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    watercolor painting of leaves against the sun

    The Abyss of Beauty

    The Art of Seeing the Natural World

    By Ian Marcus Corbin

    May 26, 2021

    Available languages: français

    • Nicholas Fulford

      Beauty is unspeakable and breaks us in maelstroms of ecstasy. At first she gently entices, and with sharp implements fractures the facade of our complacencies. Armed with a seductive allure that directs us to the edge of the Abyss, forms disintegrate and meld and swirl and sparkle. It is a singing of such intensity that arises from a black silence which is so So SO ... There are geometries and movements, colours and complex fractal forms stretching over all the dimensions turning and unwinding my frames in severe fashion - though as gentle as is possible for it to be. Beauty is unbearable and in unveiling us to a naked, momentary and timeless apprehension we lose the subjective in the intersubjective in the seed of universes born in fiery frames breaking out and expressing an unfolding that is also a return. This is the prodigal returning from his sojourn through the finite into the infinite once again. It is a breath and it is breathless. It is a time and timeless. Sitting on the threshold of the Abyss, all the images in the self-referential hall of mirrors spin in dervish frenzy and explode into shards which rainbow each other. They are jewels which mutually contain each other and refract and reflect scintillations of divine madness, peace and beauty. Death is not so much a horror as a promise kept, and beauty is the solvent of the soul.

    • J

      Insightful observations, Ms.Hutchinson !

    • Paul Brandenburg

      Thank you, Ian Marcus Corbin, for “The Abyss of Beauty.” I was intrigued by the title and drawn by the photos and accompanying captions. And when you opened with poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, I knew I would relish reading and pondering your essay. I even appreciate the hard lesson that openness to beauty requires a degree of brokenness. Still, from the beginning, I hoped you’d find your way to—let’s call it--“the Ascension of Beauty” in another of Hopkins’ poems, “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo.” Hopkins is a Jesuit, of course, one familiar with the riches of meditation and contemplation. We needn’t despair of the elusiveness and ephemerality of our “glimpses” of beauty, Hopkins insists. We can “fasten” them and give them back to One who “keeps” them . . . keeps them with fonder a care than we could . . . and makes them everlasting. Yes, early now, long before death, we can give beauty back, beauty back, beauty back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver. Yes, yonder, yonder, yonder.

    • Sarah Hutchinson

      As a keen birdwatcher (or "birder"), I was perplexed by Mr. Corbin's article, "The Abyss of Beauty: the Art of Seeing the Natural World" as it didn't tally with my field experiences of "seeing nature." As I read his account of an experience in a park with a tree, it felt as though Mr. Corbin was in danger of "seeing" the emotional experience of encountering beauty rather than the object of beauty itself: the unnamed tree, which was not described by him in identifiable detail. In fact, he casually states his indifference to what the tree or its parts are ("I had no practical interest in the seeds, or whatever they were,") in favor of what the tree represents to him in abstract terms (such as "life", "beauty", "newness", etc.) Contrary to the author, I would suggest that much of our indifference to the beauty of nature often lies in our ignorance of its particularities, its embodied detail. For example: if you don't distinguish between the small brown birds flying by you, you will not be able to see the respective beauties of the field sparrow, the lark sparrow, the Savannah sparrow. Unless you pay attention and learn their names, the individual beauties of these birds will blend together so that you can't see them anymore. They become just small brown birds. And, in another example, let's examine the symphony of the forest: if you can't distinguish the song of the wood thrush from the rest of the soloists, you will never understand why Thoreau wrote that "whenever a man hears it he is young, and Nature is in her spring." It takes time and effort to know the names of things, perhaps more time than we can reasonably afford in our day-to-day lives. But as I can attest from my experiences in the field, once you learn to see the details and begin to sharpen your language for the things that you see, your perception of the world expands. You will see more and more. You will be able to "read" the woods, in all of its footnotes and margins. The act of naming makes every walk in the woods, the meadow, or the marsh intimate and relational, the beauty of nature opening up to you, becoming more vibrant, more musical, as you learn the details. In the words of Robin Wall Kimmerer, a bryologist and Native American storyteller, "finding the words is another step in learning to see."

