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“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. 

Click on any image to enlarge

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 second of three parts.

At the conclusion of Goethe’s Faust, his aging hero looks out on the world with a note of satisfaction. “I could almost wish this moment to last forever, it is so beautiful.”

That is exactly how pianist Lang Lang played the slow movement of the Chopin E-minor piano concerto with the Phoenix Symphony when I heard him in the fall of 2008. He lingered over the larghetto, stretching its already vague rhythmic drive down to a near halt, and stopping the audience’s breath with it.

Each phrase seemed to pour forth spontaneously from the pianist’s fingers, followed by another seemingly thought of on the spot. No two phrases were played at the same tempo, and each tempo seemed perfectly expressive.

It is a rare performer who can risk such an arrhythmia, and who can use it to make the music express poetry and longing, dreaming and anticipation. It was one of the best performances ever given by a soloist at Symphony Hall.

That the pianist felt so expressively free comes as a surprise: His recording of the same concerto is rather dull and literal-minded. His Phoenix performance was a poetic night to his recording’s washed-out noonday glare.

Even Lang’s stage demeanor was less like the reputation that preceded him: While he certainly emoted while playing, there was less of the rocking and eye-rolling that he has engaged in in the past. His most obvious physical “dance” came during that slow-movement, when he leaned back as if he were in a recliner, with his arms stretched out straight in front of him barely reaching the keyboard, and his head aimed straight at the ceiling, where he seemed to find the notes he was playing. He found the right ones and time stopped for the duration. 

That sense of time standing still is, for me, the practical definition of “transcendence,” the sense of being pulled out of conventional reality and given a glimpse of something even more real. 

One goes through a lot of perfectly decent if unexceptional concerts waiting, hoping each time for such a performance — one that makes time stand still and matches the notes of the music to the interior needs of the listener — the music and the hearer become a single event and you feel to yourself, “This is me, this is the mirror of my soul.” 

Of course, when you have an experience like that concert, the cause is not simply the performance or the music. The listener must be receptive. It is a two-part event: the message and the addressee. Perhaps others in the audience did not dissolve in rapture; and I’m sure there have been concerts I sat through inert during which other audience members wept. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 

But not the way it is usually meant: For most, the cliche simply means de gustibus non est desputandum — all a matter of taste. But that is not it, at all. Beauty of the kind I’m writing of is not something solid and unchanging in the music or the artwork or poem — or in the green forest or towering thunderhead. Beauty is an event, not a thing. A verb, not a noun.   

Beauty is your active participation in the perception of the things of this world. The music is capable of being felt as beautiful and we are capable of perceiving that as beauty. But the two things are one and come together in the eye — or ear — of the beholder. Unless they arrive at the same moment, there is no beauty. To become part of the event, you must be awake, aware, alive. You must see or hear of feel more intensely than you do in the ordinary world of driving your car or tying your shoelaces. In such moments, the world becomes transfigured. 

I can picture the north rose window at Chartres cathedral in France. There are three such windows, but the one at the north corner of the building is the one that rivets my attention each time I visit.

It is the north window that moves me, in part because it moves, itself. This is an illusion, of course, but its designer was one of the geniuses of his age, able to create that illusion with static stone and glass. Each of these roses are built of circles of circles, building from a central core, and radiating out, like choirs of angels surrounding Providence. But in the north window, the panels dance.

It may be hard to see this in a reproduction, like the one here, but there is a ring of squares and diamond-shapes that form one of the rings, and it is nearly impossible to see these alternating squares and diamonds as anything but tumbling shapes, dancing around the center.

The north rose window of Chartres cathedral is — I have said many times — the single most beautiful human-created entity I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a gob-lot of iconic art works. It brings me to tears each time I am in its presence, and I feel the need to return to it, a feeling very kin to love.

I know a lot of hoo-haw gets ascribed to art. People make great claims for art, only some of which can be supported. But I believe, from my own experience, that art can make you more sensitive to the world around you, to prompt you to see again those things you have become inured to through over-exposure and turned to the ash of everyday-ness. As I have also said, every bush is the burning bush, we just can no longer see it. Seeing it is the epiphany, the moment the world shifts and you see the periphery become the center. When you open those gates in your chest, and let the world in, it becomes intensely beautiful and makes you understand, as William Blake wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

Each time I visit Chartres, I sit on the church chair in the south transept and look back at the north, for 20 minutes at a time, maybe a half-hour, staring, with tears streaming down my cheeks. This is visionary art, and you don’t have to believe in the dogma to understand the metaphor: This is the Great Mystery. The magnum misterium. You could be looking at photographs from the Hubble telescope. You could be looking at the visions of a peyote dream. You could be looking at the eye of god.

It is not only in art that these things happen. In 1974, my second unofficial wife and I took a trip to Port Jervis,  N.Y., where my aunt had a trailer on the Delaware River. We vacationed and lounged. There, I had one of those epiphanies — reached a state of grace, an esthetic perfection that has never left me.

In its northern parts, the Delaware is not much of a river; it is just a broad shallow stony-bottomed stream with a sandy bluff on one shore or the other, depending which way the riverbed turns. But along the roadsides, and in every abandoned field, the bobbing orange heads of black-eyed Susans mixed with the midnight blue of ironweed. Spikes of mullein drove upward and stands of Joe Pye weed grew to four feet high.

There is something different about the fall wildflowers, something weedier, something more insistent. Their vegetable smells and sticky white sap are less immediately pretty, but they have more character: They are grownup. Perhaps, too, it is the drier air of autumn, the mixed stands of plants, blending goldenrod with Queen Anne’s lace, bull thistle and hawkweed in a Pointillist stew of color.

Anyway, that’s how it seemed as we drove by the railroad yard in Port Jervis, at the point New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania all meet. The old yard, anchored by an abandoned turntable and roundhouse, was completely grown over in asters. There were millions of them in the open acres of the yard, each with its yellow disk surrounded by blue ray flowers. Intermixed were all the other fall flowers: the yarrow, boneset, coneflowers and the chicory left over from midsummer.

And in the weedy field, even the spring flowers were represented, not by their blossoms, but by their fruits: the burrs; seedpods; milkweed down; and nightshade berries. For me, it was one of those moments when clocks stopped and the impression burned into my mind as if by aqua fortis on a copper etching plate. That eternal moment has never left me. At times when the day has been roiled and I have trouble getting to sleep, I can recall that scene and let the rancor drain away. 

Beauty of the third sort, of the kind I mean, is visionary. It penetrates like the angel’s arrow into Saint Teresa. It is not a matter of appreciation, as in “I like this painting,” but rather, of turning your mental innards inside-out. You see a vastness inside yourself that is the image of the vastness outside — the two become indistinguishable: the event and its image in the mirror. 

It doesn’t happen often, and it doesn’t happen to everyone. Those bound up in the bustle of the everyday, of the making of fortune, the vying for position, or those in fear of genocide or famine who cannot waste the time on such things, it is possible they are unable to open their chests up to the incoming. But even they, at times, will be dumbstruck by a bolt they didn’t expect and recognize the transcendent. 

Part 3 to follow

Carole Steele wrote one of my favorite poems. It is the first one in her book, Rust Sings. Called, “Winter,” it is a catalog of deeply seen and felt physical detail, presented with the verbal precision that is one of the hallmarks of her writing. But it is the final quatrain that set me thinking.

