“What have you seen that was the most beautiful,” she asked. A distinction is often made between the “pretty” and the “beautiful.” The second is of a completely different order from the first. But, for me, there is a third order, as different from beautiful as beautiful is from pretty. That third order gives not just pleasure, but transcendence. Below is the last of three parts.
At the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona, there is a free-standing room, a box, with two doors: an entrance and an exit. When you go through, you find yourself in a sealed black room filled with tiny LED lights suspended on wires from the ceiling, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of them. All the walls, the floor and ceiling are mirrors, and so the universe of lights is visually infinite. It is completely disorienting. You are meant to walk through and go out the exit, but the first time I went, I walked in a straight line from the entrance and came out — the entrance. You can not avoid getting lost.
It is an art installation by Yayoi Kusama called You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies and is one of the most popular pieces in the museum. Kusama is a 91-year-old Japanese-born artist who has lived for the past 40 years by choice in a Tokyo mental institution. By one survey, from 2005, she was the most popular artist in the world. Her work is easy to enjoy. Perhaps too easy.
It is always some manifestation of her obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it is also fun. In an otherwise dismissive review in The Guardian from 2018, Jonathan Jones complains of another one of Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrored Rooms,” that it is on “about the same artistic level as a lava lamp – or an infinite number of lava lamps,” but nevertheless, says, “I was as blissed out as the next idiot.”
Where is the rule that says art, to be good, must be difficult to understand? Besides, it is more important to have an experience than to be told what something means. Kusama’s installation is an unforgettable experience. It is also a reminder of experience: the daily encounter with the infinite we live through but don’t see. Once in a while, we may look up at the night sky and admire its vastness, but most of the time, we just shut the door and turn on the TV.
Giving in to the infinite — or the emotional experience of it — is the source of the third level of the beautiful. It can hit you whenever you are open to it. Not necessarily seeking it, but nevertheless open to it. Most often, we spend our lives closed, trying to make sense of the everyday things that take up most of our time. But there are moments when it all breaks in. These moments tend to stick in our psyches, to be brought back in memory to refresh our lives.
In May of 1972, my second unofficial wife and I (seven years of living together must qualify as something), hiked up Rock Castle Creek near Woolwine, Va., to an abandoned farm, known as the Austin Place.
It took about 40 minutes to climb the trail to the farm. The noise of the creek stayed with us as we went past fields of Virginia creeper and forests of fallen chestnut. We crossed the creek three times on hewn logs.
There is a rise at the end of the trail, and a field gone to seed. At the other end, at one corner of the field is a collapsing gray weathered barn with many chinks, fallen doors and cracked windows to let the sun ricochet in abstractions inside. Past the barn is the house, two stories and old, chipped and dirty paint, balusters that are no two quite the same — having been twisted or replaced or fallen — A second floor porch with crusty hammock hooks, a green tin roof and cherry trees garnishing the facade. We climbed the old concrete steps to the porch and sat our burdens down.
As we looked out over the front lawn, it was weeds, then the rapid stream with a bridge that looked like a fallen ladder over it, more weeds beyond that, then a sharp rise and embankment with an apple orchard above it, all going feral. A bit further than that, the trees started climbing nearly straight up. The mountain took off like a precipice and climbed 1,000 to 1,500 feet.
I found an unlocked window leading to the pantry and got myself into the farmhouse and opened the front door. The day was idled along contentedly. We wasted all of it with the productive waste of happiness.
We brought out a hammock and lay in that for a while. We cooked a stew for dinner. Near the end of the day, we lay together in the hammock on the second floor porch, looking out at the beauty, listening to the stream and smelling green leaves and budding flowers, feeling the warmth of the sun. We dozed, then held each other some more. We watched the brilliant crowns of the trees as the sun narrowed to a shaft behind the ridge and illuminated only their tops. The incandescent crowns grew smaller and more precipitous on the head of the trees.
Against the dark of the trees and hillside a billion flickers burned thick as stars as lightning bugs made Fourth of July for us. I have never seen so many at once. And the moment stood still and I felt the old Faust plea: “I could almost wish this moment to last forever, it is so beautiful.”
