The Arrogance of Beauty

I keep on thinking about beauty and integrity in writing. Last month I expressed frustration with the way the business world inserts itself between me and my words. A few people read that post and thought it sounded pompous. After all, who am I to resist the realities of publishing these days? Isn’t that an immature refusal to pay the proper dues?

I’m well aware of how it seems, but it’s the opposite of that.

In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard writes about the fact that our essence, the thing that makes each of us a unique person, cannot be found in our bodies. As he puts it, “You cannot find me or any of my thoughts, feelings or character traits in any part of my body. Even I cannot. If you wish to find me the last thing you should do is open my body to take a look . . .” He then goes on to say God relates to the physical space within creation in a similar way. “He occupies and overflows it but he cannot be localized within it.”

I’ll get to what that has to do with last month’s column in a minute, but first I want to mention this: I was once saved from suicide by beauty.

I mean it literally. I was once deeply depressed to the point of suicidal thoughts, and what saved me was not therapy or medication; it was two weeks in the glory of the mountains. I am still saved from suicide by sunrises and hummingbirds and so forth, all day every day. The beauty of this world convinces me that Solomon was wrong. Nothing under the sun is meaningless to those who understand that everything appeared from far above the sun. For me this is not merely theory; it is life and death.

Let me also say this: once I was led into God’s presence by none other than Claude Monet. As I have written previously, I stood and gazed into a painting by that man, and the heavens parted and I sensed the Divine in contact with my mind and body. Just for a moment a painter was every bit as much a priest of God to me as Aaron’s brother was to Israel.

This is something for a novelist to think about with fear and trembling: God has given that same potential to every storyteller.

There is no fundamental difference between a novel written by a person who was totally consumed with writing it, and the glory in the mountains which saved me from despair. All pure things in nature are God’s essence transformed from potentiality to reality. Therefore the reverse is true: to corrupt the purity of what a thing was made to be is to interfere with God’s own will.

Maybe you begin to see where I am going now, how this fits in with my avoidance of the business side of writing. But perhaps you’re unconvinced. Perhaps you still wonder if this is only foolish pride. After all, who am I to claim my writing is nothing less than a reflection of God’s essence?

In the book I already mentioned, Dallas Willard also says “. . . every physical object and every natural law is a manifestation of God’s willing. This does not have to be taken in the sense that he is every second consciously choosing, for example, that this electron should be circling that neutron . . . . But it is true in the same sense that the arrangement of the furniture in your apartment is a manifestation of your will.”

What can this mean for a novelist, except that what we do, as physical creatures operating within God’s natural laws, should be nothing less than an earthly manifestation of who and what God is?

The Opposite of Art is about a painter who struggles all his life to paint the face of God. In writing it, I sometimes thought of the painter himself as if he was the painting he was trying to paint. It’s a story about God painting a painter, so to speak. When we paint (or write) with complete abandonment to what we were created to be, we become God’s self-expression in precisely the same sense that sunrises reflect His majesty in light and clouds. The Creator creates creators to express his own creativity. We are the furniture in God’s apartment. We are writers written by the Word to write His beauty down for all to see, not in words alone, but also with the act of writing.

Writing is a poor way to make a living. If that was my goal, I would choose something more profitable, such as working at a Starbuck’s. It would remove me from my writing far too much, but we do have to compromise to eat. God understands this is an inevitable effect of the Fall, in fact it is his will, at least for now. (“You will eat by the sweat of your brow.”) But when we compromise our work for prideful reasons we are not functioning as God intended, and He is not glorified.

This is why it’s so important to remove our egos from our work. The beauty of nature which saves my sanity each day, the beauty which is God’s self-expression, flows directly from the fact that no hummingbird or sunrise ever compromised.

Neither did Monet. That’s what I sensed in his painting. It’s why his work lifted me to God. Just as hummingbirds and sunrises do only what they were created to do, so it was obvious that Monet didn’t think about the fact that he was painting. He simply painted. Because of his complete immersion in his being as a painter, I could gaze upon his work and agree with God’s critique of everything before it was corrupted. It is not meaningless. On the contrary, “it is very good.”

As I mentioned at the first, some will deem this an excuse. They’ll think it means I want to impose my own will upon my work: to write what I want, to write the way I want, and to write in ways which suit me no matter what the world may say. But I’m saying the exact opposite. I’m saying the fullest expression of Divine will in any novelist reveals itself when she does not waste an instant thinking about what she wants as a novelist. Sunrises simply shine. Hummingbirds simply fly. Writers, functioning within the will of God, simply write.

But we’re correct to be concerned with arrogance. Just as air pollution dims God’s beauty in a sunrise, so unrighteous pride distorts holy integrity. Conceit can manifest itself in many ways among creative people, and some ways are deceptive.

Begin with those who shouldn’t write in the first place. Everyone is gifted somehow, but some insist on writing when it isn’t actually their gift. They should confess that their dreams are not God’s. Only when they turn their attention to what God really dreams for them can they know the joy of being fully who they are.

Others write for the praise of men. An obsession with becoming published is one sure sign of this. To write for awards or sales or good reviews is another sign among those already published. Hummingbirds sometimes seem to preen and pose, but that is an illusion. Hummingbirds, having been created to flirt with flowers, do so strictly for the sake of flirting with flowers. In the same way, if one was created to be a writer, then writing for its own sake is enough.

Still others shun the drudgery of craftsmanship. They seem to think the exercise of discipline is unseemly compromise, when of course the opposite is true. It is a corruption of one’s giftedness to resist the work required to master one’s gift. Laziness and stubborn resistance to improvement are both forms of arrogance. When your editor insists on changes for the sake of sales, ignore her. When she insists on changes for the sake of excellence, humbly do exactly as she says.

A writer should deal with these forms of arrogance mercilessly. But irony intrudes upon us now, because writers who resist such forms of arrogance are frequently accused of arrogance.

This is what I meant at the beginning. Genuine humility flows from a perfect willingness to function not as you would like to be, but as you were created to be. But such humility can look like pride to those who don’t understand. It should surprise no student of the scriptures that humble submission to God’s plan often yields results that don’t conform to current fashions. The more a writer submits in this way, the more likely it becomes that she will be accused of exactly the opposite of what she really stands for.

The irony of that accusation can be a great injury, but the fullest expression of God’s gifts in a fallen world will almost always lead to sacrifices. While it hurts and seems unjust, we should embrace it as a good thing in the end. Whether one is a novelist, a painter, or a barista at Starbuck’s, to sacrifice in order to live as God intended is to sacrifice for love of God. There is no higher purpose in this life.

Athol Dickson’s novels transcend description with a literary style that blends magical realism, suspense, and a strong sense of spirituality. Critics have favorably compared his work to such diverse authors as Octavia Butler (Publisher’s Weekly), Hermann Hesse (New York Journal of Books) and Flannery O’Connor (The New York Times). One of his novels is an Audie Award winner and three have won Christy Awards. His most recent novel, The Opposite Of Art, is about pride, passion, and murder as a spiritual pursuit. Athol lives with his wife in southern California.