A Moral Aesthetic and “The Monster” of the Imagination: A Settlement Between Secular and Religious Ethics

Philosopher of religion and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) argued that religious experience is closely akin in its quality to the appreciation of a work of fine art or music. In a representative passage from On Religion:

Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (Uber die Religion: Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verdchtern), Friedrich Schleiermacher in many ways anticipates the Neo-Kantian innovations in the philosophy of religion of John Hick, who dared to suggest (when Kant would not) that the noumenal realm could be accessed subjectively in the lived ritual experience of the religious individual. Since Schleiermacher himself was heavily influenced by Kant, this extension of the Kantian championing of the human universe through individual subjectivity might also broadly complement Tolkien’s notion of the author or artist as a sub-creator. But it’s also an important remedy to the voice of Walter White, who finds it plausible to approach the whole world as an experiment to be dealt with objectively and empirically—and without recourse to the wisdom of the each of us as a human subject. Schleiermacher writes:

.. .[T]he piety of each individual, whereby he is rooted in the greater unity, is a whole by itself. It is a rounded whole, based on his peculiarity, on what you call his character, of which it forms one side. Religion thus fashions itself with endless variety, down even to the single personality. Each form again is a whole and capable of an endless number of characteristic manifestations. You would not have individuals issue from the Whole in a finite way, each being at a definite distance from the other, so that one might be determined, construed and numbered from the others, and its characteristics be accurately determined in a conception?

Were I to compare religion in this respect with anything it would be with music, which indeed is otherwise closely connected with it. Music is one great whole; it is a special, a self-contained revelation of the world. Yet the music of each people is a whole by itself, which again is divided into different characteristic forms, till we come to the genius and style of the individual. Each actual instance of this inner revelation in the individual contains all these unities. Yet while nothing is possible for a musician, except in and through the unity of the music of his people, and the unity of music generally, he presents it in the charm of sound with all the pleasure and joyousness of boundless caprice, according as his life stirs in him, and the world influences him. In the same way, despite the necessary elements in its structure, religion is, in its individual manifestations whereby it displays itself immediately in life, from nothing farther removed than from all semblance of compulsion or limitation. In life, the necessary element is taken up, taken up into freedom. Each emotion appears as the free self-determination of this very disposition, and mirrors one passing moment of the world.11

Although Schleiermacher takes too many intellectual liberties segregating spiritual pursuits from scientific ones, I maintain that his writing does draw our attention to a fruitful cross-section of art and religious ideas—that mysterious thing called “inspiration”—to make sense of our human predicament.

From the same period as Scheleirmacher, and like Breaking Bad, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a narrative that both celebrates the power of inspiration and the imagination, yet admonishes us mercilessly of their dangers. Shelley grasps the moral lesson that must temper the primordial forces of creativity if we are to build a decent life and world. The novel shows us that there is nothing wrong with Promethean inspiration, unless and until it crosses certain limits. But limits hold little appeal for its central character Victor Frankenstein, whose zeal for chemistry follows the passions of the ancient alchemists as well as their reputation for the folly of excess.

Similarly, Gilligan and his team offer a glimpse of what happens when creativity is first not acknowledged—White is an overqualified and underpaid teacher, but also an ingenious inventor who has been cheated out of the rightful fruits of his inspiration by unscrupulous partners—and then unleashed in the wrong direction. Like Frankenstein, Walter White roughly fits the primal heresy of not respecting mortal limits: he is the modern heretic alchemist. It seems no accident that the color of White’s proprietary crystal meth is blue, the archetypal hue of sadness.

From episode to episode, Gilligan makes us feel something in what seems to many of us like a soul, but may only be chemistry. Complementing the consistently realistic and moving depictions of the ensemble cast, Gilligan’s cinematographic painting in the yellows, reds, and browns of the American Southwest and his endless experiments with composition and perspective drill to the core of emotional possibilities. Those colors also coalesce strangely and memorably in a pizza pie lingering on the roof of the White home, an image that has joined the iconic plastic bag of the film American Beauty as a sort of postmodern Technicolor question mark, asking “What does it all mean?” That query embodies a cosmic rhetorical question that sums up the series.

As hard-nosed and scientifically rigorous as Walt is, his downfall certainly lies in overreaches of a Promethean order. Perhaps the movement of Romanticism can be distilled down to one word: presumption (a close sibling to “Promethean”). Percy Bysshe Shelley’s excesses (and mental instabilities) kept his poor wife and family running from debtors and living in misery. (White would not necessarily appreciate being likened to a Romantic poet, but there does appear to be common ground in grand pronouncements that do not always consider the cosmic caveats.) Another brilliant Romantic poet, John Keats, famously equated truth and beauty in his signature work “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

One can only wonder how a more seasoned and mature Keats, whose life was snuffed out at the age of 25 by tuberculosis, might have refined the assertion that truth is beauty, beauty truth. We do know the two must have something to do with one another, but surely they cannot be identical. We know that the Nazis were preoccupied with aesthetics; under Hitler’s vision, fashionable uniforms and a Third Reich that promoted all of the arts were not entirely detached from Nazi ideology. There is also a parallel account of sartorial attention in the life of Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos, whose seamstress allegedly went blind following her aesthetic dictates.

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