Pagans without Nature

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Sometimes I think that a people more starved for beauty has never walked the earth. And it is a scandal that our Church does not help. We talk, for example, about “the planet,” but not about woods, hedgerows, small streams, sparrows, badgers, rocks, and moors. The poet Wordsworth could sense, in his memories of the rugged land where he had been a child, a presence

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thoughts,
And rolls through all things.

He was a Christian, we may say, with the mental habits of a gentle pantheist. For all of his early sympathy with the French Revolution, the great world around him never became a political platform or an object of political action. That would have rendered it ugly indeed. “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” says he, adding that if that were all to life, he would rather be “a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn.” Canvassing for votes and raising the voice in wrath are no better.

We are the great defacers of the world; and I am not talking about pollution. I grew up among the ugliness of a landscape pitted with coal mines, and heaped with hills of culm—the refuse of 80 years of shovels and picks and dynamite. But that is at least an honest ugliness, for the fuel has to be taken from the earth. If not, we must commit ourselves to life before the industrial revolution, and then it is farewell to most of the forests that now spread across North America; for subsistence, farms require land. 

We are rich, and we build ugly. Rather than scale back the size of our houses, wherein each member has a separate bathroom for each time of the day, we mar the hilltops and the plains with those featureless giants, the wind turbines. Plenty of people want to “save the planet,” who will not hang their laundry out on the line to dry. Yet there are few things as jaunty as a clothesline in a spring breeze, sporting shirts and shorts and skirts and trousers of all sizes and colors, as various as mankind.

We dress and bear our bodies in ugly ways. Drab, to take a cue from C. S. Lewis, is a favorite color. Garish comes a close second. But these are not connatural with man, nor does poverty demand them. I am looking at pictures (in The Century, May,1893) drawn by the American painter Gilbert Gaul, when he went to Nicaragua in 1892 to see the land and its people. They were not wealthy. He comments, and his drawings bear out what he says:

Pictures are everywhere . . . Here is a young boy selling pineapples; he wears nothing but a breech-cloth. Here comes a girl who is a perfect scheme of color, her bronze face, black hair, yellow-white chemise, red rebozo full of quality, and her brown skirt and sandals covered with dust. You watch her until she turns the corner, and you have half a mind to follow her for one more glance; but look in another direction, and behold! something equally fine is before you. Maybe it is a young senor, with a mane of black hair about his forehead and sticking out from under his hat-brim, his mustache twisted into saucy curls, a gay sash about his waist, a short sword at his side, and his game-cock under his arm. . .

In the same volume (The Century, July, 1893), I find engravings of noble Indian chiefs, wrought by the sculptor Olin Warner to honor their courage and wisdom. Most prominent is that of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, whose carefully braided locks lie gently across a neck as powerful in age as in youth; this most brilliant of native tacticians, who had sworn he would “fight no more forever,” looks calmly, soberly, and benignantly before him. It is the face of a wise and valiant man, who has been defeated and treated poorly by lesser men than he. It is not ugly, not self-advertising, not narcissistic. To go from there to bodies and faces festooned with slogans, studded with metal in awkward places, and with hair dipped in colors that nature never saw, is a sad thing—a disappointment, as if you had come from the woods into a clearing strewn with glow-in-the-dark trash.

We Catholics still more or less hold to the moral law, but we do not see its beauty. Anyone with a fine sense of what a young man is would be staggered with disgust at the suggestion that he mutilate himself, in the grip of a delusion; the sheer sad ugliness of it would strike us before we could mount a moral argument. It would be as if someone were to gouge a cavernous hole in the ground where a grove had been, for no other reason than that it pleased him to do so. 

Anyone with a fine sense of what a marriage is would be disheartened to see a man and a woman merely playing house, too wary to choose a life of love; it would be as if the skies were all gray and never blue.

It is not enough to see that something is morally right, and something else is morally wrong. Our colleges may be divided into departments, but man is not. The man who must stand his ground on the field of battle, must also see the terrible beauty of its nobility; else we should expect him to duck and run. We must develop the sense of beauty in what is right, and hideousness in what is wrong, for even when wrong pranks itself up in the garb of light, it cannot quite keep the hideous away—the bizarre, the crooked, the sick. Many a bishop gives nominal assent to the Church’s teachings regarding sex and marriage, but unless he sees them as beautiful—and they are, deeply and gloriously so—we should expect him to duck and run, too; we should expect him to see nothing ugly, to feel no terrible disappointment when they are violated.

But where in the Church today is any sense of beauty fostered? What Wordsworth found in the hillsides and cliffs of Cumberland, might be found by any peasant Catholic in his village church—I mean the intimation of the power of God, moving man to give thanks and praise in works of quiet, solid, enduring beauty. It should not be controversial to say that trash is bad. I am not speaking of things that are not masterpieces. A folk song may not be a masterpiece, but it is good and solid, like a table made by an artisan who knows his trade. Nobody wants a chair that collapses when he sits on it. But the songs we sing, the accoutrements of the church walls, the way the lectors present themselves at Mass, the non-definition of a contemporary sanctuary—all are like the broken sticks of a bad chair; and as long as we keep them around, we say, implicitly, that we do not care all that much about what we are doing. But even if we do care, it does not matter. You do not draw people’s souls with trash, even when they themselves do not know anything else.

In that sense, one might rather be a pseudo-pagan with a lively sense of human beauty, than a pseudo-Christian with none. Wordsworth, thou shouldst be alive at this day, to teach us better.

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]

By

Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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