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Excerpt from 'Beauty's Vineyard'
A theological aesthetic of Anguish and Anticipation
by Kimberly Vrudny
Published by Liturgical Press May 2016
 

Beauty's Lament - Chapter 7 (excerpt)

On Suffering

According to Greek mythology, King Leucippus's daughters, Phoebe and Hilaeira, were abducted and then forced to marry the sons of Zeus—Castor and Pollux—also known as the Dioscuri. In one depic­tion, painted by Peter Paul Rubens between 1615 and 1618, the sisters are full-bodied and nude, as women typically are in Rubens's paintings. The scene by Rubens is troubling, for even as the men seize the sisters, their garments flailing, the women apparently submit to and even seem to desire their abductors. One son of Zeus is still on horseback. The other has jumped onto the roadway, catching on his knee the daughter who would otherwise fall to the ground, thereby valorizing him despite the sexual violence overtaking her. The rearing of the horse behind him heightens the aggression of the scene. Facing heavenward, the women appear both to resist and resign themselves to their captors. One daughter reaches out to the heavens while caressing one brother's arm, while the other looks into the eyes of her abductor, his eyes filled with sexual desire, hers not expressing a rejection of him entirely.

Margaret D. Carroll,1 a scholar of art at Wellesley College, has noted, "Rubens's depiction of the abduction is markedby some striking ambiguities: an equivocation between violence and solicitude in the demeanor of the brothers, and an equivocation between resistance and gratification in the response of the sisters."Carroll goes on to explain how the poet Ovid, in his Art of Loving, champions sexual violence by reference to the rape of the sisters: "Perhaps she will struggle at first and cry, 'You villain!' Yet she will wish to be beaten in the struggle. . . . You may use force; women like you to use it. . . . Phoebe suffered violence/ violence was used against her sister: each ravisher found favor with the one he ravished 2

Carroll's thesis is that Rubens represents his period's association of princely power with sexual force and domi­nance in a valorization of violence deemed in his time not only politically expedient but also strategically necessary. Carroll asserts, "Any interpretation of the painting is inadequate that does not attempt to come to terms with it as a celebratory depiction of sexual violence and the forcible subjugation of women by men3

Carroll's interpretation of the Rubens painting is instructive when it is considered in light of Geoffrey Laurence's 2004 painting Hold Fast. The modern realist painter has chosen Rubens's depiction of The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus to occupy the ground behind three armed American soldiers, or rather one American soldier depicted at three stages of his psychological evolution. He sits on a bench in the museum where the Rubens hangs, each stage depicted with a different position of the soldier in relation to his rifle. Reading from right to left as in a Hebrew text, the figure on the right is most threatening. New to the military, his gun is cocked in a manner reflective of his personality. His fingers are already on the trigger, and he is eager to shoot. The soldier in the middle holds the barrel of his gun; it is upright and points to the ceiling. He is no longer as eager as he was when he first enlisted. He is bewildered and numb, shaken by what he has seen. The image of the soldier on the far left rests his right hand on the trigger mechanism, his left hand on his knee. He is lost in thought, his eyes looking deep into a helmet on the floor at his feet. Perhaps he is experiencing self-loathing and utter revulsion over what he has done.

By juxtaposing the soldiers in the foreground with the scene by Rubens in the background, Laurence communicates, using a visual vo­cabulary, that violence begets violence. Laurence has said that he used background imagery initially to achieve an artistic objective: "At first I was using the paintings in the backgrounds to stop deep space from occurring. I go to great lengths to compress the space in my paintings and achieve a tension between flatness and three-dimensionality."4 In his more recent works, however, he conveys that there is a relationship between the background and the foreground: "I realized that I could play narrative games between the 'painted' space in the paintings in the background and the painted space [in the foreground]."5 In Hold Fast, Laurence critiques the correlation between war and sexual violence,' as represented by the Rubens work, and asserts that it continues into the modern day. In private correspondence with me, Laurence wrote,

I will say that [Hold Fast] came about when America invaded and occupied Iraq and that the response to 9-11 (Mission accomplished!) truly and deeply dismayed and depressed me. My belief is that violence begets violence. I do not believe in an eye for an eye as a solution to hatred.
Two things at that time made deep impressions on me. The museum of Baghdad was looted by criminals, while the museum was occupied by armed American soldiers who did nothing at all to stop them and the old­est-writings in existence disappeared without trace to this day, [and a] newsreel [showed] American soldiers entering a cafe somewhere in Iraq where men in their 60s and older were innocently and politely drinking tea and discussing whatever. When the Iraqis responded to the sergeant's questions with gestures that they had not understood, as they did not speak English, the sergeant's solution was simply to speak English in a louder voice at them as if they were idiots. I was utterly horrified. . . . America raped Iraq and it was perversely complicit in its being raped.
6