“What have you seen that was the most beautiful?” And I looked back at my own life and come up with my own list of those things, not merely that were beautiful, but “the most beautiful.” That gave me not just pleasure, but a transcendence. These were all life-changing encounters, that filled my inner life like a freshet fills a pool. 

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. It is hard to describe exactly what it is, but it makes time stand still. It isn’t something you desire, like the pretty, or admire, like the beautiful, but something that stops you in your tracks, clobbers you over the pate and reminds you that you are alive in a universe. In the first two orders, you are distinct from the object of your attention; in the third, you and it become a single thing.

The first time I encountered this, I had no clue what it was, or any way to express it. I must have been five or six years old and riding in the back seat of our 1950 Chevrolet as we drove along the top of the New Jersey edge of the Palisades. It was night and the Manhattan skyline across the Hudson was a new constellation on the horizon. A million pegs of light, like as many pinpricks poked through a black backdrop, gave something of the effect of a waning campfire, blackened by ash, through which the underlayer of flame burned, glowing coals that I now take as a metaphor for the intelligence that burns under the surface of the cranial cortex. 

Since then, I have encountered that same scintillating coal sight many times, flying across country at night and looking down at the electric cities, especially as the plane on its final descent brings the city up closer and all the light, as if coming from under a blackened blanket, just burns, flickering like stars, shifting as the plane angles towards the landing. 

 This is a planetary emotion: the awareness that we live on a round globe suspended in a cold, black immensity. The most powerful and intense encounter with this sense came on a trip to the South Carolina shore in the mid-1970s. 

Huntington Beach State Park is 2,500 acres of saltmarsh, fresh water lagoons and live oaks festooned with Spanish moss. It is a haven for birds. I added 27 species to my life list in that trip. It was by far my best single day as a birdwatcher.

An old causeway, paved in concrete, runs ramrod straight from Brookgreen Gardens, on the landward side of U.S. 17, to Atalaya, the one-time beach house of industrialist Archer Huntington and his wife, the sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington. On one side of the roadway is the tidal saltmarsh, on the other, a pond.

The clown-faced ruddy turnstone flicked pebbles over with its beak; the oystercatcher poked its red-orange bill into the mud, looking for lunch; and the black skimmer sailed inches above the lagoon with its lower jaw slicing through the water, feeling for minnows. And there were alligators submerged like tree stumps in the murky water.

There were also herons, egrets, gulls, terns, coots and gallinules. Ibises, bitterns, phalaropes, curlews, willets and mergansers.

On a dead branch above the receding tide, an anhinga stretched its black wings out in the sun to dry. I wrote what is perhaps the earliest poem I still keep, about that anhinga.

I was with my second unofficial wife, Sharon, and we slept in the dunes and were eaten alive by sand fleas. The next morning, I went down to the beach before dawn to watch the sun come up. When it first appears, you can see it moving, slowly but distinctly.

The sliver of brilliance broke the horizon and mirrored off the tops of the ocean waves, casting the near side of each into an obsidian blackness. The effect was of turning the sea into a shifting net of burning copper laced with black lacquer. 

And then, like Joshua in the Valley of Ajalon, I saw the moving sun come to a dead halt halfway out of the water. It was a disconcerting effect. And at the very moment the sun stopped moving, the vast gears and motors of the Earth started spinning and the sand under my feet began to move under my feet, yanking me — and the whole eastern seaboard  — toward the motionless sun.

It was as if the whole planet had become a ferris wheel and I was just coming over the top. I momentarily lost my balance as my plane of reference shifted from the local to the sidereal.

A few seconds later, all was once more normal and terrestrial; the sanderlings ran back and forth with the breakers and it was time to wake the others and tell them what I had seen.

It was yet another of those planetary experiences, a complete and involuntary disjunction from the ordinary frame of reference to a more cosmic, perhaps truer, one. 

That sort of epiphany doesn’t come often, but it does come. I was camping on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, down 45 miles of dirt road on the way to Toroweap. There was not another person for 20 miles in any direction. At 6:30 exactly, with the sun already below the planet’s edge, the first star came out, directly overhead. It was Vega, in the constellation Lyra. The rest of the sky is still a glowing cyan with an orange wedge in the west. 

So far from civilization, the night sky is a revelation. As the night darkens, the stars pour out like sand from a beach pail. By 7:30 the sky is hysterical. I haven’t seen so many stars since I was a child. The Milky Way ran from north to south like the river of incandescence it is, splitting like a tributary stream from Cygnus to Sagittarius. 

I sat on the car hood, leaning back with my head against the windshield and looked straight up. For two-and-a-half hours, I sat there, looking up, trying to do nothing and think nothing. Just look. 

What at first seemed to be a solid bowl overhead, with pinpricks punched in it for the light to shine through, later took on depth. It became a lake with fish-stars swimming in it at all depths. This is beauty of the third kind, transcendent and transfigured. As I reclined on the hood, I suddenly had the sensation of being a figurehead on a ship, or a hood ornament on a car, speeding into the three-dimensional emptiness defined by those stars. 

The realization hit me that, of course, I was. I was having my vision, as it were. But it is my particular stubborn sensibility that epic vision and lumpen fact turn out to be two faces on the same head. This has happened to me before. Each time I enter the visionary world, it turns out that the transforming image I am given is grounded in simple fact.

I really am on a stony vehicle careening through stars. It is just that in everyday life, we never think of it that way. Given the solitude and the velvet sky, the obvious becomes apparent. 

When my joints were finally too stiff from sitting in one position for so long, I decided it was time to sleep. I crawled in the tent and dozed off in the silence.

Then, at 3:30 in the morning, I got out of the tent to look at the sky again. It was all turned around. Orion was now up and bright as searchlights. And the Milky Way went east and west, having revolved around the pole star. So, this bullet we’re riding on is rifled. 

The night went on like that: One sense input after another, so busy through the nocturnal time-sluice that I hardly got any sleep at all. At 6 in the morning, the coyotes yowled, and I decided it must be time to get up. The east was whitening, although the sun was behind the mesa. 

When I drew open the tent flap, I saw the blue sky patched with gray-brown clouds, and dangling from one of them was a rainbow. It was not much more than a yellowish bright spot against the angry cloud, but I saw its familiar arc and promise. 

We live two lives. In the common one, we are one in 7 billion, a single voice in a clamor of humanity, spaced 100 per square mile. We function as part of the crowd. But in that other life, we are alone. We are the one, the singular — heroes in our own life’s epic, even, and we recognize the solitary importance of ourselves to ourselves. 

It is this second life — so rich and so important to our sense of meaning and purpose — that we come to meet in solitude. That is perhaps what Montaigne meant when he wrote, “The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.” 

The first life is brought to you by television, newspapers, books, radio and movies. It is a cultural existence, defined by other people. It is the madding crowd we are never far from. 

The second life comes to you when you seek it, alone, in quiet. Ultimately, to yourself and your family, it is this second self that is important. It is this self that is fed by beauty, is kept alive by beauty. 

