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Those Watchful Dragons: Saving Beauty from Cynicism

I am a recovering cynic. I have been fiercely analytical, suspicious, and strong on speculative judgments. I could stare down a false motive at one thousand yards and fire off a critical word as soon as the target was in range. I am also a recovering romantic; in those rare moments when I found trust, I would go all in, and my imagination knew no limits in its restless search for perfection.

This is not the place to bore you with the reasons, but my need for a deep defense against unruly emotions caused a split in me that had unintended consequences in my perception and experience of reality. 

In modernity, the analytical is highly valued, so I received little pushback. However, while essential for controlling unwanted emotions, my approach suffocated my experience of beauty, meaning, and God. 

This I discovered while traveling across Europe with friends. They were genuinely and spontaneously breathless as we looked at the Swiss Alps. They were experiencing beauty in a way I could not. Intellectually, I knew the sight was breath-taking, but I was still breathing. Cynical suppression made me suspicious of their joy. Though a slave to my own unresolved pain, I dimly understood there was something wrong with me and not with my friends. 

Fifteen years later, while walking through the Vienna Woods, I was stunned by the breathtaking beauty of a deep blue sky, emerald-green grass, and two trees bright with yellow and red leaves. As I caught my breath, I knew I had just encountered and experienced beauty. It was a sign of healing. Unbeknown to me, my capacity to feel and be vulnerable had grown in the intervening years.

I further discovered the depth of my captivity to the hyper-rationalistic separation of experience and reason through a visit to a large Picasso exhibition in Vienna. I went with a Slovak friend who is an accomplished artist and photographer. We first wandered around, getting the layout of the collection, and then went our separate ways. I saw a vast and confusing picture. Not only did I not understand it, I did not have the first clue how to approach it. After some time, my friend came up behind me and said, ‘You are asking all the wrong questions,’ and then he walked away.


How did he know what I was thinking? I caught up with him and asked what he meant. What he said opened a door into a new world of experience and understanding. ‘Some things you must experience before you can understand them,’ he said, then walked away again. I did not understand him but returned to the painting. Rather than asking questions, I stood before the painting and allowed it to touch me. My eye caught a single continuous brushstroke, about six inches wide, that went in an arc from the bottom of the painting to the top. I felt the energy needed to bend and stretch to paint it and the violence of the brushstroke. In that moment, the picture made sense, though I could not immediately articulate why. An excess of rationality had been keeping me from a deeper cognition. Academic distance had kept me from participation, which kept me from understanding.

It would have been legitimate to analyze the picture through many lenses – the history of the period, the genre, the artist’s biographical details and his technical skills would have added much to an understanding of the painting. But putting aside the questions for a moment, being present to the picture itself, and allowing it to have its effect, gave knowledge that could not be found in any other way. Gradually, more profound thoughts and new relationships emerged. With practice, the inner eye of the imagination learns to respond. Reason can then explore this new perspective. But if the rational is prioritized at the expense of the experiential, such perception is blocked.

As I later saw, my hyper-rationalism was a claim to omniscience. I knew, and everyone else did not, what was real and what was not. I came to see my romanticism as a claim to omnipotence. I would create the real—regardless of what reality said. 

I suppose beauty—or at least the hunger for it—saved me, along with a desire to know God experientially. Buried, as they were, in the hunt for first causes, principles, and dreams to live by. 

I was mirroring, in a somewhat extreme way, the schism that runs through Western thought between the humanities and sciences. On one side, the schism subtly prioritizes rationality and ignores or even suppresses the imagination, abstracting truth from the revealed text and thinking only in propositions. The subtle message is that we can trust in reason, but emotion (often conflated with feeling) is unreliable. 

This severs truth from lived experience and the energy required for change. The congregation listens to sermons on serious and majestic issues, sits and nods, stands, exchanges pleasantries, and departs with little discernible response and without the sustained emotional energy necessary for action. Propositions and abstract thought are helpful, even necessary, as a step towards understanding; they describe reality but are not reality itself. It is as if we go to the restaurant and examine the menu, discuss it with the waiter and fellow diners, and ponder the labels and pictures, but are then satisfied by dissecting and eating the menu rather than the meal.

We become observers rather than participants when thinking about an object or event. Being time-bound, we necessarily think systematically in sequence and divide life into categories. But we experience life as a whole. Integration is essential for sound reasoning and healthy imagining. An integrated mind receives energy from emotion, direction and meaning from reasonable thought. The key to integration is humility, recognizing the limits of the human mind while remaining free to probe possibility.

In my meditations on the Decalogue, it was first interesting, then helpful, to observe that the commandment governing the imagination—do not make false images—precedes the one governing language—do not take the name in vain (empty words of their meaning). Perhaps this is because we learn to see and feel before we learn to reason and articulate. 

The imagination creates space for new perspectives that are not immediately easy to express. The poet understands these intuitive expressions of truth. Through them, we comprehend at first by direct access what may be accessed later by reason. A healthy imagination describes the glories of life in ways reason can only grasp and articulate with time. I am less clever now; age does that to you. The mind ponders where once it raced ahead. 


Marsh Moyle works alongside L’Abri Fellowship in the UK but spent most of his life working with ideas and books in Central and Eastern Europe. Extracts from this article were taken from his book, “Rumours of a Better Country.


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