Girl in a Country Song

September 7, 2014

Miranda Lambert

Miranda Lambert

I realize that this post will be of limited interest — or no interest — to most of my theological readership. But, hey, it’s time for y’all to expand your horizons.

This has been an interesting year in mainstream country music. There has been a civil war within the genre for the better part of a decade now, beginning roughly in the mid-00’s. It would be too simplistic to say that it’s “traditionalists” versus “modernists,” or something like that. In fact, country has shown a remarkable ability to adapt and appropriate genuine creativity through its storied history, from Hank to Merle to Dolly to Dwight to Garth. There has always been those who have picked one particular iteration of the genre and excluded all others as something less than the read deal. The miracle that was Hank Sr., whose consolidation of the genre pioneered by Jimmie Rodgers and Roy Acuff was indeed stunning, is a good example of someone who has defined country music for many people. But most country fans have a deep appreciation for the broader contours through which this genre has molded itself through the years, self-consciously as a representative form of American folk art, at least in the South. Yet the past is inevitably a point of reference. Collin Raye, well-known on 90’s country radio, ably expresses the frustration of many:

I’m passionate about it because I love our genre. I got into country music not to make a buck. I did it because I love it … I grew up at a time when Merle Haggard was writing stuff like “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” and “Sing Me Back Home”. Kristofferson was writing “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Me & Bobby McGee” and stuff like that. It was poetry. Country music has never been about the chord progression or the complexity of the music. It’s always been about lyrics and stories, and real life slices of life. And the one common thread has always been poetry.

You can click on the links to the Haggard tunes and understand what he’s talking about. Yet Collin Raye’s own style of country was itself quite different from the heroes he mentions. The intensity of the current civil war within country music is among those who accept and encourage the forward movement of the genre, not lazily repeating the past. This introduces a great deal of complexity when it comes to identifying the worrisome features of the music on country radio.

The most insightful critiques have focused on the obvious gender disparity on country radio. Rolling Stone, for example, has identified the problem but with some hopeful signs for the future. The problem has been and continues to be, as it is labeled, “bro country” or “party country.” Jody Rosen coined, “bro country,” last year, and it is now used widely. We can quote Collin Raye again, as he humorously describes the trend:

There appears to be not even the slightest attempt to “say” anything other than to repeat the tired, overused mantra of redneck party boy in his truck, partying in said truck, hoping to get lucky in the cab of said truck, and his greatest possible achievement in life is to continue to be physically and emotionally attached to the aforementioned truck as all things in life should and must take place in his, you guessed it…truck.

I didn’t mind the first two or three hundred versions of these gems but I think we can all agree by now that everything’s been said about a redneck and his truck, that can possibly be said. It is time to move on to the next subject. Any subject, anything at all.

Willie Nelson once wrote in his early song, “Shotgun Willie,” that “you can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say.” Apparently, that’s not the case anymore.

Disposable, forgettable music has been the order of the day for quite a while now and it’s time for that to stop.

Looking at the past year, the dominance of bro country is still going strong, though a push-back is emerging. It is painful for me to offer examples of bro country, but here is one of the hit songs on country radio this year: “Ready Set Roll” by Chase Rice. Sorry, you may never recover. The latest single from Jason Aldean is arguably worse, which I didn’t think was possible. To be fair, these two songs are the most egregious examples that I could recall and are not representative of the whole. But it would have been impossible to imagine these songs on country radio even five years ago. Impossible. Hence, the civil war today. If you read the comments on the videos or follow country blogs or listen to callers on country radio, there is a significant amount of listeners who have had enough. And country radio is caught in a bind, losing longtime listeners in droves, while gaining unstable and fickle listeners in the short term — the sort that Nashville loves, for now.


