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An Interview with Mark William Roche, Author of “Beautiful Ugliness”

Mark William Roche is the Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., Professor of German Language and Literature, concurrent professor of philosophy, and dean emeritus of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of several books, including Realizing the Distinctive University: Vision and Values, Strategy and Culture (Notre Dame Press, 2017). The University of Notre Dame Press is thrilled to publish his newest book, Beautiful Ugliness: Christianity, Modernity, and the Arts (October 2023). He recently answered some of our questions about his research and writing processes.

When did you first get the idea to write this book?

I had often wondered about the vivid presence of ugliness in modern and  contemporary art. When you go to a museum, you cannot avoid the puzzle. I found a surprising source of insight into ugliness among the earliest students of the German philosopher Hegel, whom I had read closely for a book on comedy. When I then prepared a lecture on the aesthetics of ugliness, I realized, first, that the topic could hardly be exhausted in a brief analysis and, second, that the puzzles and insights I had uncovered were very much worth pursuing in greater depth.

Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame

Certainly, these are unprecedented times in the United States, Europe, and around the world. What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them during this era?

There is much in our world that is physically, emotionally, intellectually, and morally ugly. And art has correspondingly tried to mirror this ugliness. Having categories to grasp ugliness—in art and beyond—can be valuable. Moreover, the idea that it is in principle possible to find the positive in the negative, the beautiful that emerges out of ugliness, has a certain attraction, especially in our age.

How did you research this book?

It was a two-fold process: lots of aesthetic theory but also lots of artworks. The reader will, I think, notice that the book interweaves both theory and practice.

What did you learn while writing it?

One can recognize a range of ways in which beauty is expressed via ugliness. And each form is fascinating in its own way.

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

I had some hunches, but at the start I did not yet have a compelling definition of ugliness and had little idea what forms I would discover, so I learned as I thought and wrote. I had planned to include also a history of the theory of ugliness, but I took out that emerging analysis, because it was not always organically interwoven with the rest of the book, and it made the manuscript even longer, so it will become an independent project.

Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?

Hegel has had the most profound impact on my work. His ability to think through a higher unity beyond seemingly opposed categories was essential for the concept of beautiful ugliness. He surfaces as a partly explicit, partly implicit force in both my historical and systematic sections. And even before this book, I was drawn to Hegel’s theories of tragedy and comedy, which I found superb but also thought could be sensibly revised, a task I undertook in my book Tragedy and Comedy.

Who would you like to read your book and why?

The book should appeal to art lovers: rich with images, the book seeks to grasp not only how the ugly can contribute to beautiful art but also what diverse and often fascinating forms this embodiment takes. I offer these readers new terms and concepts to help them grasp beautiful ugliness. Museum goers may better understand what questions to ask of ugly and seemingly ugly art, and Christian intellectuals may learn from the book a slightly more complex version of beauty than exists in much of contemporary religious art.

But the book also seeks a scholarly audience. Religious studies scholars and theologians have recognized links between Christianity and ugliness, but no larger study of the connection exists. Ugliness has been recognized as an important topic by two of the most eminent twentieth-century philosophers of art (Nelson Goodman and Frank Sibley), but their comments are brief; the topic had yet to be explored in any depth. Above all continental philosophers and theorists, who have often enough explored related topics, such as the abject and disgust, will find the book appealing. Art historians and literature scholars may find a whole new set of hermeneutic categories with which to approach complex artworks.

What books are you currently reading?

I am currently teaching two gripping works, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Otherwise, I just finished Peter Berger’s A Rumor of Angels, which my colleague Bill Donahue had recommended to me, and am now enjoying Plato’s Symposium, which I had not read since I was a first-year college student, and the poems of Natasha Trethewey.

What book or project are you working on next?

I am currently juggling two books.

One is a history of the theory of ugliness, basically from Plato to Adorno and beyond. There is as yet no book in any language that explores either the history of the theory of ugliness or a philosophical evaluation of those theories, so this book will fill a gap in the research and nicely complement Beautiful Ugliness.

The other book I am writing is based on a course I have taught many times called “Faith, Doubt, and Reason” and a lecture I regularly give under the title “Religion and Intellectuals.” I am still working on the book title but am currently playing with The Arc of Faith: The Journey of the Mind away from God (and the Possibility of Return). Basically, I try to bring faith and reason closer together by demonstrating that faith and doubt need not be radically opposed; by showing that a wide range of faith positions exist; and by sketching different concepts of reason, which help clarify in what ways reason and faith can co-exist.

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