Read an Excerpt
In the Arts and Everyday Life
By John Lane
UIT Cambridge LtdCopyright © 2003 John Lane
All rights reserved.
The Consolations of Beauty
THE MYSTERY OF THE BEAUTIFUL
Any material object which can give pleasure in the simple contemplation of its outward qualities without any definite and direct exertion of the intellect, I call in some way, or in some degree, beautiful. Why we receive pleasure from some forms and colours, and not from others, is no more to be asked than why we like sugar and dislike wormwood.
To create and appreciate beauty is one of the supreme pleasures that this world can offer. Yet it is strangely controversial and even more strangely ignored. True, it cannot be proved, it cannot be explained and can barely be described. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke used to say that words are the last resort for expressing what is happening deep within ourselves. It is hardly surprising that beauty is not only beyond words but beyond meaning.
Its origins are also a mystery. The majority have often attributed the origin of the world's loveliness to its Creator; it is, they believe, His signature which we see in the common daisy no less than the multi-coloured beauty of the Victoria crowned-pigeon from New Guinea. It is also to be found in the bluebell in an English woodland. Speaking of the bluebell, Gerard Manley Hopkins once said, 'I know the beauty of our Lord by it.'
Although Christ also celebrated the beauty of the natural world and more particularly its lilies of the field, it may be that Islam is more explicit in its recognition of the divine role in the creation of beauty. It gives emphasis to the belief that Allah is both beautiful in Himself and loves beauty. Furthermore, to quote a hadith, 'God has "written" the mark of beauty upon all things.' Augustine would have agreed. It was he who wrote that, 'All that is beautiful comes from the highest, which is God,' and so indeed would St Thomas Aquinas, who quoted St Dionysios the Areopagite: 'The Beauty of God is the cause of all the being that is.' Yet in more recent times this attribution has been questioned and even rejected. Many scientists accept no comprehensive explanation of this transient phenomenon. They ask why nature is so ordered, so complex and so beautiful and come up with observations which reveal that, in truth, they do not know. And nor do I. Nor, it seems, does any biologist, any chemist, physicist or mathematician, at least in terms of scientific observation rather than personal faith.
So let's agree that if beauty is one of nature's best bits of evidence for the existence of a Creator (and the naturalist W. H. Hudson called it 'God's best gift to the human soul'), we may yet have to live in a mystery, live with our extraordinary and ultimately inexplicable universe and respond with gratitude to its inexhaustible beauties.
For myself, I enjoy with Keats a state of emptiness that he described as 'Negative Capability': 'that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason.'
Incapable of finding words to describe the intensity of the moment of beauty, I am happy to remain in a mysterious condition of emptiness, silent awe.
For whatever we believe, beauty — beauty 'whereof one cannot speak'— remains unchallenged as a fact of everyday experience. We can see it, we can feel it, we can know it as a sensuous reality that accompanies us throughout life. It is something we encounter on street corners, in public buildings, waiting for a train or looking up from a book. We can also know that there is nothing so inspirational, nothing so transfiguring, nothing so noble, nothing so elevating as transient beauty. But its origins, its significance and destination must remain a mystery.
Indeed, the history of aesthetics is littered with unsuccessful attempts to rationalize and systematize this hugely evanescent experience. In the course of researching this work, I read a number of books on aesthetics, but none took me closer to any understanding of the beautiful; often the opposite. So much abstract, cerebral speculation may even take one away from the vivid beauty of a spray of cherry blossom or the painting of a little girl stroking a cat by Pierre Bonnard. Whatever else the beautiful may be it is certainly neither cerebral or egotistic; it has a quality of innocence and purity. Smelling a batch of freshly baked bread, regarding a photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, appreciating the serene austerity of mediaeval plainsong and the fierce elegance of a thrush, I am not thinking why the bread smells good, why the photograph is perfect or the bird so beautiful. It is enough to breathe the perfection of their being and stand in awe before the miracle of life. To marvel is enough.
So from the start I declare that I don't have the answer to the mystery of beauty and have little intention of looking for one, because I know that it will not be found. There is a poem by the Australian poet, Shaw Nielson, beautiful in itself, which says something about the mystery. There's this young girl who sees a strange light in the orange tree. Someone keeps asking her what it's like, is it like that, is it like this? Finally she loses her patience:
– Silence! the young girl said. Oh, why,
Why will you talk to weary me?
Plague me no longer, for I
Am listening like the Orange Tree.