Kusama’s installation brought back that day, the points of light in the dark, and the feeling of infinite awe.
There is something about a crowd of points in an undifferentiated field that speaks of eternity: It is the stars in the black of midnight. The motion of the tall grass in the prairie curling in the wind, animated, as the Lakota say, by Taku Skanskan — the life-giving force of nature. The swaying tips of trees against the sky on a breezy day. The self is forgotten and I become a universal witness to a universal transcendence.
The Little Bighorn National Battlefield in Montana is a quiet place, with the hiss of wind in the grass and the buzzing of grasshoppers. The road through the park continues for about five miles, past the congested visitor’s center and along the high ridge of bluffs and coulees over the river bottom to the location where Custer’s subordinates, Reno and Benteen, held off the Indian siege for two days.
Most people hang around the monument on Battle Ridge, where small white crosses mark the places where Custer and his men fell. But if you drive to the end of the pavement, you can walk out in the grass, which curls in the breeze like white horses on the sea swell, and hear the phoebe’s song among the seedheads, and watch the approach of an afternoon thunderstorm with its dark clouds and flickering glow of distant lightning.
I had the experience thrust on me in the late 1960s at Gaddys Pond, near Charlotte, N.C., which was then a privately owned lake that was a stopping place for Canada geese on their migrations. The geese, the brants, the crows that hung around, all made an amazing din of squawks. You could barely make out any individual sound, because the buzzing was everywhere. It is one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard. There must have been a million birds on that pond. Points on a ground.
Sometimes, I will take out my old Peterson cassettes of bird calls just to play the part of the geese — the million-geese squall of honks. It satisfies as much as a Bach fugue.
In eastern North Carolina one winter many years ago, millions of blackbirds descended on Scotland Neck. The bare trees were leafed out with them and periodically they would rise up the the tens of thousands and swirl in a great murmuration — a twisting cloud of tiny dots against the iron-gray winter sky. You had to involuntarily suck in a great breath of frozen air for the sheer admiration and beauty of it.
In the late 1970s, when I lived in Seattle, I spent many unemployed days at the aquarium. Watching fish in the window of the great tank was relaxing, but something more akin to the murmurations of birds was the salmon run. You could stand underneath it and look up through its glass bottom and watch the hundreds of fry twist in circles above you, and like the birds, seem to move as a single entity instead of a million commas or apostrophes darting through the fluid.
There is something about these swarms, whether fireflies or salmon, that seems both utterly random, yet, carefully organized. Very like the night sky, governed by some relatively simple physics, but so immense as to be indistinguishable from the infinite.
This sense has, in the English-speaking world, been labeled “the sublime.” It is not simply the beautiful, but the beautiful that is overwhelming. “It takes your breath away,” is too easily said, but seldom actually encountered. But when it does, you enter a different reality. Time stops, eternity begins.
It was an anonymous author known as Longinus (we don’t actually know who he was, other than his name) who wrote the treatise, “Peri Hypsos,” or “On the Sublime.”
“Nature prompts us to admire, not the clearness and usefulness of a little stream, but the Nile, the Danube, the Rhine, and far beyond all, the Ocean; not to turn our wandering eyes from the heavenly fires, though often darkened, to the little flame kindled by human hands, however pure and steady its light; not to think that tiny lamp more wondrous than the caverns of Aetna, from whose raging depths are hurled up stones and whole masses of rock, and torrents sometimes come pouring from earth’s center of pure and living fire. … “
“When we survey the whole circle of life, and see it abounding everywhere in what is elegant, grand, and beautiful, we learn at once what is the true end of a human’s existence. … Therefore even the whole world is not wide enough for the soaring range of human thought, but the mind often overleaps the very bounds of space.”
That may sound a bit hyperventilated, but if you have once experienced it and left your corporeal existence behind to join with the cosmos for that brief second and know that eternity is not simply a very long time, but something without time at all, then you will have experienced beauty in a new way that has nothing to do with something merely being pleasing. Yes, it is only a psychological experience — I’m not making any great anagogic argument here — but it is a glory.
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