Continued in Part 2

I am old, Father William, I am old. I wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. And I’m not kidding: I am sitting at my keyboard and there are wide cuffs on my dungarees. I have shrunk. I am only minimally shorter than I was when I was young, but I have settled, like an old house. I have been crawling around on this earth for 72 years. 

Two days ago, the maple tree in the front yard was a deep forest green. Today, half its leaves are yellow and orange. I don’t know if this will be my last fall, but certainly the number of them ahead is dwarfed by the number behind.

It has always been my favorite season, although I lost 25 of them by living in the desert, where fall is really just a period of about 17-and-a-half minutes between the thermometer at or above 100F and the moderating drop to about 80. In Arizona, it skulks by almost unnoticed. Winter is the great season in Arizona. 

I grew up in the Northeast, where fall has a special character, with nippy, dry October days and a sun getting lower in the sky, which makes the leaf color all the more ruddy and the shadows more deeply lined. Leaves raked into piles for kids to jump into. A skim of ice on ponds in the early morning. 

Now, I am in the North Carolina mountains and this time of year, the Blue Ridge Parkway begins to feel like the 101 in Los Angeles, clogged with cars, their inhabitants seeking the perfect fall-color experience. 

In most of my past years, what I noticed about fall was the color. It wasn’t always as postcard-perfect as the New England autumn of The Trouble With Harry, but then, in Hitchcock’s movie, they had to paint the leaves orange (they shot the film in summer). Still, that is the mental image most of us have of the season. 

But the calendar-picture image of fall is too pretty, like peonies or dahlias. I am not moved. They belong on postcards with names like “Autumn Paintbox” and “New England Rhapsody.” The very word “autumn” is too Latinate. It reeks of literature. It traces its etymological roots back to Proto-Indo-European words meaning “cold” and “dry.” In plain-spoken North America, we prefer to call the transforming season simply “fall.” It is the leaves that fall, after all. 

It is much as I love weeds and dislike flower gardens. The gardens are too prissy. Perhaps they smile in bright reds and yellows, but their smiles are unearned. But weeds at the side of the road have strained and labored and live without permission. They are ungoverned and profuse: The force that through the green fuse drives — weeds. 

Gardens are planted in rows, people march in columns, books are alphabetized, plants are given phylum and genus, but any idea of order in this profuse world is a fiction.

There is a rankness to the weeds that I love. If you need a demonstration of the difference between the pretty and the beautiful, it is there beside the roadways, the Joe-Pye weed, the ironweed, the asters, the thistles, goldenrod, cow-itch, cockle burrs, pokeweed, teasel. Most distinguished by their textures and scratchiness. You can feel them on your skin. “I am mad for it to be in contact with me.”

Now that I am old, with liver spots and wrinkles, it is not the color of fall so much as its texture that appeals to me. The leaves spot and crinkle, curl at the edges and almost rattle as you walk through them as they collect on the walkway. I recognize myself. 

The inner world and the outer come to match. We have inner weather, and we have an interior climate as well. At the extreme it is Lear’s “cataracts and hurricanoes,” and it is my own sense of the textural maculation of my old age: Those blackened spots and browned edges are my own. 

I cannot distinguish between my projection of myself on the world, and that world’s identification in me. It is all one. And the shrinking leaves are verse and chorus. 

And so I look with a burning concentration at the sere and weakened leaves with an intensity brought by my own awareness of how few recurrences of the season I will get to witness. They are all the more beautiful for that. 

It was one of those days in February; Eliot called it “Midwinter spring.” The temperature pushed close to 60 degrees, the sun was low in a clear sky and a breeze blew the treetops into some sort of syncopated dance swaying back and forth against each other.

That kind of light turns every shadow black and blasts every highlight into a glare. The lawn was covered in sweetgum balls and, like the song, there were three cats in the yard.

I took a walk around the house, up the driveway toward the highway and saw the gulley that went through the culvert and bent off into the woods and I realized that it would eventually dump into a creek that dumped into a river that dumped into bigger rivers until it hit the ocean. I was standing at the twig-tip of a vast dendritic pattern.

The last storm blew down a dozen or so pines, several still leaning like drunks against the straighter, darker trees. The floor of the woods was covered by last fall’s crumbling leaves.

The cats at once and together all flopped over sideways and rolled back and forth on their backs, like they were taking dust baths. Emily has gotten fat; Panther and Saffron are chunking up, too, but it is Emily that looks like a furry ball with legs and a tail. The ducks, all Indian Runners and some with orange bills, some with green and three with black bills that look like tire rubber, run in a nervous mob from one end of the enclosure to the other, squawking all the way. And then back. And then again, back and forth.

Saffron

I walked all around the yard to get some air, some sun and some exercise, and when I got back to the patio, I sat down in the sun to collect some vitamin D. I sat there in the canvas chair, with my arms dangling off the sides, fishing for cats, and Saffron jumped into my lap demanding attention.

The sun was so bright that with my eyes closed, I could still see the bright orange of the inside of my lids. I studied the vague patters I saw in that orange and wondered if they were interior or exterior; when I turned my head, the shapes didn’t move with it and so I assumed they must be the patterns of the trees in the yard, veined across the closed eyes. I tightened my closed-eye squint and the color turned to the most beautiful purple or mauve. Relax and orange, squeeze and purple.

Leaning back in the chair, I opened my eyes and took in the whole scene, woods and yard, cats and sweetgums, the black lines of shadow thrown by the dropping sun and the bright walkway reflecting like silver and I thought of the end of Goethe’s Faust.

He says, finally, “To the moment I say ‘Remain a while. You are so lovely.’ ”

Of course, that’s the point at which Faust dies, and I’m not quite ready to go, but I recognize the quiet satisfaction of such a moment. The earth pauses, the moment extends. It could hold this forever, except that it can’t.

The world is coming unhinged, again. The long history of genocide and war, of hatred and calamitous revanchism, of dictators and ignorance, comes recycled. For some it is a time of terror, of fleeing destruction and living in refugee camps, or of hiding from child soldiers seeking to machete anyone. There is an abundance of horror.

Yet in those tents in Jordan or those favelas in Brazil, or the ship-breaking yards of Bangladesh, there are moments of joy, of a mother and her child, of the children playing in the dust, a smile at the color of the rust in an old machine. The moments may be fleeting, and they may contrast with the background of tragedy, but they are real. And they are necessary.

Even for us in the First World, life gives us loss and death, suffering and pain. We will each go through heartache or divorce, the death of someone we love, the calumny of our enemies and the uncaring of those who should know better. For us, too, such moments are a requirement. Even if we don’t feel the oppression of tragedy, we too often suffer the banality of time passing unnoticed, of daily chores crowding out the glimmers of awareness that, when paid attention, kindle joy.

Joy, beauty, awareness, all give us a different relationship with existence, with the planet, with its people, with the sky and land, with the cosmos. Even if for an instant in a February afternoon, it keeps us alive, and wanting to be.

My brother-in-law likes to listen to something he calls “ugly music.”

This is music with angles, asymmetries and dissonance. I first established my bona fides with him by recognizing a piece of music by its very first note, although it took at least a full second — maybe a second and a half — for the name to gather on my vocal chords and make the passage out past my teeth: “Bartok’s fifth quartet.” I think I shocked him.

