Friday, May 25, 2012

Adams and the Transcendence of Art and Love

Though he was contradictory and even condescending in his handling of Chartres and Mary, I still found myself, as I read the selections from Henry Adams, connecting with some element of his description of Chartres in relation with Mar that was aided, I am sure, but the elegance of his writing, but not explained by it.  Perhaps my biases as someone who is herself religious and who finds religion, for all its foibles, to be deeply beautiful, but when he spoke lovingly of Chartres and Mary, I felt I was hearing something authentic, something that was being covered up in the infantilizing and dismissiveness.  There is a category in which a few things fall that are deemed by most to be beyond the ability of words to describe—they are somehow transcendent.  Art and love both fall in this category.  Religion also often does for those who take it seriously as a category of experience; in modernity, however, religion had no place in this category. Religion in modernism was understandable, reducible, and dismissible.  It was the pre-scientific way of trying to understand and interact with the world; it was an earlier step in development that was perhaps useful at the time, but now, has been utterly surpassed.  And just as adults can no longer fully understand and appreciate their childish worldview now that they have grown beyond it and have developed a rational mind, so too can people in modernity experience religion as those who lived before this supposed development of rationality.  Adams believed this so completely that he even saw science as replacing religion as a moral force. As we see now, from our postmodern perspective in a world in which religion did not die at the feet of science and science has not proved to have limitless explanatory power, the reductionist approach of modernity is not satisfying, not complete—religion cannot be so easily explained away.   In my reading of Adams, he experienced this shortcoming of modernity in Chartres. 

Standing under its vaulted ceilings, Adams felt something, something that was not reducible to science, and he did not know what to do with it, did not have the religious vocabulary or background to respond to it as an encounter with the divine.*  He lived in a world that, from his thoroughly modernistic mindset, did not give him space to respond to religion as something beautiful and transcendent.  He could, however, relate to that transcendence in other ways—Adams’ Chartres is both an artistic masterpiece and a love letter.  Not only is Chartres, in all its splendor and beauty, a work of art, but it is also a work of art with a scientific bent.  Though Adams insulted the architects and builders instead of praising them for their ingenuity, he obviously, behind his infantilizing, had a deep and sincere appreciation for the mechanics of it.  As he discusses light, it is with a sense of awe—on page 96 he speaks of them pushing architecture to its limits to “take all the light there was to take.”  Perhaps imprudent and impractical to Adams, it was still a marvel.  He further speaks of the mechanics of the creation of space and convenience.  These all have a scientific element—though Adams may not acknowledge them, careful calculations had to be made, detailed plans drawn, and innovative building techniques used.  As The Education of Henry Adams so clearly shows in his descriptions of the motors, he sees deep beauty in mechanical and scientific grace.  Perhaps this is part of the reason why the artistry so appeals to him—it is in some ways comprehensible to his scientific mind, but in others, like all great art, transcendent and elusive, giving him a means of facing what he was feeling.

Additionally, as he talks about the tender relationship between the builders and Mary, their loving desire to please her and their delight in doing so, it called to mind ideas of romantic love.  Throughout “The Virgin of Chartres,” I pictured Mary as a queen from any number of period films I have seen, regal and royal in a beautifully appointed palace surrounded by people who both wanted to please her and who wanted something of her.  As Adams described the builders of the cathedral, I could picture princes and courtiers courting our queen, bringing her back the most beautiful things they found in their travels, the most exquisite art they could commission with the hope of pleasing our queen, of bringing to her something that she delights in, and having her show favor on them.  Perhaps I watch too many movies.  It seems that again, this description of their love for Mary gives Adams room to talk about something he was experiencing that was beyond the scope of science and rationality, something that he did not quite know how to express, but was none-the-less undeniably real to him.

*Perhaps what Adams was connecting with was not the divine, but was no more than the artistic beauty.  I do not want to impose on him an interpretation that is not authentic to his experience.  Instead, I want to suggest that if he did encounter the divinity of Mary in Chartres, he would have difficulty understanding and expressing it as such.  Such an experience would not only be alien and unfamiliar to him, and would likely be derided by his peers, who, from the excerpt of his Education that we read, sound to be thoroughly scientific and modernist.