    • Matt

      The summer of 2021 issue of Plough really struck a chord with me. I was lucky enough to grow-up before the distractions of technology. In reading “The Abyss of Beauty” and attending the on-line discussion, I was saddened to know that so many find it difficult to obtain that connection, the sense of oneness, that sense of awe that is available to most of us. Two times I have found this profoundly, once was walking to the bus and for some reason looking up and seeing cherry blossoms. I was no longer just observer but a fellow participant in the world along with the blossoms. Another time I was struggling with life. I took a walk to a park and laid down and looked up at the sky. I couldn’t tell you why but the beauty of the sky took me out of myself and reconnected me with the universe. Like church does for many, I believe that observing nature daily including our human built environment can nourish us if we take time to pay attention and can occasionally without warning provide profound experiences.

    • Jacqueline Watson

      I felt the tranquility of Ian Marcus Cobin and thankful for the covid lock down which stopped planes flying. The wonderful silence and the clear blue sky overhead during the day and beautiful star light skies at night. As a Christian I feel I should be appreciating God's gifts with more prayers and praise. The man who cuts my grass was unable to do it for several weeks and it had grown lush and the wild flowers had a chance to raise their heads, I don't have a refined lawn it is just grass back and front, much to the enjoyment of my neighbours. I had the pleasure of sitting watching the bees flit from flower to flower collecting the nectar and being weighed down with pollen!

    • Bruce Hollenbach

      Thank you for a very stimulating essay. Your observation that "We are not in the realm of logical confirmation or refutation here, or even of persuasion. The question is closer to one of trust." This is insightful. It is also remarkably similar to the way in which we approach the question of God or of his existence. Or even Jesus's teachings. (John 8:31-32) Likewise with so many other important issues. It is also the only way open to us "as mere humans," as in your statement that "[The Kantian approach] is, of course, a rather cramped and narrow way to approach nature, at least when we act in our capacities as mere humans rather than scientific investigators." And we should remember that even scientific investigators are mere humans. whatever other pretensions they may entertain. I am indebted to you for highlighting the approach of "guilt" as opposed to "shame" in dealing with such heavy questions. I understand that you are speaking of the honesty and integrity with which we approach the questions that we ourselves may raise. I know that sometimes it is more valuable to ask the right question than it is to suggest a good answer. But asking a good question does not necessarily qualify anyone to provide a satisfactory answer to it. The question is just a good place to start. Surely your emphasis on humility and weakness is on the mark here.

    • nobody

      The essay would have been much much better if it had stopped before the portion of text mentioning the experience of Vaclev Havel and ended on the note of celebrating God's holiness in the beauty of tree berries, as Gerald Hopkins was wont to do-- *without* the sort of mystification and ambiguity that got going around that portion of the text---notably that notion that is so oddly popular in this current age that somehow the sublime /good and so on must be taken as "part of " the same package deal as the bad/tragic and so on . Such acceptance of the bad with the good (often compounded by the mendacious notion that the bad / the dark is some sort of "blessing in disguise" ) is indeed like admiring the emperor's new clothes and it is an affront to the innocence and earnestness that purity of heart demands ...that innocence and earnestness that speaks to how good qualities are indeed fully realized, if embraced with a good simple and single minded innocence that does NOT weirdly try to balance such qualities with opposite qualities , nor any qualities that are intrinsically contrary or at odds with such qualities . "If thine eye be single than thy whole body shall be filled with light ' . The statement of Havel that reads , ' this joy formed a strange alliance in me with a vague horror at the inapprehensibility and unattainability of everything I was so close to in that moment, standing at the very “edge of the infinite”, is not to be celebrated , for joy ought to be untrammeled and not figuratively speaking , married off with horror . Also, the theme of 'assent' to 'the inevitable' is but an attitude of resignation disguised as spirituality . To pass off a mood of resignation as if it were somehow spiritual, sacramental---when indeed it isn't , is indeed a sham . The insight in the epistle of James that predicates of Divinity that it is 'without variableness nor shadow of turning ' carries with it the sort of sensibility that makes for epistemic and ethical insight . Beauty is NOT as Rilke claimed , 'the beginning of terror'. Beauty instead carries with it the sense of an innocent vigor , what Gerald Hopkins called 'the dear