Of course, I knew the piece well. For I, too, listen to and enjoy ugly music. And I own and read the score to the Bartok Fifth. Also to many other pieces of music that might be considered by fans of more consonant sounds as “ugly.”

But, I am a firm believer in the observation made by Tom Robbins in his novel, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, that “The ugly may be beautiful; the pretty, never.”

The “pretty” is conventional; it is bland. It requires no thought or consideration: It just lies there, accepted with lip service paid, but with little active engagement. It is a postcard sunset, a Montovani recording, a symmetrical-faced actress indistinguishable from other symmetrical-faced actresses.

But beauty is an active engagement. You have to actually look or hear. You have to notice. It takes effort on your part. Pretty soothes you into complaisance, beauty wakes you up.

There is a French concept, the jolie-laide, or beautiful ugly. It is most often applied to women whose features are not traditionally good looking, but in concert add up to striking beauty and attractiveness. Think of Cate Blanchett, with that slash of a mouth, squinty eyes and broad nose. Each odd by itself. Blanchett is no cornfed cheerleader. But together the features make up a stunning beauty.

The French have almost a corner on the jolie-laide. Consider Jeanne Moreau. Or Isabelle Huppert. Or Charlotte Gainsbourg. It was her father, Serge Gainsbourg (say “gaze-boor”) who wrote a song about the “Laide jolie laide.” He was no icon of handsomeness himself, although I think many found him irresistibly attractive.

But, I’m not talking simply about feminine pulchritude or masculine formonsutude, but about esthetic beauty, about art.

Consider one of the ugliest paintings ever made, and how unbearably beautiful it is. I’m talking of Matthias Grunewald’s crucifixion from the Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, France. The Christ is writhing in pain; his skin is brown and gray, covered in sores; his hands are twisted, his head hung low and grimacing, his ribcage pulled up from his sagging gut, stretching him out, racked; his feet twisted and distorted. Even the cross bows downward from the weight, not just of the body, but of the suffering.

Around him are the mourners, also pulled and distorted, all crying and gnashing their teeth. The landscape behind is dark and barren. There is not a single note of grace in the frame, not a single square centimeter of prettiness. Yet, the painting is unutterably moving. You can hardly bear looking at it, yet, seeing it makes you recognize your own humanity in a profoundly deeper way.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that only ugliness can be beautiful, but rather, making the case that it can be.

Like that ugly music. Brother-in-law listens to Schoenberg with pleasure. One of the first pieces that turned him on to classical music was Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge — surely one of the hardest pieces to listen to in all the repertoire, but also one of the most sublime.

And it’s not just classical music. He listens to jazz, also, with an ear for the more abstruse and difficult bop. Or free jazz. Let’s face it, Cecil Taylor is not a cocktail lounge pianist. Or Thelonius Monk. That is music proud of its own awkwardness, and uses it for expressive purpose.

One might compare Son House with Montovani. The one is pretty, the other is raw, ugly, powerful. House gets to the gut with the sharpness of a surgeon’s blade. Montovani, no matter how glossy and smooth, is a soporific.

Other ugly music: Tom Waits, grating in voice and peculiar in instrumentation, yet, more satisfying than, say, John Denver. I know, that’s not fair. Sorry. But you know what I mean.

I have a long history with ugly music of all kinds. Appalachia is weighted with ugly music that is beautiful. Consider those mountain Baptist family choirs, singing vibrato-less and consistently just a hair flat, making the most mournful keening. Or the scratchy mountain fiddling of Emmett Lundy. I treasure his few recordings.

Many years ago, I had an LP of field recordings of amateur Spanish brass bands playing for religious festivals, marching down village streets. Sour, scratchy, blaring, they were so intensely beautiful in their ugly way, I came to love them. Alas, the LP is long gone and I’ve never found a digital replacement.

When I was a teacher of photography, one assignment I gave my students was to make a bad photograph. I required that it not be a technical botch, but a bad photograph from conception in the viewfinder. What my students — or at least my good students — discovered, and I already knew, was that if you are paying attention to what you are doing, it is very, very difficult to make a bad photo, because the fact of your attention rules out anything not paid attention to — i.e., the ugly.

It is often said that beauty lies in the eyes (or ears) of the beholder, but I think this saying is basically misunderstood. It is taken to mean something like “To each his own,” or “de gustibus non desputandum est,” but I take it to mean quite differently, and more to the point, that beauty is found in the engagement of mind and senses with the object of perception. In other words, when you pay attention with the focus of someone defusing a bomb, you discover layers of depth and meaning — and therefore beauty — that you might not have suspected. And so, the stains on a concrete sidewalk, layered with fallen leaves and maybe a gum wrapper, will, when observed attentively and with the full engagement of your sensibility, may very well strike you as heartbreakingly beautiful.

This is not just something for pointy-headed esthetes. I have known a farmer who can squeeze a handful of spring soil in his hand and find its loamy odor beautiful enough to bring tears to his eyes. For most of us, it’s just dirt. But to someone who attends to it, it is the essence of existence.

It is the engagement that creates beauty, not the beauty that creates engagement.

And so, when you listen to the Schoenberg Piano Concerto with this sort of eager absorption, you discover a beauty in it that those listening passively, perhaps with the radio on while doing their taxes, can never enjoy, hearing instead only a jumble of disconnected noise. It is not disconnected; it is not noise. It is a carefully created esthetic whole and a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

When I was in high school in New Jersey, I spent as much time as I could in Manhattan, visiting galleries, museums, bookstores and concert halls. And I came to love the Museum of Modern Art. I’d get out of the elevator on the gallery floor and to my right would be Jackson Pollock, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Pavel Tchelitchew’s Hide and Seek (a painting that primarily appeals to an adolescent, which I was at the time), and beyond those, the the farthest gallery was Picasso’s Guernica, 25-feet wide and 11-feet high.

It is a painting of utter ugliness, not only in subject matter (the Nazi bombing of the Basque city of Guernica in 1937) but also in the angular, distorted and abstracted shapes that make up its design. If one has a shred of humanity, the painting cannot be seen without a welling up in your gorge. It is the prime example in the 20th century of a political painting that is actually an esthetic success. It is Picasso’s shay-doov, and the one piece of art, if we had to choose a single one to represent that century, would be the consensus choice.

It is also profoundly beautiful. While I am pleased that the painting has finally been returned to a democratic Spain, I mourn its absence from New York, from my life. I treasured its palpable presence and its emotional power.

The ugly may be beautiful, the pretty, never.

van gogh

I am sitting in my car in the parking garage of the local mall, waiting to chauffeur my granddaughter home after a shift at the food court. It’s one of the perks of being a grandfather; we get to talk on the ride. But I have been  misinformed and I’m an hour early. No problem, I sit back in the shade of the parking garage and pop in a CD of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, the heartbreaking beauty of which always leaves me weeping.

Outside, in the sun, the breeze blows the branches and leaves of a tree in eccentric and seemingly random arcs. A whole tree doesn’t blow this way or that, but becomes a symphony of animated parts, very like a dancer. Behind the tree, in the distant sky, brilliant white thunderheads rise against the blue; they are the source of the fresh breeze that moves my tree.

