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  • By John H. B. Martin

Grace and Flavour: A Response to C.S. Lewis's "Christianity & Culture"

In a previous essay (De Gustibus (Et Pulchritudinis) I argued that Beauty is absolute and not relative, and is therefore not merely a matter of taste. Of course this doesn't mean that taste is unimportant, and in this essay I want to argue for the central, if not crucial, place of taste in the hierarchy of human values. After all such a hierarchy can only really be established in the first place on the basis of taste. In that same essay I suggested that taste could, and should, be trained. And here I want to show that one of the best ways of training taste is through prolonged exposure to the best art. And that in educating our tastes we are not just turning ourselves into aesthetes, but more importantly into Seers, and Prophets, and even Saints.

The Relationship of Taste to Judgement

Of course, taste is also related to discrimination and judgement. Indeed it is difficult to distinguish between them. And perhaps they are best explained as refinements of each other. At the grossest level we exercise judgement. And this is something we do all the time. Even the simplest actions depend on our making the necessary judgements. Judgement is something we cannot avoid. Then, at a more refined level, discrimination begins to take over. And, at the most refined level, taste. And we do all this by attempting to justify our judgements. Above all we long to make our judgements just. Because injustice leaves us out of balance with ourselves. As well as with the rest of the universe. And the most refined taste will teach you that there is no finer sensation than that of justice having been done, and even the crudest tastes have a preference for "fair play."

The best way to do this is to undertake the close examination of difficult cases. For instance it is only too easy to see that Rembrandt is a better artist than Caravaggio. And fairly easy to explain why. But which of Picasso, Matisse and Klee is the better artist is a very different matter. Here we are forced to admit that one painter is better in one way and another in another. One painter may excel as a draftsman, another as a colourist. We then have to examine whether draftsmanship or colourism is more important in good art. And even there we are being rather crude. For of course it may very well be the interrelationship between colour and drawing that is important. And then, beyond that: are the subdued greys of a Corot superior to the dazzling primaries and secondaries of a Bonnard? And what role does chiaroscuro play in this, if any?

It is by exercising ourselves over questions like these that we begin to refine our tastes. Without necessarily solving the problems. Because actually that isn't the important thing. Solving problems isn't what we get out of art. That's the province of the sciences. The point of art is to confront us with our limitations, not to surmount them. The point of art is to teach us humility, not to teach us conceit. It is through the careful examination of taste—or flavour—that we achieve grace.

Lewis seemed to think that good taste wasn't essential for salvation, whereas I think it is. I suspect there's a special Hell reserved for the vulgar. This is because the truer a concept is the more subtle and nuanced it will be. And so, in order to perceive the truth, one needs exquisitely refined perceptions. And the more refined one's perceptions the closer to the truth one will arrive. That is why we call such people Seers. And the people who give voice to such perceptions Prophets. And poetry at its best does precisely this.

I mean are you really trying to tell me that Christianity has nothing to do with the sensitive handling of other people? And perhaps even oneself? And where else are we going to learn that except from the arts? And more specifically from the novel and the poem? The finest levels of judgement are surely central to the fully accomplished moral life. And as we have already seen the finest levels of judgement are indistinguishable from artistic taste. I suspect that each of us has a sad tale to tell of the insensitive handling of ourselves by other people, perhaps especially when we were young. And as a pupil at school I usually found the English teachers the most sensitive and kindest. And at the very least their being nominally Christian gave me some sort of point d'appui in protesting against the less kind and the less sensitive, and even sometimes against their less kind and less sensitive disciplines.

The Dangers of Elitism and Snobbery

Of course, the big danger here is elitism and snobbery; and I suspect that Lewis was very much at pains to avoid that particular charge. But, you see, elitism and snobbery are to refinement what virtue-signalling is to virtue. Just as a truely virtuous person never ostentatiously shows off about their virtue, but even tends to lament how far from the mark they actually fall, so the truely refined person never makes a song and dance about their refinement, but tends to lament how uncultivated they actually are. A person of truly refined perceptions would be as sensitive to the enormity of the one piece of ostentation as they would to the enormity of the other. Only very crude and vulgar natures show off. Or seek to assert any form of superiority over others. The genuine article doesn't need to: their genuine superiority is revealed with every word they articulate, and with every deed they perform. All they are aware of is how far short they fall of the ideal. They bemoan their lack of erudition, their blindness, their lack of insight, their crudeness of perception, not because they want to show off, but because they pursue the difficult ideal of the fully educated and cultivated human being. Of the gentle man and the scholar. Of the completely refined sensibility.

