I love beauty too much. That might be my problem. I have MORE POETRY!!! tattooed on my left arm, because two of my characters in my novel did that, although it’s also true that I probably believe it. I have a soft spot for the kind of robust and allusive aestheticism people are supposed to grow out of at twenty-five: Prufrock and reciting “Ulysses” at seashores and Oscar Wilde and DH Lawrence and the “little yellow book” of Dorian Gray, which is Joris-Karl Huysmans’ À Rebours, if you’re curious, and which I may have redeemed by doing a doctorate out of it. Most of the immoral things I have done in my life I have done because I thought at one time or another that they would make a great story, and the greatest sin I commit daily is probably continuing to tell them, anyway, although I am working on that.

This blog purports to be a record of that work.

The problem with telling stories, I wrote in that doctorate on Huysmans, is that telling stories is a kind of witchcraft. Gothic writers of bagatelles, like Barbey D’Aurevilly, say, often compared a particular kind of disengaged storyteller to a vampire, or even a demon. So did Kierkegaard, for whom the ironist — the disembodied, smirking purveyor of aesthetic possibilities — is “the vampire who has sucked the blood of the lover.” 

When you tell a story, you warp somebody else’s brain, just a little bit, and moreover you’re making everyone else around you — both the characters in your story and the people raptly listening to you — into objects. You’re seducing people into a realm of the aesthetic, which is a double form of enchantment, both on its own merits as on exertion of power, and also as a kind of meta-enchantment: it appeals to people who fear above all things an unenchanted world. You’re re-making the world, right there in front of them, and what kind of God has made or governs or is incarnate in the world you’re telling them about is — thrillingly, terribly — right up to you

As a person who likes telling stories — probably more than I should — I wonder, often, what stories are for. If the only story that matters, at the end of the day, is that God came down from heaven and was made man and suffered and died and was buried and then rose again, what purpose do we serve in telling any other story, except in muddying the clear stream of that narrative, than in trying to divinize ourselves, to become miniature Gods — as D’Aurevilly said of dandies — those “dieus aux petits pieds” who “who always try to create surprise by remaining impassive.” To have an effect, and remain unaffected ourselves. 

Barbey D’Aurevilly’ practiced a very subtle form of diabolism

And yet — maybe because I am a writer, or maybe just because I am a sinner — I think that that cannot be all there is. There must be something about writing, about the direction of attention to a person or a thing, that at once looks clear-eyed upon its brokenness and celebrates its grace. An attentiveness that says this is not merely a supporting player, a surface against which the ping-pong protagonist must hit, but a full person in their own right.  And, more broadly, there must be something the aesthetic does and does well that turns people towards God, towards goodness, towards an acknowledgment not merely of the enchantment of the world, but of the precise and God-given (and incarnational, and resurrective) nature of that enchantment. 

This blog does not claim to know what that something is. It will not contain formal columns, or articles, or full well-reasoned conclusions. It will, however, try. As a Christian, and as a writer, and as somebody who got MORE POETRY!!! tattooed upon her arm, I want to understand what in beauty is redeemable, and what is all the more terrible for making me feel similar to the way Evensong music does. I want to know what, in my love of vintage frippery and Venetian carnivals and the creation of an aesthetic Mood, in my love of Instagram and self-creation and the power of the self to be more than just its meat and treatment, is properly defensible, the morning after the party ends. 

Those who’ve read me here before know that I have a complicated relationship with the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, who at once embodied better than anyone else the creation of one’s life and art, and yet whose conquest of Fiume — that spectacular, centuries-old, experimental introduction of the aesthetic into political life — set the stage for a sickening century. He called Fiume, and the other Italian cities under the Habsburg eagles, terrae irredentae: unredeemed lands, cities that Italy had yet to restore to herself.

I motion that there are far more significant places, and far better reasons, to redeem.

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Posted by Tara Isabella Burton

Tara Isabella Burton is the author of the forthcoming nonfiction book STRANGE RITES: NEW RELIGIONS FOR A GODLESS WORLD (Public Affairs, 2020) and the novel SOCIAL CREATURE (Doubleday, 2018). She is a contributing editor at The American Interest and a columnist at Religion News Service. She received a DPhil in Theology from Trinity College, Oxford, in 2017.

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