Monday, September 29, 2008

Wilde’s Wisdom and Beauty’s Cause

The wittiest (and sometimes wisest) writers I know are Charles Haddon Spurgeon, William Shakespeare, Voltaire, Mark Twain, and Oscar Wilde. Spurgeon’s wit is ever kissed with the tender and kindly graces of heaven, and evokes both gentle and uproarious humor. Shakespeare’s wit is so sharp and swift that the dull and tardy mind will miss it, and Voltaire's so outrageously cruel that even a righteous man must laugh. Twain is just plain funny. Like Shakespeare and Voltaire, Wilde often uses his wit to make us laugh at, and about, things we shouldn't. One of my favorites is Oscar’s quip,

"It is better to be beautiful than to be good, but it is better to be good than to be ugly."

However, even Wilde occasionally crafts a witticism wise and holy, as in this lovely and profound turn of the tongue,

"You do not love a woman because she is beautiful, but she is beautiful because you love her."

The first clause of Wilde’s witticism, a negative disclaimer, denies a superficial definition of love based upon physical attraction:
"You do not love a woman because she is beautiful."
Wilde conveys that physical beauty cannot be a legitimate catalyst for true love.

Of course, at a philosophical level, one could more than quibble with Wilde’s premise. If beauty is an absolute entity, ultimately spiritual and not necesarily physical, then Beauty inheres and emanates from The Divine and is therefore one with essential Goodness. Thus defined, then Beauty, inherently possessed of Goodness, could indeed move the soul to Love. But such philosophical quibbling would destroy the elegant simplicity of Wilde’s beautiful proverb. What the poet aims to communicate is a simple truth unsullied by philosophical complexity–merely physical beauty, and thus physical attraction, cannot be a true motive for love.

Physical beauty is temporal, "the grass withers" and
The flower that smiles today
Tomorrow dies;
All that we wish to stay
Tempts and then flies.
True Love, not temporal beauty, remains changeless, fixed, and immutable.

But the ultimate potency of Wilde’s proverb derives from the aphoristic juxtaposition of his second clause:
"she is beautiful because you love her."
Here Wilde steals holy fire. Beauty may excite the mind and stimulate the flesh, but love beatifies its object–"she is beautiful because you love her." This is the essence of grace, and the beatific force of Love–it metamorphoses its object, transfiguring the beloved into the beautiful.

Dante would have us remember that Love beautifully metamorphoses both the beloved and the lover himself. Dante’s love for Beatrice indeed transfigured her in his eyes, but equally transfigured him. Like the moon embraces and then throws back to the sun its light, Dante’s love for Beatrice ricocheted back to his very own soul, and thus he describes her as

"she who doth imparadise my soul."

Wordsworth referred to such a transfigurational experience when he wrote,

There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, . . .
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.

Indeed, the man who knows that his wife is "beautiful because he loves her" is a man whose soul has experienced the "renovating virtue" of transfiguring love. As if borne by angels’ wings, the beauty of love transmigrates from his beloved back into his own soul, there feeding "a most vehement flame" that neither the floods of circumstances nor the deep waters of sorrow can extinguish. Moreover, as his Love is constant, so also is her Beauty.


The Militant Pacifist said...

If one accepts scripture as axiomatic (i.e., an authoritative revelation from the Almighty that is binding upon men), then Proverbs 18:22 should come into play here.

Proverbs 18:22 states, “Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour of the LORD.”

There is a reflexive relationship between the “wife” of Proverbs 18:22 and the “good thing” of Proverbs 18:22. They are one and the same. The wife is the good thing.

Since a consistent Christian ethic must equate the beautiful and the good, one might paraphrase Proverbs 18:22 to read, “Whoso findeth a wife findeth a beautiful thing, and obtaineth favour of the LORD.”

Such a reading would suggest that the Christian man who does not perceive his wife as beautiful may be occularly challenged and should immediately seek the care of the Great Physician.

The Church of Mercy said...

Funny you should mention Wilde. I was recently working on a newsletter and spent some considerable time deciding about commas and other punctuation.

After a bit of time passed and being no closer to the answer, I asked my wife, Jennifer, to give me a hand as she is an English teacher and a good writer. After she looked over my paper, she decided to look it up in her little green "Harbrace College Handbook." After a few minutes more, we decided to look on the internet for further clarification upon which time we came across this quote from Wilde:

"I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out."

Admittedly, I am not familiar with Wilde's writing but after I read his feelings about commas, I felt a bit better. Maybe I'm not such a caveman after all. Maybe the English language is just a bit tricky sometimes. Even for great writers such as Wilde.