    • Russell Kendall Carter

      As a young boy who grew up in a city of concrete and rats, I loved visiting my aunt who was confined to a sanitorium with tuberculosis. My sister and I would lie on the grass in front of the building naming the animals formed by the clouds passing by. This was a luxury we did not have living in our apartment. We quickly made friends with the children of others in the hospital and played games. One game was spreading out to find lost coins in the grass where people picnicked with their relatives in the hospital. One day we found about three dollars’ worth of coins and shared the bounty between us. We all ran to the Good Humor truck. Looking back, I fondly remember being out of the city and the green grass. I am now close to 80 and although I would still love to lay in the grass, it would take a corps of Marines to get me vertical. So, I go into my yard, where my wife has made a sanctuary for birds, squirrels, rabbits, and the occasional groundhog. It is in this primeval forest, I sit and meditate, sit, and pray, sit, and write. I find peace in the wilds of my yard, and it is here where I find God. I wrestle with myself in the wild, struggling with mundane matters; but God lifts me from the depths of my depression and my worries. I become calm and peaceful, even when surrounded by the wild. I think of God who then thinks of me. I live in the comfort of the sabbath, God’s day of rest in the grace of our world. I adopt the manly virtues of Jesus. . . compassion, humility, and purpose. I am in the peace of my wildness.

    • Linda McDermitt

      I now better understand why I so love Hopkins and Dostoevsky. So appreciate the depth of your thoughts and writing. I’m sorry the spade turned, but grateful to know that when it does turn, there is no implicit failure. Thank you!

    • CZP

      This articulates a reading that I have long intuited of Dickinson’s “we grow accustomed to the dark”. I appreciate your work. Keep going to the park without the phone.

    • Joanna Ray

      My recent discovery of The Plough Magazine is a revelation. I am so much enjoying the though provoking articles, poetry and the fine art illustrations. Ian Marcus Corbin’s article, ‘The Abyss Of Beauty. The Art Of Seeing The Natural World’, is full of fascinating quotes, together with his own description of his near epiphany on seeing his urban ‘Weed-Tree’ in a totally different light as it becomes ‘something marvelous’ and beautiful. Perhaps we can indeed simply ‘see ourselves to life’. This reminds me of Romans 1:20, ‘For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – namely His eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made’ - Also Brother Lawrence’s epiphany on realizing that the leafless tree before him would become something quite other as its ‘dead’ looking branches blossomed and bore fruit. (‘The Practice of The Presence Of God.’) Seeing, or recognizing his Creator’s hand in this way famously changed and blessed his whole life, and also that of many around him.

    • Christina Grattan

      Wonderful article. Truly appreciated the integration of Dostoyevsky and how suffering and weakness can make us see clearly the beauty of nature God has given us.

    Albert Camus writes that if you’re truly paying attention, beauty, for all its sweetness, is “unbearable.” Beauty, he says, “drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.”

    For most of us, Camus’s pronouncement sounds dubious; it has the ring of tragic poetic fancy. We may feel revulsion or despair at the sight of misery and death, but beauty? What sort of pain could attend the apprehension of a sunset or a flower?

    And yet it’s easy to be unsure if he’s correct, because true looking is rare. Our customary mode is to look for things rather than at them, to register them just long enough to tell whether they’ll harm or help, what we’d better steer around, what we should pick up from the ground and pocket for tomorrow.

    One afternoon last summer, I was sitting on a bench in a small urban park, my youngest son Leonard asleep in his stroller. I’d consciously chosen to leave my iPhone at home, determined to look around me as I went. It’s an ongoing ethical project, a way of life I aspire to and too rarely achieve. I have a running suspicion that I could really, deeply love life, or a day or afternoon at the very least, if I could just be quiet and look, stop the incessant scheming and worrying and mental grappling. When Gerard Manley Hopkins sits still, he finds that the natural world is “charged with the grandeur of God,” and exults in the knowledge that its “blue-bleak embers” “fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.” That’s what I want. I want to see embers, blue-bleak and dying, to see that when they fall and gall themselves, gold-vermillion gashes out into the visible world. How different would that be from my current life of cars and sidewalks and text exchanges, of long nights in my restless, thought-infested bed? Perhaps we can see ourselves to life.

    watercolor painting of leaves against the sun

    Peer Christensen, Crabapple Study, oil on canvas, 2020. Used by permission.