The problem is that women are eating this stuff up. [But see the next paragraph.] Everyone knows it. Not a secret. Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan have built massive followings on vapid songs, with a fan base almost entirely of women. That’s an exaggeration, but the dedicated base is clear. They buy most of the concert tickets, the albums, the t-shirts, and the smart guys looking for girls will follow accordingly. That sounds sexist, I know. I have little doubt that men are capable, or more capable, of consuming fantasies and catering their libido with the greatest resolve. But we’re talking about this specific market place. The fantasy world of bro country is heavily fueled by female consumers. Yes, these are men’s fantasies — the “girl in a country song” satirized by Maddie & Tae, which has been getting airplay finally — for which men are responsible. But the consumer is very much the woman who wants to be the girl in a country song. Nashville knows it. They’re not stupid.

Yet, women may save country music. Everyone knows this too. That’s the paradox. When you look at the artists today, women dominate by every credible criteria of genuine artistry. Miranda Lambert is the most famous, and God bless her for being a standout artist in this dark malaise. We could add Brandy Clark, Ashley Monroe, Kacey Musgraves, Holly Williams, and Maggie Rose, among others. But with the notable exception of Miranda, country radio is currently dominated by male voices, unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the history of country music. Miranda has expressed dismay at the situation, rightly asking where is today’s Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, or Pam Tillis? For every ten songs, you are lucky if one is female. Yet, the artistry and intelligence is clearly on the female side, as multiple music critics and average fans have recognized for some time now.

The latest nominations for the 2014 CMA’s is a significant nod in the direction of the female performers, as Kevin John Coyne noticed. Miranda leads the nominations. Jason Aldean is snubbed. And George Strait is nominated for entertainer of the year. There is harmony in the universe once again! As a result, the nominations reveal some curious incongruities with country radio. Martina McBride is nominated for female vocalist of the year. Country radio ignored her most recent album, yet the album debuted at number one. Brandy Clark was nominated for new artist of the year. Country radio ignored her album, yet music critics and country fans alike have lauded it as one of the most refreshing albums in years. It is nice when nominations actually buck the radio trend to some extent. There are disappointing nominations to be sure, like Thomas Rhett among the new artists. Rhett is a poster boy for bro country. Look at the comments for his hit song, “Get Me Some of That,” and you can test my thesis about women eating this up.

My hope is that the women can indeed save country music — not the female fans who swoon at every insipid “hey pretty girl,” but the female artists who are keeping the genre alive. There are plenty of women among the fans who agree, but they are currently outnumbered by (apparently) former fans of Backstreet Boys. That is sad.

Back from California!

July 9, 2014

So, I have been away for the past week on a family vacation to Northern California — my brother, myself, and the parents. It was the first time I have ever been to the west coast. We started with Yosemite National Park, then the wine country (Sonoma Valley), and then San Francisco. The temperature change was ridiculous! The weather was in the 100’s in Yosemite, then the 80’s in Sonoma, and then 50’s/low-60’s in San Francisco! The wind chill was in the forties! It’s July! My brother quoted Mark Twain, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” As beautiful as San Francisco is, I am far too acclimated to weather in Dixie to ever live in SF, unless I could acquire one of the endless number of gorgeous houses that line every street. There is a reason why SF is the most expensive city in America.

In San Francisco, we went through Haight-Ashbury. I was a bit disappointed. I wore my General Lee t-shirt (Dukes of Hazzard), and I didn’t receive even a mild rebuke! Seriously, I expect more gusto from the liberals on Haight Street. Oh well. They did have a huge rainbow flag waving.

Here are some of my pictures (click to enlarge):

Yosemite. Huge rocks are everywhere!

Yosemite, near lower falls. Huge rocks are everywhere!

Trees growing out of rocks!

Olmsted Point in Yosemite. Trees growing out of rocks!

Tunnel View in Yosemite. Half Dome is the farthest. El Capitan is on the left -- the largest rock face in the world.

Tunnel View in Yosemite. Half Dome is the farthest. El Capitan is on the left — the largest rock face in the world.

Glacier Point. Half Dome is on the right.

Glacier Point. Half Dome is on the right.

My brother next to a Giant Sequoia tree-- the largest living organism in the world!

My brother next to a Giant Sequoia tree– the largest living organism in the world!