  1. Your first paragraph really brings to mind an affinity that I saw between Adams discussion of the Virgin and Nietzsche's talk about the death of God [here: for reference]. Adams, as you note, very much lives in a world where we have killed Him (although I'll add that there might be a degree of irony operating here. I simply don't know enough about Adams to really comment) and I think this really animates how he understands Chartres. The towering building is made a toy, devoid of deeper meaning as there is no deeper meaning to be had (I thought Prof. Fulton-Brown put this very well during class). God is dead and thus the foundation of Chartres has been stripped away. More than that, Adams seems to recognize the anxiety and yawning emptiness behind our world without God that Nietzsche's madman so forcibly brings to mind. And he recognizes some deep, in Adams case we maybe can also say inexpressible, inadequacy of the "modern" mind to fill this gap. No matter how powerful the dynamos and engines of the Exposition, all the steam in the world could not build Chartres. Something has been lost, and its replacement not yet found (whether Adams reacts to this with anticipation, despair, resignation, or what have you I imagine lies in a more comprehensive read of his work). We see this loss in Adams's seeming inability to grapple with Chartres, he cannot express its grandeur in his own terms, so he must infantalize it. And still he seems to recognize this, which I think lies behind the ambiguity of his work.


  2. LJB:
    I like your post very much, and the way that you lay out art, religion, and love as united in the Marian devotion that is Chartres. I think I understand what you are saying about the difficulty of putting love and art to words (though I would not describe them precisely as ineffable). More even than not being capable of explaining what he saw and was experiencing in Chartres, I sensed an active resistance from Adams. He was, of course, also writing in an “epochal” mode in which he was trying to explain the “Geist” informing/motivating activity in each different “age” (i.e., “pre-modern” and “modern”). Mary was this force, greater than steam dynamos, industrial fabrication, etc., in an era that Adams is attempting to explicate, but (by definition) as opposed to his modern era. It is interesting: he has “faith” in modernity, but is a bit mystified by its inability to inspire in the way Mary did. One way to explain this in an “epochal” mode is to use an evolutionary or “life-stages” model such that the achievements of the Middle Ages can be attributed to the boundless (but misguided) energy of children, or a less rationally developed society. Anyone who has been around children will tell you about the challenge of keeping up with their energy as well as the difficulty with channeling that energy correctly. This tactic allowed H. Adams to maintain his “faith” in the face of the accomplishments of Marian devotion.

    For me, your coda nails it. Good job.


  3. I found the moments of contradiction in this piece incredibly compelling; in a way I was almost more convinced of the awe-inspiring nature and absolute spiritual urgency of Chartres and Mary by the struggle that Adams seemed to have when describing them. I don’t think I (or anyone, really) can make the claim that he meant it as a complement when he infantilized Chartres- but as you mentioned, the elements he relates to (the art, architecture, the love story) elicit the exact emotions that we’ve seen previously; he just has a different vocabulary to describe them. The emotions deemed appropriate for children and adults have changed, not just because of science, but because of social changes such as the extension of childhood (although, this could be completely off base).

    As mentioned, Adams was an American, and more particularly a WASP (to continue using modern vocabulary…): he would have been brought up in the American, Puritan, Protestant tradition. As DAY mentioned, he also lived in an age where modern philosophy had ‘killed’ god. The fact that its remnants can still affect him such a way, can trigger such a strong and complex reaction, I think speaks for the residing power of Mary, not of her diminishment in the modern age. I think you’re right in saying he encountered the divine, but I think that the emotions previously associated with ‘the divine’- those which make one feel un-rational, childlike, however Adams might put it- have over time become less important or central. -mcs

  4. I agree with the above comments: I think that you capture Adams' ambivalence about his experience at Chartres very well. There was something there, but his previous education had not equipped him to be able to describe it; he fell in love with the building as an expression of something that he could sense, but not understand. For myself, what I find most tragic about Adams' encounter is that even the research that he did after his visit to Chartres did not enable him to understand what the builders were after; he seems to have seen nothing of its deep intellectual purpose, nothing of what made devotion to Mary theologically profound. He could imagine the Queen, but not the Heaven which she inhabits, only her earthly palace. What is even more tragic is that this Heaven need not have been at odds with Adams' love of science: as we have discussed, there is science through and through at Chartres--but as an expression of the transcendence of Divine Wisdom, rather than as a mastery of the physical world.