    On the other hand, maybe what we’ll see if we truly look is cruel, unbearable. In the little park my eyes came to rest on a tree whose branches stretched in over the chain-link fence from an uncultivated little area outside. It was August and the leaves were thick and vibrant, lusty almost, and a hot afternoon sun lit them from behind. On the ends of its branches hung thick clusters of pea-like orbs, some sort of reproductive vehicle, bearers of the next generation of stubborn urban weed-tree. The normalest thing in the world.

    But deprived of anything more urgent to look at, my eyes grew settled and quiet, the tree’s announcement of itself grew louder. It became marvelous. That heavy, fruitful, virtuosic hanging; tucked in this ignored corner, unattended, these rich, bursting clumps of waxy green generation. So much plenitude there, so much gratuitous newness, a production of far more fullness – new life – than I could ever fashion with my busy mind and hands.

    I have, as should be clear, Romantic tendencies, and I was enthralled. So much, so much on this little unplanned burst of branches. I had no practical interest in the seeds, or whatever they were. But I wanted to keep them. It was too much beauty to let go with indifference. That rich plumpness – what a thing to exist. I marveled at this unaccountable, unnoticed beauty. I wanted to have it forever, to live somehow in its presence. Life, I felt strongly, is better than I normally live it.

    And yet, what the hell could it mean? What could I do? These little seeds were here for a week or a month; they would probably not succeed in making another tree. They would fall and shrivel; by now they are certainly rotted into dirt. I felt, suddenly, a pang of dismay, or even despair. I was too far from them; I can hardly recall now what they looked like. Seeing them felt like a torture, a tease. As I walked home, I was reminded of “Fruit,” by one of our great modern guides to these things, the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski:

    … How unattainable
    afternoons, ripe, tumultuous, leaves
    bursting with sap; swollen fruit, the rustling
    silks of women who pass on the other
    side of the street, and the shouts of boys
    leaving school. Unattainable. The simplest
    apple inscrutable, round.
    The crowns of trees shake in warm
    currents of air. Unattainably distant mountains
    Intangible rainbows. Huge cliffs of clouds
    flowing slowly through the sky. The ­sumptuous,
    unattainable afternoon. My life,
    swirling, unattainable, free.

    What a strange kind of animal we must be, to feel ourselves perched on the periphery of something, always only almost living. The thing in front of us, just a hair past our reach, seems ideal, if we could get to it. But can we? Does such intimacy exist? Are we delusional to hope so?

    What a strange kind of animal we must be, to feel ourselves perched on the periphery of something, always only almost living.

    Camus knows, and is sad but brave. Hopkins knows different, and is full of gratitude. For him every small cluster of berries is charged with spiritual grandeur, because “the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” Camus, too, seems to have glimpsed some shadow of divinity around the skirts of material beauty – it’s precisely an evasive, illusory “eternity” that hurts him, because he knows he cannot make it stay. Zagajewski also sees this shadow, but he doesn’t really know, not like Camus and Hopkins do. His is a poetics, an aesthetics, even a spirituality that is charged with longing and generosity – knowing little, refusing to give up hope, relentlessly honest. I find myself, in fits and starts, there with him.

    But not everyone is stuck in limbo. Some people know, or at least believe. But how? I have spent well over a decade poking at these questions with the tools of philosophy, and I know at least that arguments can’t be the answer. Perhaps we can begin to sight a map by looking at the story of Václav Havel, the Czech writer and intellectual who was influential in the world of underground arts and letters in Soviet-Bloc Czechoslovakia. In 1989, he helped to foment the bloodless anti-Soviet “Velvet Revolution,” and subsequently became president. Ten years before, Havel had been arrested on charges of subversion, and sentenced to a four-year prison term. One day in the courtyard of the prison at Heřmanice, he had a dramatic epiphany that amounted to something like a conversion experience. He wrote to his wife, Olga:

    I call to mind that distant moment in Heřmanice when on a hot, cloudless summer day, I sat on a pile of rusty iron and gazed into the crown of an enormous tree that stretched, with dignified repose, up and over all the fences, wires, bars, and watchtowers that separated me from it. As I watched the imperceptible trembling of its leaves against an endless sky, I was overcome by a sensation that is difficult to describe: all at once, I seemed to rise above all the coordinates of my momentary existence in the world into a kind of state outside time in which all the beautiful things I have ever seen and experienced existed in a total “co-present”; I felt a sense of reconciliation, indeed of an almost gentle assent to the inevitable course of events as revealed to me now, and this combined with a carefree determination to face what had to be faced. A profound amazement at the sovereignty of Being became a dizzy sensation of tumbling endlessly into the abyss of its mystery; an unbounded joy at being alive, at having been given the chance to live through all I have lived through, and at the fact that everything has a deep and obvious meaning – this joy formed a strange alliance in me with a vague horror at the inapprehensibility and unattainability of everything I was so close to in that moment, standing at the very “edge of the infinite”; I was flooded with a sense of ultimate happiness and harmony with the world and with myself, with that moment, with all the moments I could call up, and with everything invisible that lies behind it and has meaning. I would even say that I was somehow “struck by love,” though I don’t know precisely for whom or what.

    This epiphany grants to Havel what he describes as “a sense of ultimate happiness and harmony with the world and with myself, with that moment, with all the moments I could call up, and with everything invisible that lies behind it and has meaning.” But how, why has this happened? What is it about this particular tree – and by extension, any ordinary beautiful thing – that might explain this sort of experience?

    We can’t finally know, of course, but we would do well to begin with Havel’s description of the tree. The tree is “enormous,” stretching out its branches with “dignified repose, up and over all the fences, wires, bars, and watchtowers” as its leaves “tremble imperceptibly” against “an endless sky.” His epiphany seems to be fostered by the juxtaposition of the tree and sky, each illuminating his apprehension of the other.

    Openness requires a degree of brokenness, and may be difficult and painful.

    He sees living things stretch out with “dignified repose,” in their ceaseless, simple, unreflective excellence. Zebra fur just does grow in stripes, cuts heal, magnolia trees bloom in the spring. Within the simplest cell, structures and functions of great complexity and elegance operate independent of human comprehension or control. And this sort of virtuosity is beautiful to behold, as Aristotle observes: “Absence of haphazard and conduciveness of everything to an end are to be found in Nature’s works in the highest degree, and the resultant end of her generations and combinations is a form of the beautiful.”

    This beautiful virtuosity goes further than we can imagine, perhaps infinitely further. Havel is struck by nature’s “own great and mysterious order, its own direction.” Our sciences, especially physics, aim to map out an explanatory basement, an account of the forces that finally underlie the structure and order of trees, hands, and eyelashes. But even if we embrace string theory we can always wonder what accounts for the cohesion and function of their tiny vibrating strings of energy. Living things have depths which are simultaneously orderly and incomprehensible to human knowers.

    Confronted by mystery, Havel is dizzy at his own finitude. He sees – with relief – that he simply cannot make himself omnipotent, nor should he try. And so he describes a feeling of “gentle assent to the inevitable course of events as revealed to me now … combined with a carefree determination to face what had to be faced.”

    Still he feels “a vague horror at the inapprehensibility and unattainability of everything I was so close to in that moment, standing at the very ‘edge of the infinite.’” Havel has come to see that the human quest for total understanding and mastery is destined to remain frustrated. As parts of nature, we humans contain the same infinite depths as Havel’s enormous tree, but as knowers and actors, we are incorrigibly finite. This bittersweet realization makes Havel receptive to the marvelous insight that if we can’t understand everything, maybe there’s a lot we can’t understand.

    Each tree, each ant and person rises and falls beneath an infinite sky; we may flourish on this day or that, but the passage of time will see to our physical annihilation. The virtuosity of life is all the more striking – it might even seem miraculous – when it emerges in a context which also foregrounds its fragility. Here we all are, for a few short minutes – tiny, brittle, ignorant, and unspeakably beautiful. Confronted with this juxtaposition, Havel suddenly, unexpectedly receives the intuition that behind the façade of ubiquitous flux, a limitless, incorruptible reality exists. This is the reality that traditional metaphysics and theology try to talk about.

    We are left with one main imperative: humble, careful attention.

    Havel gratefully accepts his intuition, and his posture towards life is transformed, though he does not go so far as to label himself a convert: “I would even say that I was somehow ‘struck by love’ though I don’t know precisely for whom or what.” Like a number of theologians, Augustine and Aquinas among them, Havel senses the difficulty of attaching words to our experience of the ineffable.

