The Beginning of the Ways of God

Rod Dreher asks:

Question: Are there any happy-go-lucky saints? Any great artists who are thoroughgoing optimists? I can’t see that.

I’ll take a pass on the saints, and I’ll take a pass as well on “optimistic” because that’s a very shallow word – as is pessimistic. But Dreher is telling himself a story about the relationship between suffering and meaning, or about the transcendent value of a radical disconnection from ordinary modes of being (manifested by saints and holy fools and such). And I’ll nominate two artists who don’t, I think, fit the picture Dreher paints of the relationship between suffering, meaning and the divine: Henri Matisse and Samuel Beckett.

I like picking Matisse because his career proves you can make profoundly beautiful work that really is about nothing but being happy.

And I like picking Beckett because his career proves you can live what must be accounted a deeply meaningful life while not only staring into the abyss, but setting up house there.

And I like pairing them with each other because their moods could not be more opposite, and yet both are plainly comfortable in the world, this world, the word of sense and feeling that anyone can participate in.

At the end of the Book of Job, God speaks to his faithful servant out of the whirlwind. He does not tell him that his suffering had a transcendent purpose – we know it didn’t; it was inflicted on Job because God made an absurd bet with Satan. Nor does he (contra Archibald Macleish) simply browbeat Job into submission by showing him how much he doesn’t understand, and how much more powerful God is than a puny mortal man. Instead, God calls Behemoth his chief creation and lavishes line after line in praise of the wondrous Leviathan. That’s the climax of God’s message – that these wondrous monsters are what God is most proud of.

Then, of course, God tells Job’s comforters that they were wrong and Job was right, and gives Job back everything he lost – new house, new cattle, new family. But what does Job do? He names his three new daughters Jemima, Kezia and Keren Happuch – roughly, sunshine, perfume and eyeshadow.

Which, when you think about it, is not so far from “luxe, calme et volupte.”