Yosemite Chapel. Erected in 1879 by the California State Sunday School Association. It is still operating as a nondenom evangelical church, with tracts quoting John 3:16 and asking, "What will you do with Jesus? Neutral you cannot be."

Yosemite Chapel. Erected in 1879 by the California State Sunday School Association. It is still operating as a nondenom evangelical church, with tracts quoting John 3:16 and asking, “What will you do with Jesus? Neutral you cannot be.”

Franciscan Mission in Sonoma. Founded in 1823 -- the northernmost Franciscan mission.

Franciscan Mission in Sonoma. Founded in 1823 — the northernmost Franciscan mission.

Random street in San Francisco. Nearly every house is like this!

Random street in San Francisco. Nearly every house is like this!

Golden Gate Bridge. The fog never lifted.

Golden Gate Bridge. The fog never lifted.

Another random street.

Another random street.

Old Saint Mary's Church in Chinatown. The only structure to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire.

Old Saint Mary’s Church in Chinatown. The only structure to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire.

Outside of a coffee shop. St. Ignatius Catholic Church is in the background.

Outside of a coffee shop. St. Ignatius Catholic Church is in the background.

The Gaslight Anthem

May 29, 2014

I love The Gaslight Anthem. The cultural savants would never sink to their level, least of all graduate students in the pursuit of critical acumen.

The Gaslight Anthem is utterly without pretension. They embrace melody like it was invented yesterday. This is, in fact, hard work. As I like to say, the eternal is far more difficult to communicate than the pedantic and peculiar.

As much as I enjoy this song, their best song and video is “Handwritten.”

Their pop-punk roots are perfectly expressed in “Bring It On.” Any song that begins with, “My queen of the Bronx…,” has got to be good.

In a recent two-part video series, Fr. Robert Barron introduces the life and theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), the most creative, ambitious, and wide-ranging Catholic theologian in the modern period. Balthasar was beloved by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, but he is a controversial figure among many Catholic theologians (see Karen Kilby). Fr. Barron does a splendid job introducing Balthasar and commending his works:

In the second part, Fr. Barron focuses more on the particulars of Balthasar’s theology:

For the uninitiated, let me reiterate Fr. Barron’s reference to Balthasar’s “trilogy.” This is the informal name given to Balthasar’s dogmatics, structured around the three “transcendentals” (usually associated with Platonism) of truth, goodness, and beauty. These “properties of being” are convertible, one into the other, such that wherever truth is found, so is goodness and beauty. Wherever goodness is found, so is truth and beauty. Wherever beauty is found, so is goodness and truth. The ordering given by Kant in his threefold Critique is truth (reason), goodness (ethics), and beauty (aesthetic judgment). Balthasar reverses the ordering to beauty, goodness, and truth:

The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics in 7 volumes

Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory in 5 volumes

Theo-Logic in 3 volumes, plus an Epilogue

As you can see, not only did Balthasar reverse Kant’s ordering, but he also gives greater volume to the first transcendental of beauty, then goodness, and then reason. There are some very good surveys of Balthasar’s theology, including Stephen Wigley’s Balthasar’s Trilogy (T&T Clark, 2010) and Rodney Howsar’s Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark, 2009).

Holly Williams 4

Let me use Holly Williams as a way to explain how I think about art.

Holly Williams is easily my favorite singer-songwriter to emerge in the last ten years. Her debut album was released in 2004, an album which held enormous promise, but it lacked a certain vividness that compels the listener to not only enter into her world but to re-enter one’s own world. This combination is basically my definition of a good singer-songwriter. Holly’s early promise was realized in her 2009 follow-up, Here With Me, with songs like “Mama” and “Without Jesus Here With Me.” At this point, introspection is in the service of life — something greater than us and something beautiful — not life in the service of introspection.

