Most of you know I did my undergraduate work in English. It caused a slight row with my father, since it’s an infinitely impractical field, but the longer he’s taught science, the more he’s realized the value of my degree. My crowning achievement as an English major was writing close to twenty pages of feminist criticism on a book with no women in it. I won awards for other papers, but I consider that one the pinnacle of my literary career.
It was easier than you’d think, honestly. Ursula K. Le Guin is known foremost for her Earthsea novels, but she remains a celebrated author of fantasy and science fiction. The book of hers I read for my essay, The Left Hand of Darkness, is sci-fi — but complex sci-fi, something you can sink your critical teeth into. It explores many widely-differing themes, from the nature of war to linguistics and back again. The book is responsible for teaching me how perfectly useless it is to know the right answer to the wrong question, a lesson which has shaped me more than I would have thought possible. First and foremost, however, it is a book about gender-y things: sex, gender, engendered behaviors, masculinity, femininity, the hegemonic constructs of each, gender roles, you name it. Not bad for a book with only one man, no women, and a planet full of people who could be either one at any time. (Read it; you’ll understand.)
The discussion of dualism in gender comes from Le Guin’s Taoist beliefs. In her novel as in Taoism, light is the left hand of darkness, and darkness is the right hand of light. They are complementary, two halves forming an organic whole. She juxtaposes this on gender, just as in yin and yang, and concludes all are both. A truly human, human being is both masculine and feminine and exhibits qualities of both, with different genders (not sexes, genders) being dominant as the situation merits. It’s a fascinating, intriguing, holistic view of human identity which finds the other in the self and the self in the other without overt reduction to sexuality. It’s a Taoist harmonization that reinforces the Christian imago Dei, for both male and female were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27).
Of course, such things as literature and gender studies teach us about humanity (in the senses of both the species and the quality of human-ness), but they don’t pay the bills so much. They’ll never provide the cure for cancer or the next source of renewable energy. Unfortunately, they only teach us who we are, what it means to exist in the human condition (hence we call them the “humanities”). Our society runs on the practical, so we promote STEM fields exclusively and trod the rest underfoot.
This is a tragedy. And like a great Shakespearean tragedy writ large, it will end in the deaths of an entire species, for we can cease being human long before we die.
We’re not overly concerned with that, however. Here in the West, we’re far more preoccupied with how to make money. If a thing will make us rich, we’ll do it, and there’s little money to be had in jotting down verse or debating the Napoleonic Wars. In America, we’re particularly beholden to our specific brand of free-market capitalism, and, right now, the market is hot for the inhuman. We buy and sell phones, computers, and social media websites, all in pursuit of the Almighty Dollar, placing a higher premium on things which substitute for people than on people themselves. We make money hand over fist by removing the human element at every turn: Facebook friends fill in for bosom buddies; robots replace line workers; pornography stands in for actual sexuality and making love to another human. And we let it happen in part because we got rich doing it, because it had a market and we supplied to meet the demand.
“The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” — 1 Timothy 6:10a.
Even if we don’t necessarily view it all in such capitalistic or economic terms, we will attribute the advent of this brave new world to simple practicality. It’s efficient; it serves a purpose; it’s convenient.
The practical is the enemy of the beautiful.
Beauty comes in many forms, both in the arts and humanities and in ordinary life. Few things, to me, can be as beautiful as a Beethoven violin concerto, a poem by Shelley, a painting by Monet or Waterhouse, moonlight on snow, a sunset on the plains, or the colors of the leaves of autumn in the mountains. None of those things have practical worth. Such sentiment has no cash value. And yet the smile of a child, the sleek elegance of a shark, the deep brown of the eyes of a lover, the dizzying depths of the Grand Canyon, and the serenity of the calm Pacific all mean something to us. They are all beautiful, all precious treasures.
I think it’s because beauty points us to God. It’s a reminder of the divine, proof a Divinity shaped the cosmos and rendered it beautiful. The quality of beauty has no evolutionary value (or at least none which has been convincingly proposed). It doesn’t help me survive or find a mate by sighing appreciatively at the sunrise or having a sonata reverberate in my head. There’s no advantage there. But they do remind me I am loved by God, that He values me enough to place me in a world of unsurpassed beauty for my enjoyment and gave me the gift of the ability to create more beautiful things. Beauty teaches me I am human, but Something Else exists which is not, which is transcendent, and which invites me to glimpse Him and know Him and love Him.
As our world turns from divinity, turns from God, it turns from the beautiful and the whimsical to the practical and the marketable. It is one of the greatest tricks Satan has ever played on us: convincing us to ignore beauty in pursuit of utility. He has torn our gaze from what points us to God and gotten us to look instead at that which keeps our hearts from Him. He has caused us to abandon our humanity, to ignore that blessed gift from a loving God, and made acting as random automatons — and treating others as the same — something to be desired.
Brothers and sisters, rebel against the prevailing paradigm. Refuse the worldview and opt out of the market. Rejoice in beauty. Read poetry. Listen to Bach. Paint landscapes. Be fully alive. Act as a human being. And love the God who saw fit to make you a human being alive in such a beautiful world.