Beauty and Desecration

"Beauty and Desecration"

Roger Scruton has an important piece City Journal by that title. Readers of the Hall will be familiar with the thrust, as we have often discussed the topic, but Dr. Scruton's approach is worthy of reading on its own.

At any time between 1750 and 1930, if you had asked an educated person to describe the goal of poetry, art, or music, “beauty” would have been the answer. And if you had asked what the point of that was, you would have learned that beauty is a value, as important in its way as truth and goodness, and indeed hardly distinguishable from them.
As Scruton points out, the Modern period replaced beauty with originality. We've discussed the subsequent crash in the quality of art, as students of the arts ceased to care about method so much as the 'statement' they wished to make. Picasso was a master of method who chose to play with new things; those who followed him decided they didn't need to master the methods at all.

As the Japanese swordsmen say, though, one who is a master shows it in all things. It was the discipline that shaped a man with interesting things to say.

Dr. Scruton continues:
An example that particularly struck me was a 2004 production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Komische Oper Berlin (see “The Abduction of Opera,” Summer 2007). Die Entführung tells the story of Konstanze—shipwrecked, separated from her fiancé Belmonte, and taken to serve in the harem of the Pasha Selim. After various intrigues, Belmonte rescues her, helped by the clemency of the Pasha—who, respecting Konstanze’s chastity and the couple’s faithful love, declines to take her by force. This implausible plot permits Mozart to express his Enlightenment conviction that charity is a universal virtue, as real in the Muslim empire of the Turks as in the Christian empire of the enlightened Joseph II. Even if Mozart’s innocent vision is without much historical basis, his belief in the reality of disinterested love is everywhere expressed and endorsed by the music. Die Entführung advances a moral idea, and its melodies share the beauty of that idea and persuasively present it to the listener.

In his production of Die Entführung, the Catalan stage director Calixto Bieito set the opera in a Berlin brothel, with Selim as pimp and Konstanze one of the prostitutes. Even during the most tender music, copulating couples littered the stage, and every opportunity for violence, with or without a sexual climax, was taken. At one point, a prostitute is gratuitously tortured, and her nipples bloodily and realistically severed before she is killed. The words and the music speak of love and compassion, but their message is drowned out by the scenes of desecration, murder, and narcissistic sex.

That is an example of something familiar in every aspect of our contemporary culture. It is not merely that artists, directors, musicians, and others connected with the arts are in flight from beauty. Wherever beauty lies in wait for us, there arises a desire to preempt its appeal, to smother it with scenes of destruction.
One of the things I have written about most often is how a vision of beauty defines the life of the best of men, who give themselves to their vision though it leads them where it will. Do you remember this speech?
Many Iraqis can hear me tonight in a translated radio broadcast, and I have a message for them: If we must begin a military campaign, it will be directed against the lawless men who rule your country and not against you.

As our coalition takes away their power, we will deliver the food and medicine you need. We will tear down the apparatus of terror and we will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free.

In free Iraq there will be no more wars of aggression against your neighbors, no more poison factories, no more executions of dissidents, no more torture chambers and rape rooms.

The tyrant will soon be gone. The day of your liberation is near.
I once argued that those rape rooms were at the essence of why Iraq was a Just War. It held that a nation that might free such a people had "the right, at least, to try." The right, at least: perhaps the duty.

I still think so. Did you see this interview? Shall I say, to answer conspirators, "Perhaps it is only Israeli propaganda?" Even so, read it.
In the Islamic Republic it is illegal to execute a young woman, regardless of her crime, if she is a virgin, he explained. Therefore a "wedding" ceremony is conducted the night before the execution: The young girl is forced to have sexual intercourse with a prison guard - essentially raped by her "husband."

"I regret that, even though the marriages were legal," he said.

Why the regret, if the marriages were "legal?"

"Because," he went on, "I could tell that the girls were more afraid of their 'wedding' night than of the execution that awaited them in the morning. And they would always fight back, so we would have to put sleeping pills in their food. By morning the girls would have an empty expression; it seemed like they were ready or wanted to die.
Well, propaganda it may be: but surely it merits investigaton. If it is false, a stain on Israel to forward such lies for their interests.

And if it proves true? These are girls who fear what they perceive as dishonor more than they fear death; and welcome death to end what they have been taught to see as dishonor. That is the finest human spirit, and it calls out to us.

I would bear my part in the cause of their liberation, as I did in Iraq. My beloved, I know, is glad to have me home after so long abroad: but surely she would excuse me one last time, though with pain, in the defense of women of such spirit and such sorrow.

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