Holly’s joy is not cheap, much less contrived for the sake of eliciting a transitory emotional attachment. There is emotion to be sure, lots of it, but its origin — its wellspring or fountain, to be more poetic — is beyond oneself. It is in one’s family, a favorite theme for Holly, or the love of a spouse or in the bitter sorrows of a friend suffering from alcohol addiction. When the song’s theme is grief, it is never morose, never indulgent. In other words, Holly teaches us how to live. That is what a great artist does. That is what art does. Even though only a few of her songs will explicitly reference her Christian faith, grace is everywhere. This allows her to trust life.

The “promise” of which I have spoken about Holly Williams was fully realized in her 2013 release, The Highway. The accolades for this album have been appropriately enthusiastic, though mainstream country radio has predictably ignored it, with a few exceptions. Those of us who care about the dignifying importance of music, and art in general, should not ignore it. The lead track for the album, “Drinkin’,” was released as a music video, and most recently she did a video for the title track, “The Highway”:

This is a simple and lighthearted song, which is perfectly balanced while set beside the more “serious” songs like “Waiting on June,” the best song on the album.

On reading Balthasar

April 24, 2014


I have begun to re-read the first volume of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Herrlichkeit, translated into English as The Glory of the Lord. Herrlichkeit means “glory” or “splendor.” It is the quality of “form” that radiates from being or existence. Balthasar chooses to begin his theological trilogy with this aesthetic quality (7 volumes), proceeded by goodness (5 volumes) and truth (3 volumes) — thereby reversing Kant’s ordering of his Critique series. I am excited to revisit Balthasar, who was a significant influence in my life during the mid-00’s when I first began to read theology, not counting my coursework in Religion/Philosophy as an undergraduate — a program with scarcely any theology at all. At that time, I was just beginning to read Barth on my own, beginning with Romans (which I rather disliked, exciting thought it was) and then Church Dogmatics I.1 (which “saved” Barth in my estimation, from his obvious beholdenness to existential obsessions with finitude). In the years since, I have read the majority of Barth’s CD, hopefully acquiring a pretty good facility with the material. I am certainly the most comfortable with expounding Barth than any other theologian.

Balthasar’s prose is magnificent but often a struggle, much more so than Barth. Newcomers will likely be astonished by me saying this, but I find that Barth is one of the clearest writers in the field. His mastery over prose is unparalleled, even if excessively prolix at times. I always get the sense that Barth says exactly what he wants to say, exactly how he wants to say it — with the greatest of ease. By contrast, I often get the sense that Balthasar is having a monologue with himself! He has so immersed himself within the whole breadth of Western metaphysics, alongside his mystical temperament, that he sometimes forgets he’s writing for an audience. But if you work your way through, the payoff is immeasurable. The awe with which Balthasar envisions reality will slowly but powerfully find its way into your own imagination.

It just so happens that I recently read Bultmann’s small volume, Jesus Christ and Mythology, marking the second work from Bultmann that I’ve read (the other being his NT theology). God willing, I will never read Bultmann again. I thoroughly dislike the man. I am afraid that if I were to express my thoughts, I would far exceed the boundaries of Christian charity. The contrast with Balthasar is like night and day — a rather apt image. At Bultmann’s best, he can attain a certain sublimity, but even that is rare. Beauty is wholly foreign to his theology. If that is the price of faithful authenticity, then I’ll pass.

In order to get a taste of Balthasar, here is one of my favorite passages toward the beginning of the volume:

Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendour around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray soon will no longer be able to love. The nineteenth century still held on with passionate frenzy to the fleeing garments of beauty, which are the contours of the ancient world as it dissolves: ‘Helena embraces Faust, her body vanishes, and only her robe and veil remain in his arms….Helena’s garments dissolve into clouds, enveloping Faust. He is raised on high and floats away with the cloud’ (Faust, II, Act 3). The world, formerly penetrated by God’s light, now becomes but an appearance and a dream — the Roman vision — and soon thereafter nothing but music. But where the cloud disperses, naked matter remains as an indigestible symbol of fear and anguish. Since nothing else remains, and yet something must be embraced, twentieth-century man is urged to enter this impossible marriage with matter, a union which finally spoils all man’s taste for love. But man cannot bear to live with the object of his impotence, that which remains permanently unmastered. He must either deny it or conceal it in the silence of death.