It is a moment of epiphany — a pulling back of the veil. It is one of those instant recognitions of intense beauty, the kind that makes your insides swell and overflow through your eyes. It is the thing about such moments that dozens of shoppers coming out of the mall and finding their cars can see the same thing and not be overwhelmed because seeing the beauty requires being ripe for its discovery. It is available there for anyone to see, but most of the audience — like me most of the time — are preoccupied and so the moment escapes and they are robbed of one of those times that transfigures the mere act of living and gives one a reason to be grateful.milky way 1

At such times, it is occasionally possible to be misled into believing that the world is truly a beautiful place and that we just don’t take the time to notice. The beauty is overwhelming in its persuasion. I’m not talking here about pretty scenery or colorful flowers, but about a metaphysical insight into the animating spirit of the cosmos. It is the sense one gets if you find yourself in an unpopulated region of the planet and can see at night the bright gash across the sky that we call the Milky Way. You sense something bigger, transcendent, sublime. It is both profoundly beautiful and also more than a bit scary.

One has a memory trove of such moments — and they almost all come in brief flashes; I’m not sure how we could stand it for any length of time. I felt it one dawn at the beach in South Carolina, staring east at the twilight getting brighter. At the moment the sun popped the horizon, when its movement against the stationary line dividing ocean and sky becomes apparent, like a second hand instead of a minute hand on a clock, I got dizzy, almost lost my balance on the sand, because instead of seeing the sun rise above the horizon, I felt as if I were at the top of a planetary ferris wheel, jerked forward toward the sun; I was moving, not the sun. The light played on the waves, dividing the lit from the shadowed water in a shifting network of obsidian black and glowing copper. The effect lasted only a few seconds before the quotidian world reasserted itself into a familiar sunrise, but the memory of that instant is burned into my mind with a fury and insistence that informs now every sunrise, even when I no longer lose my balance.

Arch Cape

Many years ago, I went to the Pacific Ocean with a woman I was crazy about. We rented a cottage on the Oregon coast and after a night of playing geography on her body and memorizing it (so that I knew every swell and bulge, every mole and wrinkle on it), when the morning came, we stayed in bed until our consciences ached. We smelled of each other and reveled in it, our muscles were sore. When Robin finally got up, she said, “I’m going to make breakfast this morning.” I stayed in bed with my head propped up on a pillow and I watched her silently going about her business. The world had stopped turning; the fury of machinery, trucking, commerce and struggle had ceased. Robin opened the curtains and the light poured in, but she was herself lit solely from within.saskia

She was more than just Robin at that time — she was transfigured in the light and seemed almost to glow. It was just a beam of sunlight that struck through the window, but the light seemed to come instead from some internal tungsten filament. She became all women. She was Ruth and Naomi, Eve and Rembrandt’s Saskia. She was not performing some minor task, but had hooked into the flow of the world and was living, glowing myth. Pure Archetype.

In a white blouse and black pleated trousers, she began fixing breakfast in a slow, methodical fashion and everything she did was the mimicking of thousands of years of daily living. She slowly cut off a piece of butter and placed it in the sizzling pan; she sliced the onion and cheese and with her arms holding the bowl on her hip close to her belly, she beat the eggs and prepared to dump them in the pan. The light was uncanny and I nearly cried for the beauty of that morning, the quiet intensity of her motions. All I know is that for 15 minutes Robin ceased being Robin and became everyone who ever prepared breakfast.

That moment couldn’t last, and neither could that relationship. Things beyond my ken were involved. They usually are.

P02969 001In the late 1960s I went camping at Cape Hatteras with my college buddy, Alexander. It was March, before the tourist season and the beach was empty and the wind was cold and brisk. One night we went out toward the cape point. The only light we had was our Coleman lantern and near the point the surf sounded from both sides. The air was thick with moisture and the lamp cast our shadows up into the sky where our heads touched the constellations. Our forms cast out on the cosmos and looked rather like the Colossus of Goya’s late “Black Paintings.” And I recalled the phrase from the Magnificat — “quia fecit mihi magna,” — and I felt magnified.

There are many instances of such epiphanies, although each will be personal to us, unshared in particulars, but common in outline. I have the climb up Mount Angeles in the Olympic Mountains of Washington to the lake with a pure John Martin waterfall on the opposite shore. There is the moment that slammed me in Port Jervis, at the joint of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, when I saw a vacant lot by the railroad roundhouse that was blasted with fall wildflowers — ironweed, asters, yarrow, goldenrod, queen-anne’s lace, joe pye weed, mullein, cow itch — it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen and even now I prefer weeds to domesticated gardens.

Buchenwald

Buchenwald

But I said such epiphanies can mislead us. For the religious or the sentimental, such moments speak of a beautiful cosmos. But these epiphanies can carry the opposite. When I was still a boy — probably five or six years old and it was just a few years after World War II — films from the liberated concentration camps were shown on television. I don’t know whether they were George Stevens’ films from Dachau or Army films from Buchenwald or Bergen-Belsen. But these films burned into even my childhood imagination, those spectres, those skeletons, those harrowed, sunken cheeks, those piles of skeletons wrapped in sacks of their own withered leathery skin. Soldiers picked up the stiffened bony puppets and tossed them into the backs of trucks. This too is ephiphany, the drawing back of the veil.

Aleppo, 2016

Aleppo, 2016

I see something of the same in the eyes of Syrian refugees, I see revenants of postwar Berlin in the bombed out walls of Aleppo. There is beauty in the world, but there is also horror. Ugliness to balance that transcendence, evil to mock the elation.

One thinks of all the genocides, mass murders, atrocities and pogroms of history, the cities razed to the ground with all their populace put to the sword, of all the gulags, all the dead Cathars, Tutsis and Hutus, all those drowned in the cataclysms of swollen rivers, ravaging earthquakes, the decimation of populations through plague, the millions lost to bizarre insect-born diseases. As soon as you find yourself Panglossing over the glory of a sunrise, you catch yourself short remembering Cain and Abel and the real meaning of the brotherhood of man.

One could make a list of those moments of disillusionment and disaffection. Such a list is a weight around the neck of any afflating joy. One recognizes the moment when you realize someone you have loved no longer loves back, when one is betrayed at work or by a friend, when you see the ravages of illness in those you care most deeply for. The world is not an easy place to love. Suffering is universal; even the rich lose their loved ones.

The truth is that we seldom live in the joy or the pain, but rather spend our days in utter banality. Banality is our salvation: If we lived in the joy we would go mad; if we lived in the pain, we would also go mad. So, we don’t see the dancing tree and we ignore the drowning refugees so that we can get on with our lives. It can hardly be otherwise. The world would come to a halt if we all lived in the beauty, if we all bore the suffering.

grunewald

pieta 1Yet, we cannot ignore our epiphanies, either. They sneak up on us, and for a brisk instant we glimpse eternity and its glorious, horrible uncaring. We recognize our place in this swirling inhuman chaos, both ecstatic and virulent. We ask our artists to memorialize both. They can take the two and bind them together, such as the exquisite beauty of Grunewald’s painting of the torture and gruesome death of a man on the rack of a crucifixion, or the sorrow of a mother grieving over the death of her son.

Certainly not all art addresses this special issue, but a surprising amount of our art, whether painting, sculpture, music or poetry, attempts to remind us of the forgotten intensity of existence, whether on the side of ecstasy or on the side of suffering. Even so simple as a watercolor of a vase of flowers hints at this.