So this book is more about 'listening' than analysis; more about asking than answering questions; more about an appreciation of beauty than any attempt to explain it. Nonetheless, the 'listening' process does raise a number of points which need some kind of response. So I'll now hazard a few reflections.
A BRIEF DIGRESSION ON LANGUAGE
There is no term of general aesthetic commendation in the English language. There is a related family of descriptive terms: words like 'beautiful', 'pretty', 'lovely',' handsome', a limitation shared by French and German alike. Both in our own and other languages more specific aesthetic terms, with narrower ranges of application, are also employed: terms such as 'graceful' and 'elegant'.
Personally, I am with James Hillman, who has pointed out the inherent weakness of the word beauty. 'It strikes the ear as so effete,' he contends, 'so ineffectual, lovely and etheric, so far removed from the soul's desperate concerns ... as if beauty had become relegated only to Apollo, the examination of invisible forms like music, belonging to collectors and subject to disputes in journals of aesthetics.' This is surely true. Given the contemporary resonance of words such as 'terrorist,' 'war' and 'sex,' beauty conjures up an atmosphere of elderly, even cloistered narcissism far removed from the pressing concerns of the soul.
Another factor is its almost mercurial elusiveness. Although Botticelli's painting of the Birth of Venus can be described as beautiful, the use of the same word to describe, say, the Hagia Sophia — the great Byzantine edifice in Istanbul — is inappropriate. Magnificent, awe-inspiring, inspirational, yes, but beautiful? It is beautiful, but beauty isn't the most appropriate word to describe its monumental and awesome majesty. But what's the difference? How is one thing unquestionably beautiful and another better characterized by the use of different adjectives? The answer lies, I suspect, in the fact that beauty, like colour, never comes outside a context of a variety of other descriptive attributes. Thus the Himalayas are beautiful, but their beauty cannot be disassociated from their majesty. A late flowering red campion flower is also beautiful, but its beauty is tinged with transience and frailty. Consider, too, Beethoven's mighty choral symphony alongside the distant sound of a lonely voice singing O Waly Waly. Which of them is the lovelier? Perhaps neither is more beautiful than the other, but whereas the first can be described as sublime the other simply moves the heart with its poignant tenderness.
THE UNINTENTIONAL NATURE OF BEAUTY
There are further enigmas, the stuff of philosophic speculation. The first is that given the somewhat personal nature of an aesthetic judgment, how is it that there can be claims of universal validity? The second is no less intriguing. Some of the most beautiful things ever made, some would say the most beautiful, were created by those who had no conscious desire to make them beautiful. The Stone Age peoples who painted the walls of their caves never regarded the creation of beauty as a primary intention; likewise the wheelwrights who constructed the old farm wagons, the folk potters of Japan and the countless Indian craftsmen and women. The barns and furniture of the Shakers are perfect but their makers had no serious aesthetic intent.
The Shakers flourished in the middle of the nineteenth century but by the twentieth had died out. Famous as the most successful utopian society in America, they were appreciated by social reformers like Emerson and Tolstoy. Today the Shakers are most appreciated for the simplicity and timeless perfection of their furniture, houses and farm buildings. But the frank, straightforward qualities of their artefacts proceeded from the conscious, or perhaps subconscious, practice of what amounted to a moral law. 'Put your hands to work and your heart to God, and blessing will attend you,' preached their founder, Mother Ann Lee.
The beauty of Shaker artifacts was always unintentional. They shunned what they deemed to be wasteful and unnecessary, including ornament, focusing their work on what was useful and well made. For them the question of usefulness determined the worth of a tool, a chair, a building, or a person. In the Shaker universe, appearance mattered only to the extent that it revealed the underlying function. Islam, too, never separates beauty from utility, or art from making.
The engraver and type-designer Eric Gill (1882–1940), who as far as I know was unfamiliar with the Shaker movement, would have concurred with this approach. For him, 'beauty is an accident of right making'; he also believed that 'looking after the good and the true, beauty will take care of itself.' Elsewhere he contested that 'beauty comes to (the craftsman's) work unasked when he works in a spirit of plain justice; when he considers simply the use of what he is making and the service of his fellows.'
Gill's doctrine of art was derived from traditional Eastern philosophy. He had absorbed the writings of the hugely influential Indian scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877–1947), but not, I believe, those of his contemporary, the Japanese philosopher of the crafts Soetsu Yanagi (1889–1961), a close associate of the potter Bernard Leach. Yanagi went so far as to argue that to be beautiful, the maker had to be free of self. In his view, no craftsperson had within themselves the power to create beauty; the beauty that came from 'self surrender' was incomparably greater than that of a work of art produced by individual genius. For work to be beautiful, its maker should get out of the way of his or her ego, and let nature do the creating (see Plate IX).