In a world without beauty — even if people cannot dispense with the word and constantly have it on the tip of their tongues in order to abuse it — in a world which is perhaps not wholly without beauty, but which can no longer see it or reckon with it: in such a world the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out.

[The Glory of the Lord: Seeing the Form, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, T&T Clark / Ignatius Press: 1982, pp. 18-19]

Wow! You could spend an hour discussing the richness, the penetration, the magnificence of these sentences.

The Beatles are not merely awful; I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are god awful. They are so unbelievably horribly, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music, even as the imposter popes went down in history as “anti-popes.”

William F. Buckley, Jr, Boston Globe, Sep 13, 1964

Ah, you gotta love Buckley. Okay, admittedly this was the early Beatles, not the critically acclaimed later material (1967-69), of which I am not fond either. Buckley was not alone in his criticisms of this British invasion, some of which were hilarious:

Visually they are a nightmare, tight, dandified Edwardian-Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. Musically they are a near disaster, guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony and melody. Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of “yeah, yeah, yeah”) are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments….

Newsweek, Feb 24, 1964

The Liverpool lunacy is merely the 1964 version of a mild disease which periodically sweeps across the country as the plagues of the Middle Ages once did. In its current manifestation it is characterized by an excessive hair growth, an inability to recognize melody, a highly emotional state with severe body twitches and a strange accent that is more American Southwest than Mersey dockside…. So now it’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “yeah, yeah, yeah.” The disease is at the height of its virulence, but the fever will subside and the victims may receive immunity for life from fads.

Boston Globe, Feb 16, 1964

You can read more at the Los Angeles Times, which complied the quotes for an op-ed a couple months ago. The real British invasion should have happened five years later:

Led Zeppelin (1969)


A couple years ago, I offered some meager reflections on the debates surrounding Mumford & Sons. I sided with the negative critics. I still do, even more now than then. I revisited Jordan Bloom’s article. Their “sincerity” is really what drives me crazy — the need to really “feel” a thought before you express it. This is a plague in our day, and it is why our “art” sucks. You have artists interrogating their emotional landscape, projecting it onto the world, and calling it authentic. It then gets marketed to benighted consumers, eager to identify with the same authenticity and to parade it to their peers. And then there’s the music — as if the Beatles didn’t do enough to destroy American folk music.

In Jordan Bloom’s criticisms, he rightly parallels this phenomenon with the trajectory of church music toward therapeutic kitsch. They’re both cheap, easy, and disposable, which is what the consumer wants — whether in the church or at a concert, as if there is any difference anymore.

If you really want to know what a bearded troubadour of love should sound like, here is one of America’s greatest songwriters:

If you do not find this as “inspiring’ or “uplifting” as a Mumford song, then I should pray for your soul.

ryan bingham2

It’s time for a little respite from Simone Weil. So, let’s talk about cowboys! Why not.

In a previous post from last year, we looked at the creativity of early country music, as discussed in Richard Peterson’s fascinating study, Creating Country Music (University of Chicago Press, 1997). In short, the leading producers, talent scouts, promoters, and record executives — at the dawn of country music in the 1920’s and 30’s — hated country music! As Peterson put it, “In most instances they didn’t like the music, didn’t understand it, and had no respect for its audience.” So they did not interfere, and pioneers like Jimmie Rodgers and Roy Acuff could develop their sound as they saw fit.

At the risk of over-romanticizing, it can indeed be said that this was the music of the rural Southern worker, who had migrated to cotton mills and other factories that sprouted across the South. Away from home, they longed for the music of their upbringing. A few upstart businessmen in Atlanta and elsewhere discovered that the ragtime, jazz, and blues from Tin Pan Alley (NYC) was not really what these workers wanted to hear. So they began recording some of the fiddlers and pickers that were popular within these communities, and — to their surprise — the records sold briskly! Country music, as a commercial enterprise, was born.