If it is banality that saves us from madness, it is art that saves us from banality.

Sunset
Stuart and I were sitting on the roof, outside the dormer window, and sipping a little Drambuie. Cigars were for later.

“A beautiful evening, isn’t it?” he said.

“Yeah, the sunset is so orange.”

“You call it orange, but really, how many different colors are there in that sky — even a band of green in it.”

“Where?”

“There, see, above that reddish cloud. Perhaps it’s only a trick of simultaneous contrast, but that green has always fascinated me.”

“I see it now, rather a pale green, almost opal, but green.”

“How much better to see the whole thing, instead of just the calendar version. You know, I always wonder why pretty magazine pictures look so cliched, while the sky in front of us doesn’t. I guess there is a difference between pretty and beautiful.”

“Or, maybe beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

“Yeah, well, I used to think that.”

I could see Stuart had something on his mind. He usually did.

“Used to?” I asked. “OK, so what is beauty? Personally, I tend to think of Scarlett Johansson.”scarlett and hedy

“Really? I kind of favor Hedy Lamarr, but then, I’m always a little behind the times. But really, first we have to agree on what kind of beauty we’re talking about. Erotic attractiveness is a completely different thing from esthetic beauty. You could even say they are opposites.”

“How’s that?”

“Because erotic beauty draws us to possess it, while esthetic beauty doesn’t — it fascinates us, but leaves us disinterested, involved but motionless.

“This is the essential difference between art and pornography. If you look at a picture and say, ‘I want that,’ or ‘I wish I were there, seeing that sunset,’ you’re reacting as if to pornography, whether it’s a picture of a naked human or a brazen sunset. Erotic beauty impels you forward into time and history, while esthetic beauty draws you upward and out of the mad stream of time.”

“So you’re saying beauty comes in two categories?”

“Oh, there are lots of other divisions to make. For instance, there’s that ‘eye of the beholder’ question.

“Well, that’s what they say.”

“But it’s an easy way out. It doesn’t really answer anything. Actually, it seems to me that beauty is either internal or external. That is, either it is in the eye of the beholder, or it exists objectively, outside the accident of perception.”

“What do you mean, ‘objective’ beauty? How can that be?”

“Look at it historically. Centuries ago, it was mostly thought that beauty was an objective quality. You had it or you didn’t. Those who say beauty is external to human perception fall into two camps: the transcendent and the inherent. The second camp says that something is beautiful because elements of the physical world are by nature so. The first camp looks beyond the physical world to something metaphysical.

“You mean God?”

“Right. It could be a god or the gods. On the other hand, it could be an unnameable, ineffable mystery at the center of the universe. If a god has made something beautiful, it is then our recognition of that divine intention that is external to our psychologies. It really is beautiful, whether we recognize or not.”

“But what if you don’t believe in any of that supernatural stuff? Where does beauty come from then?”

“Again, two ways. It might simply exist as mathematics does, in its proportions and harmonies; some things may be beautiful the way a triangle has three sides. Such qualities are inherent in the objects we recognize as beautiful. Or, as another possibility, it might be biological, or based on evolution: Certain things may have emerged as ‘beautiful’ in the development of the universe because their beauty promotes evolutionary goals. Thus, a bright, beautiful flower attracts bees — which ensure the survival of the flower species through pollination.

“That’s all fine. But what if beauty really is internal — only the eye of the beholder?”

“Then again we face two choices: If beauty is only found inside us, it is either cultural or acultural.”

“Wait. I thought it was all cultural.”

“You hear that a lot on university campuses nowadays. It’s a popular point of view currently. But it is not the only way of understanding it. A good portion of the academic community has jumped on the bandwagon of cultural identity. Art, for instance, is seen as a way of establishing ethnic pride. It certainly may do this, but it is not the only thing art can or should do. Deconstructionists, for instance, like to look under the rock and find the bugs — what we really mean when we write or talk — and they show us that race, ethnicity, class or power is often at the bottom of things. Powerful White European men, for instance, have tended historically to value powerful White European male art.

“These people have a point, but it isn’t the totality. Beauty isn’t just that powerful White European men, for instance, have tended historically to value powerful White European male art.

“Right. The famous dead White men.”

“The trend is to say that beauty is culturally determined. But I would argue that culture doesn’t define what is beautiful, but what is not beautiful.”

“What is not beautiful?”

“Yeah. For example, the ‘dominant culture’ told a lot of White Americans for a very long time that ‘nappy hair’ wasn’t beautiful. The culture excluded what it wanted to exclude. What was left was deemed beautiful. Various ethnic groups are now turning that same exclusion around on those who formerly excluded them.”

“Oh, White men walk like this, but Black men walk like this, that sort of thing. But you’re saying there’s another way to look at it?”violon d'ingres

“Yes, there may be factors at work that range across cultures. Scientists have discovered that there are some things that seem to be universally recognized as beautiful — certain color combinations, or even aspect ratios. In physical beauty — if we want to get back to Scarlett and Hedy — for example, a certain mathematical proportion between hip and waist size seems to transcend culture. Some cultures may value thin women while others like the Rubenesque, but the hip-waist ratio remains constant. Some underlying principles seem to be at work.

“Their work is still new, and their results are fragmentary, but it may be that evolution has hardwired certain esthetic receptors into the human mind.”

“Like a bee before a flower?”

“Right: Does the flower become beautiful to attract the bee? Or does the bee develop a love of beauty to discover the flower? It blurs the distinction between the perceived and the perceiver.”

“Still, I’m not getting it. What sorts of things do we see as beautiful?”

Sometimes, I forget that Stuart is really highly educated. He’s lived his life as some kind of bohemian, shifting cities, or jobs, or lady friends, never settling, and never — this is always discouraging — never writing anything down. But every once in a while, he dredges out some bit of arcana that I might once have studied, but never kept up with.aquinas in glass

“Thomas Aquinas,” he started, “the famous 13th Century Christian scholar, said the beautiful has ‘integritas, consonantia and claritas.’ James Joyce’s translation of that from the Latin gives us ‘wholeness, harmony and radiance.’ ”

“Hey — I remember reading Joyce’s comments about a butcher’s basket: To see it apart from its surroundings, as a separate thing, is to see its integritas, its wholeness. As something distinct and not a part of something else.”

“Exactly.”

“Then you look at its parts — the handle, the weave of the reeds, the roundness of the bottom — and you see how those parts interact in the design.

“That is the harmony, or consonantia. But, you know, I’ve never quite accepted his definition of claritas.”

“It’s the tricky one. Joyce claims that once you’ve seen the whole and the parts, both together may join to excite your esthetic appreciation. They become larger, brighter, more meaningful than their simple existence as a basket. They have radiance. But the Latin of Aquinas is less clear.”

“I remember looking it up. My Latin dictionary translates claritas as ‘clearness or brightness’ — words less charged than Joyce’s ‘radiance.’ It also implies a clearness of mind, a plainness and directness of argument.”

“Yes. Meanwhile, there are other qualities we expect from beauty. It should surprise us, but once past the surprise it should feel inevitable.”

“Say, maybe that’s like a good murder mystery: The end should be a surprise, but it shouldn’t be arbitrary. We want to be satisfied, after our astonishment, that this solution to the mystery is the only possible one.”

