It seems strange to be talking about beauty as a temptation. Isn’t beauty a ladder to God, a reflection of the good, and a dangerous trap only for those wishing to remain atheists? The “blue flower” (so termed by the Romantics), which is, among other things, the longing for the re-occurrence of a momentous experience of beauty, became an important step, for example, in C. S. Lewis’ conversion-process. Yet it didn’t speak to him in an obvious way of God, and it was tempting for him to seek that experience again, though it (happily) eluded him. For the experience of beauty cannot be forced, or artificially created or be obtained by one’s own free will; it comes as a gift, suddenly, unexpectedly, only to take one’s breath away. It speaks of something infinite which alone is able to fulfill the heart – if only one could capture it again -, but at the same time, it is oh so tempting to try to find a substitute.
For some, the substitute becomes drugs, sex, work, power, or the excitement of a high-risk sport; for the aesthete, this substitute becomes beauty, but a beauty which is now an idol, which is controlled, enshrined, worshipped, and which therefore, like all idols, wants its pound of flesh, making its adherents cruel and hard-hearted. Henry James’s character Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of Lady is the perfect example of an aesthete. He has created a cultured universe around himself, only letting in (as far as he can control it) what is aesthetically pleasing, surrounding himself with objets d’art. The young and naïve American, Isabella Archer, falls for him, not having met somebody of his likes before, thinking he would open up the world for her. It turns out that his world is a prison and she in a cage (though she ultimately remains with him by her own free will for the sake of his daughter).
Yet, weren’t the dandies à la Oscar Wilde more attractive and positive than James’s dried up, middle-aged, over-controlling character? Wilde’s life and bon-mots might have proclaimed the aesthetic creed (though not if we take into account his later life or his death-bed conversion), but his art didn’t. Dorian Gray’s portrait shows the true nature of his soul which his seemingly eternal youth and good looks hide. Interestingly, Dorian soon turns from the pursuit of beauty to all kinds of extravagant experiences which have nothing to do with beauty anymore: debauchery, drugs, and murder. Beauty is not enough – it never is. But in one case it becomes the path to something greater, namely God, and in the other case, when idolized, to something lower; while trying to recapture the initial, intense experience, one paradoxically ends up worshipping ugliness.
My guess is that idol-worship tends to lead one to venerate the opposite one had set out to do. Those who worshipped temporal Messianism, who wanted nothing more than to get rid of the Roman occupiers and who were disappointed in Christ since he didn’t set himself up as a temporal King, ended up proclaiming that they had no King but Caesar. Those who idolize their nation, end up by risking its complete destruction through wars supposed to aggrandize it; the alcoholic ends up hating spirits, the Don Juans of this world despise women at heart whom they simply use as instruments to satisfy their pride and lust, and the glutton, though he cannot help stuffing himself, is hardly able to enjoy food anymore.
In Je vois Satan tomber comme l’éclair René Girard says, almost as an aside, that all idolatry is really idolatry of the self. Since people are often fanatically dedicated to their idol, willing to give their life for it - like in the case of many adherents of Communism, Nazism or Islamic fundamentalism - and more often than not are living a life of hardship in consequence, one fails to see that idolatry is ultimately self-serving. For one would rather worship this idol and its false promise of absolute happiness, than face the truth of one’s inner brokenness, of a fallen world and the humbling challenges of real moral absolutes. Rejecting idols means facing an inner desert; one refuses to fill up one’s interior emptiness by running after a hare, glory and women, as Pascal put it. It means accepting a real God who is more often than not hidden, and who shares our cross rather than taking us off it.
But while work, sex and power are the idols of our age, one may wonder whether beauty, in this period of low popular culture, is not a temptation of the past, at least in its wider appeal. There may not be as many Osmonds (to refer back to The Portrait of a Lady) at this time as there were during Henry James’ life (though I’m not even sure about that), but the idea of being up and against an even greater mass of the uncultured and uneducated might make aestheticism more alluring for the cultural elite.
But are those immersed in pop-culture really immune to the lures of aestheticism? I don’t think so, though it may not be the aestheticism of a collector, of an opera-buff or of a man of letters. It is the dictates of fashion, the often superficial beauty of stars and the false ideal of a kind of romantic love which are the aesthetic traps of this age. Though fashion has changed, we worship design and appearance, just like the dandies of Wilde’s time. The Victorian ideal of woman as an “angel in the house” as an aesthetic paradigm may be gone, but there are other models to which women – and men – are supposed to conform. If they don’t, then the worse (or, from my perspective, the better) for them.
The spouse who wants the other to be more like the aesthetic modern ideal (handsome, sexy, successful, powerful, and independent in the case of both sexes, with some differences thrown in nonetheless) is being an Osmond to him or her. Instead of seeing the other in his or her absolute uniqueness, and cherishing it, we tend to want to fix the other, wanting to make him or her conform to what we imagine would be attractive. Wanting to change the other’s nature can be mixed in with desiring to alter his weaknesses and vices. But in either case, we are approaching the other from an aesthetic point-of-view which is unjust and contrary to love. The other’s weaknesses are part of the cross one has to bear in marriage (and also a means of greater union, if each one acknowledges them humbly) while the other’s unique personality is to be cherished. Seeing each other’s beauty is food for love; trying to make the other conform to an aesthetic ideal is poisonous. Hence aestheticism is a temptation at all times, in all ages and for everyone. It is all the more dangerous, as it appears at first sight innocuous and images the trends of each period. It is a devilish trap and sounds the death-toll for love. It is to be avoided at all costs.