These days the pendulum is swinging very much in the opposite direction. And the big danger lies in "slumming" and in "nostalgie de la boue" rather than in exquisite over-refinement. So we have designer-labeled ripped jeans, and ostentatious tattoos, and the most hideous-looking makeup, and all the rest of that fashionable ghastly nonsense. But walking a narrow tightrope has always been difficult. "Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that findeth it," it says in Scripture somewhere. And Dante placed the Needle's Eye near the beginning of Purgatory.

The Nature of Spiritual Growth

One of the problems is that Lewis has taken his cue from the atheist, IA Richards, who talked about "sensitivity" rather than "refinement." This, I suspect, is a major mistake, since refinement is obviously an ongoing process whereas sensitivity is not. "Refinement" is a noun that implies a verb, whereas "sensitivity" is just a noun. Of course, refinement will include sensitization; and increased refinement will naturally increase sensitivity. But sensitivity is an effect, it is not a cause. "Refinement" is also closely related to "cultivation" and "culture." Two words closely related to growth, and implicating growth.

And what exactly is it that one is growing here? Might I tentatively suggest, one's soul? Keats opined that instead of being "a vale of tears" this world was in fact a "vale of soul-making." And I think he was right. It's not that one starts off soulless. But perhaps that one has more spirit than soul. As one grows one becomes less spirited and more soulful. The big transition here takes place in adolescence. And with romantic love. And the discovery of one's vocation. As a young lad, the image of the as yet "unravished bride" of responsible manhood calls one to one's métier. And one's métier is that by which one reaches out to her. "The eternal feminine leads us on" said Goethe. While, according to Dante, it is Beatrice in particular who shows us the ropes. Either way, the muse instils in us her beautiful discipline. And so slowly the soul is born, and then begins to grow. Until finally it is so full and so rounded out that it drops from the tree.

And how do we grow our souls except through the gradual union of heart and head? This cannot be done through some purely intellectual discipline, nor through some purely mindless form of emotional self-expression. It has to be done in accordance with some tradition of artistic excellence. We have to refine our perceptions sufficiently, thereby, so as to fully realise the extent of the different provinces of heart and mind. And to recognise that there is some sort of separation between them. And that such a separation is undesirable. Only at the ultimate limit of spiritual growth do heart and head become one. One thinks with one's heart. One feels with one's head. A mathematics of tears supervenes. As well as a metaphysics of laughter.

The image of the beloved in adolescence is what fills us with a sense of beauty. And hence of truth and goodness. The beloved represents the embodiment of our highest ideals. And are you really trying to tell me that taste and judgement and discrimination play no part here? Surely they play a central part. Even the crudest and most vulgar natures talk of "fancying a bird." And fancy too can be educated. "Tell me where is fancy bred, or in the heart or in the head?" asked Shakespeare. We see it has to be both. And the more united they are, and the more refined, then the more educated our fancy will be. The more likely we are to arrive at a correct appraisal.

The Common Touch

There was a pope once who liked to sit out in the Vatican Gardens. But when he did so he always insisted that the gardeners and other staff be removed so he could be completely on his own. I can understand the desire to be on one's own in the midst of nature. This is perhaps the height of the refined life. But I'm afraid the insistence of getting rid of the gardeners smacks rather of elitism and snobbery. Which surely have no place in the Christian life. I suspect that such fastidiousness does not necessarily make one popular. Better by far perhaps to have ensured that the gardeners were not there in the first place. By choosing a mutually convenient time. Or else meet with them at some other time and explain the situation, and crave their extreme unpapal indulgence so that he not risk coming across as arrogant and even tyrannical. Or else to simply put up with them. Would he have been so fussy if Moses and Elijah had approached? Or if it had turned out he had been entertaining angels unawares? Or if God had spoken from one of the bushes? Or a succession of disasters had occurred culminating in "a still small voice?"

If they had been simple fishermen would he have been quite so fussy?

Elitism and vulgarity are not the only two alternatives. And, for that reason, are not mutually exclusive. The common touch transcends this dichotomy, rendering it false. Nor is this something that Christians in particular should be unaware of. For Christ himself seems to have had the common touch. And been able to talk to both the refined and the vulgar on an equal footing, and exert an elevating influence on both. Lewis too tried to affect the common touch. But he was never really successful at this. To me at least it comes across as forced. And dated. And perhaps even patronizing. Eliot tried it with lamentable lack of success in the Four Quartets. Yeats, Ruskin and Lawrence seem to have always had it. As I'm sure Rilke did too.

The common touch then is the strait gate. It is the needle's eye. It is what happens when both heart and head completely unite, and become one. When refinement becomes so refined one finally sees everything exactly as it is. (Even vulgarity.)

John H.B. Martin is a poet who lives in London, England. He is a graduate of London University and Australia National University and has been writing for many decades. He has written four novels and is working on a fifth. His magnum opus is a six-volume epic poem. Most of his work is yet to be published.

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