The other significant contribution came from AM radio stations, namely those with a clear-channel signal that would reach beyond the cities and far into the rural country. The most important and most famous is WSM in Nashville, which is still going strong. WSM had a little show called, The Grand Ole Opry, which was based upon a “hillbilly” comedy-and-song format that had become popular at a few other AM stations. In 1942, Roy Acuff created his own label in Nashville, which attracted other country artists who were being exploited elsewhere, many having traveled to NYC to get recorded. Acuff signed Hank Williams in 1946, who would take country music to new heights of success. At this time, Nashville was not the “hub” of country music. There was none. It could have just as easily been Atlanta or New Orleans, if not Chicago or New York! It was the combined success of the Opry and Acuff’s record label that attracted other labels. Nashville quickly became synonymous with country music.

So, how do cowboys come into the picture?

In the early days, if you wanted to perform in a public venue, you would dress-up in your Sunday best. And, that is naturally what the earliest country performers did. Suit and tie — usually the only nice set of clothes they owned. However, the “hillbilly” image became popular, and most artists began to play the role — regardless of whether they were actually from the mountains or not! This dominated the country music image well into the 30’s, and “hillbilly music” (not “country music”) was the most common name for the genre.

But, the hillbilly image had limited appeal to a broader range of listeners. Even in the South, “hillbilly” was not necessarily a beloved epithet and could denote lazy or ignorant. Meanwhile in cinemas across the country, a string of “western” flicks were depicting the adventures and excitement of the cowboy’s life. And long before this, in the 19th century, the folk stories of frontiersmen like Davy Crockett had captured the imagination of the people. The cowboy was a ready image for country artists looking for a new way to express themselves. In the 30’s and 40’s, Gene Autry became famous as “the singing cowboy” in a series of popular western films. The cowboy image quickly took off, with Hank Williams being a notable example.

The “cowboy” signifies courage and strength, combined with passion and self-sacrifice. It was very much a chivalrous image. It also signifies a free spirit, on the open range. Interestingly, this aspect of the cowboy image would be taken-up by the “trucker” image in the 1970’s. Truckers became the “cowboys” on the open highways and “outlaws” if the situation demanded it! (See the movie, Convoy, for example, and most famously, the Bandit!)

So, there you have it. That is how the cowboy became the dominant image in country music and frequently a motif in the music’s storytelling. Real cowboys, let it be known, were not known for writing songs or carrying a guitar on their saddle! But it has become ingrained in the imagination of Southern folkways, even if you live east of the Mississippi River (as I do) among cotton fields and tobacco farms, not open ranges for steering cattle. As someone who values imagination and folkways, I am fine with that.

And here is my favorite cowboy-themed song, “I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” from George Strait:

This is just a perfectly crafted song. No frills. Just perfect.


The picture above is Ryan Bingham, one of the most gifted country artists today. Begin here.

Impersonal Beauty

December 31, 2013

benozzo gozzoli_processionofthemagi-detail

Simone Weil is most known for her writings on suffering, namely the capacity of affliction to dehumanize and make a person a thing (“If anyone wants to make himself invisible, there is no surer way than to become poor.”) Thus, our attention toward the unseen, as the Good Samaritan saw a human in the beaten thing on the side of the road, is the surest path toward rejecting the illusory imagination through which we secure ourselves in the world.

Yet, there is another path — the apprehension of beauty — and this is just as important for Weil’s philosophy. Like affliction, genuine beauty draws us outside of ourselves (the false, illusory self) toward something which we cannot consume, cannot eat, to use Weil’s favorite illustration. We must remain hungry in the face of beauty, or else the beauty is corrupted in our compulsive desire to possess. We must allow the beautiful to remain as it is, apart from us. This is also Weil’s way of expressing pure friendship. We want to absorb the other into ourselves, destroying the other as such; friendship allows the other to exist fully, regardless of whether “I” exist — indeed, as if “I” do not exist.

None of this is actually possible — humanly possible. We are not actually able to love the poor, the despised, the ugly, the stupid. It is a miracle from beyond human possibility. It is grace. On this, both Weil and Barth are in agreement: love is not a possibility, love is a miracle.

