A Universal Language?

Rollo May spreads a wide net in his discussion of beauty and the arts. Coming from a traditional liberal arts perspective, it’s not surprising he includes myths in his discussion of the arts. I think I was actually introduced to, and beguiled, by Edith Hamilton’s Greek Mythology in high school. Certainly by my freshman year in college I realized it was vital to have a solid background in Greek Mythology and The Bible if I hoped to understand English literature, particularly poetry. Of the two, Greek mythologies always remained my favorite. I don’t think, though, that I ever ascribed the same importance to them that May does:

Far from being irrational, myths actually save us from irrationality. They make our powerful emotions, which would drive us into psychosis otherwise, into diluted forms which we can absorb. And they do that by virtue of being an art form, as the Iliad and Apocalypse Now are art forms.

The myth has certain characteristics which it shares with other art forms, like poetry, the novel, painting, sculpture, music and dance. These shared characteristics include harmony, balance, rhythm. They are qualities which minister to our inner needs for serenity, for a sense of eternity, and ultimately for courage. All genuine works of art give a sense of meaning which informs us that life is more significant than the disasters, petty or great, which clamor for our attention. “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast” is attested by numberless events through history like King Saul calling upon David to play music to soothe his madness. The Greeks seem to have been particularly aware of these forms of beauty, and they were not hampered by any commandment against making graven images, as the Hebrews were in their Ten Commandments.

Myths never had quite that effect on me, though I did learn at an early age that the arts could “minister to our inner needs for serenity, for a sense of eternity, and ultimately for courage.” For me, though, it was The Blues that helped to minister to my teenage angst. There was something comforting in knowing that a blues singer could create such beauty out of love gone wrong, even if I couldn’t. Bobby Bland’s I Pity the Fool got me through some tough times and is still one of a very few songs with five stars in my iTunes library.

I’m not a psychologist but Rollo May is a pretty good one and cites several other prominent psychologists to support his contention that myths, and other forms of art helps us to manage subconscious desires:

Art is our way of managing our inner turmoil, transcending our terror, and protecting ourselves from our own psychotic tendencies. From the high tension of Motherwell’s canvases, to the eruption of Hofmann’s brilliant colors, to the despair of Picasso’s Guernica, art relieves our extremes of emotion. Our inordinate passion is drained off; our pressure to act out these emotions in society is relieved, and we are deeply consoled.

Art gives us repose and harmony where there otherwise would be explosion and destruction. Thus art is our universal therapist. It mirrors and gives us catharsis for our terror of dehumanization. As we stand in the presence of de Kooning’s canvases, we are strengthened in our efforts to transcend our inner conflicts. Modern art speaks often directly to our subconscious and preconscious selves, as in Pollock and Rothko. Instead of running from our troublesome dreams, we can welcome them into awareness, as when we look at Hofmann or Dali.

In these ways myth as an art form ministers to us on dimensions below consciousness; it encompasses our irrationality and our daimonic tendencies. Myths thus humanize mankind even though this process is always precarious. Thus myths give us a harmony of rational and irrational, a harmony of antimonies. Myths carry health-giving catharsis, as no one can doubt after seeing a performance of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex or Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. If we wished an explanation for humankind’s invention of myths, we need go no farther than the fact that myths enable us to live more humanly in the midst of our unhuman, warring unconscious. Myths enable us to exist and persevere as strangers in a strange land.

I’ll have to admit that despite my love of myths, I really haven’t given a lot of thought to the function they play in our personal lives. Rollo May has much more to say about the power of myths, which convinced me to order his book The Cry for Myth. I’ll have more to say later on this subject.

Like May, I believe that art somehow manages to make us more aware of the horrors of modern life while simultaneously allowing us to cope with those horrors:

Looking at Guernica makes us reaffirm our quality as human beings. It presents beauty even in this picture of the gross cruelty of human beings; and this beauty deepens our love for those who suffer. In this respect Picasso has the same effect as Shakespeare in his drama King Lear, or Aeschylus in The Oresteia, and other great tragedies of human history. Guernica is a catharsis; it presents man’s inhumanity to man move vividly than reams of printed paper could do, and it presents the beauty which marks human beings in contrast to this gross cruelty.

Modern art often seems to me to be the area in which honesty is most forthright in presenting the violence in our society. Call to mind Ben Shawn and his pictures of the Sacco Vanzetti case, which did more to expose the miscarriage of justice in the execution of these two men than volumes of writing. Even the improvised sculpture I mentioned earlier, of the wrecked car with a cow’s blood and intestines splashed over the seats, is gross indeed, but if one can empathize with the meaning of the artists, one sees a picture of the violence inherent in modern technology.

Many would find this a strange definition of Beauty, but those who argued that Truth and Beauty are One would accept it immediately. What could be uglier than glossing over reality because it is too hard to face?

Rollo May argues that Beauty transcends time, tying all man together across the ages:

The strange thing about beauty is that it wipes away all boundaries and inspires us to realize our common humanity. Our destiny interweaves us with each other, and our arts make every war nowadays a civil war, a war against our brothers and sisters no matter what nation they happen to belong to.

Beauty overcomes distinctions between all people on this planet. In beauty we have a language common to all of us despite racial or cultural differences-and even despite national and historical enmities. For this very Egypt, to which I was then traveling, later shared with us in America the art objects found in King Tut’s tomb, and crowds of people stood in our twentieth-century lines for hours for the privilege of seeing the statues in bronze and gold which had been buried with this king in ancient Egypt. The colorful Turkish and Persian rugs which decorate the floors of tens of thousands of persons in all countries and have influenced the designs of rugs virtually all over the world, came from the same part of the world as the “terrible Turk” standing politely beside me. And when we think of the contribution of German-speaking peoples-from Boehme to Beethoven to Goethe to Hegel, et al. -our words fail us.