    And yet, unlike them, he feels unable to accept any doctrinal attempts to do so, though he does say in other writings that he wishes he could. He writes in another letter to Olga that “by perceiving ourselves as part of the river, we accept our responsibility for the river as a whole.” Havel’s aesthetic rapture doesn’t whisk him away from the bonds of human solidarity, but reshapes and strengthens them.

    Faced in that moment with the juxtaposition of fragility and virtuosity, Havel suddenly knew that fragility was not the final word. Particular people and things are indeed fragile, but there’s some ineffable spiritual reality that unites and harmonizes the particulars into a beautiful, invulnerable whole. The universe is not, he saw, cold and indifferent.

    Why on earth did Havel come to this conclusion? Though “conclusion” is the wrong word: this was not the result of long consideration or weighing of evidence. Havel stepped like an ordinary prisoner into a dusty courtyard, and suddenly metaphysics bubbled up, unbidden. And he was swept away by its truth.

    To underline again: Havel was not logically forced to his conclusion. We can marvel at nature’s virtuosity even if fragility is indeed the last word. But to Havel, again, it did not seem to be the last word. The perception of a moment of beauty snowballed into an intuition about beauty itself, that gathered and pulled all of existence into its orbit. But if beauty sometimes seems to open a small window to a realm beyond our fragmented, time-bound existence, every adult knows that things are not always how they seem. Herman Melville, writing in 1851 to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, says:

    In reading some of Goethe’s sayings, so worshipped by his votaries, I came across this, “Live in the all.” That is to say, your separate identity is but a wretched one – good; but get out of yourself, spread and expand yourself, and bring to yourself the tinglings of life that are felt in the flowers and the woods, that are felt in the planets Saturn and Venus, and the Fixed Stars. What nonsense!

    But he adds,

    N.B. This “all” feeling, though, there is some truth in. You must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer’s day. Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth. Your hair feels like leaves upon your head. This is the all feeling. But what plays the mischief with the truth is that men will insist upon the universal application of a temporary feeling or opinion.

    For Havel, the all feeling was a glimpse of a genuine truth, and it transformed him. For Melville it was a temporary “feeling or opinion,” to be enjoyed but not to be trusted as revelatory. Why did Melville “know” that the seeming reality of the “all” was to be rejected as fancy? Why did Havel “know” that it was to be embraced?

    As thinkers – appliers of concepts, technicians of logical implication – I fear that our line of inquiry has to end here, in disappointment, with these questions. All we can say for sure is that some experiences of beauty make the world seem a certain way – as if it is “charged with the grandeur of God,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it. On the other hand, to his contemporary Matthew Arnold, the world seems to be a “darkling plain” where “ignorant armies clash by night.”

    Deciding which understanding to embrace as true cuts so close to our fundamental experience of reality that it’s hardly a decision at all. Philosophers dig, Wittgenstein says, until we hit rock, and the spade turns. And the spade turns here. How, on what grounds, could Havel convince Melville to believe the all feeling? How could Melville convince Havel to disbelieve it? We are not in the realm of logical confirmation or refutation here, or even of persuasion. The question is closer to one of trust. Havel and Melville are perhaps comparable to a young groom receiving a pledge of love and fidelity from his would-be bride. Should he believe her? Only he can make that decision – there’s no a priori way to adjudicate it. Some experiences can only be lived through, and listened to.

    So we are left with one main imperative: humble, careful attention. This is the only way to begin to examine the great question Havel and Melville answer in their own, radically different, ways. The sort of attention that can approach the question is perhaps what Simone Weil describes as “empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.”

    watercolor painting of larch branches and small larch cones

    Peer Christensen, Tamarack Study, detail. Used by permission.

    Weil’s image comports very uncomfortably with the aggressive, penetrating style of attention that took pride of place in the Enlightenment. This style still reigns as the paradigmatic posture of serious inquiry, vindicated every day by the fantastic advances of modern science and technology. It is perfectly articulated in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, when he says that reason “must approach nature in order to be taught by it. It must not, however, do so in the character of a pupil who listens to everything that the teacher chooses to say, but of an appointed judge who compels the witnesses to answer questions which he has himself formulated.” This is, of course, a rather cramped and narrow way to approach nature, at least when we act in our capacities as mere humans rather than scientific investigators.