To comprehend the etymology of violence represented in Laurence's work, one must recall that, in Greek mythology, Pollux himself was conceived when Zeus took the form of a swan and raped the Spartan queen, Leda. W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) imagines Zeus's use of power and Leda's acquiescence to it in this way:

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there The broken wall,
the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
7

According to Yeats, the "shudder in the loins'' that occurred when Zeus raped Leda led to the birth of the primary figures of the Trojan War and eventually to the death of Agamemnon. Laurence's reference to the Rubens painting expresses that the violence of war creates a vicious retributive and vengeful cycle that can lead only to further slaughter and death in spaces both political and domestic. Laurence's perspective is all file more compelling when one learns that he is the son of survivors of the Shoah; Laurence's father was sent to Sachsenhausen and then to Dachau, where Laurence's grandmother, grandfather, and aunt committed suicide; Laurence's mother survived Kristallnacht and escaped to England even as her parents were sent to Terezin.8

The consideration, then, of all these things in Laurence's work— rape, war, militarism, genocide—speaks to the existential anguish that accompanies modern life, perhaps even more so for those of us who are trying to hold onto our faith in spite of these realities. Is atheism preferable, as a way to avoid what Elie Wiesel refers to as "the tragedy of the believer"—the torment of faith in the face of pervasive human distress? Is faith in an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God possible in a world filled with "dangerous memories": the destruction of in­digenous people on our continent as well as in Africa and Australia, Germany's Holocaust, America's bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, South Africa's apartheid, Argentina's dirty war, Bosnia's genocide, as well as Rwanda's, Cambodia's, and Sudan's?9 This list represents only a fraction of the atrocities humans have engineered in recent memory. A God entirely Good would not sit idly by, passively watching while we did these things to one another; an omnipotent God would certainly intervene to alleviate suffering in keeping with God's perfect Goodness. And since the atrocities do not cease, so the logic goes, such a God must not exist. David Hume, in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), poses the issue in this way:
Epicurus's old questions are yet unanswered:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then, he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing?
Then, he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing?
Whence, then is evil?
10

The word "theodicy," coined by Gottfried Leibniz (d. 1716) from the Greek theos ("god") and dike ("justice"), refers to the exploration of pos­sible defenses of God given the reality of evil and suffering in the world. In this chapter, despite all the minefields surround ing contemporary discussion of this subject, possible defenses of God's knowledge, goodness, and power in light of the evil and suffering in the world are explored. In broaching these topics, it is essential to address several preliminary issues, namely, that not all suffering is the same, that not all suffering causes transformation of the heart, that the very same suffering that may transform one may destroy another, and that there is a difference between suffering at the hands of nature and at the hands of moral evil.

First, it must be said that not all suffering is the same. Most people of goodwill would agree that there is a suffering that functions like a refiner's fire. As painful as it is to endure at the time, it has a creative effect. It changes someone for the better. It spurs growth into matu­rity, perhaps, or it enables someone to become more compassionate in response to the suffering of fellow human beings who are enduring the same or a similar kind of struggle. But we must be cautious when we think about pain and suffering as a refiner's fire. It is one thing to say that God can draw good from evil. This I do not dispute. Such transformation is undeniably a good effect of a lamentable anguish. It is quite another thing to say, however, that God designs the suffering as an instrument in order to achieve a certain end or passively allows the suffering to occur in order to accomplish the same. These are insuf­ficient responsesnb the question of theodicy, because for God to wish this kind of suffering on someone to achieve a higher end, or for God to be passive in the face of suffering, challenges the precept that God is omnibenevolent. Perhaps, one might argue, God desires the good outcome (maturity, for example) but not the means (suffering)—but then we are back to square one in terms of theodicy, for such a move, in order to protect God's goodness, seems to collapse God's power. Certainly, God's power is such that God could accomplish a development of maturity in humankind without requiring suffering born of moral evil. This is a topic to which we will return in due course.

Second, it must also be said that not all suffering causes a transformation in the heart of one who experiences pain, whether physical, psychological, or spiritual. It is loathsome to suggest that God allows the things that cause our anguish—the Holocaust, apartheid in South Africa, or the genocides in Bosnia Herzegovina, Rwanda, Cambodia, Darfur—in order to attain a higher end. Some simply do not survive the violence and therefore cannot be transformed, such as the six million Jews who died terrible deaths at the hands of the Nazis, and the count­less African men and women who were tortured and killed by members of the South African police services during apartheid. Others, the ones who survive, are often traumatized by what they have seen. What of the children who watched machetes tear their loved ones to pieces in Rwanda? Some suffering simply destroys. So when we dare to speak of these things, we must not suggest that all suffering is constructive. There is a suffering that is nothing but destructive.