The bad artist asserts herself in her art. Art is a means of self-expression. It exhibits the pathos of the individual. Good art — beautiful art — is a forgetting of oneself. In this forgetting, we find ourselves anew, but this cannot be our object — it is unknown, because it is given by grace. We cannot manufacture beauty. We do not create it; it creates us. The artist expresses beauty, not directly but indirectly. It is not possible for the artist to pursue beauty; she must be attentive in the void and let beauty find her. In this way, beauty is not personal expression but impersonal expression.

Rebecca Rozelle-Stone and Lucian Stone, in their wonderfully clear survey of Weil’s philosophical theology, illuminate this point further:

To understand how a beautiful thing is impersonal, we must consider Weil’s identification of five sub-traits of impersonality in aesthetics. First, there is duration. “One does not grow tired of beauty,” whereas “one does grow tired of what is pleasing, of what only flatters the senses,” Weil claims. The beautiful is something one can attend to for hours; anything that falls short of this (such as the statues in the Luxembourg, for her) is unendurable and demands either that we look away, or that we eliminate the offense. Second, there is purity: beauty does give a “pure pleasure,” a pleasure absolutely distinct from the one that arises from and encourages consumption. This is why real beauty ‘captivates the flesh” and stills the child in us “in order to obtain permission to pass right to the soul.” So while the beautiful is a “carnal attraction,” it “keeps us at a distance” and demands that we renounce our falsifying imaginations. Third, there is the element of infinity. That is, there can be no comparisons in the realm of absolute beauty; to think in terms of “better” or “worse” or any matter of degree suggests that the work is not truly beautiful, for the beautiful is the incarnation of God in matter. Fourth, there must be no element of flattery, for there can be no elevation of the ego in attending to the beautiful. Finally, as we have seen already, impersonality implies universality. …for Weil, the Gregorian chant epitomizes the beautiful, perhaps surprisingly because of its “share of monotony.” This beautiful monotony, as opposed to a mechanical monotony of factory work or of the clock, finds its model in the “perfect regularity of the sky’s revolutions that permits the rhythm of agricultural work, the only work that puts us directly in contact with the universe.”

[Simone Weil and Theology (T&T Clark, 2013), pp. 146-147. The quotations are taken from Weil’s Lectures on Philosophy, p. 184, and Gravity and Grace, pp. 148-149 and pp. 131-132]

In addition to Gregorian chant, Weil points to J. S. Bach, Romanesque architecture, Byzantine iconography, Sophocles’ Antigone, Homer’s Iliad, among other examples.

When she speaks of “impersonal” beauty, Weil can give the impression of something mundane or boring. It is almost as if the peculiar is lost amidst the universal. But in fact, according to Weil, the peculiar is lost when it is isolated from the universal. Evil isolates the particular from the universals of goodness, beauty, and truth. As such, it becomes mundane and boring, exhaustible as are all finite things. Here are the Stones once again, in one of my favorite passages:

Real goodness…is “an unfathomable marvel” that is too often desecrated at the hands of novelists and artists who render it cliché and portray evil as sensational and mysterious. We “envelop [the truth of the Good] in a fog in which, as in all fiction, values are reversed, so that evil is attractive and good is tedious,” when in fact, “nothing is so beautiful and wonderful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy, as the good.” This is because the forms and manifestations of baseness are finite, for they issue from the finite (i.e., from us). We cannot, as Weil has said, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. So, the artist, if she is to create something that can be called “beautiful” or “good,” must take on “the transparency of a window pane” to allow the light of the divine to shine through.

[Ibid., pp. 84-85. The quotations are from Weil’s Science, Necessity, and the Love of God, p. 162, 160, and Waiting for God, p. 77]

Hopefully that should entice you to read more of Simone Weil. To be sure, I wrestle with Weil. She is not for everyone. She is probably a Gnostic. Her intensity is extreme. She is also the purest philosophical mind that I have ever read.


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