“As when a Haydn symphony veers off into a strange key, or when the Beatles back a song with a string quartet. You are taken aback at first. Then you realize the perfection of it.”

“But wait,” said. “We still haven’t said what exactly is beauty. Is it a noun? Is it an adjective? — a quality that other nouns possess?”

“Or is it a verb?” Stuart was getting to the crux of the matter, as he saw it. “I’ve worried about the question for years, and I finally decided that if you want to know what beauty is, you must look at it as an event, not a thing. It is an occurrence, a transaction.”

“Hmmm. Sounds like you’re combining the external definition of beauty with the ‘eye of the beholder’ thing?”

“Right. You have the two blades of a scissors. The scissors itself is neither the one blade nor the other, but the two working together: Beauty is your active participation in the perception of the things of the world.”

“So it’s like this: The world is capable of being seen as beautiful — that’s the objective part — and we’re capable of perceiving that beauty — that’s the subjective.

“And where the two things come together, that is beauty.”

“That would make beauty an active thing,” Stuart said, “not a passive observation. You have to pay attention.

“To become part of the event, you must be awake, aware, alive. You must see or hear or feel more intensely than you do in the ordinary world of driving your car or cooking your burger.”

“So that’s why a photo of the sunset is a cliché.”sunset cliche 2

“The photo becomes a commonly accepted image of beauty, a shorthand for doing the actual work. It becomes a ‘word’ or symbol for the beauty, rather than the event of the beauty itself.”

“That reminds me of what James Agee was writing about in And Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: ‘For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned, for him who can discern it, and centrally and simply, without either dissection into science, or digestion into art, but with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands: so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar in the heart of itself as a symphony, perhaps as no symphony can: and all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.’ ”

“Or as Blake has it, ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is …”

“Infinite.”

“Yes. In a way, beauty is the act of paying attention, deeply and committedly.

“When the commitment isn’t there, the beauty isn’t.”

“So, you’re saying the world is full of things that we habitually think of as beautiful — certain categories of nature or certain subject matter in art — but that our acceptance of them short circuits our actual involvement?”

“The ‘warm bath’ school of beauty. They keep us from participating in the beauty.”

“Someone at the newspaper once wrote about it as ‘paying attention as if you were defusing a bomb.’ ”

chardin 3“Bingo. Beauty is not for the faint of heart. When you pay attention, the music of Arnold Schoenberg becomes ineffably beautiful. It’s the point of John Cage’s 4’33″ where the ambient sounds you hear while the pianist is not playing are presented to you as beautiful. And they are, if you engage with it properly. Paying attention. What is beauty? Beauty is paying attention. It’s the simplest definition there is.

“And this finally gives us the key to the claritas of Aquinas and Joyce. When seen, truly seen van gogh cypress— or by analogy, felt, or ‘apprehended’ in that Joycean locution — your object takes on a mythic significance, as if it glows from within. It is indeed ‘bright.’ It is the crockery of Chardin and the cypresses of Van Gogh. A clarity that glows from within.”

“As you’ve said many times, ‘Every bush is the burning bush.'”

“Wholeness, harmony and radiance,” Stuart said, paraphrasing St. Paul, “and the greatest of these is radiance.”

Claritas charitas est,” I said, making a lame play on words, in Latin, no less.

“Put that on your T-shirt and see who salutes.”

 

coal town wv
The view from the top of the mountain gives you the conventionally Romantic view of the landscape, the long view, closer to heaven and further from the streets. The view is pristine, and the tiny ants below, with their Ford Pintos and 7-Elevens, hardly muck up the scene.

It is the Romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich, of Frederic Edwin Church, of Albert Bierstadt and the landscape stands in for a kind of vast, sublime Eden.

This is the view of West Virginia promulgated by its official state song: “Almost Heaven.” And it isn’t that such a view is false. It isn’t false — there really is great beauty in the mountainscape of the state as seen from its peaks — but it is partial. Conversely, it is easy to see the bottoms of the mountains as some sort of dystopia: the epitome of Appalachia and its poverty, meth use, grime, coal-mining eco-disaster and educational malaise. coal tipple wv bw

But there is a Romanticism of the hill-bottoms, too. I don’t mean a nostalgia for the black-and-white WPA photographs and the “simpler, old-timey folksiness.” That kind of Romanticism is a refusal to recognize reality. That isn’t really Romanticism, it is escapism.

No, I mean that the soot, the coal trains, the sludgy stream in the mountain cove, the old homes, with their collapsing porches and front yard full of automotive detritus can elicit their own sense of the sublime.

You drive through the valleys of West Virginia coal country, around the impeding hills to the next valley and you pass grade crossings, coal tipples, rusting car frames half submerged in the streams, and lines of houses just up the hill from the road. Next to the road is the railroad track and next to that is the stream, all following the same geography. appalachian plateau BW cropped

The central part of the state, the Appalachian Plateau, is a weathered peneplain, where all the mountains are rounded bumps all about the same height, like the mountains children put into their tempera paintings, one seen in between two others.

It is primarily in these mountains that coal is mined. And in those valleys, crossed with a braid-work of streams, railroad tracks and roads, that most people live and work. Pocohontas wv

In the south, you have McDowell County, a center of coal production country spreading into Kentucky and western Virginia. The collapse of the industry means that the population is one-fourth what it was in 1950, poverty is rampant, and for those men that remain, the average lifespan is the lowest in the U.S. — 12 years shorter than the national average.

In the plateau region, which is what most people think of as “typical” West Virginia, the roads meander through the V-notches between the hills; it is impossible to drive in a straight line anywhere. You are always curving around some mountain into the next valley and around the next mountain.

Until the opening of the West Virginia Turnpike and I-77 and I-79 (work not completed until 1987), traveling anywhere in West Virginia was a slow and tortuous process, and locations not a hundred miles apart as the crow flies, could be more than 250 by car. Aside from the chute-the-chute of the Interstate system, driving in the state is still pretty much a slalom. bradshaw wv

In the small towns, smeared longways along the streams and tracks, the hardware stores and groceries have largely been supplanted by Dollar Stores and coin laundries, and the largest private employer in McDowell County is the Walmart. There are satellite dishes — many dangling and unhooked. The macadam at the gas station is potholed and the store sign advertises prices for cigarettes by the carton.

But, despite this triumph of entropy, the landscape has significance. It has meaning: Just ask any who live there. They may be needy to escape, but if they leave, they pine to return. It is a landscape that gets under your skin, like coal dust gets under your fingernails. keystone wv night coal mine bw

It is a mythic landscape, not a pristine one. It tells us things about the universe and about life.

It is a landscape with its own hell: underground fires that can last decades and at night glow red and orange like the combustion of hell. Some count over 500 such fires in West Virginia. Avernus may be the gate to the underworld for the ancient Romans, but it is West Virginia in the New World. coal train and house

The slow rusting of old refrigerators and Chevys, and abandoned buildings overgrown with weeds and vines, their glass broken out and now enameled with spray-can art, and the closed factories, with lines of smokestacks — these all tally the losses, the sucking down into the past of the present, spinning like water around a drain before disappearing into oblivion. This, too, is sublime. We feel it more in places like West Virginia; it is instantly visible.