Third, suffering that is transformative and that functions creatively for one may simply destroy another. A complex interplay of factors, mduding previous exposure to violence and the intricacies of one's temperament, including the degree to which the survivor is resilient, collude to enable some to attain greater compassion, while others spiral into a seemingly bottomless abyss. Therefore, we need to be rrtindful that context matters, and that we cannot speak in broad brushstrokes when referring to the effect of suffering on those who survive. More­over, we must not further traumatize, victimize, or shame the one who spirals by suggesting she or he is weak. Calls for accountability must be directed squarely and continually to those who have conducted or condoned the atrocities in the first place.

And, finally, while the effects may be similar, ranging from trans­formative to destructive, there is a difference between suffering at the hands of nature, so to speak, and at the hands of fellow human beings. In other words, there is a difference between natural disaster and moral evil. Moral evil, because it is unnecessary, is uniquely tragic; whatever suffer­ing it causes could, ostensibly, be avoided—which makes its consequences harder to bear. Suffering from nature's events, whether from earthquakes, sandstorms, hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, tsunamis, droughts, disease, and so on, while tragic, are largely unavoidable. Bodies are vulnerable to the forces of nature. Unless the events themselves and their effects have links to human failings and to poor judgment (and with climate change and disease, these are admittedly increasingly in our moral consciousness), there is a degree to which human beings recognize that there is a degree of suffering that will be experienced precisely because we are embodied and mortal creatures, vulnerable to such things as gravity and to the ele­ments of earth, air, fire, and water. Therefore, it is critical to recognize that the focus of this chapter is on the anguish born of moral evil.

For much of my career in theology, even stretching back to my days as an undergraduate student pursuing a bachelor of arts degree in reli­gion and art history, I have been intrigued, perplexed, and sometimes troubled by possible defenses of God in relation to the sufferings of humankind. Twenty years in, I continue to struggle with every dimension of this profound, even most difficult, of riddles—from the hubris of the question itself to the unsatisfying answers it typically elicits. How is it that we can maintain faith in an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God given the intolerable degrees of suffering experienced by human beings? Must we, to make sense of our faith, deny perfect knowledge, goodness, or power as attributes of God in order to account for the depths of pain and sorrow into which existence sometimes carries us? Does God wel­come this investigation into the nature of the divine Being, as is suggested in the book of Job, when God commends Job for having spoken well of God after Job has asserted the injustice of his circumstances (Job 42:7)? In order to continue to offer praises to God, must we disengage our capacity to reason? Or does God, in the face of suffering, and as the prophet Jeremiah suggests, invite us to pray using the form of the lament, a type of prayer that requires us to protest in faith to God a suffering disproportionate to our guilt? In this chapter, after differentiating key terms in relation to God's knowledge, we will dare to investigate the nature of the divine Being by visiting each attribute in turn, and I will offer a proposal that simultaneously protects God's omniscience, omnibenevolence, and omnipotence. And then, having proposed an approach to the problem of theodicy, we will turn to the lament, to Beauty's song, as perhaps the most appropriate immediate response to suffering at the hands of moral evil.


1 Margaret D. Carroll, "The Erotics of Absolutism: Rubens and the Mystification of Sexual Violence," Representations 25 (winter 1989): 3. return to text

 2 Ovid, Artis Amatoriae 1.664-80, in The Art of Love and Other Poems, trans. J. H. Mozley, rev. ed., Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1939), 59; quoted in Carroll, "The Erotics of Absolutism," 4. return to text

3 Carroll, "The Erotics of Absolutism," 3. return to text

 4 4. "American Realist Artist Interview Geoffrey Laurence," http:/ /arifnews24 .wordpress.com/2010/07 /07/american-realist-artist4nterview-geofnx^y4aurence/. return to text

6 Geoffrey Laurence, e-mail message to author, August 9, 2015.return to text

 9 9. For a discussion of "dangerous memories," a term coined by Johann Baptist Metz, see chap. 4, "Beauty's Veiling: On Sin." return to text

 10 David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Charleston, SC: Biblio-Life,2008) return to text

above book excerpt is copyright of Kimberly Vrudny/Liturgical Press and not for reproduction
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