that the tree mentioned in the title was a common, unwanted tree that grew in tenements and 'liked poor people'. As I got further into the book, I was shocked at the love and laughter contrasted with low, mean living.

At one point in the book, Francie and her brother Neeley are cussed out by a Christmas tree salesman. (There is a whole story surrounding this incident, which includes the throwing of a large Christmas tree, ruffians, blood and a personal Gethsemane.) Francie, having lived in the neighborhood her whole life and understanding its ways, smiles sweetly at him because she knows he is saying, "Good-bye! God bless you!" And Betty Smith writes with such skill that the reader believes it, too.

There is an ache deep within me that takes immense joy in momentary beauty, and then returns to longing. Stories like Betty Smith's satisfy me in that peculiar way. We are all so imperfect, so wrong, so mean and low-- this world is so full of avarice, degredation, degeneracy-- but then for one moment, one slice of time, that magnificence flares out brightly. After that happens, I want to talk about it forever, to keep it always in memory. There is glory out there! Can we revel in it, even for a time? Although I know this is a base and wicked world, I want to tell my children the stories of glory, show them the beauty, the virtue, the Shining Lands that we catch glimpses of here in this life. We do not have to dwell in the sordid. Even Frodo, on Mount Doom, and "at the end of all things", rejoiced in the loyalty and friendship of Samwise Gamgee. If we have eyes to see, we can look through or around the iniquity of this world (not excusing it, mind you) and see the splendor of nobility in a kind gesture, or a magnificent mixture of colors, or a strain of music.

I like C.S. Lewis' explanation of the aching desire we have for the objectively beautiful:

We usually notice it just as the moment of vision dies away, as the music ends, or as the landscape loses the celestial light. What we feel then has been well described by Keats as "the journey homeward to habitual self."


The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret. And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory, in the sense described, becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory means good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgement, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.


We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.

This is Truth. This is Beauty. Those glimpses we see are promises of what is to come. The most beautiful and true things of all are not quantifiable, and are apt to be dismissed in the treadmill of daily life. But they are the promise of glory. I want to revel in them. (When I try it, I seem to lose much of my common sense and become forgetful of the urgent. I haven't got the hang of revelling in beauty yet. I feel like the little boy, Bastien, in The Never-Ending Story: "But I'm supposed to keep my feet on the ground!" :sigh: Maybe someday I will master the art of Getting Things Done While Simultaneously Revelling in Beauty and Joy.)

So there, Tim's Mom. You set my mind a-going. :O) I am very excited about what you and Tim are reading, I sure wish I was going to the ChildLight conference, and I really want to read _The Christian Mind_ too. (I need to get back into my _Poetic Knowledge_ and _Seeking the Face of God_ reading before I try to tackle anything else.)

Note: To balance this post which possibly borders on the spiritually gluttonous, I recommend the Queen's blog post on Chapter 10 of Seeking the Face of God by Gary Thomas. Of a truth, the life of faith is more than chasing after good feelings. And here is an excellent article on developing a Christian mind, by Elder Michael Gowens.

'Nuther Note: I apologize for continually updating after publishing, but there is something about knowing others are reading my work that gives me all kinds of ideas for improvement. I guess this blog is my own personal writer's workshop, lol.


Willa said...

Katie, I sure enjoyed this post. I just read "Hard Times" by Dickens and your thoughts reminded me a bit of that story. ... indeed, of some of Dickens' major themes of beauty and caritas hidden in the ordinary, humble, even ridiculous details of life.

Katie said...

I read "Hard Times" this year, too, Willa. I thought about it a lot as I wrote this post. I don't have as much familiarity with that story as I do with "Tree", though.

I was visiting with someone about Dickens the other night, and he said he could never get into his stories because there is so much gloom in them. I understand that because I felt the same way until this year. But now I am on a Dickens kick, and I think it has a lot to do with his contrasting of dark and light, as well as his quirky sense of humor.

Right now I'm reading "A Tale of Two Cities".

Katie said...

P.S. I had to look up the meaning of "caritas". :O) Do you take it to mean "love for all people" or "charity"?