James Matthew Wilson is an associate professor of religion and literature at Villanova University and the author of several books, including “The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition” and a collection of poems titled “Some Permanent Things.” He gave a talk on Monday, sponsored by the Lyceum, titled “Faith, Aesthetics, and the Trinitarian Dimensions of Beauty.” Wilson received his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Michigan, his Master of Arts. from the University of Massachusetts, and his doctorate and Master of Fine Arts from the University of Notre Dame
Thank you so much for speaking with the Collegian, Dr. Wilson. To start, would you mind explaining in a nutshell what your talk this week was on?
In the modern age, we have a conception of aesthetics or the aesthetic disciplines as those contemplative activities that are characterized by concern for form, and the emergence of such a discipline is by in large modern, and usually thought of in some sense secular, in the sense that when we study literature we study literature for its own sake independent of any other field of inquiry.
My argument is that there is such a thing as aesthetics, that it is possible to have a concern for form, to contemplate form, but that to do so in such a way to that you partition it off the fullness of being will always cause that field of inquiry to collapse, that is to fall into contempt or skepticism.
An inquiry into aesthetic form can’t proceed by way of exclusion from the rest of being. And so three conditional factors are necessary to maintain an opening to form. One is an adequate account of human reason as ordered to being. The second is an account of being that is open to being known, so being as real and being as intelligible. Then third, conception of beauty as a property of being as constituted by both form and splendor.
So the final step of this little argument is that these three qualities that are necessary if you just want to maintain the possibility of contemplating the beauty of something are fortified and strengthened or even partly revealed through a clear theology of the trinity.
How do these ideas affect you as a poet?
They are a posteriori to the act of writing. I’m explaining to myself why it is that the writing of this form that becomes a work of art seems to have some bearing on other forms. That is to say that works of fine art are manifestations of reality but also ways of knowing reality. My whole enterprise as a scholar of aesthetics is to explain why it is that art is a way of knowing. Art as a way of knowing seems to be the intuition that lead me to take up writing in the first place.
How does your Christian faith influence your work as a poet?
When I was first writing fiction, the great American fiction writers at the time really represented in a particular sense a formalism in American writing. Their subjects were familiar rather than epic or adventurous. The craft of writing then appeared to be of formal seriousness. On the one hand that was great because it taught us to really value and weigh the sentence. But on the other hand there were moments in which it seemed that modern fiction lived in a shrunken world. My early anguish was to figure out how a writing that was formally sensitive and formally adept could also be restored to a kind of spiritual breadth after the fashion of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I didn’t think of that as specifically Christian at the time, but I did think of it as religious. I sensed that though I can think of nothing more brilliant than form, a conception of formalism that excludes form from an openness to being or truth is an inadequate form of formalism.
I certainly would never think of myself as a Christian poet as if there were this special category, but on the other hand, one of the things a poet should have the capacity to do is to express genuine devotion to God. So one of the challenges I set for myself over the previous several years was to write a genuinely devotional poetry. One that would not cease to be interpretable as poetry, but was still capable of a genuine expression of reverence, and that proved to be quite challenging.
What advice do you have for young people, especially Christians who write poetry, who think a lot about the fine arts, who maybe want to make a career out of it?
To insist that the formal integrity of the fine arts doesn’t mean a self-enclosure of the fine arts. You need to respect aesthetic form as a reality, but one that is destined to be informed by, and deepened by, and always in communion with other forms of knowing. Aesthetic form needs to be philosophically and theologically informed to be fully realized as itself. But that is not to say that a good philosophy or good theology could substitute respecting the integrity of the form. Christian students will be especially prepared for this openness of form to what is other than form, or at least other than aesthetic form.
This is the weakness of some contemporary Christian art, it needs to genuinely respect craft and master the making of the work as a good work.
Most people that are going to be reading this Q&A probably aren’t ever going to want to write a poem themselves. Most people probably aren’t going to pay very much attention to the cutting edge of contemporary poetry. So for someone like that, what advice do you have for them as readers to perhaps open themselves to the possibility of contemporary poetry, or to read contemporary poetry well?
You have to look so carefully to find some poetry that you think isn’t a waste of time, not because there isn’t an abundance of it but because there is just so much poetry being written and published today. My first advice is to go find one or two good anthologies of poets who actually recognize what the craft of poetry.
But I would like to raise an objection to the proposal of not writing a poem. Your professors wouldn’t let you graduate from college without being sound in prose composition and essay. You ought to be able to write a dedication to your wife to inscribe inside a book before you graduate from college. And do that you need to learn a little bit of iambic pentameter. To be literate, you ought to know how to write in verse. You don’t need to be able to do it well enough to publish, but you ought to be able to do it well enough that you can write a tribute to a future wife.