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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.”

 

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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.

hundred guilder print

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.

sunset

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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