“In my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.” — G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

I should think that one reasonable requirement of any worthwhile notion of truth should be this: it does not become endangered. If an idea of truth is in legitimate peril, then it might be worth losing.

Among the more curious features of the aftermath of the culture wars is how vigorously truth has been defended against relativism. One can hardly hear the term “truth” in a group of culture warriors without its evil cousin, “relativism,” emerging as an immediate foil. I sometimes wonder if these people are more interested in destroying relativism than in understanding some portion of the truth. This is odd because any notion of truth worth taking seriously, and perhaps even as true, would not seem to be quite so flammable.

Curiosities aside, defending truth is laudable in many respects; surely there is good reason to insist that true things are out there, and that the truth is not wholly reducible to a watery web of relations. In the end, however, our times admit of a certain anxiety in relation to the idea of the truth that at least sets the Anglophone Catholic discussion on edge.

I would suggest that when truth requires a stout defense it might be an occasion to question not only its self-evidence, but also the wit of its communication. What is said to be true may not be what the truth itself shows, and when what is said is out of sync with what is shown, the best thing to do is to shut up.

This defense of the truth against all comers relates to what I have called in my last essay the “vitalist position” in relation to art. In fact, an assumption buried in all vitalist discussions of art—the discussions of whether art is dead, dying, or just fine—is precisely this paranoid relation to truth. Whereas beauty may seem to be the most appropriate way to speak of art itself, the only way to understand what is said about art is in terms of whether the claims made about it are themselves true or false.

I made the claim “art kills” chiefly out of a sense of frustration with the rather boring and unimaginative state of the discussion about art these days, and not really much about art itself. Surely one could say myriad more things about art that are a great deal more interesting, exciting, and surprising than the simple idea that art is folkloric, fragile, and disinterested in preserving itself. And surely there are smarter ways to talk about art than by psychologizing it. But none of these limits deter me from repeating myself in a perhaps less provocative but equally committed way that it is not art that is dead or alive, but the conversation itself that has become another trendy zombie for literate Catholics.

I love reading Paris Review, especially its interviews with authors. I love hearing what authors have to say about their craft, of course, but most of all I like the way in which the staff-writers stage their questions—especially when the authors push back. Reading through these archives I don’t much care about the state of the arts, the novel, or the explosive popularity of the memoir, and I surely don’t give a wet umbrella about Catholic literature. No, when I read these interviews, when I chew on the words of literary and creative giants, I am inspired and reckless. I dash to my keyboard and see what might live in my flesh hammering at plastic.

The same goes for music. I search YouTube for live performances and new bands with less reliability than the decades of curated gold at Paris Review, but I am never moved to leave my headphones for a guitar because I am trying to save or damn anything. I play for something entirely different, more secure and difficult than the generally poor state of jazz, folk, or Augustinian soul music.

For all the real threats of philistinism, the more dangerous enemies may be closer and more intimate. Augustine famously wondered in his Confessions about the relationship between fear and evil, and whether the most proper object of fear might be the fear of that which does not exist to begin with. Those who fear that the truth will be vanquished by anything at all are related to the nervous ones who positively and negatively defend the vitality of art. Beauty should most certainly not save anything at all; I am sick of hearing Dostoevskian platitudes from places where art tingles as a pious spectacle and a truism.

The sufficiency of truth is ultimately what art shows and does; after all, we surely realize that beauty, truth, and goodness are not mere parts but words that describe a single unified whole. Fidelity to this whole may require a rejection of petty and witless conversations, especially the ones that sacrifice it to the ironic gods of nature and convention. This rejection begins by casting out fear; especially the fear that what is true could ever be otherwise.

Art kills this fear, and in that death we are born anew.