The Invisible Prophet

March 6, 2010

The Invisible Prophet

It is said that when God sent one of the greatest prophets to earth, the devil was so terrified that people would heed her message that he hatched a plan to ensure that it would never be heard. He decided to conceal her message as best he could. He looked far and wide for a hiding place that would be so impenetrable, so concealed, that no one would ever hear it. After a long and difficult search the devil finally found the perfect hiding place; he concealed the prophet’s message in beauty.

When the prophet finally began her ministry, people would gather around to witness her legendary beauty and elegance. She moved with extraordinary grace, and when she opened her mouth the words sounded as if they had been carefully crafted by some divine poet and sung by a choir of angels. When she spoke, the crowds would reverently murmur, “Isn’t she beautiful?”

“How elegantly she moves,” “What grace and splendor she has,” and “What majestic poetry she crafts.”

The great painters would sketch her form, and the poets used her as a muse. The critics would delight themselves in her carefully crafted words, and the sculptors would turn to their marble.

Her message was a difficult one, telling of an impending tragedy that would befall the earth if the people did not learn to love the planet, to live simply, to turn from selfishness and embrace humility. She proclaimed that whole cities would be leveled if people did not learn to love once more without limit, without return, and without borders. But the prophet’s cries of condemnation, while celebrated as poetry, were not heard. Her beauty and elegance eclipsed her message, until both she and her words disappeared entirely beneath her voice and form.

So it was that the people moved toward their destruction with dancing and celebration, with eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear.

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There’s a fair degree of meta-critique going on here: the parable, itself a construction of words, elegance, and meaning, is critiquing words elegance and meaning. But it is, I think, far from suggesting that words do not matter; instead, I think think it is telling us to keep things in proper perspective. One could see this as a reformulation of the “Faith without works” discourse.

Last night I saw The Last Station, a dramatization of the last few days of Leo Tolstoy’s life. While a fairly mediocre film, there’s a moment in it that is germane to this discussion. The Countess Tolstoy, convinced she and her family are being betrayed by plotters within the Tolstoyan movement plays an opera piece at dinner one night. She explains her selection to the secretary, “She’s a woman being let down and betrayed by those closest to her. Everyone finds that very moving in the opera.”

The Countess was trying to harness art and beauty to reveal her perspective, whilst simultaneously noting that while art moved people it was perhaps too easily quarantined from “real life.” We might sigh over the depictions of Indian poverty in Slumdog Millionaire, but how many of us actually do anything– even a small gesture– towards redressing that deprivation?

I don’t want to suggest that all art must have some sort of socially bettering ulterior motive. That’s silly. Some of my favorite works have no such undercurrent to them, and I think I’d find art tiresome if such a thing came to pass. I do want to suggest that armchair polemicists should temper their words with commensurate action, and that applies to me, too.

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