Brain Pickings

Joyce Carol Oates on Wonder, Consciousness, and the Art of Beholding Beauty

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“How lovely this world is, really: one simply has to look.”

Perhaps counterintuitively, the diaries of celebrated artists, writers, and scientists, private as they are, are often reminders not only of their humanity but of our own, brimming with deeply and widely resonant insights on our shared struggles and yearnings. Such is the case of The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates (public library) — a chronicle of Oates’s characteristically self-reflexive, sometimes self-conscious, but always intensely intelligent and perceptive meditations on literature and life.

One of her most beautiful reflections, penned on a cold December morning in 1977 — a pivotal time in Oates’s life, shortly before her 40th birthday and a few months prior to her admission into the American Academy of Arts and Letters — falls somewhere between Thoreau and Annie Dillard. Snowed in at her home in Windsor, Oates contemplates the “blue wild snow-glaring world outside” and marvels:

How lovely this world is, really: one simply has to look.

She watches a “puffy-feathered female cardinal” rustle in the bush outside the window, picking at the bright red berries in a coat of her own colorful plumage as “the male hits the eye like a sudden manifestation of grace, or even of God.” Witnessing this whimsical vignette, Oates pauses to consider her very capacity — our human capacity — to behold such beauty:

Queer, in fact maddening, to think that “beauty” in nature is for us alone: for the human eye alone. Without our consciousness it doesn’t exist. For though the birds and other creatures “see” one another they don’t, I assume, “see” beauty. And what of certain mollusks that secrete extraordinarily beautiful shells which they themselves never see, since they have no eyes; how on earth can one comprehend that phenomenon…?

…The patterns exist in our mind’s eye, in our human calculating consciousness. Yes, but: they do exist, they are quite real, one is surely not deluded in assuming that seashells do have exquisite patterns. And what is their purpose? Not for camouflage, certainly. In fact they stand out, their colors and designs are so striking.

She ends with a “tentative conclusion” that echoes young Virginia Woolf and shares in Richard Feynman’s awe at the glory evolution, considering the marvels of our consciousness:

All of nature, all of the given “world,” is in fact a work of art. Only the human consciousness can register it. But all of creation participates. Is this a sentimental notion, is it perhaps romantically far-fetched? I really don’t think so: it’s the only possible conclusion. And that certain creatures evolved their forms of beauty before the world actually had eyes… before it had any “eyes” at all… seems to me evidence (poetic if nothing else) that evolution, or whatever is meant by evolution, already included the highest form of consciousness at the very start: anticipated it, I mean.

The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates is a richly rewarding read in its entirety. Complement it with Oates’s 10 tips on writing and her exploration of the divided self of the creative person.

For more beloved writers’ diaries, peek inside those of Anaïs Nin, Albert Camus, Virginia Woolf, William S. Burroughs, Hans Christian Andersen, Henry James, Henry David Thoreau, Sylvia Plath, and Susan Sontag.

Photograph of Joyce Carol Oates by Marion Ettlinger

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