This is a philosophy common to the East. It was taught by Vinoba (1895–1982), a follower of Gandhi, and sage in his own right. In his Talks on the Gita, Vinoba expands on this view:
What is the touchstone of inward purity? Examine the outward action. If that is not flawless and beautiful, we may take it that there is impurity in the mind too. When does beauty come out in action? On the action performed with pure heart and unstinted effort, the Lord sets the seal of His approval, His grace. When the Lord, well-pleased, touches the action with the hand of love, beauty appears there. Beauty is the grace of the Lord granted to pure and unremitting effort. When the sculptor gets absorbed in carving, he feels that this beautiful image was not shaped by his hands. As he goes on chiselling, at the last moment, somehow, from somewhere, beauty comes of itself and settles there. Without chitta shuddhi, inward purity, how can the art of God manifest itself? The beauty, the loveliness of the image, is nothing but the beauty of the sculptor's soul that has been poured into it. The image is an image of our mind. If our mind is beautiful, its image in the medium of action will also be beautiful. We should judge the purity of outward action by the purity of the mind, and the purity of the mind by the purity of the outward action.
Of course this philosophy, an expression of the Traditional view which considers the arts of little consequence apart from their service to the faith, exists on a radically different path to that of the individualistic, post-Renaissance view of art with which we have since youth been imbued. This exalts the practice of art for its own sake alone. For the Traditionalist, the purpose of a sculptural image — a carving of Shiva or the Buddha — was, says Coomaraswamy, 'neither self-expression nor the realization of beauty'. Its sculptor 'did not regard his own or his fellows' work from the standpoint of the philosopher, or aesthete, but from that of a pious artisan. To him the theme was all in all, and if there is beauty in his work, this did not arise from aesthetic intention, but from a state of mind which found unconscious expression.'
This is the view held not only throughout the Middle East and Asia during our Middle Ages but in Europe itself. It is a view which finds eloquent expression in the words of Theophilus, who states that artistic activity of every kind should be dedicated to God rather than to man: nec humane laudis amore, nec temporalis premii cupiditate ... sed in augmentum honoris et gloriae nominis Dei — a translation of which might read: 'neither for the love of men's praise, nor for the desire for temporal reward ... but for the greater honour and glory of the name of God.'
Such then was the spirit in which the great Indian temples, the cathedrals of Europe, the Central Asian mosques and the art of Phidias were created. So too, the smallest manuscript painting, the carvings of the capitals of a church or Thomas Tallis's 40-part motet Spem in Alium.
SOURCES OF SELFLESS BEAUTY
The origins of beauty are mysterious, often unexpected and selfless. The impulse, the image, the idea, the phrase, the equation, the solution to a pressing problem — all arise in the depths, the intangible chaos, of what we call the unconscious. And if the intellect and ego may have a great deal to do with the later shaping of this material, they have nothing to do with its origination.
In some words of the Inuit Orpingalik, well known both as a hunter and a song-maker, we hear echoes of the universal experience of those who live imaginatively. He says:
Songs are thoughts, sung out with the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices. Man is moved just like the ice-floe sailing here and there out in the current. His thoughts are driven by a flowing force when he feels joy, when he feels fear, when he feels sorrow. Thoughts can wash over him like flood, making his breath come in gasps and his heart throb. Something like an abatement in the weather will keep him thawed up. And then it will happen that we, who always think we are small, will feel still smaller. And we will fear to use words. But it will happen that the words we need will come of themselves. When the words we want to use shoot up of themselves — we get a new song.
Although these words were spoken by an Inuit in the early years of the last century, the experience to which they allude seems universal. How else could Handel have written the first act of his last oratorio Jephtha in two weeks? How else could Rossini have completed Il Barbiere di Siviglia within thirteen days? Or Mendelssohn have written his overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream at the age of seventeen? And how could Mozart have been able to think in complete wholes to an astonishing degree? According to Erich Hertzmann, 'From the sketch material still in existence, from the condition of the fragments, and from the autographs themselves we can draw definite conclusions about Mozart's creative process. To invent musical ideas he did not need any stimulation; they came to his mind "ready-made" and in polished form. ... Any Mozart theme has completeness and unity: as a phenomenon it is a Gestalt.'
Excerpted from Timeless Beauty by John Lane. Copyright © 2003 John Lane. Excerpted by permission of UIT Cambridge Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.