Aesthetic Theology: Or, How Leviathan and Behemoth Got Their Asses Kicked
Political Theology is a fairly esoteric field, popularized by the German 20th century philosopher Carl Schmitt. Put in its simplest terms, it’s the idea that certain knowledge can be derived from religion and applied to politics and metapolitics. Schmitt’s main interest here was geopolitics, and how the megafaunal cryptids Leviathan (the sea monster) and Behemoth (the land monster) could tell us certain things about nations. Land-based powers like Russia were tellurocracies (Behemoths) and sea-based powers like the U.K. or U.S. were thalassocracies (Leviathans.) This affected how these nations saw themselves and the world and dealt with other nations. It also, especially, affected how they fought and what kind of wars they preferred to engage in.
Nobody talks about Schmitt much anymore, partly because he was a member of the Nazi Party, but mostly because a lot of his stuff is very dense. It also helps to read Schmitt in the original German, and to have some grasp of Greek as well helps in the appreciation of his concepts like Nomos. Most people understandably have other, more pressing things to do with their time.
I, not being most people—not having much of a life to speak of at all—can afford to think about this stuff. I can even afford to mull over if I might be able to derive my own secular philosophical insights from the Bible. Not being overmuch into geography, but still trying to give this writing thing a go, I’m more inclined to find aesthetic rather than political uses for the Good Book.
So how about it, then? Aesthetic Theology?
There’s a quote I found from the Bible. I didn’t stumble over it while reading the Good Book, (though I sometimes do) but rather while perusing another book I keep in my basement bathroom. This book is a collection of metaphors and aphorisms along with the author’s insights and ideas on metaphor’s contribution to thought and creativity. It’s cleverly titled Metaphors Be With You.
The quote I stumbled across was on the subject of Humility.
It came from the King James Bible, the Book of Matthew: “And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
What’s the relation of the above quote about humility to aesthetics, though? Isn’t the point of art to be the exact opposite of humble, to try to harness some Promethean fire and play God, if only figuratively in one’s work?
The brilliant German philologist Bruno Snell in The Discovery of the Mind even argues that poets, in trying to praise their gods, discovered man’s godlike potential via linguistic abstraction.
I think creation can be an exalting pursuit—and cathartic, and liberating. Likewise can it produce all kinds of negative feelings like frustration and inadequacy and jealousy at the skillset of one’s betters. But the best work, for me (at least as far as writing is concerned) seems to come from those who know how to subordinate their egos, to forget themselves.
There’s more than one type of good writing. There is the kind of good writing that, as one reads it, they recognize as such. We read and feel how the writer was carried away in the throes of composition. We’re grateful for the pleasure of being able to ride along with them on their flow of words. Sometimes, if they’ve really caught a tailwind, their words can even surprise or please us enough to get a small physical reaction, a laugh or sigh. The buzz they achieve somehow becomes one they lend to us in that moment.
Athletes call this state being “in the pocket,” and people in other fields sometimes refer to it as being in a flow state. It’s those moments we all work for, when the frustration and inadequacy and being tongue-tied or blocked or otherwise thwarted by fear or circumstance melt away.
I’m reading a book right now by the journalist John Colapinto, which is very well-written, but consciously and meticulously crafted. All of its metaphors are well-chosen, never overextended, and when a big, seldom-seen word is introduced, it has an exquisite flavor, a perfection that feels unobtrusive. His style is showoff-y and calls attention to itself, but his skill as a wordsmith is undeniable. Words—which so often fail their users—become a malleable putty in this man’s hands.
It induces admiration along with a twinge of jealousy to which I’ll readily admit. That so much of Colapinto’s book (and the previous novel I read by him) deals with jealousy only makes it all the more ironic and exquisite. This is a man who knows he has talent and knows also that more talented people exist, and that they experience their own agonies and insecurities, too.
Having larded all that praise on Colapinto and his book, though, I have to admit that this kind of great writing is not my favorite kind. This is writing that exalts itself, and while it doesn’t suffer some kind of humbling defeat as a result, it has its limits, and its downside. This being conscious of the writer behind the work at all times—if only to admire him—keeps the characters and the world on the page at a remove.
It reminds me of an old quote by SF writer Orson Scott Card, which I can only roughly paraphrase after all this time: You can either have people admire your words, or believe your story.
Card further states that poetry is supposed to have its effect on the mind consciously, that it’s okay to actually read a poem and say, “Damn, that’s well-written!” Fiction is more often about achieving its ends through sleight, a dexterous subsuming of one’s urges to make their presence known, to receive attention. The clinging to one’s identity in the midst of creating characters (essentially other people, however fictitious) keeps the story from being fully transporting.
This can work fine, mind you, and is actually preferred, if one is writing about the doings of their alter-ego. Author John Fante’s alter-ego Arturo Bandini and later Bukowski’s alter ego Henry Chinaski gain their reality partly by reflecting their creators’ desire for recognition. The desire to be recognized, to be praised—loved, seen, etc.—is a pretty natural one, and probably no sin in and of itself, assuming one believes in sin. Fante’s wife Joyce said that his greatest fear was to be known as a “‘Hey you,’ guy.”
I don’t want to judge this kind of writing too harshly, partly because I myself am guilty of it, and often. Indeed, that my writing calls attention to itself is perhaps my main authorial flaw.
What about the other kind of writing, though, the kind that, thus far, has been durch Abwesenheit glänzen, as the Germans say, literally “glowing through its absence?” This is the kind of writing that happens when the writer manages to subsume their ego as completely as a human can. These moments usually come when one is not concentrated on ethereal concerns like the Muse or mundane concerns like how the work will be perceived by readers. Such moments don’t just come with a buzz, but an eerie sense that some kind of veil that otherwise remains in place has been pulled back. The Muse isn’t just gracing you with her touch; she’s letting you peek up her toga.
These moments usually come after writing “one word at a time,” as Stephen King so humbly put it in his memoir On Writing.
It’s in such moments that the hands move across the keys like the planchette on a Ouija board seemingly shifting of their own volition on a stormy night. It’s scary, but it’s also sublime.
And it seems to happen, for me at least, most when I “throw myself on the mercy of the court,” so to speak. When I start out writing slowly, pretending I’ve never written a word before. Sometimes I’ll even say the words as I type them, like a child phonetically teaching himself to read, unembarrassed and undaunted. Such moments of going slow allow me to exceed my usual hedonic limit of buzz to be had via composition. Rather than going from perhaps thirty to sixty, I get to go from zero to sixty, and sometimes all the way up to 120 mph.
But it's only because I began in that spirit of humility that I get to feel that high.
Sometimes at least.
“Aesthetic Theology...” How about it?
Maybe it’s total bunk. Or maybe it’s something to which you can add your own observations of how the Bible (or any holy book) impart not just moral lessons, but aesthetic techniques, too.