    The Kantian approach has steadily become the default way of experiencing the world, in the process helping to make experiences like Havel’s rarer. Kant’s approach has its time and place, to be sure, but some topics – like the fundamental nature of reality, or the likelihood of marital concord – require a more open, variegated, sensitive approach.

    This openness, though, requires a degree of brokenness, and may be difficult and painful. It is not without resonance that Havel’s epiphany took place while he was imprisoned and powerless – Havel’s awareness of his finitude, his confrontation with a world that is too great for his capacity, is reinforced by physical confinement. It is difficult to adopt Kant’s posture when one’s illusion of mastery has been so unceremoniously and convincingly destroyed. It makes sense, then, that thinkers from Boethius and Thomas More to Wittgenstein, Pound, Dostoyevsky, and Martin Luther King Jr. have penned masterpieces from prison. The power of suffering and humiliation to open our eyes is a guiding theme of some of Dostoyevsky’s most powerful work, which is to say, some of the most powerful ever created.

    When the writer and atheist polemicist Christopher Hitchens was first diagnosed with cancer, he announced that if he should, in the grips of decline, begin to soften his stance toward theism, the public should ignore him. This Christopher Hitchens, he said – still robust, pugilistic, lustful – was the real one. The diminished, sad, terrified Christopher Hitchens of advanced-stage cancer would be just a shadow of the full man. Hitchens here has broached a massive epistemological question – do we see more clearly in our weakness or our strength? Dostoyevsky answers definitively for the former, but with a qualification: the kind of weakness he finds illuminating involves a careful distinction between guilt and shame.

    We can see this distinction summed up in the story of Markel, a minor character in The Brothers Karamazov. Markel is a haughty, cynical boy, who mocks his mother’s piety, until he is struck with illness. Then he is progressively weakened, progressively humbled; he comes more and more to embrace the piety he once mocked. Speaking to his mother, Markel calls her “heart of my heart, my joyful one,” and tells her to “know that verily each of us is guilty before everyone, for everyone and everything. I do not know how to explain it to you, but I feel it so strongly that it pains me.” From his new perspective, Markel turns in humble repentance toward the people who surround him and toward the broader creation: “There was so much of God’s glory around me: birds, trees, meadows, sky, and I alone lived in shame, I alone dishonored everything, and did not notice the beauty and glory of it all.”

    Shame and guilt here are polar opposites. Shame is denial, a desire to hide one’s true nature from oneself and others. It is what Hitchens imagined religion might be – a scrambling, pathetic attempt to escape finitude. The guilt that Dostoyevsky has in mind is the opposite. It is a letting go, the generous acknowledgement of what one truly is, the hospitable acceptance of one’s own flaws, finitude, mortality. This acceptance liberates a person from stifling falsehood and instead creates the possibility of reunion: with oneself, with others, with nature. Markel’s mother tries to save him from this liberation, assuring him that he is not so guilty as he claims, and he reproves her: “Let me be sinful before everyone, but so that everyone will forgive me, and that is paradise. Am I not in paradise now?” These are heavy, fragrant words.

    From some deep part of me I feel their affirmation; if there is a key to my overheated encounter with some pea-like tree fruits in a local park last summer, it would seem to reside here. Reading through the lenses of Havel and Dostoyevsky, it seems we could say that my hands and eyes were too weak to grasp what I saw – I could neither hold the fruits in perpetual existence, nor see to their core, to understand and love the force that animates them. Dostoyevsky suggests that my lack of control is the simple human reality, and my anguish at it a blinding, crippling form of shame, perhaps the great human disease. He suggests that I could have kept looking, I could have kept feeling my powerlessness. This sort of fortitude, in the face of my limitations, might have led me to a posture of guilt; it might have led me to understand what I am and to embrace it as good. From there, some large things – far too large to put into words – might have presented themselves to me.

    Dostoyevsky asks a lot; it sounds like hard, hard, harrowing work. It sounds like being shaken to the core in a small grubby park, with nannies and yuppie parents all around checking their phones and herding their little strivers. It sounds, maybe, like more than I could take. It also sounds, however, like the way reality is glimpsed – whether that reality be crushing or saving, eternity or death.

    Contributed By IanMarcusCorbin Ian Marcus Corbin

    Ian Marcus Corbin is a philosopher in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is currently the co-director of the Human Network Initiative at Harvard Medical School and a senior fellow at the think tank Capita.

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