All these are our common heritage of beauty, and never has there been any doubt that they belonged to all civilized people.

Hard to disagree with this. I know I marveled when I saw reproductions of Mayan works or when I managed to personally view Indian petroglyphs.

In fact, May argues that Beauty is the common human language:

We realize now that our common human language is not Esperanto or computers or something having to do with vocal cords and speech. It is, rather, our sense of proportion, our balance, harmony and other aspects of simple and fundamental form. Our universal language, in other words, is beauty.


Beneath our loquacious chatter, there is a silent language of our whole being which yearns for art and the beauty from which art comes. For we find ourselves an integral part of this universe in our breathing, our heart beat, our amazing balance in such a minor thing as taking one step on the path: the earth comes up to meet us, as Newton pointed out, that infinitesimally small distance, and our foot goes out to meet the earth. From this fantastic balance of the human organism comes the art of walking and ultimately to making such forms as the ballet dancers which Degas shows us in his rich paintings. When Kant said, “Two things incline the heart to wonder, the starry sky above and the moral law within,” I wish to add a third. That is the amazing sense of balance that enables us to walk and run and to dance in the ways the peasants and other humans celebrate and express their ecstasy in all parts of the world.


Art is the instrument by which beauty is actualized. Art is the eternal endeavor to realize beauty. Sometimes it is successful, sometimes a failure; but the poignancy of beauty will never let us go.

I don’t know a single word of Chinese or Japanese, but I certainly feel that Lao Tsu, Ryokan, Buson, and many Sumi artists speak directly to me. Who hasn’t been enthralled by artists from a country whose language they know nothing about? There seems to be something int the human genes that responds to art, no matter where it originates.

I doubt that anyone who visits here regularly would disagree with Rollo May when he argues:

One thing is certain: a world that does not have a concern for beauty will not be worth saving. Aristotle was surely right when he wrote, “Not life is to be valued, but the good life.” For all true Greeks, this was central in their concept of Arëtë: the noble life was first of all the beautiful life.


This is the fundamental importance of beauty and of the art that springs from a love of beauty. The humanities, such as art and music and poetry, exist for one purpose alone: to enhance the quality of human existence. There are riches that lie at hand in any library, waiting to make life fuller, to make us more vital, to disclose to us the presence of joys in life which have been there all the time but we were blind to them. There is no library worth the name which does not have the mental inspiration to take us, like Columbus, to new worlds.


In poetry, in art, in literature, in music, there is not only the power “to tame the savage breast,” but to give us the sense of joy and serenity we sorely need. There is music that brings us this with no need for economic riches. Do we need to be awakened to adventure and the sense of passion if our lives are boring? Homer brings us this, as does the poetry in many songs of the Beatles. Taste is a particular approach, but it still can have its value; there is no need to insist that every person experience his soul enlivened by the same things.


4 thoughts on “A Universal Language?

  1. The passages quoted by May (and the comments on mythology) lead me to wonder:

    a) what if we started over? What mythologies would we use to explain our world
    Assuming we had roughly the same concerns to explain, how would be explain the origin of the stars; volcanoes; hurricanes; forest fires.
    How would we explain massive political egotism; the tendency of some men to be obsessively attached to their mothers? the experience of repeated failuer?
    How would we explain mortal fear, chaos, dread, infatuation?

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful to invent myths to explain all those without turning to science or some other mythologies?
    And isn’t that what artists (the best ones) always do..each of them in his/her own way?
    You could even say we are all little islands of monoculture, looking for someone to believe in us.
    The Italian philosopher (UGO BETTI) said something like, “Here I go, trying to explain my life, and all I have are these pitiful words.”
    He also said, “Perhaps only you can listen to me without laughing.”
    (actually he said a lot more):
    That! Nothing else matters half so much. To reassure one another. To answer each other. Perhaps only you can listen to me and not laugh. Everyone has, inside himself…what shall I call it? A piece of good news! Everyone is …a very great, very important character! Yes, that what we have to tell them up there! Every man must be persuaded—even if he’s in rags—that he’s immensely, immensely important! Everyone must respect him; and make him respect himself too. They must list to him attentively. Don’t stand on top of him, don’t stand in his light. But look at him with deference. Give him great hopes, he needs them…especially if he’s young. Spoil him! Yes, make him grow proud!
    And Pirandello addresses it in SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR.

    In related veins:

    “There is no need to believe in a supernatural source of evil. Man alone is capable of every wickedness.” –Joseph Conrad.
    “Of all sexual aberrations I know of, chastity is the strangest.” GB Shaw.
    “This shaking keeps me steady…” Roethke

    b) what mythologies already operate on us, even if we do not call them by that name?
    –the mythology of the genius CEO (Gates/Buffett?)
    –the mythology of the dishonest car dealer?
    –the mythology of Leonard Cohen & Bob Dyland and Van Morrison (the mystical folksinger god)
    –the mythology of the stock market?
    –the mythology of Glenn Beck?

  2. I enjoyed this post very much, Loren. I agree with May that myth, art and beauty are the most basic, the most important and the most universal languages – and that all are vital as therapy and catharsis, and are instruments of joy and serenity.

    He also touches on walking(balance, running, dancing) as therapy and an expression of ecstasy, a concept I find most sympathetic, and one which I suppose is an unwritten principle behind my own blog. I hope to develop this idea about walking in some future posts.

What do you think?