Also, because the land is littered with the obsolete and abandoned, you can see them, can pay attention. In suburbia, familiarity has dulled our senses and we hardly notice the clapboards, the street curbs, the cars in the shopping center parking lots, the school buildings, the very trees that line the roads. They are there to be seen, but who actually looks? coal train in rain bw

In this moonscape of detritus, waste, loss and forgetting, the details are burned once again into us, made unfamiliar by rot and decay, so we can see them again. The very “thingness” of each chesspiece on this gameboard of depletion makes them palpable and gives them presence, and presence imbues meaning — significance.

There is a difference between the pretty and the beautiful. Postcard sunsets and green mountain vistas are all pretty enough, but they distract us from the essential facts; they are a magician’s misdirection, keeping our eye from the real thing. As Tom Robbins wrote, “The ugly may be beautiful; the pretty, never.” The real thing is our gaze into the eye of eternity, and you get that from contemplating anything bigger, vaster, scarier, more overwhelming than yourself. coopers wv grad crossing

Yes, you can look at the old tires and relic houses and see only a failed economy, but you look instead at the passing of time engraved on those same objects and you see intense beauty.

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This is a parable about beauty in art:

A child is trapped in a burning building; a fireman pulls her out, risking his own life in the process. He is hailed in newspapers as a hero.

And so he is. But did he enter the fire because he wanted to become a hero? Or did he want to save a threatened child?

His motivation tells us a great deal about his quality as a human being.

Most of us would agree that the purpose of a heroic rescue is not the heroism, but the saving of a life. Heroism may result, but it is not the reason the action was taken. If it were, we would suspect the hero of being shallow and self-involved.

It is much the same with beauty. It is no more the goal of art than heroism is the goal of the rescue.

And those many lesser artists who create art with only beauty in mind will come up with shallow results.

Because the authentic goal of art is more complex, more difficult and as a result, more lasting. It is no less than the creation of reality — or at least our ability to comprehend our little corner of it, like trying to palm flat the starched corner of a picnic cloth in a tornado.

It is the recognition that simple language can never effectively encompass the contradictory layers, complexities and confusions of experience’s windstorm and that such things can only be approached through metaphor: We cannot say what it is, we can only take stabs at what it is like.

In this sense, the true artists endeavors not to be pretty, but to be true. And if he manages to engage truth, the result will appear beautiful, if not to us today, then to posterity.

So when we think of beauty contests or the colorful landscapes of calendar art, we naturally think of beauty as something trivial and frivolous. And when we look at yet another American Impressionist oil-daub of a well-to-do young debutante in a white dress and parasol standing on a sunny turn-of-the-century lawn, we cannot but recognize that it has more in common with Robin Leach than it has with Rembrandt’s Hundred Guilder Print, Euripedes’ Medea or Bach’s B-minor Mass.

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Conversely, when we discuss what is most profound in the world, it always seems to possess great beauty.

Such beauty is a natural byproduct of the search for truth.

But, when we use the word “beauty,” we mean different things at different times.

The word can mean “pretty,” as when we talk about a pretty picture or a blush-cheeked cheerleader.

Pretty almost always means, at some level, “conventional.” Pretty is something most people can agree on. There is a predictability to it, ultimately, a monotony.

And when a man says a woman is beautiful, he is almost always making a judgment that is not esthetic, but hormonal.

Beauty also refers to that which we find peaceful and productive of pleasant feelings. A lot of people find burbling brooks and meditative flower arrangements beautiful in this sense. It is also the genesis of New Age music and George Winston.

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Then, there is beauty that is the precise and craftsmanly use of materials. Artists recognize this when they see the delightful line of Picasso’s drawings or the expressive and tight control of a Durer wood engraving.

Artists probably recognize this beauty more than most, but they are not alone. The wide popular appreciation of Salvador Dali owes greatly to the public perception of him as a magician of craftsmanship. The same of Andrew Wyeth.

Fourthly, beauty is sometimes reserved for the subject matter of a piece of art, where the audience pays little attention to the craftsmanship, but feels warm and fuzzy about the subject.

People respond to the religious sentiment rather than the art in most popular biblical art. Likewise, they respond to the scenery in an Ansel Adams photograph.

But all these are essentially lower orders of beauty. And much that is meretricious is deemed beautiful for a while, if it reinforces the prejudices of the age. What Victorians called beautiful, we largely snicker at now. But we shouldn’t be so smug, for our great grandchildren will undoubtedly giggle at our art and mores in just the same way.

The real thing doesn’t founder on the prejudices of the day. That is why we call it “classic.” that is why the best Rembrandt or Eakins speaks across the years and continue to move us.

The beauty of the art we recognize as great has a handful of special qualities that probably make it unsuitable for practical things, like magazine illustrations or political propaganda.

Ambiguity is one such quality. All great beauty is at some level equivocal: It can take no partisan stand because it holds all options open. It manages to allow of multiple, even contradictory interpretations because it is “large and contains multitudes.” Profound beauty makes no moral judgments, at least not on the rote level of dogma.

Real beauty must be ambiguous: like the smile of the Mona Lisa or the meaning of the white whale in Moby Dick.

That ambiguity is inextricably bound up with these other qualities of great beauty:

Metaphor — Not only what something is, but what else it is. A landscape is never only a piece of pretty scenery, but a metaphor for the structure of the human mind, or a metaphor for a nude torso, or a metaphor for the fecundity of nature. A still life usually tells us about death and transience. A portrait tells us about suffering and humanity. Moby Dick is a metaphor; so is the Creation of Adam on the Sistine ceiling.

Complexity — Not necessarily complication. Sometimes, a very simple gesture, in relation to the rest of the work, can be very complex. The complexity may be of character in a play, of metaphor in a painting or of a key relationship in a symphony.

But if a work of art is to mirror life in any meaningful way, it must reflect the complexity — even contradiction — of existence.

Memorability — The quality we say “haunts” us. In great art, we may often find ourselves saying: “I don’t know what it means, but I can’t get it out of my head.” The gift to create what is memorable in this sense is what we mean when we say an artist is “touched by the muse.”

Surprise — Great beauty is always fresh and it does unpredictable things. Why is there a little girl running through Rembrandt’s Night Watch? Why does Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony keep stopping?

Inevitability — But that surprise always forms part of the larger picture and we feel by the time we come to the end that it couldn’t be any other way. There is a “rightness” to every gesture, every musical modulation, every theatrical act.

Wholeness of form — This is almost mystical. The form that I’m talking about and the wholeness we recognize are almost certainly archetypes that are hidden deep in the psyche and the wholeness cannot be prescribed, but only recognized.

It is what makes us recognize when a play is over: The form is complete and whole. The same works in great paintings or music.

Ultimately, what you get from beauty is not a feeling of fuzzy complacency, but of transcendence, a feeling that there is something larger and more meaningful than the everyday, the quotidian. That life is part of some larger pattern, not necessarily religious — that within that pattern you share something with the Zulus in South Africa just as with your brother in Pittsburgh.

Or that there is a great mystery at the center of the universe, whether it is scientific or Hindu. That the simple everyday reality is somehow ennobled, though it may not include any concept of nobility.

And in the end, in a world of suffering, chaos and meaninglessness, the art, like the fireman, rescues us.

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