I’ve been spending a lot of time recently with Gertrud von le Fort’s exploration of feminism in her book The Eternal Woman. It took me a while to read it because I kept digressing as I followed the line of her thought. For instance, and relative to all of you as writers and artists, in the first chapter she touches on the role of art and symbol in understanding our contingency as created beings. “Only an age profoundly bewildered or misled in its metaphysical instincts could attribute the idea of eternity…to a creature.” The danger, she writes, is that to misunderstand our relation to eternity would be to annihilate our humanity by profoundly misunderstanding ourselves at a fundamental level. Finding our true selves and avoiding this error, le Fort says, is the impulse behind religious surrender, love, and exploring the meaning of death.
It seems to me that one of the roles of an artist is to humble us. When we stand before a Titian or hear a Victoria setting for the Mass, it is with gratitude at the mystery in which we are immersed, a mystery that has no final depths, that moves like a traveler through our heart. If our ultimate metaphysical significance is grasped only in our relation to the divine, then the world is analogical and everything finds its meaning through reference to God. In other words, if anything is beautiful, it is because it reflects, through analogical participation, the God who is Beauty. Le Fort develops this line of reasoning in order to show the eternal value of the feminine, but also gestures toward how it applies it to art.
“It is only great art in its supreme moments of inspiration that is capable of proclaiming under a transitory form the things that are unchanging,” she writes. This, precisely, is why art humbles us. To encounter great art is to encounter eternity, to savor it in the marrow of our bones. The form itself, however, is by definition transitory and veiled, making clear that we participate in such holy things as invited guests and not by right.
Le Fort goes on to argue that this is why all great art is birthed of Catholic culture. It is the Church that straddles eternity and maintains, “supratemporal aspects.” To scratch to the surface of great art is to “tread the ground of great Catholic dogma.”
Art stands for us. It humbles while it simultaneously exalts. It sets us in our proper relationship on the horizon of eternity as it veils and reveals. If art stands for us, we must stand for art.